Farming as a Labor of Love

Sweaty, dirty, hot and tired. Those are the words that describe how I feel on a typical July day when I'm thinning seemingly endless Asian pears in my orchard. Oh, and then there are gnats and biting flies from time to time, so add "buggy" to that list of not-so-comfortable adjectives. It's times like these that I've wondered, Why on earth am I doing this?

For many farmers like me, the question runs through our minds several times a year. Sometimes it pops up because of a particularly dreadful or daunting task, like the weeding that seems to never end. Other times, however, the question comes up because of things that are just not in the farmer's control— like the weather. There's not much I can do to stave off killing frosts, hail, drought, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes or floods.

Vagaries of the marketplace can wreck havoc on our minds as well. Low wholesale prices at the auction or in the grocery store can make a crop worth next to, or even less than, nothing. There are also the pressures of development, the out-of-control costs of land and the increasing use of eminent domain, which takes farmers' land out from under them.

Additionally, farmers are not always looked upon very highly. In some circles, announcing that your husband—or, worse yet, you—are a farmer is often met with looks of incredulousness. I've had a number of people ask why I choose to farm rather than do something more lucrative and be able to have a few vacations a year.

Last winter at a farmers-market meeting, I was asked this question by one of the market's board members (who happens to be a banker). He had been astounded to hear about farming's hardships year after year, both at the meetings and when he shopped at the farmers market. He emphatically threw down his pen and notes and said, "I just can't take it anymore! Why, for gosh sakes, do you folks keep doing this?"

We all looked at each other, and one by one the various farmers in the room spoke up. Without fail, every one of us stated some version of this: "We love growing food for people."

It is often said that the three most basic needs are shelter, water and food. Growing food, then, may be one of man's highest callings. We all need to eat, and most of our food comes from farms. I get a great sense of satisfaction knowing that my farming life is feeding people. Evidently many small farmers feel that way as well.

Many of the farmers at that particular meeting once held "regular" jobs, and all of them felt the call to tend the soil for the greater good. In most cases, like me, they had voluntarily given up higher incomes, decent health insurance, vacations, flex time, 401(k) plans and pensions. In some cases, they had given up their whole nest egg to go into farming.

With the interest in buying local increasing over the past few years, it has been easier for small farmers like us to make a living. Being able to sell my fruit and vegetables directly to the people who will eat them is what keeps me in business. If I had had to sell via the wholesale channel, I would have run out of funds long ago.

I'm certainly not making loads of money, but I am at least keeping my head above water and offering health insurance to my employees. Vacation and flex time? Well, that hasn't really made an appearance in my life yet, but I'm hopeful that it will in the next year or two.

People are discovering what we small farmers have to offer. We can provide varieties of fruit and veggies with amazing flavors and colors, most of which will never be found at the grocery store. Customers quickly understand what a treasure local foods can be, and the farmers who provide those foods are scorned no longer.

It is a great pleasure, after a long growing season, to meet with my customers week after week. When there is time at the market, I share snippets of news, gossip, recipe ideas, etc. Some of these folks have become my harvest-time friends, not nameless and faceless consumers, and I wouldn't miss that for the world. Saying hello week after week to the hundreds or thousands of people who will be eating the food I grew is just about priceless.

As for the sweat, dirt, heat, gnats, physical exhaustion, frost and hurricanes? Well, I can't do anything about them but grin and bear it; I know there's a great reward in store at the end.