As some of you may know, we recently had a week-long break between our Spring and Summer Farm Share seasons. A few weeks before our break, we got an email from our friends at the National Young Farmers Coalition inviting us to their first farmer fly-in to DC for the 2018 Farm Bill, which just happened to be during our break! Chelsea was kind enough to let me go even though we had planned to weed every row and trellis tomatoes all week. It was an amazing experience, and I wanted to share some of it with you.
If you haven't heard of the National Young Farmers Coalition yet, you should go check them out. NYFC is a national network of young and beginning farmers and ranchers building a sustainable future for American agriculture. There are 36 local chapters in 26 states, including our own Middle Georgia Young Farmers Coalition. Local chapters are self-organizing and adaptive to the needs of their farmer members. Some chapters host parties and other social events, some organize collective buying clubs or equipment shares, some organize and advocate for policy at the state level. In addition to supporting local chapters, NYFC also provides business services including tons of discounts, legal services, help with FSA and other USDA programs, and other resources for farmers. Finally, NYFC advocates for policies in Congress and at the USDA that support young and beginning farmers. Two thirds of US farmers are over the age of 55 (and nearly one third are eligible for social security, which means that over the next generation, two thirds of US farmland will change hands. Policy that affects young and beginning farmers affects the entire food system in this country, so it is vitally important. But more about that later.
We first heard about NYFC forming chapters of young farmers before we started our own farm, and it was a huge source of hope and inspiration to feel like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. We became members soon after starting our own farm. In 2015, Chelsea was asked to represent NYFC at the Georgia Organics conference expo. Soon after, we started a Middle Georgia chapter and became much more involved. Chelsea traveled to California for NYFC's annual Convergence of chapter leaders from across the country in November, and she came back totally invigorated and ready to make change happen on our farm and in our community. We've done some interviews on behalf of NYFC over the last few months, but this fly-in is my first time really getting involved in the policy side of their work, and it was really exciting!
After travelling most of the day, I arrived at NYFC's DC office in the Methodist Building across from the Capitol. There were 9 farmers from key districts around the country flying in, as well as 9 NYFC staff members based in DC, Colorado, and Hudson, NY. We spent the rest of the night getting to know one another, learning about NYFC's history and platform, and getting briefed on the logistics of meeting with our members of Congress.
A little background real quick: the Farm Bill is a huge piece of legislation that is supposed to be passed every 5 years. It funds most of the farming and food related policy in the US. The Farm Bill funds everything from commodity programs to crop insurance to food stamps to farmers market programs to FSA loans to conservation programs. The next Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2018, so we are starting to meet with members of Congress now to make sure we have support for programs that help young farmers.
A big chunk of NYFC's Farm Bill platform includes playing defense. A lot of programs that benefit young farmers across the country are small chunks of change in the Farm Bill, which means they are often on the chopping block unless a constituent speaks up. In fact, President Trump's proposed budget completely eliminates the department of Rural Development from the USDA, which houses funding for everything from farmers markets to value-added producer grants to cooperatives to solar power. Some of the programs that we are especially interested in maintaining funding for include the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which funds new farmer training and is the only program targeted specifically at young farmers; conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which funds cost-share programs for farmers to install high tunnels, irrigation, fencing, and other best practices that conserve soil and water quality; the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which matches private funding for property easements that keep farmland affordable; and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which funds on-farm research and education about best agricultural practices across the country.
Another major piece of NYFC's platform is making existing programs more accessible to young farmers. A great example of this is the FSA Microloan program, which created a shorter application and quicker process for FSA loans under $50,000 and includes funding targeted at young and beginning farmers. NYFC lobbied for the Microloan program and got it as a trial in 2013 and permanent program in 2014. Many other simple tweaks could be made to existing programs to make them more accessible to young farmers: online applications, the ability to pre-qualify for an FSA loan, higher limits for FSA loans, a Micro-EQIP program that targets EQIP funding for smaller farms.
Two non-Farm Bill issues are also at the center of NYFC's policy platform: student loan debt and healthcare. Starting a farm is starting a small business, which means student loan debt can really hamper a young farmers' chances at success. NYFC has introduced a bill in the House and looking to introduce in the Senate that would add farming to the federal public service student loan forgiveness program, which forgives student loan debt after 10 years of service in medicine, teaching, and other fields already. Similarly, since farmers are small business owners our only option for health insurance is the private marketplace. That means that the vast majority of young farmers who are members of NYFC rely on converage through the ACA exchanges or Medicaid in states that expanded Medicaid.
"The Wish to be Generous" by Wendell Berry
All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.
Many of you reading this no doubt knew Darryl Herren. In fact, many of you are probably reading this BECAUSE you knew Darryl Herren: many of our earliest customers and followers and email newsletter sign-ups came directly from Marsha and Darryl. They would literally send us email addresses of people they thought we should know, and about 1 in 3 farmers market customers our first year told us they were sent to see us at market by Marsha and Darryl. When I baked bread for the farmers market during college, Marsha and Darryl would freeze a dozen loaves and give every customer a slice and my contact info. When we moved back to start Babe + Sage, Marsha and Darryl invited us to help out during their busy Christmas open house. The week before, Marsha suggested we print up some brochures for the farm. They made sure each of the hundreds who came that busy weekend took a brochure and personally met Chelsea or I to hear about what we were doing. They were our earliest and most ardent supporters.
For those few in middle Georgia who were unlucky enough to never meet Darryl Herren, he really was a man beyond description or peer. Darryl was a social worker, a minister, a gardener, a blacksmith, a birdwatcher, a naturalist, a storyteller, but most of all, he was the kindest spirit you'll ever meet. He and his wife, Marsha, started Olive Forge Herb Farm as their retirement dream, which was really just a way for Darryl and Marsha to touch more folks with their huge heart, kindness, curiosity, hospitality, and spirit.
In 2008, Chelsea and I were lucky enough to be some of those folks. We were just a couple of college kids who had heard about this curious place out in the woods and decided to visit. When we first arrived on a busy Saturday afternoon, we wandered around their garden not quite knowing what to do. We were sitting on a bench when Darryl walked up, corralled us into their kitchen, served us tea and rosemary cake, and made us feel like we were finally home. When we left hours later, Darryl told me that if we needed someplace safe to turn, even in the middle of the night, and we arrived and the gate was closed, their phone number was posted so we could call and let them open the gate. We were always welcome.
From that first day, Chelsea and I always felt a special bond with Marsha and Darryl. Early on, Darryl told us about reading The Good Life by Scott and Helen Nearing and taking their own personal "vow of poverty" to become a part of what we now know as the back-to-the-land movement. They talked about growing plants, wandering through the woods, raising chickens, building their beautiful home from scratch, the Brown's Crossing Craftsman Fair, creating a small business and welcoming people into their home, living simply, cooking well, and building community. After all of those early conversations, Chelsea and I would get in our car to drive back to our dorm or apartment and say, "That's what I want our life to be." We had found our own personal Helen and Scott Nearing, and they lived just twenty minutes away. Without meeting Marsha and Darryl, we would have never started farming. We also never would have moved back to middle Georgia.
When Chelsea and I got married in 2013, we asked Darryl to co-officiate our wedding. He told us he had been preparing a story since the day he met us. Even while we were standing there reciting our vows, we had no idea what Darryl was going to say. He calmly walked to the altar, handed us each a small pebble, then strode toward the microphone in the middle of the pecan orchard. In typical Darryl fashion, he began talking about the migration patterns of the sandhill crane. How we see them migrating south in late fall, and again going north in the spring; how they fly in a V-pattern; how cranes mate for life. Then, he finally got to the pebble. As they migrate, each night there is one sentinel crane who stays awake to guard against predators. The sentinel crane stands on one foot and tucks the other upward holding a small pebble. If he falls asleep, he drops the pebble, waking himself or another crane to keep watch over the group. He said that he and Marsha, as well as so many others in the crowd, were standing guard for us. They were our sentinel.
Later in the night, after we cut the rosemary cake Marsha had made for our wedding cake, we arrived at the hotel wiped out. As we begin to change out of our wedding attire, I found the pebble in my pocket and was struck by the metaphor Darryl offered us. The care, the protection, the safety, the love, the peace of a community that holds you tight. The peace we always felt at Olive Forge: like coming back to a home you never knew you were missing. For so many folks in middle Georgia for so many years, Darryl was our sentinel crane. He and Marsha have held tight to their pebble for many years, and in doing so have held tight to so many people who have felt welcome and safe and at home with them.
Now, we must be the sentinel for Marsha and the rest of the family and each other. It feels so shocking, so raw, so hard. It feels too hard. In the face of such grief and such sadness, how can you be anyone's sentinel? How did Darryl do it? He loved, and he loved, and he loved, and he never quit loving. He thought deeply, he acted gently, and he spoke deliberately. He was, above all, generous. I hope I can be, too.
on this day we tied ourselves together,
I think about all of the things that have gone right
and all of those
that have gone
I am thankful for the land,
for your hands,
tying it all up,
tiding us over.
I am thankful for the rituals we hold.
the music that echoes through the house,
the biscuits you make,
the coffee we drink,
the wine we share.
small rituals buoying us.
remembering this perfect day,
imperfect as it was,
is a ritual.
we sit and pour over photographs,
portraits of people who
have given us love in return for ours.
every year we remember those faces,
in front of those people,
on this land,
we vowed a reciprocity,
a give and take.
you and me.
together we weather
we sail this stormy sea.
our rituals buoying us.
our love flowing,
back and forth
back and forth
back and forth
"And sure enough, even waiting will end...if you can just wait long enough."
We are in a period of waiting. We're asking our CSA members to wait for the plants to be ready. The plants are waiting for the temperatures to lower so that they can germinate and grow. We are waiting for the weather to cool down so that we can resume our regular work schedule. We're waiting for the rhythm to find us again.
And how much time do we all spend waiting?
Waiting in line.
Waiting in traffic.
Waiting on dinner.
Waiting for the weekend.
Waiting for the holiday.
We should all be experts. We should be well-versed in waiting.
The farm has taught me the greatest patience.
Patience with the weather.
Patience with my partner.
Patience with my son.
Patience with our workers.
To be truthful, waiting often accompanies disappointment. Big disappointments - we haven't yet reached our goals, something or someone has failed us. Small disappointments - we can't eat when we're hungry, we have to miss a meet-up with a friend.
The farm, and life, has roughed me up just enough thus far that I've learned to sit still in my disappointment, to breathe through it, to move and work along with it.
I've learned that we will be disappointed over and over again.
Best laid plans will fail.
The delivery vehicle will break down on delivery day.
Plants will refuse to grow.
Workers will quit.
More and more friends will move away.
But we are tied to this land. Our blood sweat and tears reside within it. We cannot leave, but rather we watch it grow and die and grow and die, infinitely, each cycle containing within itself its own emotional round of excitement, boredom, sadness, and a special, fleeting sort of joy.
Disappointments are par for the course. They are often sudden and emotionally disturbing. It's the waiting though, the long, boring time between disappointment and joy that's the hardest.
On the farm, the waiting feels magnified ten-fold.
In the short-term, as we wait for a new plan to present itself, we come up with 101 possibilities.
We wait for the van to be repaired and borrow trucks and rent U-hauls and make due.
We wait for the plants to grow, and we ask our members to trust us and wait with us.
We wait for the right new person to commit to working with us.
We wait to see who will fill our dinner table again.
In the long term, we wait.
We wait for the farm to be successful.
We wait for our hard work to pay off.
We work and wait and work and work and wait.
The waiting period is often awkward and frustrating and unpleasant. It's the waiting that's grating and sweaty and long and boring. It's a vague sort of uneasiness, a low-vibrating anxiety that can pick and pick at your sanity.
But you're supposed to be waiting.
We're supposed to be waiting/wading through this part of the cycle.
Just give it time.
On the other side there is rhythm and novelty. Crisp newness awaits us, as we are awaiting it.
The first leaves to fall, clicking against each other on their slow descent.
A young, sweet carrot, its satisfying crunch between your teeth.
The first wood-stove fire, the heady scent of burning wood expanding in your nose, scenting your clothes.
These moments are happiness. They are rare and fleeting and last a split-second. But we recognize them for what they are because of disappointments we've suffered and the waiting we've learned to endure. These experiences are sweeter, more pungent, more alive to us, because of our waiting.
The highs are higher because of the lows.
All too soon, the cycle continues.
The trees will be bare.
We will have picked thousands of carrots.
We will tire of chopping wood.
And we will be waiting, waiting for spring, waiting for new life and new growth.
We are all waiting in one way or another.
Breathe through your disappointments.
Wade through the waiting.
Greet the joy on the other side.
The cycle will rise to greet you.
"And sure enough, even waiting will end...if you can just wait long enough."
Tripp uses this edge of the table at the wash station as his "finding place."
When we're washing produce or packing bags, he's running around looking for new things to add to his collection. Lately, his little assemblage has included half-ripe blackberries and carefully selected pieces of gravel. Walking by this particular collection caused me to pause and to think about why he does this.
I'm sure it's just that he finds one or two categories of things interesting and wants to line them up at eye level. He does this with his cars and trains, as well as nails and little shards of plastic he finds on the ground (it's really safe here, promise). We find "Tripp Piles" all over the place, little collections that he puts together while we're working and he's entertaining himself. This one though, for some reason, (maybe the red stains from the berries?) reminded me of an altar. A little toddler altar, made to honor raspberries, rocks, and all the wondrous things there are to discover outside. But the stains...the stains make me think about blood and then that made me think of sacrifice. It was probably painful to pick those little berries with their sharp little thorns! But he did it anyway, many times over, anyway.
And this makes me think about the work we do and the sacrifices we make as farmers, day in and day out, over and over, when our backs are hurting and our hands are bleeding...we do it anyway.
And I don't mean to throw around the word "sacrifice." I think there are so many words that are now watered down, because our modern lives, thanks to technology, are nowhere near as hard as they used to be. These days, when we talk about "making sacrifices," we're talking about working more hours or going without a cell phone for awhile, or not eating out. I'm not say this to diminish your personal sacrifices, I promise, I just don't think most of us mean (and I'm about to commit the ultimate writing crime here): "an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure." (google dictionary).
And I don't really mean that either, but let's explore that idea for a minute...
Sacrificing a person or a lamb to God/the gods was a way of trying to control or appease the crazy brutal cycles of nature...and we're all up in this, y'all. Every single day we come face to face with Mother Nature's armpits, elbows, and gnashing teeth. She's on our heels, day in and day out, waiting for us, preempting us, trying to throw us off-course. I TOTALLY get the idea behind sacrificing a valuable living thing in the hopes that Mother Nature will JUST CHILL OUT FOR A MINUTE.
It's gotten a little bit better over the years as we've learned to "roll with the punches," i.e. expect death or failure at every turn. Nothing surprises us anymore. Being successful in farming requires that you acquire a zen-like attitude toward all things.
There are so many things that we probably haven't shared with most of you, and probably never will. I typed up like five different stories, all examples of Mother Nature's cruelty, but deleted them. We recognize that "farm" in people's minds is usually an idyllic, romantic place in the country...and if we want people to stay pumped about what we do, we probably don't need ruin that idea.
But farming can be brutal, that's just the reality of it.
I will share one story...we'd lost two flocks of chickens to different predators. Maybe we were dumb and it was our fault, but maybe the "wildness" of this place had invited the predators in over the years and our chickens were just sitting ducks. Anyway, this was our third flock and we'd been losing one chicken per night to an opossum. After we'd figured it out, we'd tried just about everything we could think of to keep it out, including extra electric fencing, a stronger coop, a sound machine, a light machine, moving them next to the house, and locking Delilah outside. Nothing worked. I'd become desperate, since every night (around 3:30 am) we'd listen to chicken screams and felt like there was nothing we could do. I learned to shoot my uncle's rifle. I was determined to end the life of the thing that was ending the life of the animals I'd cared for and fed and loved for months. I tried to stay up all night with floodlights on in the electrified fenced-in area. I'd planned to shoot the opossum when it came to kill one of our chickens. I'd fallen asleep, because I was pregnant and exhausted, but was awoken to chicken screams. At five months pregnant with Tripp and barefoot, I grabbed my rifle and ran off into the darkness, hoping that there was something I could do. But it was pitch-black and there was no way I was going to hit anything in the dark.
We listened until the chicken stopped screaming.
The next day, Joe and Julia adopted our chickens.
That night, the opossum was caught in the trap we'd set many weeks before.
It's always a cruel joke, a bittersweet moment, a back and forth, a push and a pull. When we work with Mother Nature, we're trying to brush hair and she'd rather it be full of weeds. We try to wash her feet, and she'd rather they stay dirty. We try to feed her and shes bites us with her sharpened teeth.
This is not to diminish the times that we walk with her hand-in-hand, or plant and harvest with her blessing, but we've come to expect that those times are rare and special, and that we must savor them, as with all things.
So I get why people of ancient times made sacrifices. They would do anything in the hopes that they could break a drought, or continue a good harvest, or stop the heavy, flooding rains.
As farmers, I think our sacrifices fall more along this line: "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." Hebrews 13:16
Our sacrifices are all about doing the right thing, no matter how hard it might be or become - for the good of ourselves, for the good of future generations and for the greater good of the planet. Although a farmer might thank a meat animal for it's own sacrifice to the nourishment of our bodies, a farmer's day-to-day sacrifices are less sanguine, and more personal.
A farmer gives up her body to the work, her brain to the business, and a certain amount of privacy to the marketing. He gives up peace of mind and a lot of control. He or She sacrifices time, energy, and attention to the farm, and is at risk of neglecting her relationships (family, partner, and otherwise). A farmer's sacrifice is also about giving up a steady income, access to healthcare, and occasionally relying on foodstamps in especially bad winters.
As I write, there are people and organizations working hard to make sure that these sacrifices are made less adverse to farmers. We are so, so grateful to them. In the meantime, these are things we sacrifice day in and day out as small, sustainable farmers in Middle Georgia and we do it willingly. Maybe it's stupidity or maybe it's blind idealism, but we all chug along against the odds, trying to make the dream of access to good, sustainable food a reality in this region.
When you buy from us, you're throwing your hat in the ring, putting your chips on the table, and jumping in with us. We couldn't do it without you.
In a few weeks, you're going to see a video and a donation campaign for The Middle Georgia Growers Co-Operative. The Co-op is a group of farmers who intend to grow and sell food collectively so that we can remain viable and continue to farm in Middle Georgia, and therefore, reduce the strain of the sacrifices that we all make.
Please help out if you can.
In the meantime, know this; despite Mother Nature's backward advances, we continue to farm anyway, many times over, anyway. Our altar is the farm and we sacrifice ourselves. Our harvest, the half-ripened berries. Our customers and Farm-Share Members are the rocks that keep us grounded and stable. Thank YOU for lessening the burden and taking part in this grand sacrifice.
We couldn't do it without you.
p.s. If you're feeling especially donate-y right now, donate HERE to help us with our hoop-house rebuild.
This picture, right here, is CSA.
If you didn't know already, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It's a system in which community members "buy-in" to a local farm and thereby support said farm from the ground-up. When members "Join Our Share" up front, they provide the needed funds for us to buy seed, amend the soil, and get plants in the ground before the season starts.
We call ours a Farm Share, but that's neither here nor there.
What matters is not what it's called, but the people who do it.
So back to the photo above. It shows our son Tripp looking happy and content. He's looking at the camera with this happy, trusting expression...and you know who he's looking at? A CSA member. Once a week, she welcomes Tripp into her home to play with her own son, eat, nap, and grow, so that Bobby and I can work all day on the farm without distraction. I got this photo in a message at lunchtime after four long hours of weeding, planting seeds, and shoveling compost. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to see this picture and to know that Tripp was safe, well-cared for, and happy in the hands of a trusted member. I guess I can tell you though, that I knew that I could run headlong into four more hours of laying drip-tape, putting down weed barrier, putting up trellising, and transplanting cucumber seedlings with certainty because I had peace of mind. Because of this beautiful arrangement called CSA, I'm able to put my hands in the dirt and grow food for people with confidence and pride.
The most awesome thing though, is that the support this CSA member has shown us is not an anomaly. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways our members have supported us. I guess what I'm trying to say is this; we are here because of our members in so many more ways than one. They support us financially through buying our Farm Share, but the exchange is so much more than just a Paypal transaction.
Here are just a few ways that our CSA members have made farming possible for us:
-One of our members adopted our chickens and now supplies eggs to the farm share.
-Another "adopted" our sourdough starter and will now be baking bread to supply the share.
-The sheep who are fertilizing our fields and trimming our pasture belong to a CSA Member.
-A CSA member owns the bees who will be pollinating our summer plants so that we can have squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, okra, and tomatoes to put in our share boxes.
-This summer, a member will be driving out to the farm to watch Tripp while we pack CSA boxes.
-When Tripp was born, and we were spending time in the hospital, a CSA member wrote us a card and gave us badly-needed money.
-Another member has passed down baby clothes to us through her box (once she emptied her box out of veggies, she'd put baby clothes in for us to find when we picked it up!)
-Members have helped us advertise by sending emails to their friends, posting on social media, and even changing their profile pictures (thanks guys!).
-We've had a member offer to give us an interest-free business loan.
-Many of our members have contributed to our crowd-funded projects like our brick-oven, our kiva zip loan to buy the cargo van, and our hoop-house rebuilding fund.
-CSA members attend our farmers markets, our farm dinners, potlucks, and parties.
-Several of our members have become employees of the farm.
-Our long-term members have been patient with us through all of the times we messed up in the early years.
-Our pastor and his wife are members and they, along with other members of the congregation (who are also members of our CSA!) have shown unconditional support since the day they invited us to come talk about sustainable farming one week.
-Our land owners are CSA members, and have supported us from day one in too many ways to count.
We love farming through CSA, because: we want to be an integral part of this community, we want to feed and support this community, and because we love this community. We got into this knowing that it would be a long. hard, dirty, and stressful road, but the unexpected part of all of this is how much our community has loved and supported us back. We are so grateful.
When members trust us to grow their food, they are not only giving us the financial tools to succeed, they are giving us a vote of confidence. Knowing that we are entrusted to grow what's going to be served on their tables and what's going to bring nourishment and energy to their bodies ennobles us to work harder and longer, and to do the work that we love with a smile. We imagine these seeds growing not only food for bellies, but fodder for conversation. We imagine meals being made with our food becoming center-pieces for family discussions, tokens of fellowship at potlucks, and building blocks for young, growing bodies.
So as we go forward into our season, we want our members (past, present, and future) to know that we are so so thankful for you, that we are here for you, and that because of you, we farm.
Thank you from the bottom of our dirty, sweaty, grateful hearts.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
― Alice Walker, The Color Purple
We've been working so hard at Babe + Sage for four years now, trying to make it all work, trying to keep our heads above water. Just now, in the beginning of our fifth season, I'm starting to really remember why we chose this field of work in the first place.
After years of re-inventing the wheel every season, we've finally begun to find a rhythm. It wasn't an easy journey though - and I've had to work my way though all of the distractions I could throw in front of myself before I finally learned to settle into the farm. Our first year was trial by fire, and took everything we had just to make it through. There were so many things we just didn't know how to do. Our second season, we decided to get married and that just totally consumed every free minute I had away from the farm. Our third season, I found myself pregnant and trying to navigate how to manage the farm, nanny for extra money, and host lots of events (to try to make up for my lost labor in the field) without losing it. Last year, I became the market manager for our farmers market, became a GC ENGAGE fellow, and remained Tripp's full-time caregiver until the fall. When two of our apprentices quit, instead of hiring two people to replace them, we hired one replacement, found someone to come watch Tripp at the farm, and then put me in rotation as the extra farm-hand.
Finding myself back on the farm full-time has been the greatest gift. You know how they say "You never know what you've got 'till it's gone?" Well I didn't know what I'd been missing until I'd been forced back into it because we really couldn't afford to hire someone else.
I didn't realize how much I miss being out in the fields, even if that means weeding for seems like forever, or dumping compost by bucketfuls on rows, or seeding wispy thin lettuce seeds by hand, hunched over wet soil, back burning in the sun. I miss being outside. I miss the muscle-ache at the end of the day. I miss the freedom of being severed from the internet for hours on end.
I'm thankful for cycles and seasons and learning and growth. I'm thankful that the farm was still here for me to come back to. I'm thankful that Bobby has kept things going in my half-absence, my "trying to figure out what's going to make me happy," semi-committed farm phase. I'm thankful that there was a place for me, waiting, and that I didn't have to struggle to carve it out for myself.
I'm thankful that Bobby had the grace and the presence to let me take over parts of the farm that were showing neglect. In the fall, I did a re-hauling of our budget and our record-keeping systems, which really forced us to look at what we can make work and what we can't (read our last post for more about what that was all about). I'm grateful that we were able to work together to trim away the parts of the farm that weren't working for us so that we could re-focus on what we have always been really passionate about: growing food for people, making a living doing it, and really enjoying the farm-life.
By whittling down the things that were distracting us, we've snowballed forward into seeing the other things that have weighed us down. We've cut our greenhouse labor time down to about 1/6th of what it was just last year. We've moved four cargo vans full of unused or broken materials off the farm. We've changed up our harvesting and marketing schedule to allow for more time on the farm to actually do all the work it takes to grow food well. And I could go on and on about how much we've grown just by really focusing in on our systems, but that's probably for another post.
To me, the most important outcome of all of these changes (so far) is that by really tightening up our focus, we've opened up brain space for noticing. We're not so over-loaded that we "walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it." We notice the wisteria, take evening walks, talk to the lambs, stop to watch bee swarms (warily), and play with our son, often.
And that's what inspired me to write this post. I'm grateful for the meaningful and valuable work, but I'm more grateful for the new space in my head that allows me to really live and to really love this job and this life. Without the constant panic that "we aren't going to make it," that minute-to-minute fear buzzing through your brain (that I'm sure that most farmers have experienced), I feel like I'm apprenticing back at Round Right Farm in WV, noticing every little thing, feeling every little breeze, and it's wonderful.
And on that note, let me tell you...
The wisteria has been glorious this year.
It's draped over everything like a lover's arms; sweet, pungent, and bright. I've never noticed how irridescent the fragrance of a wisteria bloom is - it's this bright, clear, purple scent - and it's almost comical how "purple" it smells. Like those scented toys we used to get when we were little? Or the grape-scented markers you weren't supposed to suck on (but you probably did)? I'm just so in awe of how much the whole farm smells like confection, especially in the evening when the mist starts to settle. All of our azaleas are blooming now too, and they mix in this fairy-light "pink" smell, and our pear trees, in their very last blooms, throw in their heady musk. Walking around the farm right now is like walking through those praline shops in Savannah - it's unreal how sweet the air is and how much you can taste just by breathing!
I'm in love with the way the sheep poo smells too. It's a warm, grassy, farm-y smell, one that reminds me of my grandfather's farm. It's a completely different smell from vegetable waste, which, if taken care of lazily, is a ripe, hot, and terrible smell. Visiting with the sheep in my work boots, stepping in fresh fertilizer, a pure sun-to-grass-to-soil-nutrition conversion, in a field that would have taken me hours in the hot sun to mow brings me happiness.
Noticing sunsets, watching the mist fall over the pecan grove in the evening, walking the fields with our dog Delilah, and our newly adventurous cat, Olive (she follows me everywhere!), trying not to disturb the wren who's sitting on six eggs above our walk-in cooler door, and above it all, watching Tripp learning to love nature, has brought me such a sense of contentment with this life we're living.
And I'm telling you this because there have been so so so many days, weeks, and months when my feelings have been so opposite (and I'm not going to say they'll never return, farming is cyclical after all!). Right now, in this moment, I feel like a "pear tree - any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!" (that's from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, a.k.a. it's my favorite book)
It's inevitable that the stresses, physical and otherwise, of farming will trip me up sometime this year, but I hope that by taking the time to record little bits of it here, a clearer and more holistic vision of Babe + Sage will start to emerge. In the meantime, I want to commit this evening to memory:
Tonight, after the rain, we took Tripp outside to run out his energy. We visited the sheep who are grazing near the graves of the farmers who came before us. We watched twilight come and stopped to smell the wisteria blooms coiled around the old "Cedar Ridge Farm" sign on the way back to the house and were grateful for the use of this land that we share. We scraped the wet soil from our boots and walked inside to the heavy and comforting smell of freshly baked sourdough bread; just two loaves baked for pure pleasure, not seventy-five, baked full of anxiety and expectancy. We sat together and ate the warm slices, one piece each for dessert, and crunched through the thin, crisp, crust and gobbled up the warm chewy center. Tripp stuffed his face with his slice, clearly letting us know that this was better than the kale, grapes, and smashed potatoes he'd not eaten earlier. This kid will never be able to enjoy store-bought bread.
But that's the point, isn't it?
Those of you who have followed Babe + Sage since the early years have probably come to expect the announcement of some major changes every January. Each winter, the veggies and markets slow down, and Chelsea and I have some time to sit by the fire and take stock of the past year.
We've learned a lot and changed a lot since we started the farm 5 years ago in 2011. We began with only 20 Farm Share members, a leaky roof, and a small 5' x 12' greenhouse attached to our house. We've now got 60 members, a super comfy house, a 100 foot greenhouse and 2 hoophouses! Over the past four years we have been through countless building projects large and small, started a farmers market, hosted hundreds of folks for farm dinners, cleared acres of brush and field, sold tons (literally) of veggies every year, sold thousands of loaves of bread, gotten married, hosted two other weddings, had a baby, hosted dozens of volunteers, and employed 15 people. We were 23 and 24 years old when we moved to the farm, just a couple of young kids with a dream. Now, we are approaching 30 with a toddler and feel relatively established in our lives and community. We now dream about raising our family on this beautiful farm and in this amazing community of friends and farmers and good food lovers that has grown up around our lives.
Which brings us to the new year. As our lives change, the farm must change, too. The realities of having a child have really taught us that we need to find a way for the farm to work for us rather than the other way around. For us, that means leaning up our systems on the farm, targeting crops and enterprises that can provide us with a living wage, and focusing on what we consider essential to who we are as people and farmers. We started farming for mostly idealistic reasons: to be our own boss, to connect with nature and place, to have good food to eat, to provide our community with a product we can truly believe in, because we loved the work. In short, because we wanted to create a business that was environmentally and socially sustainable. But to keep farming for the long haul, we have slowly learned we must focus on financial sustainability as well. Because growing great food, preserving the land, and creating community don't mean much if we're out of business or burnt out. In order to achieve these goals, we will be making some big changes in 2016.
THINGS THAT ARE GOING:
First, we will no longer be baking bread every week after March 2016. This will probably come as more of a shock to our farmers market customers who've never been a part of the Farm Share, since half our market table is normally filled with bread. After several years of tweaking our system, the economics simply don't work out unless we bake (and sell) twice as much bread each time we fire the oven as we currently sell (bread sales account for ~15-20% of our income but 30-40% of our labor costs each year). Additionally, our outdoor brick oven needs some major repairs that we simply cannot justify investing in at the moment. We still plan to use the oven for pizza dinners and bake bread for special occasions, but it will not be an everyday part of Babe + Sage in 2016.
Second, we will sadly no longer be regularly attending the Mulberry Market in Macon after March 2016. We will continue attending the Green Market in Milledgeville every 1st and 3rd Saturdays, and Chelsea will continue managing that market. We really love our market regulars, our fellow vendors, the market staff, and the park. We have gotten to know many of our regular customers so well over the past four years, and this was a really tough decision for us to make. We love the personal interaction with customers, the immediate gratification of hearing what customers like and don't like, and talking shop with our farmer friends every week. As we try to make the farm fit our current needs, though, we are not able to make the Mulberry Market fit for us at this time. As the business has grown, we need to spend more valuable daylight hours mid-week on the farm managing the farm. We hope our loyal market customers will consider joining us in other ways this year and understand why we have made this decision. We also hope our fellow farmers, market managers, volunteers, and other market supporters will understand why we have made this decision and continue their vital work in building a truly great local farmers market in Macon.
THINGS THAT ARE COMING:
We will be hosting one large Farm Dinner this year, so go ahead and put it on your calendar! Our Farm Feast will take place June 11th and tickets are $35 per person, limit 100 guests. The feast will take place in the pecan orchard, weather permitting, and feature a four course seasonal menu from the farm. The entree will be seasonal wood-fired brick oven pizzas, and there may just be some bread available for sale that day, too. Click here to learn more and buy your tickets now! We will still be hosting some parties, potlucks, and other small get-togethers for Farm Share members and friends, but this will be our only Farm Dinner for the year.
We will be focusing most of our time, energy, and resources on what drew us into farming to begin with: Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA). We call ours a Farm Share. Our first taste of local agriculture came from our CSA subscription in college and our first farming jobs were at a CSA farm. Our first year at Babe + Sage was funded in large part by our Farm Share members, many of whom paid for a full year before we even purchased a single seed. Many of our Farm Share members have been members for two, three, or four years and become friends. We are farming because of those folks, the ones who believe in what we're doing and have made a commitment to us. So this year, we're making a commitment to them by making the Farm Share our focus. Here's how.
We will be working hard to increase our membership to 85-100 members. This is a number that feels sustainable for us while still allowing us to give our members personal attention. As many of you know, we now use an online market that allows members to customize their share each week. We were beta-testing this software for some friends, and now most of the kinks have been worked out. We feel like the customization and ease of use with this system open the Farm Share up to many people who may have been reluctant in the past. To learn more and sign up, click here.
We will also be offering home deliveries in the Carrington Woods neighborhood in Milledgeville. For a $3.00 fee per delivery, members who live within our delivery zone can have their share delivered directly to their door. If everything goes well with this limited area this year, we plan to expand home delivery into more neighborhoods in Macon and Milledgeville next year. We will also be adding two new pick-up locations in Milledgeville, as we are always on the verge of outgrowing the space Blackbird Coffee has so graciously offered as a pick-up location for three years now. In addition to Blackbird, members can now pick up their share on the Georgia College campus at the ENGAGE House (N. Clarke St) and north of town at Pure Chiropractic (Log Cabin Rd).
We will also be focusing on making the Farm Share a better overall experience. Each week, we will include a full-color customized recipe card for that week's share. We will also continue to include cooking tips, meal planning tips, and simpler recipes in our weekly emails. We will be extending the season and quantity on some popular crops, such as salad mix, carrots, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes. We will also be focusing on "snack veggies" that can be eaten raw or thrown in a lunchbox. We will also be adding some new optional meal kits (like the Roast Pack and Stir-Fry Pack)this season.
We hope you will join our Farm Share in this new season!
We are very excited to see what 2016 has in store for Babe + Sage!
We will miss having fresh baked bread every week just as much as you, and we will miss seeing our Mulberry Market customers and fellow vendors tremendously. But, we are excited to see what doors will open up with these changes. We are excited to see the farm grow up with us and provide a living for our family for the long haul. We are also excited to see what we can really accomplish and grow by focusing all our effort on our core business. We hope you'll join us for the journey. Do you still want to support Babe + Sage? Then join the Farm Share! We really think you'll like it. If you think your kids are too picky, don't worry - you can customize your share each week. No reason to miss out just because of a picky eater! Aren't sure that you can eat all the veggies each week? Find a friend to split with! Many members who split a share end up getting their own share once they start eating more tasty veggies every week.
All the info for this year's Farm Share is up on the website, but let us know if you have any questions!
You can also go ahead and purchase tickets for the Farm Feast! Mark your calendars for June 11th, you do not want to miss out on this event!
One more final word: a big thank you to all our longtime Farm Share members. You are the reason we are farming, and you are the reason we feel confident enough to make these big changes. Thank you for believing in us season after season!
People often ask what we do in winter. While some farmers (mostly those up north) can make 12 months of income in the 6 warm months, pack it in in November, and sit by the woodstove with seed catalogs all winter, we don't have that luxury in our climate and market here in middle Georgia. We still go to the farmers market (although much slower paced than mid-June) through the winter, and we have a small Winter Farm Share (only 20 members instead of our usual 60-80). On top of that admittedly slower harvest schedule, we also have a lot of work to do in the greenhouse and fields to prepare for spring. Those carrots in your first April Farm Share? They got seeded on New Years Day. Those extra early tomatoes from the hoophouse? The seedlings got started a week later.
In addition to a slowed-down harvest schedule and a sped-up planting schedule, we also try to have our year planned out by mid-January. We already know what seedlings we will start in the greenhouse next November, which fields need to be tilled when, and (hopefully) what our cashflow will look like for the year and how much we expect to spend on gasoline each month. Farmers with more down time in the winter have more time to do all this planning. Between the rush of the holidays and the start of our Winter Farm Share, we usually find one busy, sometimes stressful week or two to get it all done around New Years.
But probably the most important work of winter happens in between all that. Here's a photo of Tripp from a Saturday afternoon in January (keep reading below).
Chelsea took the photo of him looking mischievously back at us in the greenhouse as he chased our cat, Olive, toward the house. It's moments like these that winter on the farm is really about for me. It's having some time to move at a slightly slower pace. It's having some time without employees living here and without the crunch of our normal delivery schedule. It's having some time to work alongside my wife at a leisurely pace, while our 1 and a half year old with enough energy to fill these 400 acres runs around chasing the cat or throwing potting soil or munching on a carrot from the hoophouse. It's coming in to a bowl of soup that's been simmering on the stove for a few hours or taking an extra long walk and being able to see clear through the woods without any leaves. Winter is the time for us to remember why we are farming, why we chose this life, and why we chose this place.
We're launching a farm blog! Sometimes it will be Chelsea writing (look for exclamation points!!!), sometimes it will be Bobby writing. We'll be posting info for Farm Share members, events, and happenings at the farm. We'll also be using this space to write out our thoughts on farming and life. Hope you enjoy!
Bobby + Chelsea
We grow tasty veggies, bake bread, host farm events, manage a farmers market, raise an energetic little munchkin, cook, restore this farm property, read books, and try to bring more good food and good things to middle Georgia!