By Liz Brownlee, Nightfall Farm
Twenty-seven board games.
Seven fantastic guests (some stayed for days; others just for a meal).
Three campfires here at the farm.
Two evenings out shooting pool.
One movie night.
We were lucky enough to do all of this with friends, farmer friends, and family in the last two weeks.
There’s a small chance we’re overcompensating.
“Feast or famine” normally applies to business or work, and it’s always a negative. We’ve come to appreciate the contrast of our busy grazing season (April-November) compared to the quieter months. In the warm months, we see every sunrise and every sunset. We take pride in working our bodies hard, caring for our animals, and grazing in a way that’s improving our land with every rotation. In the cooler months, we tackle projects, recuperate, and plan. This alternating cycle is just how farming works.
I came into farming knowing the bargain—the balance—that comes with this seasonality. I experienced the cycle first-hand working on farms in Maine and Vermont, and I knew that it would play out on our farm, too.
If there was one down side to working among a vibrant community of farmers in the northeast, it’s that our time together skewed my perception: I learned that farming was extremely social. There, Nate and I worked on farm crews that worked and played together. We told jokes and stories as we harvested or repaired fence lines. We hosted pizza nights after a full day’s work. We listened to each other’s’ music while we butchered chickens and talked about the news.
I know I should have—but I didn’t consider that the social nature of farming might be different here.
When we moved home to Indiana to farm for ourselves, I knew that it would be an adjustment: different soils, different markets, different customers. I didn’t really think through how much I needed to spend time with other farmers—working together, sharing meals and stories, asking questions, and supporting each other.
Social viability is a real issue that we, as a farming community, need to figure out. It’s not just about board games and meals. It’s about mental health and long-term viability.
In a business where each year’s harvest faces hurdles like climate change, customers’ demands, changing policy, and fluctuating grain prices (not to mention our friends who have to deal with tariffs), time spent together with other farmers and with a community in general is paramount.
Like many of you, our bottom line has three criteria: we must be viable economically, environmentally, and socially. I feel like we’re headed in the right direction with the first two—but in terms of sustaining our human need to interact and engage with others, well, that’s a boom or bust cycle if I’ve ever seen one! (Need evidence? Revisit the list at the start of this blog.)
I’ve blamed the lack of interaction on our geography. We decided to farm in Indiana because it’s our home, and we want to help make it a better place. Indiana’s local food scene is young compared to other states, so there are simply fewer farmers to interact with. That’s especially true in some parts of the state, including southeast Indiana.
This dearth of farmers, though, is a double whammy: it indicates that our food system has a long way to go—and it means that social interaction among the current farmers happens less. That presents a real chicken-and-egg problem: How can we expect to recruit more farmers and support existing ones if there isn’t a stronger food community? How do we build a stronger food community without more farmers?
I’ve assumed that if we just had more like-minded farmers nearby, our community would have a healthier food system andwe’d do more social things during the farming season together.
That is, in theory, true.
But I’m coming to wonder if I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe it’s time to adjust my perspective.
It’s still true that I want to build more social time into the farming season. Given that our farm doesn’t employ a crew, and that other farmers are a drive away, perhaps a little more planning is needed. In the same way that environmental and economic viability take planning and work, maybe social viability requires focused attention and structure.
We did a slightly better job on our farm this year. We made it a goal to get off the farm for an overnight camping trip. We managed to pull this off by camping at a bluegrass festival with friends (a win-win-win!). We hosted a group tree planting day in the spring, a giant potluck in the fall, anda guest speaker in October (Congressional candidate Jeannine Lee Lake). And this December, we traveled for 2.5 weeks off-farm with friends, in celebration of our five-year farm-i-versary. My brother farm-sat, and we unplugged. These were major steps in the right direction, and a lot of fun!
But there were still plenty of weeks where we didn’t have any social time: where we went days without seeing someone we weren’t related to.
I’m thinking that, during this time of reflection and planning, I need to make some choices. Either:
- I have to accept that the “feast and famine” nature of social time will always apply during some parts of the farming year.
- We should set goals for our farm to include more social time during more of the year—things like pot lucks and community work days where friends join us for a project. Let’s call this “equilibrium.”
- We need to help create the structures for a stronger community of farmers statewide. For us, this is probably going to happen via the Indiana Farmers Union and the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. We need to make involvement and leadership in these groups a priority.
- All of the above.
Most likely, for me, it’s (d), all of the above.
I’m curious: what’s your answer? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear what you’re doing on your farm to build in social time. Maybe we’ll even have to get together to talk about what you’re up to, over a meal.
This blog is part of a series hosted by Indiana Farmers Union. We post blogs written by Hoosier farmers at all stages—from just beginning to long-established. If you’re an Indiana Farmers Union member and are interested in writing for us, please contact Sherri Dugger at email@example.com.