By Nate Brownlee, Nightfall Farm
If this was a more traditional marriage, our fifth anniversary would call for a gift of wood. I really like wood: I love trees. I enjoy cutting the firewood that we heat the house with, and I think wood is a beautiful medium for art, crafts, furniture, etc. But I don’t think that’s really in order, because in this instance I’m referring to Liz’s and my marriage to our farm.
We just finished our fifth season of running our own farm! We’ve now had our own farm longer than we worked on other people’s farms. We’ve built systems. We’ve built pasture. We’ve built a customer base. We have this familiar, broken-in feeling about the farm now. And, to go back to the wood motif, we’re still a sapling, but we can reflect on the durability of the relationship (farm) we’ve built.
Five years ago, we started with a plan. It happened to be a five-year plan. Budgets for all our planned enterprises, goals for integration into the statewide agricultural conversation, phases for taking over management of the family land—we had a plan for all of that.
We weren’t emulating the Soviet Five Year Plans; we weren’t copying the five-year farm bills; it just seemed like five years was the right amount of time to see us through the birth of our farm. We thought that, five years in, we’d surely have it figured out, that we’d know our farm was going to make it.
Sometimes it seems like Bob Seger was talking about confidence when he wrote “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” I think of that quote now because it was the only prompt I remember for the scads of college entrance essays that I wrote while applying to schools. It was a good topic to think about while living through the rite of passage of graduating from high school. It felt like growing up to have to write about the worldly experience that I had gained.
Well, our farm is definitely outgrowing the innocence of its childhood. I’m not saying that the honeymoon is over (though that would be some tight thematic writing, wouldn’t it?), because that’s the wrong connotation—we still very much love what we do here. Instead, I guess I just mean that we’ve already made a lot of the foundational, romantic and philosophical decisions. We feel like we’re doing good here on the farm, but we’re not sure we’re doing well.
January is always our records and planning month, where we get to think excitedly about the coming season (which is just the ticket during a cold, dark month). It also means that we have to look back on the past year, and year five was a tough one for us. We had a few animal sicknesses that eventually worked out fine, but added work and stress to the season. We sell in three main communities, and we’ve had almost unmitigated setbacks in one of the towns we thought would be our biggest growth avenue. Several times, the hatchery called to let us know that not enough eggs hatched to meet our chick orders, which meant finding new sources of chicks mid-season, adjusting butcher dates, and not having enough chickens to meet orders from our chefs. None of these problems alone was that bad; but together, it just felt like we couldn’t catch a break.
Mostly, we’re reckoning with the question of “what is enough?” Is our farm making enough money? Is this very full lifestyle enough for us (or does it leave enough of us for the rest of our lives)? Are we doing enough to improve our world? And, honestly, we’re not solidly in the “yes” camp. Sometimes, the life of trying to make a living from farming does feel a bit like running against the wind.
Before we left New England to come home and start the farm, we got to tour three farms in their first year of operation—all started by friends whom I had farmed with. We saw all that they had accomplished in that year and soaked up all of the advice they had learned the hard way.
I got to talk with one of those farmers this week, and we had an empathetic back and forth about the shift in our farming decisions compared to year one. We agreed that now our motivations seem more driven by economic realities than our previous foundational choices such as farm model, enterprises or practices. Getting into farming feels good, because you’re choosing to do what you love; making the farm business work, and keeping it going, doesn’t seem as easy or sexy.
And maybe that seems scary because it’s less certain. We were certain about why we wanted to start a farm, certain that we enjoyed the life of producing food for ourselves and our communities. We control our philosophies, and we control our beliefs. We don’t control our farmers markets, weather or our input costs.
And so we’re building our plan for the next five years. We can draw on our own actual data to inform our projections. This is incredibly helpful. We’ve learned a few things that we didn’t know as we were building our first plan at the start—for better and for worse!
When we step back from the financials, from the business plan, and from the season plan—when we just reflect on the last five years—it’s good that we know some things now that we didn’t know then. I can see that durability of our relationship with the farm is intact. We’re adding the flexibility and strength that a tree gains over time—and probably a few branches.
Stepping back and taking this wide view, I feel like quoting a different song. We like a bluegrass band called The Tillers, and they sing the line “there’s something from within that keeps me facing towards the wind.” And, sure, we may be struggling with the questions of enough, but the song isn’t over, and we have more five-year plans to start and finish.