There will be no Chert Hollow Farm CSA in 2015; we are taking a much-needed break to pursue other projects and sources of income while assessing and discussing our future here. Our attention has been focused on the need for a change by the various stresses of the past year, including a significantly under-strength CSA membership, possible drift from a crop duster, the loss of our best dairy goat to deer-borne parasites, and more. In fact, after eight years of farming, we’ve already overshot the Biblical origins of sabbatical as a commandment to rest the fields every seventh year. Even God took a break before we did.
We feel a sense of burnout, after working hard to build a business that has never quite achieved our financial and entrepreneurial goals. The farm business has always been profitable on an annual basis (not counting long-term infrastructure investments), but never close to the level of income we left on the table to pursue this in lieu of more traditional careers in science and education. We’ve tried multiple approaches to adapting the farm business to our goals and principles, but have never quite succeeded in connecting with enough consumers to sell all the abundant, quality produce we’ve grown year after year. Farming itself has not been the core challenge; earning a decent independent living at it has. Health insurance plays a role, too, as the recent reforms have done little to assuage our concern over costs and the long-term economic viability of health care and personal finances in the event one of us is injured or sickened in any way.
In truth, we know of no young, sustainable farmers in this region who are making a comfortable living selling local food without some kind of supplemental off-farm source of income or funds in the background, and few have lasted as long as we have. Three years ago, in a post discussing our egg prices, we stated that “…if not enough people will pay minimum wage for good eggs, it’s chicken soup time and we’ll go back down to a home-sized flock. There are lots of easier and less risky ways to make minimum wage; neither of us will do this work, and take these risks, for less.” This is essentially the approach we’re now taking with the entire farm, at least for the coming year. We value our skills, knowledge, and labor at a higher level than we’re able to earn for them in the current food system here, and so we choose to focus our energies elsewhere.
We are not quitting farming, however, simply accepting that farming alone cannot provide the living we desire at this time, as self-employed folks in our 30s who are looking ahead to a career path that supports a decent retirement while we’re still healthy. We will be actively seeking to develop other sources of work and income that may offer a more balanced life. As an example, we both enjoy writing, and used to do more on our website and elsewhere. As the farm took over our lives, and particularly since the CSA started, that aspect of ourselves drifted away, and we’d like to recapture it. Expect this site to publish more policy and nature writing in the coming year, as a backdrop to some professional writing projects we’ll be undertaking. In addition, we’ll be offering two classes this spring through the Columbia Area Career Center, and will pursue additional opportunities for paid teaching, speaking, and more.
Meanwhile, we’ll be undertaking several longer-term farm projects we’ve discussed for years. Putting more time into developing permaculture areas such as perennial food plantings is an investment in farming for the long run, as is larger-scale landscape restoration/improvement of pastures and forests. Most of these goals cannot be achieved while simultaneously running full-time on the treadmill of annual vegetable production.
We’ll be cover-cropping and resting a large portion of the farm, but will be raising a few targeted cash crops that are especially reliable and practical in our experience. Strawberries will be producing again next spring, and we’ve planted more garlic for next year than ever before. We have not decided the best way to market these items yet, but will maintain a list of customers who wish to be contacted if and when various crops are available for sale; this will also be announced on the website & Twitter feed. As we intend to return this website to its previous incarnation as a wide-ranging outlet for our thoughts and analysis on everything from agriculture to ecology, it’ll be easy to keep up with us if desired.
Agriculture writer Gene Logsdon wrote recently that farming requires “someone with more brains than banking requires, as much stamina as professional sports demands, almost as many people skills as it takes to run a university and the dedication of a sainted doctor.” We have learned that, apparently, we are not all of those things, or at least not to the extent that results in commercial success in this area. So we will explore other ways of putting our diverse skill set to use in service of our personal goals, while retaining our deep love of sustainable land management and production of excellent food.
We thank all of you who gave our farm a chance, and hope we’ll be able to continue providing value to your lives in other ways. We don’t entirely know what decisions we might make during the coming year; it’s going to be an exciting and nerve-wracking time as we navigate this new set of goals and lifestyle changes. We thrive on new and interesting challenges, and this is one we’re both currently inspired by. We are fortunate to be able to attempt this change, and will do our best to make it worthwhile.