November is nearly over. I have spent much of this month catching up on the farm and on my day job. I have also found time to relax a little, spend time with family, and reflect in gratitude for the many gifts in my life. The snow this weekend, and subsequent cold weather will likely end our outdoor growing season for a few months. Admittedly, we would like to have completed a few more tasks, but it appears that we got most of our outdoor work completed. Other than a few weather-related delays, we are ready to shut down the fields for a few months.
This year was unusual in a string of unusual years, and it presented many challenges. A lingering winter, late spring, and early summer, made for an interesting growing season. Spring crops had about four weeks of spring weather before the heat of summer arrived. Continuous rain, sometimes raining daily for weeks, plagued us throughout the summer as it seemed that every storm tracked over our farm. A wetter and cooler than normal fall ended our fall crops early as well. Local conventional farms harvested their crops later than usual this year, and the higher moisture content in their harvests will reduce the value of their crop. As sobering as all of that is, there are still many things for which I am grateful.
When we find ourselves living authentically, even hardships affirm our path. I am many things, a father, spouse, grandfather, and friend. I am also a teacher and farmer. I cannot deny these composite attributes of myself any more than I can deny the color of my eyes or hair. If there were some disease that only afflicted people with my color of eyes, I could not simply deny myself by proclaiming that I have a different eye color and avoid that disease. The best that I could do is live as authentically me as possible, and meet any challenges in my life as opportunities.
I was born a farmer, even though I was never raised on a farm. When I was in the fourth grade, I took a field trip to the Mitchell Gardens in Milwaukee. I remember buying a cactus when I was there. I cared for that plant, but eventually I killed it with too much water. Shortly after, I started saving my money and buying houseplants. Before long, I had a small garden of houseplants in my bedroom. I knew little about these plants, but something was calling me. There are forces of nature that are irresistible, gravity, electromagnetism, and our true selves. I was captured by all three.
When I was 14, I joined the FFA and had an agribusiness class in school. For a class project, I grew our family’s garden. For years, my father grew a small garden, and we always had fresh vegetables in the summer. For the school project, I tilled up a new, much larger plot and proceeded to grow our family’s produce. While I don’t remember the grade that I got on my project, I do remember the joy I felt working in that garden every day in the summer. I would go out and hoe, weed, and water it daily. I remember imagining myself working my own farm and growing my own food while I was working in my garden. I loved the weeding because it forced me into a state of mindfulness, though I wouldn’t have known what to call it then. To this day, weeding is one of my favorite tasks on the farm, and I still enjoy being alone in the garden while doing a repetitive task. I enjoy the solitude, and sometimes I even construct the main theme of one of these weekly Updates while weeding alone in the fields on a summer afternoon.
Then and now, I was responding to a natural attraction, a force of nature, or the path of least resistance to becoming myself. A river flows best in its channel. The channel may meander and double back on itself. At times, its path may seem indiscernible and random, especially if its path is surveyed over a short distance. Yet, all rivers flow towards their destination. It is as inevitable as it is beautiful. The water in the creek near our house will end up in the Gulf of Mexico. It is its true nature and destiny. Obstacles and dams may temporarily halt its progress, but the path of least resistance will always be the river’s own channel.
As I grow older, I realize that success cannot be defined in external terms. Farming as a profession is a difficult job. There are unfair economic forces that impact every farmer and the explanation of these is beyond the scope of this essay. Most farms do not meet the external Western definition of a successful enterprise. Even as we all need farms and farmers daily, few farms are economically viable. Over half of all farms lose money annually, and most farms require an external income in the family to sustain themselves. Yet, there are farmers. If farms don’t achieve success as our culture defines it, why then do most farmers farm. The answer is that their success is in knowing who they are and faithfully following their path to the sea, for what would we do if they didn’t?
It may seem self-serving of me to note this, but let me explain. I am both privileged and grateful that I can be my authentic self. I feel fortunate for finding my path in this universe. I also know that my path is for me and it is not necessarily special. Everyone has their own purpose and calling and all are equally important. Sometimes what we do to survive is not the same thing as what we need do to thrive. We thrive when we are living our lives in our own river channel. We are successful when we know what our path is and live it. It’s not just farmers that we cannot live without.
I have always been a farmer. It doesn’t even matter whether I am good at it as defined by external standards. It is only my responsibility to continuously improve. That is all I can ask of myself. Even if a season is unusually difficult, I can no more stop being a farmer than I can change my eye color, and if I did, the results would be the same. I would still be a brown-eyed farmer. In the end, there are certainly no guarantees in life. The best I can do is try to know myself and have faith that I am on the path that have always been on and that I am who I have been all along. I am a father, spouse, grandfather, and friend who is also a teacher, and farmer.