“You should spend more time looking for a husband than learning to farm—plenty of farmers need wives.” A stranger said that to me this weekend.
Farming. That’s my midlife crisis—a career pivot if you will. Makes sense to me—I like food. Alright, there’s more to it than that. Honestly? It’s therapeutic—something I discovered when I lived in NYC and worked for the United Nations, and then the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Remember that? I packed up and drove my truck from SoCal to NYC in the wake of a massive TBI before I really understood the magnitude of deficits I was dealing with? Heh. Yeah. About that…
Not a brilliant career choice, in hindsight, but it turned out to be a great life choice because it changed my path. Escaping to a cousin’s farm in Jersey as often as possible was surely the thing that saved my life when I reached a breaking point but didn’t yet have a NYC escape plan. I loved every moment of that farm. Better than any therapy session, more effective than any stand alone prescription. Outside. Hard work. Dirt. Plants. Animals. It was life changing— life saving, really. PTSD wasn’t there. Suicide wasn’t there. Heartbreak wasn’t there. Anger wasn’t there. Just the lambs and the kid and the flowers…
The desire for enough space to grow “just a few plants” was the battle hymn I followed southbound over the George Washington Bridge for the last time in the summer of 2016.
Now I’m enrolled in a yearlong sustainable farming program aimed at setting veterans up for success in the agriculture industry. I looked at several programs—there are many, some more intense than others, some full time, some allow you to live in and on a farm—and chose one that allows me to go to school and continue to fight the good fight with the VA for topics unrelated to farming.
[insert eye roll here] There’s some momentum there, and it’s exciting, but I’ll say it again—access to care shouldn’t be this much of a struggle. Not here to discuss the VA, though. Here to brag about being better than I once was, all the while understanding I have plenty of room for improvement.
I’m taking workshops, volunteering on farms, learning, listening, generally living while I wrap up some college classes and make it to VA appointments.
That’s life right now. Farm stuff, homework, VA appointments and Team Rubicon. I’m busy and happy.
Sunday at a mycelium seminar—let that sink in—I attended a seminar about growing mushrooms. Holy shiitake! Anyway. Sunday, I trekked to a homestead in Maryland to learn how to inoculate logs, branches and stumps with mushroom spawn. People there from all walks of life, each with a farm or a farm plan or a robust backyard garden—came for the same reason: to learn a new skill and leave with a shiitake inoculated oak branch.
I engaged a few of the participants—I’m trying to be deliberate about asking questions and learn from people who’ve been in the industry longer than I have. Talking to strangers has never been hard, but in recent years I find my threshold for inane small talk is nonexistent.
Talking about farming, though? Or something I’m excited about? That’s easy.
Someone asked what my farm was, or what my plan looked like. I explained: small space for growing seasonal organic vegetables, hope to establish a rapport w/ a local chef and grow specifics for them alongside what I want for my table and a booth at a farmer’s market. Small goats, bottle raised that’ll roam about and climb on my friends who visit, chickens, bees. Flowers. Somewhere within 150 miles of a major city— Baltimore, D.C or NYC? that draws guests and allows access to farmers markets to sell veggies, honey, eggs and cut flowers. A place with some sort of internet connectivity available and a table where i can sit and write. And, lastly, but perhaps the most deliberate part of my vision? I’d like to be a Bed and Breakfast or at least an Air B&B—so people can come out and enjoy the therapeutic aspects of the land as much as I did in Jersey—as much as I do now. I think people will pay to spend time doing chores, interacting with animals and eating fresh food. It’s called agrotourism. Now I know.
And so. We drilled holes, hammered in moist, spawn soaked dowels—careful not to smash the bark—and sealed the sites with paraffin wax. As the afternoon progressed the host asked if any of us wanted to do extras for them to keep onsite. I’m game. It’s outside and it was interesting.
I worked next to a dude I hadn’t spoken to, or engaged, hammering dowels into branches someone else had drilled. No conversation, just hammering, rotating, hammering, sealing.
“Are you married, then?”
What? No, sir. Nope. Not married, no kids. Free to move about the cabin, as it were.
“I heard you talking to that couple and I’ll tell you something—you should spend more time looking for a husband than learning to farm because a woman from the city doesn’t have what it takes to farm and you won’t be successful.
There are plenty of farmers looking for wives. Focus on that.”
I didn’t argue with him—or throat punch him. Instead I smiled as I picked up the log he was struggling to move, set it on the hay bale in front of me and started hammering spawn infused dowels into the holes. I ignored him and continued to enjoy my afternoon. The executive director of the program I’m enrolled in— is a woman. The senior farmer (I made that title up) at the program— the one whose fields and techniques and harvests we’re exposed to every month—is a woman. I have no doubt I can accomplish this goal. Survive —thrive even—as a woman. There’s been a woman farmer at almost every farm we’ve visited and there are a whole group of strong capable, determined women in the class with me.
I was caught off guard by his abrupt delivery, but I wasn’t surprised by his declaration. He’s not the first person to say, “Farming? What the hell are you thinking?” A couple of people I know asked if this is one of those “poor decision making situations after a head injury type things.”
My Gram—in all of her wisdom and with zero insight into my actual personal life—calls it a lesbian phase I’m going through because, as she says, “lesbians wear flannel, Jenn, and why would you ever, EVER, willingly spend the day with your hands in the dirt? You’ll never get a man that way.”
My secret is out—this whole farm dalliance is just an attempt to catch a man. [eye roll] Bigger eye roll? She thinks calling me a lesbian is an insult—and lobbed the, “your mother spent a lot of time gardening too—I can’t see it as a career or a job.” Somewhere in the course of that conversation she called me a liberal and I called her a bigot. Then we played Scrabble and didn’t discuss it again.
Here’s the thing, though, something she may never really understand:
Learning as I grow myself—makes me happy. Growing things, understanding what works and what doesn’t, keeping a journal of questions and answers—makes me happy. Setting goals and being tired and dirty as I work towards them and heal myself—makes me happy. Volunteering on a different farm every month and as many days in between as I can, spending long weekends learning about botany and propagation—makes me happy. Planning for a place of my own, a place to put down roots—literally and finally—makes me cry if I think too hard about it.
2018 is the year I address all the things on my list. It’s my new dawn and the list includes resolving VA issues, learning to farm and finishing a few college classes I’ve been putting off for a decade.
I didn’t pick something easy—I picked something rewarding. I’ll make mistakes along the way—and I’ll learn from them. I didn’t pick a new six figure job in an office in Washington, D.C. or on a secluded Army base offered because of my resume and my DD214—I picked a lifestyle change. I picked going back to college, fighting the VA as hard for me as I’ve fought for others—I picked me. That’s scares me, most days, and it was a hard choice to make.
Anyone who thinks my gender or my marital status or my experiences are a barricade to achieving my goals doesn’t know me—or doesn’t understand me—and they can go jump right in the sea.
I can. I will. I am.
Not sure if I’ll publish this, but I wrote it so can look back in a few years and marvel at the frustration, the questions, my excitement and my resolve.