Farming: What to Do If You Think You're Not Good at Anything

Greenhorns.jpg Sometimes people ask me why I farm. I tell them different things. To some I say that, biologically, we are meant to be farmers. "We've been farming for thousands of years. Why stop now?" I say.

To others (seeing an opportunity to shorten or end the conversation as quickly as possible), I say that I farm because I like good food. "Can't argue with that," they say, thankfully.

To a third group of people, usually those most interested in farming, I explain that when I was younger I made a list of jobs I could imagine myself enjoying. I tell them the list included "small-scale organic vegetable farmer" and that I somehow fell into it. I add some esoteric, overly idiosyncratic items to my fictional list of self-actualizing professions in order to make them laugh or to distract them. I say that besides farmer, on my list were rapper, astronaut, lonely graduate student, writer, playwright, lonely history professor, and lonely Civil War reenactor. I explain this maniacally, with eyes wide, until whoever asked the question starts talking about himself or loses interest.

To the fourth group -- those with whom I'm most honest -- I shrug and sadly mumble something about not knowing what else to do. "I could probably be a good janitor, maybe," I say, almost inaudibly, "but I don't know what else I'd be doing. I'm not really good at anything."

I grew up in somewhat urban New Jersey, about 20 miles outside of Manhattan, and didn't have a lot of interaction with nature. My dad kept a small vegetable garden in my aunt's backyard until I was nine or 10 and then he stopped. I remember helping him in the garden a few times and liking it.

Dispatches about Planet Earth See full coverage

I ate a lot of processed food. I liked Toaster Strudels and Pop-Tarts. I liked bread. I put ketchup on most things. Most of the time I felt really awful. I wondered why my stomach hurt so much. In high school I went to a digestive specialist, who gave me a cup of high-fructose corn syrup to drink. I got sick almost immediately. He told me I had an HFCS allergy and "probably irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease" or something. It seemed that most of the food I was encouraged to eat was poison to my body. I was frustrated by my stomach and, though I didn't realize it then, by the food system I was trapped in.

Being sick showed me that there's a lot wrong with the way things are set up and maybe, I thought, if we do things differently, there's a chance we could get it right. I discovered subculture. I learned that there are alternative ways to eat, which, it turns out, is how most people in history have eaten. Sometimes I wished I'd been born 100 years earlier.

After college, I left New Jersey to become a farmer. Through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), I discovered a farm about six hours northwest in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The farm, where I still live and work, is called East Hill Farm. It's a project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, an intentional community of craftspeople and farmers who have lived together in Middlesex, New York, since 1967.

So, I made the odd, difficult transition from a life rooted in urban culture in New Jersey to a rural, agricultural lifestyle in an established intentional community. It's a transition that I'm still trying to figure out. I've learned more practical skills than I ever thought I would: bread baking, logging, vegetable and fruit production, woodworking, operating a tractor, canning and food preservation, beekeeping, raising and slaughtering pigs, raising and slaughtering chickens. I've learned how to live by myself in a one-room, "off-the-grid" shed through the winter. I've experienced love and heartbreak and made great friends. I've been more confused than ever before. I've discovered that I have much to learn about human interaction and relationships.

I'm now on the verge of my third season of farming. It's the best job I've ever had, though also one of the most puzzling. Sometimes farming feels simple -- like the crops grow themselves, and it's almost a gift that this work exists for us. I've thinned beets while lying on my side in beautiful June weather and thought, "Farming can be lazy and relaxing, I guess." Other times, farming seems impossible. It feels like there is so much that has to go right -- too much -- for it ever to work. But despite my inexperience and lack of knowledge and small stature and self-deprecation, so far I've somehow made it work.

If you sometimes feel that you're not good at anything, consider becoming a farmer. (It's probably what you're supposed to be doing, anyway.) You'll discover that you're actually good at many things. You'll learn many skills that make you feel fulfilled and proud of yourself and then you'll realize that these are all the skills that are being forgotten.

Know, also, that farming is tough. Some days, maybe most days, you'll feel overwhelmed. When your crop of onions is failing and your tomatoes have blight and the weed pressure on your winter squash is mounting and you can't stand the people you work with (or, worse, the people you work with can't stand you) and your livelihood depends on this food, you'll feel overwhelmed and even afraid. But you'll also feel a fullness. Your life will feel different from how it would if you were a young person living in a city, working in an office, going to bars and restaurants. You'll know what quiet is and you'll be able to go outside at night and see darkness. Your body, at first weak from the winter or the suburbs, will reject your work. Then, after struggling, it will embrace it. You'll eat good food. Eventually, you'll ask: "How do I live well?" And we need you to answer that question. We desperately need you to.

Adapted from Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches From the New Farmers' Movement