an odd photo-series of cats and beets and thoughts on the farmer/worker relationship

These photos are from the summer, obviously. Dad took them and I'm not quite sure where we were going with the theme but I found them yesterday and thought to share as they contain green and bare hands and necks and the kittens when they weren't yet fat. The following post has little-to-nothing to do with the above photos.

When I first started farming I used to relish in the idea that it wasn't my land, and it wasn't my farm. Working for somebody else allowed me to escape the finality of responsibility. It allowed me to cast grand aspersions on other farmer's mistakes. It allowed me to take off for a weekend or even once for a whole month without any destructive stress for the survival of the farm. It allowed for me to look at an aphid attack on the tomatoes with a philosophical interest and not understand the weighted threat of an entire crop's demise.

There is a very comfortable measure of separation from you as a human being and the farm when the farm is not yours. I hope the above doesn't make me sound like a horrific employee. I was responsible. I was honest. I was dedicated.

I have a theory about farmers and self employment. It goes that farming livestock and vegetables is an all consuming work and because of this the farmer becomes so passionate and involved in her day-to-day that she finds she can work for no one but herself.

In the height of the summer you are working sun up to down. You are working every damn day and there is no such idea of getting July 4th weekend off or Labor Day or even a Sunday. Some nights you are elbow deep in cold damp soil planting potatoes by headlamp. Some mornings you are racing to pack coolers of meat and feed the pigs, chickens, goats, sheep before market opens. Some afternoons you are painstakingly squishing japanese beetles between your fingers because you want to save the edamame. Some sweltering day you find yourself covered in mud behind a laboring sow trying to save her babies from the circling vultures. These situations test your patience, your strength, your endurance and inevitably you begin to want to change things so you aren't waiting until 9 o'clock at night to plant potatoes. You want to change things so sows are farrowing under the protection of a barn. You think market mornings needn't be so hectic. You can't believe its the second year in a row you've been told to plant edamame right here and Of Course! that's why the beetles have come!

When it isn't your farm it is So Simple to find the reason and the person for blame. It becomes second nature. You start sowing seeds of your own dissent and before you realize it you follow accusations of blame with the On my farm we will do it THIS way.... Oh how obnoxious, how insufferably presumptuous and ignorant.

And now I have my wish. The beginnings of a wish. I have my own farm business with Nick. Our own land is yet to come. And, as though reading a child's story with the moral so neatly written on the last page. I start to see how things become rushed, and hectic, and unplanned, and full. This summer, in our first season farming on our own, I had an almost continuous blush of humility on these cheeks. If I were a stronger man I would call upon my former farm bosses and mea culpa myself out of the guilt of knowing they were doing the best they could. And, my best is no better than theirs.

But farmers, including the two looking back at you from this post, are a prideful lot. So, I'll probably keep my lesson learned to myself.

It is helpful to have this overwhelming humility coupled with former worker dissatisfaction in mind as Nick and I work on our pasture and garden management plans for next year's growing season. We are hoping to have a few dear friends farm with us in the coming year.  My desires (or perhaps guidelines?) for helping to form these working relationships into healthy ones are what follows.

1. Have constant feedback between our workers and Nick and I. One idea is to have a nightly dinner check-in to hear the good and bad about work.
2. Give our workers the proper tools to do their job.
3. No heavy loading shitty (sometimes literal) jobs on to one person.
When we worked in North Carolina my cousin Elizabeth told me that she never likes to give a job she wouldn't do herself to a worker. The best example of this at that farm was that she brought every animal to slaughter. No exceptions. She never made us do it. 
4. Never confuse personal favors with farm jobs. No asking workers to do dishes that they haven't used or feed the usually useless pet pigs.
5. Respect that it isn't their farm and that their motivation for weeding the garden may not extend past sunset, or through a particularly hot afternoon.
6. Trust those working for us. Trust their ability and their decisions. Once workers are given a proper understanding of the task and the proper tools, we must trust not micro-manage. We have been granted that trust at every farm we have worked and I value it more than anything on this list. Trust breeds confidence and a happy, more invested worker.
7. Always remember to express gratitude for the work the worker has done. Compliment them on a job well done.

I'm sure its not a complete list and even with such a list I imagine we will run into feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration. However, I think that being aware of these issues will go a good way to having as open and honest and productive of a farm-space as we could hope for. If you have anything you think I should add to the list please do let me know. I'd love to make this as complete as we are able as we go forth in planning for the farm of 2013.


  1. love those sweet photos, and i have the utmost respect for the tireless jobs of farming you and your husband do day-in-day-out. its always so wonderful to read your writing and descriptions of your life as a farmer.

  2. Those are great guidelines for any management position! I wish my bosses (in retail) had the same understanding about their workers as you do. I think you'll be a real pleasure to work for :)

  3. my husband and I are starting out farming adventure this year and reading posts like this give great insight and advice! Thanks for taking us along your journey.

  4. I found your blog a couple months ago and read through all the posts in a matter of hours. I check back obsessively for new posts and this one, as many others have, has made me want to come work for you and learn from you and soak in your wonderful and honest presence. Thank you :)

  5. Kate, I'm so happy that yall are going to have help next season. Wonderful growth! :)
    Based on my own experience, the regular check-in to hear good & bad is necessary, productive, and empowering. I bet you'll learn so much more about the farm & yourselves through this process. love meg

  6. I absolutely relate to this - as interns, Jesse and I were ALWAYS heading down to the house at night after a long day saying "when we have our own farm, we will never do THAT." OHHH how things change when it is your farm, your time, your money on the line.

    And I am so happy about you gaining some community! I like your desires/guidelines so far -they work well even for just two partners working together. Hope winter is not too heavy on you these days.

  7. Chapeau for you two!
    I wish you a good start for 2013 - greetings from germany

  8. you guys really ought to look into becoming a wwoofer farm. there are so many perks to it, especially if you already have a yurt that people could stay in. I am wwoofing in hawaii and learning infinite amounts of knowledge! good luck, and it sounds like a swell list!

  9. I am a new reader to your blog. An aspiring farmer who is still working on others farms to learn from their mistakes and save up money for my own land someday. I think your list covers most of my concerns I have run into while farming for others. The proper tools being a big one. I was once asked to lime a HUGE field using just a pickle bucket and an old coffee can...Also the nightly dinner check-in is a great idea. I have usually found that the farmers aren't around when I have questions and that would be a prime time to ask them. If dinner doesn't work, you could alternate fixing lunch and do lunch instead. You might find that everyone wants some alone time during dinner.

    I would also add: Share business decisions with the workers. Especially is they would like to own their own farm someday. A farm is a business and if you let them know why you stopped planting turnips (they didn't sell) or why you are planting a few extra rows of tomatoes (saving up to buy a seeder) they will begin to understand more fully how each seedling is more than just a seedling and how every business has certain decisions to be made based on financial reasons.

    I look forward to following your farming journey!

  10. Love the pictures!
    Thank you for sharing this with us
    Good luck!!

  11. That last photo is the sweetest. Thank you for sharing your snippets of farm life with us. Your words are so real and genuinely interesting. I know you'll be great people to work for - kindhearted and understanding. Okay, my gushfest is over. I hope December has been treating you well.

  12. Would you share where ur shirt(s) are from?


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