One year ago I was working three jobs. I pulled espresso at a coffee shop and shelved armloads of romance novels at a bookstore. At my favorite job, I’d whip up elaborate breakfasts for sleepy-eyed travelers at a local B&B. They had four rooms, a big breakfast table, and a fridge full of fresh ingredients for me to play with. In my spare time I did little more than cook (often joined by my partner Ian) and read (a habit he was less enthusiastic about, when certain books became time-consuming obsessions).
Often the two hobbies collided. I read about what to cook. Then read about the things I was cooking with: ingredients, the difference between this tomato and that. I began to discriminate. With new knowledge, we cooked mindfully and spent each dollar carefully, supporting local farmers and buying in season.
We ate well and life was good.
But there was this farming thing.
I read plenty of stories about people who did it – city folk going back to the land, chefs planting restaurant gardens, twenty-somethings raising chickens in their backyard.
They connected the dots between the food system, public health and the future. They felt the disconnect between the planet and the food on our plates. They were as comfortable with a shovel in hand as a kitchen whisk. We wanted to join their ranks.
It’s been more than a year since we planned to leave home. I’m unemployed, with little savings and no assets. Still, we’re eating well, and life is good.
We came out east looking to gain experience on farms, opportunities in food, and knowledge of the eastern US. Newly married and disenchanted with our prospects at home, we signed up as wwoofers and packed up our new used truck. Our only connection was a farm couple in Pennsylvania who agreed to host us for a few weeks.
We broke in our wedding rings on clods of dirt, weeding eggplant and bell peppers in their fields and hoop house. In Maryland we met a couple who worked every waking hour to supply fresh food to forty local families. And in Vermont, a glass-blower with a host of animals and little time to look after them.
We moved quickly from place to place at the start, wanting to get a fair sampling of the region before finding a place to hunker down for the winter. Not many farms are looking for help during that season. The fact made me anxious especially considering we had no intentions of going south, where warmer temperatures extend the growing season.
But the farm in Vermont was willing to take us, and had a potential paid job opportunity besides. Up until then our savings had been trickling away (mostly on gas, as food and lodging were provided in exchange for our work.)
I say “farm” to describe all these places we’ve been, but have come to know that the term depicts a wide range of situations, from hobby to life’s work to large commercial operations. This third farm fell somewhere closer to the hobby side. Our host aimed to feed his family and offer any surplus harvest to the local community in the summertime.
We arrived a week too late to see the farmers market, and produce was in short supply. In the first few weeks we harvested the last of the potatoes and carrots, planted garlic and put the garden to bed for winter, spreading on layers of compost and wood chips.
Then I took a job at the little country store down the road. Ian was left to tend to the animals, of which there were more than a few – chickens, pigs, sheep, emus, and (not for eating) miniature donkeys and horses. He spent the winter trying to keep their spaces warm and clean; refilling frozen water dishes, patching holes where predators might sneak in, throwing fresh bedding in their coops and stalls.
Our host was an artist by profession and spent most of his time at a studio down the road, so Ian worked alone most days. I had an easy winter in comparison, baking brownies and cinnamon rolls, trying out my recipes on the locals. He spent a lot of time chipping away ice from the bottom of a frozen barn door and grappling with a ram who had a bad habit of busting things up. No farm operates without hangups, but here we were thrown off by their frequency, the harsh season (no doubt correlated), and a lack of helping hands.
Always there were things we couldn’t foresee, although I had approached each new place with starry-eyed idealism. I longed to see the cafe live up to its mission statement; Ian to see the farm as a self-sustaining entity.
In time we found it wasn’t really up to us, although the community was welcoming and we might have found a place there. But we weren’t ready to put down roots yet. When given the chance to return to Maryland for a season on our friends’ farm, we decided to take it.
These last few weeks have found us settling in to a new routine. Though it’s not entirely unfamiliar either- we’re speaking the language a little more fluently, understanding the needs of the land and the animals.
We haven’t yet come full circle from where we began last fall, but this summer will complete the cycle of seasons. And after that, I can’t really say.
The next step for us is little more than a forming idea of something our own; a little house, a large garden, a living made by the labor of our own hands. The idea is malleable but taking shape, more in reach with each passing day.
In the meantime we’re eating well, surrounded by friends, working the land in a beautiful place – that’s half the dream already, I can’t ask for much more.
Life is good.