Life Lessons from a Farmer in VA

We were watching a Q&A session with Joel Salatin a few days ago on Youtube. If you aren’t familiar with Joel Salatin – he’s a farmer in Virginia. I mean, aside from being a vocal advocate for sustainable farming, the author of a dozen books, and the man featured in most of Michael Pollan’s work – he’s just a farmer in Virginia.

He operates a farm. He raises his own food. He teaches others to do the same. He is a farmer in Virginia.

And he is successful.

Now, try as I might, I have never read one of Joel’s books, though I do admire his style of farming. What I admire more though, is something that he said in his interview. He was talking about slippage – how things fall through the cracks on the farm when you can’t attend to them every day. Vegetables rot on the vine, calves are born and die without human intervention, and fields are left fallow. It’s very hard to be successful if you’re a casual farmer.

As I heard that, I thought – heck, it’s hard to be successful if you are a casual gardener! Weeds won’t wait. It doesn’t always rain when you want it to. Things go crazy all at once.

Hmmm…

Just like life.

Now, you don’t have to be a farmer (or a gardener) to know just how true it is that things fall through the cracks if you can’t attend to them every day. I’m sure if you check those cracks right now, something fell through them this very day. Take my day – I started out with the good intention of working on a grant for one of my freelance clients and then taking a walk, but neither of those things happened. Phone calls, minor emergencies, a trip to the store, and spending way too much time figuring out lunch – now, that’s what didn’t fall though the cracks today.

It occurred to me as I was watching my day get away, that I may I need to organize my time better. But I know, that’s not true. Even the most organized person can’t do it all. It also occurred to me that I may need to put my own needs and interests aside to take care of more pressing concerns, but that’s not true either. In fact, the one sure thing I’ve learned from doing that in the past is that the “pressing concerns” only continue to press even more when you start putting them first. It even occurred to me to think that setting proper boundaries might help me get more done with my day. And maybe it would. But that’s not really the problem either.

Focus. That’s the real issue here. Since I left my job, I haven’t really had any. I’ve been trying to make sure we stay ahead of the curve financially, trying to spend more of my free time with family, trying to cram in all the things I always wanted to do but couldn’t because work took up my weekdays, and all the while trying to maintain the same balance we had before. As Joel Salatin might say, “Folks, this ain’t normal!”

If I were to really get down and think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off these past few weeks and all because I haven’t quite settled into my new life yet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I might be a little afraid to settle in – like somewhere in the back of my mind, I still think this is just a temporary thing. Ah, fear…she’s not exactly the kind of creature one needs on a farm (or anywhere else really).

If I don’t work on anything income producing at all this week, we’re not going to go broke. I know that in my head, but the “fear of failure” is a very real thing. Which brings me back to the Q&A video with Joel.

In the early 1980s, Joel Salatin and his wife made what most people would have considered a crazy decision. They took their nest egg of $10,000 and quit work to farm full time. Their great big plan was to live so frugally that the money would last one full year. When asked if he was afraid of failing, Joel said something so profound, it will probably stick with me forever.

He said that back then he looked around him at the people who were hiring workers. All of them wanted one thing – someone who would show up, do an honest days work, and come back the next day. He thought – if that’s the bar they’re setting, I qualify for any job out there and folks would be happy to have me. With that mindset, he felt a sense of security. If he failed at farming, he would just get a job. Maybe not the best job out there, but with his work ethic, he knew he’d climb any ladder set in front of him, and climb it quickly.

If you don’t know the rest of the story, Joel and his wife made that $10,000 last two years, and by the third year, they were breaking even on the farm.

Joel Salatin is successful because stayed focused on what he wanted and not on fear.

I can’t tell you how many times over the past few years I got up in the morning and begrudgingly opened my computer to see what email greeted me, what task lay ahead, and what deadline was looming. And every day, I would tell myself that I was doing it all for a greater purpose. True or not, that’s how I made it through. I focused on what I wanted – a simple life, where I had the time to spend with family, the time to learn new things, the time to try new recipes, the time to work on things that gave me a sense of worth, and most importantly, the time to breathe. 

Nearly a month ago, I stepped off the career train onto the platform that was to be that simple life and in the days since, I’ll be honest – I’ve struggled a bit. It’s been like waking up on Christmas morning to a giant pile of new toys and not knowing which to play with first. And if you’ve ever been that kid (or the mom of that kid), you know how the scene unfolds – we try to play with everything all at once!

But we are human beings, all of us, and we cannot possible do everything that we think we want, need, or plan to do. At least not all at once, and sometimes not even in this lifetime. The best we can do is try, and cut ourselves some slack when we don’t meet our own expectations.

That’s my pep talk to myself this week. Slow down. Breathe. Trust the plan.

There’s great reward in patience.

Just ask a farmer.


Interested in watching the Q&A video? Here you go…

The Universe Gave Us Garbage (and We Like It!)

Call me silly, but I have this belief that if you want something and you’re meant to have it, all you have to do is “put it out to the Universe” and 99% of the time, you’ll find it. I have done this so many times that I know there’s some truth to it, and from what I’ve seen, other folks find it true too.

I’m a huge fan of Anne-Marie at Zero Waste Chef and always marvel at the things she finds on her walks around the neighborhood. Just the other day, she needed an iron for a class she was teaching and poof! an iron appeared on the sidewalk. A few years back, she found a cast iron dutch oven.

Over the past month, we’ve had a few things on our wish list – things that we didn’t want to buy new but definitely had a use for. The biggest thing on our wish list was canning jars. With all our canning this summer, we ran out of jars! And if you’ve ever priced them in the store, you can’t help but wonder – when did food preservation turn into a hobby?? And an expensive one at that!

For weeks, Angie diligently scoured Marketplace almost every day for a good deal on jars, while also rummaging through the recycling bins on Mondays. This landed us 33 awesome Ball canning jars – most of which had been used as candle holders in a wedding. We paid $10 for 30 and found the other 3. The bonus on these jars was that they still had the candles inside and jute twine wrapped around their tops. We rolled the twine into a ball to use in the garden next summer.

On Saturday, on a whim, we decided to stop at a yard sale on our way home from my mom’s house. It was getting late in the afternoon and we only had $2 in our pocket (and a handful of change in the cup holder of our car) but we thought, what the heck, it can’t hurt to look. Thank goodness we did, because we hit the jar lottery! The lady hosting the sale had 2 boxes of jelly jars, pints, and quarts for $1 a box. She also had a sweet little Fire King 8” pie plate (another item on my wish list) for a quarter.

I can clearly see a pumpkin pie in our future.

When we got home, we found that not only had we had bought 36 canning jars for $2, but some of them were vintage.

Now I realize, the Universe did not provide all these jars free of charge, at least not directly, but I did find the quarter that I used to purchase the pie plate in the parking lot at Aldi that very same day. What the Universe did provide though was the 16 pounds of red, ripe strawberries that we used to make jam in those jars.

We found these in the dumpster, of course, and out of the 16 cartons, only 7 strawberries were bad.

We had a similar score with sweet potatoes a few days before. All of us (my mom included) had been hungry for a sweet potato (being Fall and all) but the Farmer’s Market has been slim on them this year. I’m pretty sure there’s about 20 pounds of sweet potatoes in this photo. Courtesy of the Universe (via the dumpster).

For anyone new here, you may at this point, be appalled, either by the fact that so much good food gets tossed in the dumpster or that we go in after it. Rest assured, we stand firmly with you on the first one and encourage you to read this and this for more info on the second one.

Another item on our wish list was “something to put our indoor planters on”. One afternoon, as I was heading out, I saw a blue-topped console table just sitting by the dumpster in our apartment complex. It was just the right shape and size for our small apartment, so we cleaned it and tightened it up, and now this “garbage” has new life as a plant stand.

And those planters that you see – they are made from milk cartons – from the recycling bin.

This one too.

We found it and another just like it, sitting by recycling. The price tags were still on them and no dirt had ever touched them. (By the way, I had also asked the Universe for a terra cotta pot to try making a grill sometime prior to this find. The grill is still a work in progress.)

Of course, every gift we receive this way is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we are completely grateful to find something that saves us money or provides for a need that we (or others close to us) may have. But on the other hand, it doesn’t go unnoticed that these things were in the trash and if we hadn’t come along, that’s where they would still be. We can’t rescue everything. Even with our mini army of fellow dumpster divers, tons and tons of good stuff goes to landfill every single day.

Though I do encourage you to try asking the Universe for things you might need, the bigger thing that I want to encourage you to do today is to be a good steward of our environment and a helping hand to others. Buy only what you need. Donate your unwanted items to a non-profit thrift store or homeless shelter. Our shelter even takes food that is still in date and hasn’t been opened (and fresh produce from the garden). Check with friends, family, and neighbors before tossing something out, post it for free on Marketplace or FreeCycle, or in a pinch, sit in by the curb with a sign that says free (or course, if no one picks it up, please remove it in a timely fashion).

And if you want something – particularly things that are prone to being trashed, like furniture, household goods, plastic totes, containers, flower pots, and more – don’t be afraid to do a little curbside shopping first before hitting the retail stores.