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.


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…

You Don’t Have to Check the Mail

My mom and I were having a spirited discussion the other day on the topic of busyness. She is almost 18 months into her retirement and has yet to come to grips with what to do with her time. As a nurse for more than 45 years, she is used to doing two things – solving problems and caring for others. Caring for herself has never been her strong suit; so, while she may have more time now, things like relaxing, learning new skills or hobbies, exploring the world around her (even if it’s in the backyard), or eating (yes, eating) are not on her priority list. What is on that list, you might be wondering (as I was). Problem solving and caring for others, that’s what. If she’s not actively doing either, she feels as if her days are for naught.

At noon on Saturday, my mom made the remark that she “should have been done cleaning her bathroom by now” and that if she wasn’t going to be able to get things done, there was “no point in living”. I know I should have been more sympathetic but, in that moment, her words just upset me, so I asked why she thought she always had to be doing something.

“That’s the way I was raised,” she answered. “It was bred into me. Your work is your worth.”

“That’s crap,” I spewed. “This business of thinking you always have to be busy, that’s your choice.”

Since retiring, my mom is not the same person she once was. She will tell you that she used to work circles around everyone else, spending 8 hours a day at the hospital, taking care of two children, and keeping the house clean all by herself. I know she did all those things, but I also remember a mom that spent hours just sitting on the porch watching the birds, one who read library books and took us on trips to the places in those stories, a mom who biked 15 miles one afternoon just to see if she still had it in her, one who built tents out of tables with her grandchildren, a mom who never met a stranger and most importantly, one who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons:

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

I reminded her of this last part on Saturday. She smiled, as if she could see in her mind’s eye any one of the many times she drilled this into me as a child.

“Yes, I always taught you to be independent and that the only two things you ever have to do in life are pay taxes and die.” After a few seconds she laughed and added, “And now, I don’t even have to pay taxes anymore.”

Somewhere in our conversation, I think it finally dawned on her that I look up to her. Not because of her work ethic or her ability multi-task. These things are as irrelevant to me now was they were when I was a child. I look up to her because she has always lived life on her own terms. She and my grandmother were the strongest, most free-spirited women I ever had the privilege of knowing and those attributes, more than any other, are the ones that I try to model in my own life.

Hearing my mom say that she felt useless when she wasn’t busy felt like someone had turned the world on its head. It took both of us a minute to really understand that what she was trying to say had very little to do with busyness and a whole lot to do with contribution. My mom wasn’t upset because she hadn’t finished cleaning the bathroom. She was upset because cleaning the bathroom was the only thing she had to do, and she just couldn’t make herself want to do it.

When you are engaged in activities that bring you joy, even the mundane is tolerable. When my mom was working, cleaning the bathroom was just part of the routine. It fit somewhere between grocery shopping and ironing her uniform to get ready for her next shift. It wasn’t the be all to end all. If it got done, great. If not, maybe next week. Life was about the adventure of nursing and being a mother and grandmother, not about scrubbing the toilet. With many of these things now missing from her life, the whole focus shifts and yes, I can see how she would feel distraught.

Though my mom will never read this, here’s what I would like for her to know.

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do – not even clean the bathroom. You don’t have to keep appointments you never wanted to make in the first place. You don’t have to watch the news (I don’t). You don’t have to answer the phone (I don’t do that very often either). You don’t even have to check the mail every day. The world will not fall apart when these things don’t get done. Trust me, I know. And, no, you don’t have to take anyone’s advice, not even mine. But if you do…remember this:

  • Naps are good for you. It’s okay to take one every day.
  • It’s also okay to do nothing. Being still and present is actually really good for you.
  • There’s nothing wrong with what you already have. You don’t need to buy new things just because someone tells you that you should.
  • It’s okay to grieve the loss of a job, especially one that you loved. It will help you heal.
  • You are still a valuable member of society and you don’t have to do anything to prove that. But if you want to do something, there are hundreds of great ways to feel productive that don’t involve driving yourself crazy on chores that just repeat when you’re done. Try that hobby you always wanted to learn. Become a volunteer. Create something. The options are endless.

As someone who looks forward to the day when I don’t need to lease a portion of my time to money-making endeavors, I don’t always see the downside of retirement. Watching my mom struggle to find her identity again after leaving her job, has brought many things to light for me. I love my mom more than she probably knows and I want her to find her happiness again. To do that, I know I need to be more patient and understanding. She is not a minimalist. She doesn’t have the same ideas and interests that I do, so expecting her to be content just to sit on the patio and knit a hat is unrealistic. I have to meet her on her own terms, and if that means we clean the bathroom together until she finds her mojo again, then so be it. I’ll bring the mop.