To cultivate a field

This time of year, we farmers are in quiet attention. Watching the weather and our soil, waiting for the best time to start our work. Too wet, our machinery gets mired in mud and damages our soil. Wait too long and you will spend much of the season chasing after the weeds.

The word we use for preparing our fields for growing crops is cultivation. It is only April 1st but I have been cultivating fields outside the farm all winter long. Field and cultivate are two words of multiple meanings. A field is an open area; it is also a course of study. To cultivate is prepare an area for growing crops, but it is also to improve by labour, care, and study.

What I love about farming and gardening is the potential duality of it: the work is physical and intellectual. I spend the winter making plans, researching, studying--looking for ways to improve farming techniques and systems and then I spend the growing season putting them to action, observing how my decisions play out in real life conditions.

This winter, I spent a lot of time thinking how I do things, trying to figure out how I can improve and make the gardens healthier and more productive. But a farm business is not just a field. It’s a business. There are financial and marketing plans to consider. It is also a collection of people working towards common goals and an art. So although I rejigged my farm systems, read a lot about insect ecology, and tweaked my website and accounting, the most important part of my winter was spent reading books about how to work and how to live. It could not have come at a better time.

I wrote about this in a New Year’s journal post, about a speaker I saw in December, who blew me away with her deep search to improve both her farm and her and her family’s quality of life. She shared a photo of the books on her nightstand. I took some of these and some books on my own reading list and set up my field of study: how to cultivate better work and life skills and habits to improve my well-being and hopefully, the well-being of the people who work with me and the farm itself.

Books for being a better farmer

Books for being a better farmer

And now I have a plan to set into motion along with my crop plan, my systems, my marketing that can be summarized to these points:

Work less, but deeper.

Work and rest need one another.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

And finally, the guiding question: Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

Work less, but deeper

A few weeks ago, I spent time reviewing the hours I spent farming for the last two years. At peak season, I was clocking in 60-70 hours of work. It was a reality check, seeing those numbers on my spreadsheet. It was unsustainable and I vowed to work better, not longer.

Therefore, I made plans on how to support myself and my team better in those busy times. I have created set hours for us. I made solid, well-thought out plans to provide structure, so when I’m tired and flying about, the road is laid out for me clearly. I also forced myself to admit the ways I can sometimes fritter away time, which ultimately leads to me losing my free time to rest. I tried to cultivate new habits.

Work and rest need one another.

I have strived to make time to rest and recuperate, but never understood really, until reading further, how rest actually contributes to your work. Rest is not meant to be a passive thing. Active, but different, work happens in our brains and bodies while at rest. However, when you work to exhaustion, that activity nosedives. My sleep, hobbies, wanders, and daydreams make me not only happier and healthier; they make me a better farmer.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

When I first started farming, I had this hoe. I had read about it in a book and purchased it for the spring. And I could just not figure out the best way to utilize it. “But the book said it was the best,” I said to myself, trying a number of times to make it work. Meanwhile, I kept borrowing my friend’s tool, which worked great. The next year, the weird hoe sat unused and I purchased the the same one my friend used. The following year, I gave away the weird one. It wasn’t the right tool for me and trying to use it was a waste of time and energy.

There are many equivalents off-farm to this: softwares, record keeping systems, social media tools. Especially the later I examined closely and had to admit: Facebook wasn’t working for me. So I’ve deleted my business page. A continuous theme also across my reading: use social media with care. This wasn’t a warning from Luddites. It was a matter of neurology. Of addiction that is specifically written into these programs. Deleting all of my social media profiles was not an option: the are still good tools for storytelling, sharing news and events, and for being part of distant communities. However, a saw can cut wood and it can also cut you, if your not careful. Use mindfully.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

I have a weekly calendar above my desk where much of my waking days are now scheduled. I used to cringe at this sort of thing. I made it through the worst of school by keeping a tight schedule, but wasn’t part of being an entrepreneur about fighting for the freedom of my own schedule and commitments? Parkinson’s law is also on my board above my desk: work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Working from a structured schedule, from past experiments, I knew worked, but hadn’t been rigorous with it. I also had over-scheduled myself and hadn’t supported myself with healthy ways to rest and de-stress. This year I hope with finite hours and tasks balanced with active rest, I actually had the chance to succeed.

Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

After narrowing in on what are my key values, I needed a simple decision making tool to run choices through. Does this enrich or does this impoverish was a sentence written in one of the books and it clicked. There are so many exterior forces that impinge on decisions. Being someone that generally likes to make others happy and satisfied, I have trouble saying no if it means disappointing. While I think there are times in people’s lives to say yes to many things, that is not the time for me. I did that in my 20s and had a diverse array of experiences that I value very much. But now, I realize is a time of focus, slowing down, thinking deeper, speaking less and observing more (yes, the irony of this long journal post does not elude me).

So I will report back. Tell you how we do with these plans. Stay tuned to the journey.

Flowers: a social crop

I just finished truly a game-changing book for me:

The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I decided to order it when one of my farm mentors mentioned it was life changing for him--and he's farmed for 40 some odd years! I got it over the holidays and thought I would sit down and consume it in a matter of days. But somehow, like good food, I soon learned it was a book to be savored. About a month later I've finished it. I couldn't finish it in one gulp because every chapter, every page even filled me with so many thoughts and ideas, I had to slow down and contemplate it.

I won't do it the injustice of trying to summarize it. Instead I wanted to write about one of its more important points: about the culture of agriculture. Barber isn't the first to write about this. But something about his phrase "a social crop" is still ringing in my heads. He used it to describe wheat, but I was left thinking, are flowers a social crop?

I have a confession to make. I love my flowers, deeply so. But I have often felt uncomfortable growing and promoting something non-edible. I do grow veggies too, formerly with Fresh City Farms and for my own family, but I decided to focus in on flowers, to try something different and try to fill what I felt was a gaping hole.

I know that I state this often, but  70-80% of the flowers we purchase have been grown overseas. I think Ontario might be slightly better--we have a larger growing community in Niagara--but  it's strange to think about its lost presence on the landscape. This has a range of impacts. Less flowers grown mean less farmers growing them. This undermines the stability of rural communities. It gives less variety and fresh options to local buyers and designers. Its sort of odd, thinking how amazingly supportive the province is of local food, but at 99% of weddings--big traditional community events that literally create new families and connections--won't have local flowers. With so many people and organizations devoted to the local food movement and to good farming, somehow flowers are being left  out.

I also contemplate, while staring after acre upon acre of soy and corn in Ontario, how flowers are missing from our greater ecological community. I know many of the flowers I grow aren't native, but I do see how flowers can benefit pollinators. This is only anecdotal, but when I walked through my small plots in high summer, I can hear the hum. Flowers, in general, are also great for attracting beneficial insects. I have seen several types of spiders for instance--some as big as quarters. I like to think how my flowers could be benefiting the other farmers at Fresh City. This also reverberates through the food chain, the birds eating the insects, and so forth.

Going back to the community aspect, when people purchase my flowers at a market or use them in their wedding, I like to think of where they end up, how they might brighten people's days, and lend to the beauty of space or event. People bring flowers to dinner parties, flowers are given at birth--and at death, and they are sold at market that bring neighbors and friends together. Flowers brought my friend Aviva Coopersmith of Herb N' Meadow and I together to partner in our flower growing dreams this summer. It has introduced me to photographers, designers, and artists. I hope this year it will bring me together to share my knowledge of growing in workshops for people to grow in their own backyards. Flowers have brought me into the intimate lives of strangers helping them envision a extremely special and some would say sacred ritual: marriage.

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Flowers have also opened the door for me to a community of people who love flowers best: flower farmers. Mainly through social media I've connected to flower farmers all around the world who share their triumphs, knowledge, struggles, and advice, freely and openly. It's a tremendous community. At Fresh City, I have found this community in miniature. We work, eat, laugh, and sometimes cry together as we test the waters of organic growing more seriously. We gently tend to each others fragile dreams of doing the seemingly impossible: becoming awesome organic farmers.

I know that flowers don't feed the body, but I do believe they feed the spirit. Their beauty has the power to relieve depression, decrease stress, recall memories, and ease pain.

Now, I believe that flowers can feed community too. Dan Barber's book has helped me see that.

I know in the future flowers will not be my only crop--I'm far too addicted to amazing tasting food to miss out on growing vegetables and grains. I also yearn to have a relationship with animals again--even if I just have a small herd of ducks some day. I do feel confident now saying that I believe flowers are not just for the elite or only to be considered a luxury or frivolous. I feel for certain they are an essential piece of a larger agricultural landscape and a brighter future.