Sometimes I wonder why we got into farming. Why do we work so many hours, in all sorts of weather, in one of the least glamorous jobs for uncertain pay?
My reasons for being a farmer may be very different on a day-to-day basis. When the sun is shining and my animals are frolicking in the spring pasture, it is easy to say I farm because I love nature and the sustenance it can provide. When customers thank me for a delicious home-cooked meal or when a chef elevates our farm’s products to “Instagram-worthy” dishes, I would say farming makes me intensely proud of my work. As I cut up (or “part out”) our chickens for sale, I feel connected to my German forefathers who were butchers as well as farmers. While I’m creating a new cheese or flavor of gelato, I feel fulfilled and grateful that I can be creative in my role as farmer.
And when the world seems to have turned upside down, I would say I farm because it at least makes some sense.
Before becoming a farmer, I worked in the investment industry. I went to analyst meetings to hear reports on what companies and their boards were doing and how exciting some of their developments were. I sat in boardrooms and gave presentations, wrote articles and edited commentary from some of the brightest economists of our time. But it didn’t feel real. I created nothing of actual, tangible value. And what I was doing didn’t feed my soul. Farming is as real as it gets. And it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose.
These are some scary times we are going through. Countless workers have been at least temporarily laid off and stress seems to be the new normal. Healthcare and other essential workers are literally putting their lives on the line for the rest of us.
This pandemic is testing us in a million different ways. As a farmer, I see this event particularly as a test of our food system’s resiliency. I worry that we’ve allowed our small- and medium-sized farms to become fragile to the point of breaking. When the vast majority of our foods are imported from outside the state and even outside our nation’s borders, I see that we’ve ignored the well-being of local agriculture and that of farmers in our own backyard. When the meat and dairy cases at area grocery stores sit empty and supply chains get disrupted, shoppers start seeking out local farmers to fill the need. Are our local farmers ready? Is it fair to expect them to be ready, after years of benign neglect?
This is not the first time our food system has been tested. As recent as 2015, an avian flu swept through major poultry producing states, prompting the destruction of more than 43 million birds in 15 states. Turkey farms and egg producers in the Midwest were the hardest hit, but price increases hit consumers everywhere. Determining the vectors for the disease’s transmission was vital to stopping or at least containing it. Meanwhile, small- to medium-sized operations escaped largely unscathed; perhaps because of their scale, those same vectors were absent in the smaller operations.
As it turns out, diversity in farm size may have saved the day. Saving small farms is more than just maintaining open spaces and uplifting livelihoods of local families; it is a safeguard against the collapse of our food system.
As a farmer accustomed to seeing her farm as a whole system, I also see how interconnected we all are, despite (or maybe due to) the call for social distancing. I see when restaurants face near closure, an entire ecosystem of staff, distributors, and farmers are put in jeopardy. But I also see neighbors helping one another and kindness between strangers. I see schools and places of worship doing their part to help families in need. Farmers like me are selling their goods from their front porches and bartering eggs for toilet paper.*
As we each feel the collective unease of not being able to go about our normal lives, just talking about it becomes therapeutic. A kind gesture or a simple escape like petting a barn cat or hugging a goat can feel transformative. No matter how much we are meant to self-isolate, none of us are truly alone. I hope you take a moment when you are most stressed to appreciate what is real in your life—and how much we all depend upon one another, including the farmers in and around our beautiful Mohawk Valley.
*I seriously did this: Two dozen eggs for an 18-pack of name brand toilet paper…a fair trade, if you ask me!