It seems to me that those of us who have reached a “certain age” should take time for reflection, to consider our good fortune and understand how 30 to 50 years of work has somehow been put behind us. How was it that we were able to negotiate the daily travails of weather, mechanical breakdowns, things that we thought were fixed but weren’t? What is so amazing about 20/20 hindsight is that pretty much, no matter what, while we often felt as if we were treading water, we were actually making a little headway every year.
Despite how it might have felt at times, on our farm we are making inevitable progress and change is evident every day, although our newer staff might not see or appreciate it. They see what needs to change going forward. Retrospect is irrelevant. They rightly live in the present, for the future. Thank goodness for that, because were we to wallow in how “good things were,” there would be no future. We would be stuck in our benighted past.
This is not simply a case of youthful discontent with the status quo ante. But does what passes for “improvement” really improve our lives and sense of well-being, or does it just keep us up with the Joneses and make us run faster only to keep up? How does one separate lifestyle or ambiance from the appearance of success? Is what might pass for improvement just something forced upon us by public misapprehension, mistrust and an eager-to-regulate (often rightfully) bureaucracy? Perhaps. But most likely all farms could do better when it comes to issues like food safety, offered health care, worker safety and the like. We must be careful in the big picture, however, not to kill the golden goose that is local agriculture and your best resource when it comes to wholesome fresh produce, meat and milk. Farmers maintain and preserve most of the open land that we all cherish and as all Edible Boston readers know, lettuce does not yet grow behind the produce counter at the supermarket.
So, from all of this, what have I learned about being a “farmer/farm manager?” When I was a kid, if a farmer got along with his cows and could ship the milk and eggs on time, he was likely to do OK. He was not going to get rich, and most did not wish to. Today’s successful farmer must, first and foremost, be entrepreneurial by nature and a bit of an extrovert even if working at one of the many not-for-profits. S/he will need to be able to cut through a maze of red tape, have a cooperative nature and an abundance of patience and curiosity. Having a community of fellow farmers is very helpful and finding the time to serve on local boards and committees that may be making decisions about local agriculture is apt to be essential.
S/he will need a “partner” of one sort or another. Both had best love what they do and both need to be articulate about what their farm does and why (no matter what their practice) because there will always be someone who wants to know what’s going on there. If this sounds like being the ambassador to a quasi-hostile nation, it might not be too great a stretch (in my experience). They must also be good stewards (meaning keeping up with “change”). Staying on top or ahead of food trends is important and might be critical. Being an innovator, all the while knowing that not every good idea is a good one, is always helpful.
The successful farmer will also need to steward his or her staff, customers, wholesale accounts and so much else. It is one thing to produce a crop; it is quite another thing to be able to sell it at a price that will make their loan manager happy and give them a little well-earned time off. Keeping all those balls in the air will be challenging.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.