We survived our first hurricane and nor’easter this month (back-to-back), which felt like as much of an accomplishment as our first harvest back in June.
We were lucky in so many ways. Our MemberShare season ended two days before the storm hit and before we could begin to celebrate, we were racing to batten down the farm and prepare for winter. A generator came to us in the nick of time so that we could run our chest freezer full of meat. My whole family worked together to protect the farm from whatever was coming our way. There is peace of mind that comes with knowing you have done everything you can within reason, and that there are a community of people waiting to help you pick up the pieces if things go wrong.
Thankfully, they didn’t. We had a reparable tear in our new high tunnel, a few branches down, and a weeklong power outage that we were plenty prepared for. The storms brought more than 90+ mph wind gusts, flooding, sleet, snow, and rain: they brought a newfound confidence. This entire season has felt mostly impossible – from purchasing my own farm in May to starting a CSA. But now that things are said and done, the small mishaps and mistakes seem dwarfed by the larger accomplishment of making it through and feeling well positioned for a successful upcoming season.
There were points during the growing season (especially when it was impossibly hot or impossibly dry), where it seemed like winter would never arrive. Now that the farm has dwindled to a small flock of laying hens, 4 pigs, and a high tunnel full of fall veggies, more of my time is spent cleaning up the property and working on the house. I spent my first snow day just as I had imagined – eating apple pie in front of the woodstove. I’ve unpacked most of my boxes and even hung art on the walls. All summer long it felt like I was staying at this house and caring for the farm, but now that most of the renovations are complete and I’m settling in, it’s finally starting to feel like a home.
I’m SO excited to plan for next season. The seed and poultry catalogs have begun to arrive and checking the mailbox feels like Christmas morning (well, except when I open it and only find bills). I love mapping out the vegetables, creating an elaborate calendar, and developing charts and systems to make my record keeping easier. I’m saving these coveted tasks until the weather gets colder and I’ve cleared the bittersweet off the perimeter of the property (another project that seems sort of impossible), but that time is soon. It feels like all of a sudden winter is here and I can take a small moment to breathe a sigh of relief before a plow into next season.
People are constantly asking me why I decided to become a farmer, and every time they do I have to stop and think. I think part of the reason they ask is because farming is such an unusual occupation for a young college grad, a fact that I often forget because I find such solidarity in the small, close-knit group of young farmers I have become friends with. But the reality is that I don’t hear people asking my brother, an accountant, the “why” question quite so often.
I think the other reason people are so quick to inquire is because they feel a connection to agriculture, despite this general feeling that people are disconnected from their food. Nearly everyone I’ve engaged in conversation about my farm has a follow-up story to share about their grandparent’s farm or a garden they helped tend as a child. One of the things that surprised me most about purchasing this much-in-need parcel of land is the instant connection people have to this place. It reaffirms my instinct that this small farm is full of potential and has the ability to make a difference.
My answer to this question is always a little different and never very concise. It’s one thing to develop a short elevator speech to explain to people WHAT you grow, and quite another to explain WHY you do it. Most of the time I link it back to my love of good food or a serendipitous sequence of events involving agriculture while I was studying at college. In any regard, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly satisfied with my response.
October rushed in without warning here on the farm. It seems like I woke up one morning, needing wool socks and a fleece jacket, and realized that the sun STILL wasn’t up high enough to lend light to morning chores. The leaves are starting to change and the skies have been that dreary grey that lets you know winter’s coming. There’s more meat in the freezer than in the pasture and more vegetables in cold storage than in the garden. Even leisurely morning chores take only half an hour, leaving the rest of my day to work on preparing the farm for winter.
That picturesque description makes it sound like I spend my days sipping hot apple cider and reflecting on summer. And while there is PLENTY of cider involved, the pace of the day is just as fast as it was five months ago when I moved into the farm. Exhaustion is setting in and most nights I’m grateful that the sun is setting early enough to prepare a hearty dinner and fall asleep on the couch.
Last week I started working part-time off-farm. Not because I really wanted to or because I felt like I was able to, but because I needed the peace-of-mind of a steady income to ease the pressure off some of the household bills. The farm did well this season and while I met many of my goals, I was not able to meet the goal of paying myself (one that was pretty unrealistic from the beginning given the restraints of starting the farm so late in the season). I’ve been living off of my savings, as I had planned, but that leaves little wiggle room for when things go wrong. So when a wonderful family-run orchard in town was looking for part-time help I jumped right in and tried really hard not to cry as I left the farm for an entire day.
Working off-farm has the added perk of allowing me to meet new people. (I’ll take a moment for honesty here and admit that I’m sort of talking myself into this, as being away from the farm has been much more difficult than I anticipated). Because I grew up in this area, I’ve been running into people that I knew years ago, before I left for college and swore I’d never return. So it feels like lately there has been a flood of people asking me what I am up to these days and why I wanted to become a farmer. Some days (like when it’s been raining for 2 weeks and your favorite chicken just got eaten by a coyote), this question is more difficult to answer than others.
Which is why I was grateful to run into a family friend I hadn’t seen in years who, when I told her I was now running a farm here in town, responded with, “Wow. That is an incredible vocation. How brave of you to follow your calling.”
And I think that her response, that farming is my VOCATION, best describes the sentiment of why I do what I do. I can’t explain with any real reason why I would want to wake up each day and work myself into exhaustion, taking on countless risk and unpredictability, with little hope for big reward. I could work a “regular” job and farm “on the side” and still satisfy my desire to eat good food and feel a connection to the land. But my desire is for something more, something I still can’t quite articulate. Having this simple word, vocation, brings relief from the doubt and self-questioning that tend to seep in on days when nothing seems to be going as planned.
I farm because it’s my vocation.
I spent $200 this month to bail out my four pigs. They got out of their electric fence and wandered 1.5 miles until they were almost in the neighboring town. It took two towns of animal control, the fire department, and public works to coral them into a trailer, all while I was blissfully unaware and happily selling produce at the farmers’ market. I arrived home after dark in a monsoon of rain to find them missing and wasn’t able to get them back (after rebuilding the fence, renting a Uhaul, and doling out several checks) until the following afternoon. And I’ve never been so embarrassed.
I had hoped this would be a story I’d laugh about later – like earlier in the summer when the pigs escaped for a swim in the neighbor’s pool while I was at church. But this story spread like wildfire around our small town and I still find myself turning pink when someone approaches me to ask about it.
Part of it is loss of pride over my perfectly well behaved pigs, which come when they’re called and are exceptionally good listeners. The other part is that this incident shed light on how unprepared I am for the “unexpected” aspects of farming. My ability to think quickly and creatively always gets me by and out of trouble, but I’m used to being READY. Too often I’m spending my time putting out fires (like having to repair the lawn mower every time I use it), instead of preventing the fires from starting in the first place (and just having the lawn mower serviced so that it’s in good working order, for example). I’ve been getting better, but sometimes the day-to-day tasks overwhelm my ability to work towards future goals.
My preparedness for starting a farm also comes as a reminder when I organize my monthly finances. I’ve been doing well keeping my anticipated costs under budget (things like grain and electricity). But then there is a growing list of items I never budgeted for but are essential to making things run smoothly. I spent months developing the budget with the help of Farm Service Agency, other farmers, my own records, and lots of internet research, but there are still so many things that slipped through the cracks: both small items (like sawdust for brooding the chicks) and larger ones (like coolers and a larger chest freezer…and escaped pigs). Everyone warned me that things would cost more than I anticipated (even without knowing any dollar amounts), but two house renovations and a new farm later, all of those unanticipated extras are starting to add up.
I could spend all day worrying about money, but I don’t concern myself with it. I have rain to worry about and predators and poor carrot germination. Money comes and goes so quickly on the farm and I feel surprisingly joyful that I’ve finally spent my hard-earned savings on the one thing I’ve been working towards. I live modestly and work endlessly, but I also feel healthier than I ever have, spend more time with my family than I could have wished, and eat like a queen most nights.
The other good news is that we’ve expanded our MemberShare program for the fall (from 15 members to 25) and have a waiting list. People are excited about our food and we’re excited to have built such an incredible little community around our farm. Fall is here and our workload is beginning to lighten as animals and vegetables are harvested and not replaced with new ones. We’re on the right track, even if we’re lagging behind.
Next week I will celebrate my one-year anniversary of “retiring” from my farm manager’s job to pursue my dream of having a farm of my own. It’s hard to be disappointed that not all of my lofty first-year farm goals were met knowing that overall I have accomplished more than I ever really thought was possible. I’ll get through this winter by doing whatever I need to, just like I always have. And I know that no matter how prepared I am, something unexpected will always challenge me and force me to improve. It’s all part of the adventure.
There was an endless amount of advice given to me when I was in the process of purchasing my first farm: buy the best soils and the biggest parcel you can afford, don’t get too attached before the final contract is signed, make sure the town zoning regulations are ag-friendly, etc, etc, etc.
And at the time, I took it all to heart. I was looking for the PERFECT parcel of land where I could grow an abundance of beautiful crops and animals, support my family, and raise my non-existent grandchildren. An old orchard to picnic in, a big porch overlooking the property. Swoon.
Fast forward to the realities of the real estate market and my #1 land search priority (proximity to my family) seemed to be the biggest obstacle. Land values in southeastern CT are high and there is a limited amount of agricultural land. Add that to the fact that I was looking for land with a house I could live in, under my budget of $300,000 (the maximum loan amount through the FSA Beginning Farmer and Ranchers Program), and my search narrowed. Especially after the contract on what I THOUGHT was my dream farm fell through and I had 2 weeks to find a comparable property or loose out on the loan money that had already been obligated towards my farm purchase.
So I ended up with 6.25 acres (plenty to get started, but small enough that I’m forced to think wisely about my land use), a house that needed a decent amount of work done, in the town that I grew up in. But it had everything I was looking for and I quickly developed a grand vision for this special place. I visited town hall to read through the zoning regulations before I put in a contract and spoke with the head of the agricultural commission in town. The message was clear: the zoning regulations were pretty much non-existent, but they were eager to support my business venture and encourage more farming in town. I was sold.
So when NRCS came out the property to survey for highly erodible lands a few weeks after I moved in (a step in the FSA loan process that was postponed due to staffing and the hurried nature of the closing), I was quickly approved for their cost-share program for installing seasonal high tunnels. I filed the paperwork promptly and the money was obligated in record time. Even though I hadn’t planned to install a high tunnel until my second or third season, it seemed like the opportunity was available now. I had plenty of meat scheduled to harvest for the fall and the addition of fall vegetables would extend my market season for a few weeks and hopefully make up for the late start I had in the spring.
I didn’t expect any pushback from town hall when I applied for my zoning and building permits (which everyone assured me that I didn’t need because it was a temporary structure, but it turns out I actually did need). Zoning in Ledyard requires a farm be larger than 3 acres, which my property was. However, the previous owners had the property approved for subdivision, which drew an imaginary line down the property and meant I actually owned a (roughly) 3.75 acre plot and a 2.5 acre plot. I was ineligible to farm half the property. I was also ineligible to install the high tunnel (which is considered an accessory structure) on the smaller parcel because there is no house. That parcel also happens to have the flattest, sunniest, richest soils and I was determined to make it work.
As I’m finding with most things on the farm, I just can’t do them by myself. I introduced myself to handfuls of people at town hall and explained my predicament. Merging the properties (or reversing the subdividing) was cost prohibitive because it required a professional survey (which can run $7,000-$10,000). The Zoning Board of Appeals charges $400 per proposal and didn’t seem to keen on the idea. FINALLY the planning developer suggested I lease the land to myself for one penny a year. He arranged for me to present in front of the zoning commission.
While my argument was convincing, turns out I didn’t need to develop such an elaborate lease agreement (which needs to be filed with several departments in the town and also get costly). The town has no definition for a TRACT of land, and thus defaults to the federal definition (contiguous parcels). Through the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program the property was assigned a farm number, as well as a tract number. Success!
With my permits in hand I ordered the high tunnel through the best-recommended company in the area. NRCS is a cost-share program, so I paid for the tunnel upfront (nearly $8,000 from my savings) and will be reimbursed after it has been inspected for 90% of the national average cost (which is currently $6,700 for a 30×72 tunnel). I was unable to afford the $2,500 installation fee, so I hired the crew to measure the structure and pound all of the posts in ($200), and then I called in the support of family, neighbors, and friends to help with the construction.
Except that the high tunnel didn’t come with directions. And they don’t seem to exist in detail on the internet. They explained the process when they delivered it, but there are a lot of details that are unclear. There were several missing pieces and I’m still not quite sure that everything’s going together correctly. It’s been a stressful week, combined with sky-high humidity, house renovations, and peak season on the farm. Stress brings exhaustion and a lack of patience, at a time when I need energy and patience in abundance.
However, I know this too will work out. Despite the pests and predation and endless problems, this farm has brought me a whole new level of faith. In two months the weather will be cool and we’ll be feasting on fresh pork served with greens from our high tunnel. Celebrating this whirlwind of a first season farming the only way I know how – surrounded by good food and good people. I just keep working towards that vision one (sweaty) day at a time.
The celebration of the summer solstice at Full Heart Farm kicked-off the countdown to winter on the farm. Nothing like a heat wave to trigger thoughts of snow, wool socks, and hot cocoa. And nothing like a string of 16-18 hour work days to prompt a quick fast-forward of my calendar to a day when I can schedule “Sleep In.”
But that’s not to say I’m rushing things along (well, I may be rushing along the vegetables, which still seem to be growing at a snails pace). I’m enjoying settling into my new routine and the mood on the farm is energetic and surprisingly positive, despite a challenging week of rough luck.
My series of unfortunate events this month included: the neighbor’s dog attacking my core flock of layers, a heat wave that hit fast and furious causing 15 ready-to-harvest meat birds to perish, adopting a flock of egg-eating laying hens with mites, visits from both a fisher cat and a fox, forgetting to add cider vinegar to the chick’s water and developing coccidia, getting 5 inches of rain on the day of our first CSA pick-up and then getting the truck stuck in the mud. It was a draining week, but a practice in perseverance and gratitude.
This month’s main lesson on the farm was in acceptance. I do not like to make mistakes and I hate when things go wrong, but I was forced to admit this month that bad things are bound to happen some time or another. And then, usually it’s a string of them all at once. Even when the misfortune is partially my fault, so much of what happens on this farm is out of my control. I can sit and worry, or I can accept that hail happens and work to be more prepared.
So, this month I was finally inspired to put together a kit of emergency supplies for the livestock: blue cote, sutures, electrolytes, etc. I modified my rotational grazing plan to better accommodate stretches of hot weather, and made note that Cornish Cross are not the variety of bird for me (even though they do produce a beautiful broiler). I bought a radio for the barn and I’m working to make it more predator-proof. I made a lot of popsicles to have on hand in the freezer for the next heat wave. Small, simple changes that push me to continuously improve.
There were moments this past month when I felt totally discouraged, but they were usually followed by moments when I felt unendingly grateful for the support of my family and neighbors. Misfortune always forces me to pause and reflect on all of the really great things in my life, and thankfully there were so many great firsts this month, as well!
I started vending at the Ledyard farmers’ market here in town. Even though I don’t have much to sell, it’s a great opportunity to meet other townspeople and chat with local farmers. It’s a great break in the middle of the week and I’m so happy that I joined, even though I initially hadn’t planned on it.
We also had our first CSA/MemberShare pick-up at the farm this month. It was really nice to finally meet the brave souls who signed up to support a farm that hardly existed, show them around the farm, and hand them their first Full Heart Farm meal: Herb Roasted Chicken over Radishes and Greens. That was also what I made for our first family dinner of the season, and the verdict was that it was really delicious. From the farm to the table, I’ve never felt so proud. And that’s what makes this lifestyle so addicting: hard work, community, and delicious, delicious reward.
This past week I celebrated my one month “farmiversary” in grand fashion – an ice cream sundae enjoyed in bed. With all of the hustle and bustle the last few weeks, a simple evening seemed like the perfect way to commemorate everything that’s been going on.
The laundry list from the past 30 days includes renovating nearly everything in the house, cleaning and repairing the barn and outbuildings, setting up portable housing for our pastured pork and chicken, and putting in a large vegetable garden. My days are full of such a diverse array of tasks, sometimes even I am in awe. All I can say is that right now, my favorite farm tool is my color coordinated google calendar.
I spent months and months planning for this season, for this farm, and still can’t believe it’s here. I have to continuously pause to remind myself this is my new life, to soak it all in. At first I was operating at full speed, filling as many hours of the day as I possibly could manage. But farm ownership means I’m in this for the long haul. While I’m focused on making the most of this growing season, my heart is really set on my long term vision for this piece of earth: a productive landscape that is bountiful and beautiful.
And already I’m seeing progress. The four feeder pigs are the workhorses of the farm right now – tilling and fertilizing the pastures to bring life back into the land. If you look quickly, it seems like they’re making a mess of the place. But in the sections that have had time for recovery, I’ve cleaned up all of the rocks and debris and the new growth is coming in thick.
My neighbor harrowed, plowed, and shaped a small field (just over 1/4 acre) for vegetable production. Because everything is done by hand, it’s planted pretty intensively using a mish-mash of seeds and transplants from fellow farmers. I’d love to say that I’m right on track with my 7 page excel sheet planting schedule (oh, the joys of winter planning), but it turns out things are much more “organic” than that. Tomatoes from my next door neighbor, onions from a friend across the river, herbs from a friend on the opposite side of the state all pieced together as they arrive. It’s a solid reminder of the community that’s come together to help me start this farm. Nothing like a crooked row of heirloom zucchini transplants to make you feel loved.
The meat chickens are growing like crazy. I’ve been brooding batches of 50 birds in the old horse barn and moved the first batch out to the pasture this week. I built a predator-proof (I hope!) movable tractor through a grant from Raising Organic Family Farms and plan to build a second, modified design this week for the next batch. I feel like a choreographer each morning, carefully planning where everyone will move. Turns out all of the dance classes I took when I was younger really did help with my farming career.
I also faced my fear of cats this month and adopted a kitten (named Leonard) to help with rodent control. Turns out it’s pretty easy to fall in love with something so fuzzy and warm.
I wish I could say with confidence that I’m looking forward to a stellar growing season – the farm is looking great and I’m proud of all that I’ve accomplished. But there is still so much work to be done. While most growers I’ve spoken with are 10-14 days ahead of schedule because of the mild winter weather, I’m about two weeks behind. Each day I’m reminded of how precarious each of the tiny lives, that in turn make up my life, are: I spot a red fox through the morning fog outside the brooder barn, or a hawk swooping over the laying hens, major insect damage on my lettuce heads or heavy rains that erode a portion of newly seeded pasture. But that constant challenge is what keeps me physically and mentally engaged.
The challenge also forces me to ask from help. I’ve never farmed by myself before and I’m learning that it takes a lot more planning when there isn’t a crew of interns or fellow farmers at the ready to lend a hand. Turns out asking for help feels really good once I get over the initial anxiety. The community of family, friends, and neighbors that have come together to help make all of this happen is INCREDIBLE.
Looking back over the past month of farm ownership, I have felt so lucky. Yes, there have been setbacks. Lots of them. The hardest part has been accepting that not everything will work out this season, but that that’s okay. I’m endlessly grateful for everything this farm has provided so far and looking forward to all that’s to come this season.
Hi there! I’m Allyson, the owner and farmer of Full Heart Farm. Full Heart Farm is a small family farm in southeastern CT that encourages a return to the family table through meal-based farming. Our diversified farm grows a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, eggs, and meat, marketed through Full Plate MemberShare Program.
The MemberShare Program is a form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Members purchase a share of the farm’s products at the beginning of the season and each week receive a small box farm-grown food designed to make 1-2 meals.
Full Heart Farm is still in it’s infancy. I purchased the 6.25 acre property on April 30, 2012 through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loan Program. Owning my own farm has been by goal for several years. I studied Agriculture Education at UMass Amherst while working and apprenticing at a variety of different farms. After college I went on to work as a farm manager, giving me the experience I needed to be eligible for the loan program, as well as the knowledge I will need to run my own farm.
With only one week of farm ownership under my belt, this is shaping up to be a busy growing season! I currently have 4 piglets, 60 laying hens, 50 meat chickens, and a 1/4 acre garden plowed and prepared for the season, with plans to grow as we move further into the season. I serendipitously found this tiny plot of prime agricultural land near my family, but it hasn’t been farmed in decades. There are a large number of improvements needed to be made on the house and outbuildings, as well as the land. I have a long list of goals for the upcoming season, but I’m most looking forward to settling down, learning more about this beautiful piece of land, and getting involved in the local community. Actually, I’m most looking forward to homegrown bacon and fresh eggs for breakfast, but I’ll have to wait a few more months for that dream to come true!
Follow along this season on my biggest adventure yet!