Organic Life Film: Becoming a Farmer & Maintaining Your Sanity, Too!


Written by guest blogger, Austin Blair, who is featured in the film The Organic Life.

As an individual farmer, you will face challenges in each farming situation, yet some elements of human nature (and perhaps more aptly, farmer nature) are inescapable. In my limited experience apprenticing on a non-profit teaching farm (Soil Born), running a small farm (now run by another farmer as Lunita Farm Design), and working for another farmer (Paul’s Produce), I have learned that balancing full days on the farm and a personal life is a constant dance.

My outlook was further informed by a supportive, non-farming partner, who certainly has an outside perspective on the issue. She has forced me to confront the conundrum of how to maintain a relationship and still be an effective farmer. (Spoiler alert: we’re married, so it can work!)

This has been my experience farming, and these are the things that have worked for us.

Step 1: Be Realistic That You’re Going to Be Working Most of the Time

Farmers have a tendency to constantly want to add a new crop, a new project, a new system. You’re going to be insanely busy in the summer, so don’t plan to build that new shed in August. Ideas are cheap. Success has less to do with having enough ideas and more to do with reigning in and effectively executing the best ideas you have. You must refine some and discard those that don’t serve you.

Additionally, it may be hard for your non-farming friends and family to fully understand how busy you will be May-October. Give it time. It will become apparent. On the flip side, you will always have an excuse why you can’t make that cousin’s wedding, family reunion, etc.

Step 2: Take Advantage of the Time Off You Do Have

Farming in California, one could farm year round, and many farmers do. However, it’s important to take time off and bring a sense of seasonality into your life. It took a long time for me to recognize that winter is a time to decompress. It’s important to read books, to do non-farm things…to rest the mind as well as the body. Enjoy it because soon enough you’ll be itching to till in the cover and start it again for the season.

We have farmer friends who leave the country for a few weeks in January and we know others who hunker down at home. It’s important to find something that works for you.

Step 3: Learn to Let Go

Jamie Thrower 4

Austin Blair
Photo credit: Jamie Thrower

This includes knowing when to give up on a crop, knowing what a crop failure is, and knowing how to fix something enough so it works (but not so it works like brand new).

This is also knowing when it’s time to go home for dinner and how to take a short break and/or change tasks if you’re feeling frustrated.

There is always too much to do. There will always be too much to do. Stay organized and realistic about what must get done any given day. If you don’t do it today, you can try again tomorrow.

Step 4: Make a Commitment to People You Love

We know, at times, your farm can feel like a living, breathing thing…because it is. However, there are other living, breathing things that need your attention, too. Your task is to prioritize. What does the farm need? What do your loved ones need? What do you need? If it’s 7:30 pm on a Tuesday and you’ve been up since 5 am and are still working on that thing (…you know that thing), be realistic about where your time, and presence is going to be best appreciated.

Step 5: Listen to Your Body

We all know farming is extremely difficult on your body. We also know you feel most alive when you are working at full capacity in the summer. But you will only be able to maintain this if you have a routine that includes rehydration, rest, recuperation. Eat at regular intervals. Have backup coffee on hand. But remember water is necessary (and so is beer). Conserve your energy and take breaks.

Learn what your body likes to do that’s not farming. We know farmers who couldn’t live without yoga, tai chi, hot baths. Make rejuvenation a part of your routine.

Step 6: Ask For Help

Connect with other farmers. Join FarmsReach, and find your local Farmers Guild or start your own. Realize that your farmer friends have the same struggles you do, and use their ideas while sharing your own. Look into bulk buying, sharing markets, and sharing transportation. Think collaboratively, not competitively.

Step 7: Do Your Work

Farming is a craft. Give it everything you have. The mastery of a craft doesn’t come from innate talent or family stock (although those can be hugely beneficial). Mastery comes from repetition and it helps to take the long view of things.

Step 7: Allow People to Appreciate Your Work

Don’t just grow vegetables all season and not talk to anybody. It’s easy to get tunnel vision, but it’s critical to infuse your work with new energy. Passion requires upkeep. Whether it’s cooking for family, hosting a farm tour, or bringing your wares to a friend, make a commitment to put yourself in situations where you can be re-energized by your community and the people you love.

Most of all, take pride in your work. Notice how perfect the tomatoes are this year. Maybe they’ve been better before, and maybe next year will be stellar. But this year, they’re pretty damn good too.

Farming is not a perfect science. In fact, it’s only, at-most, partially science. The thing that makes farming a craft is that there’s no right way to do it, but that freedom requires the responsibility of finding what works for you. You’re never going to be the farmer you could be if you burn out after only a few years, so take the time to learn what works for you now and put it into practice.

Austin is the subject of Casey Beck’s film The Organic Life. The film is a year-long chronicle of life on a Sonoma farm. It’s a story filled with sweat and blisters, sun and rain as Austin and his fellow farmers strive to sustain one of the world’s most ancient livelihoods, the old-fashioned way. Check out The Organic Life trailer!

The movie also available for download and is on DVD

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