Reflections on Stress, Farming, and “The Good Life”
Lately I’ve been wondering… are all farmers stressed out? I know that outsiders have a tendency to romanticize the farming life, the idyll of life in the countryside, assuming that people who live closer to the land are more peaceful and centered, their lives more simple and stress-free. And I still think there’s some measure of truth to that, but I’ve also seen how false an assumption it can be! The visitor to a farm sees beautiful rows of vegetables growing in the field, an abundance of herbs and garlic and braided onions hanging to dry in the barn, fresh wholesome meals, people who are vigorous and healthy from working outdoors everyday…. but there are other aspects that they do NOT see, like pest outbreaks and unexpected frosts/droughts that can decimate a crop, equipment that’s broken just when you most need it, planting calendars and the pressure to start things on time, the risk of guessing just *when* that is, frozen fingers and toes stinging with numbness, blazing hot sun and pouring sweat, aches and pains that must be ignored in order to get things done, and – perhaps worst of all – piles of important unfinished projects with never enough time to complete. For anyone who thinks leaving an office job and moving out into the country to start a farm means an escape from being on a schedule, watching the clock and calendar, constantly thinking ahead and planning for the future, endless to-do lists, or worrying about money… well, my observations of small farming would suggest you’re in for a disappointment.
Personally, I’ve been stripped of that romanticized agrarian vision to such an extent lately, that I’ve actually begun to wonder — are ALL farmers stressed out? Is that just an inevitable part of this livelihood?
I’m especially thinking about Susana, of course, and about something that happened a few nights ago. It was evening and we were standing out by the produce shed, washing and bunching green onions for the next day’s Farmers’ Market. It was getting late, and we had quite a bit left to finish… all the onions needed to be bunched and packed, the coolers moved inside the shed, and the tools put away, so we were moving as quickly as we could.
As we worked, a sky-full of thunder clouds rolled in from the north and passed over, bearing no rain but just a cool wind and occasional flash of distant lightning. Romeo had squeezed himself into a corner of the packing shed and was huddled there panting worriedly, as he always does at the slightest possibility of a storm, even though the clouds had mostly passed over us and were now clustered above the mountains just southeast of the farm. As the sun went down, those stormclouds began glowing with color, developing into the most exquisite and dramatic skyscape I honestly have EVER seen. Billowing thunderheads like giant illuminated cauliflowers… layers of deep blue and gray, creamy pastels laced with silvery shafts of light… to the north a gently rolling sea of cloud like a watercolor painting…
to the southeast, wispy brush strokes of faint orange against a backdrop of ruffled, inky teal… the entire sky a dynamic canvas, a fluid sculpture constantly morphing in steady, rolling slow-motion. I swear, it was beyond any sunset or skyscape I have ever seen in my life, a magnificence that left me speechless.
Meanwhile Susana was still hurriedly bunching the onions, emanating a whole aura of tension and stress, evident in her words and facial expression and the very way she moved. She did actually look up at the sky for a moment and agree that it was beautiful, but then returned to her work just as anxiety-ridden as before. I continued bunching onions too, but it was sooo difficult to go back in the shed and take my eyes from that exhilarating panorama.
I wanted to say, “Susana, look at this magical world unfolding above us, this fleeting, one-time gift… can’t we just go out for five minutes and be fully present to it, just take five minutes to breathe and stand in awe and appreciate the inexpressible beauty of what is happening out there?”
But I know Susana well enough, by now, that I kept bunching the onions and said nothing. To myself, I thought, ” it would only make us a FEW minutes later this evening, and perhaps we’d have to finish the onions by lantern light, or start a tiny bit earlier tomorrow morning… but wouldn’t that be worth it? Wouldn’t that be worth it, to truly experience this precious moment rather than letting it slip past, virtually unnoticed, in our haste?”
But I know Susana wouldn’t see things that way. In her mind, all that matters right now is the task, and the next task, and the whole list of tasks that must be completed by tonight, by tomorrow, by the end of the week… In her mind, a suggestion to go outside and watch the sunset – even for a couple minutes – would simply demonstrate that Dori is a fanciful dreamer who just doesn’t understand the reality of running a farm, the importance of deadlines and just staying on task and getting things done.
And reading this, you might agree with her. You might think, “Dori, there was a lot of work to finish, and it was getting dark! It’s easy for you to say, ‘oh how can we not watch this amazing sunset?’ because your own farm and livelihood are not at stake here. But you can’t take such a child’s view of the whole thing and expect to stop working just because the sky is pretty… Maybe someday when you have your own farm to run and worry about, then you’ll understand where Susana was coming from, and you’ll be more realistic.”
There are definitely voices in my head saying those things… but I’m not sure whether to accept their judgment or not. IS that the inescapable and tough reality of farming, and of life, which I just haven’t yet grown up enough to grasp? Is it true that I just have my head in the clouds (no pun intended!) and won’t be able to succeed in agriculture or any other work unless I take on a different approach to things? Am I still just another “city kid” with that romanticized view of agrarian life, thinking there’s time to stop and gaze at sunsets?
I guess all this is just part of the same bigger question with which I began my entry — are all farmers stressed out? Does the lifestyle imply it? Is it possible to be a laid-back farmer who works hard yet with a sense of tranquility, accepting the natural pace of things, stopping once in a while to just look around and appreciate the beauty of it all? Is it possible to be a farmer and to truly ENJOY this life, not just in rare moments of gratification like the season’s first ripe tomato or a successful market, but enjoyment as a general overall state of being, day to day?
Watching Susana go about her work these past few weeks, I’ve often wondered whether she’s enjoying the life she’s chosen. Sometimes it’s clear that she is, like when we’re all sitting at the table laughing at some farm joke, or when people ask her questions at Farmers’ Market and she tells stories about the history of the farm… but a lot of the time, she just seems to pressured and worn out to enjoy anything.
Susana is working herself to exhaustion – up at dawn and working until lunch, returning to work straight after lunch, stopping for dinner, then sometimes going back to the field and working by flashlight until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. (She’s not usually up that late… but still, a few nights in the past couple weeks.) The next morning she hasn’t had enough rest and is irritable and muddle-headed from fatigue, yet she keeps pushing herself. Part of the reason she’s been getting so frustrated and overwhelmed by things is simply over-tiredness! Granted, I know it’s partially just this difficult spring, because too much rainfall damaged a lot of the crops and set things way behind, so there’s a backlog of extra work to get done if she wants to have any harvest at all this year… but people have also told me this is just how Susana is, to some degree, every year.
Driven, stressed, continuously working with no rest.
And I wonder… how much of this is an intrinsic aspect of farming, and how much is just Susana’s personality? After all, she did tell me it was the same thing twenty years ago when she was living in Boston and working as a landscape architect for a large firm… she was always the last one to leave the office, often taking the late-night subway home after midnight, being a “total workaholic” to quote her own words. So perhaps this is simply the approach Susana would take to just about anything… or perhaps she’s a good farmer *because* she has this work ethic which is required for the job? I guess both may be true to some degree, but that still doesn’t answer the original question of whether all farmers are stressed out… and more importantly, is it possible to be a farmer WITHOUT being stressed out?
My mind keeps going back to a recent panel presentation I attended in northern California, where one of the panelists was a woman named Wendy Johnson, who helped begin and run the organic farm at Green Gulch Monastery and is the author of a book called “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.” The thing that really struck me about Wendy was this quality of peaceful centeredness about her… this quiet, still, focused presence she had.
Wendy has been a farmer for thirty-five years, and as far as I can tell, she is not stressed out at all.
At Green Gulch Farm, farmers and interns divide their time between meditation and farming, often working in silence and incorporating the physical labor as part of their meditation practice. I’ve never personally visited Green Gulch, but I know from Wendy’s book (and from what others have told me) that it’s a healthy, functioning farm that provides much of the food supply for the monastery. Granted, it’s quite different economically from most other organic farms: rather than relying solely on produce sales for income, I think Green Gulch is funded by the monastery (where people pay to visit and participate in meditation courses), and the farmers probably receive a regular stipend for their work. A far less stressful situation than the typical small farm struggling to survive in the market, cover its costs, and make a profit! But still, I keep thinking about Wendy…
because even if she were running an ordinary for-profit farm, I can’t imagine her ever losing that quiet serenity, that sense of groundedness. This is just my own presumption, of course, but I don’t think she would.
And what about other Buddhist farmers, thousands or even millions of them, for whom meditation and acceptance are part of the core philosophy of life? What about Amish farmers, who believe it’s all in God’s hands and that He will take care of us if we just work hard and have faith? What if it’s that element of spirituality that has actually made it possible for farmers throughout history to find enjoyment in their work and to live without constant anxiety… and what if perhaps that’s the element missing in much of modern life, including farm life?
Maybe it’s unfair to single out agriculture and consider it separately from other livelihoods, in this case. Sure, farming is inherently difficult, with a host of its own unique challenges – unpredictable rainfall, weather extremes, pests and diseases, fluctuating prices, timing constraints, risky decision-making early in the season, and inability to change course later – but other types of work do have their own stress factors too! Just as Susana has overworked herself in both an office and on a farm, perhaps there are people who could work in either of those settings *without* overworking or stressing to this degree. Perhaps there are people who could successfully run this farm by doing the same amount of work as Susana, but just with a more laid-back attitude, performing the same actions but without so much anxiety while doing them… and perhaps there are also people who could run this farm with a bit less work than Susana, cutting out a few things here and there, based on an awareness/acceptance of personal limits and a sense of faith that things will somehow work out and be okay, even if that extra bed didn’t get dug or that last field of squash harvested in time for market, because the farmer’s own health and sanity and adequate sleep are a priority too.
What if stress and overworking aren’t actually an inevitable part of any work, but rather something we ourselves bring to the work? Or, perhaps even more likely… what if stress is something the work offers to us (and some types of work, like farming, offer a lot!), which we can either succumb to, or learn to resist and overcome?
Thinking about it this way, it occurs to me that “The Good Life” must be created both externally and internally, in order to be truly realized… that the idyllic farm scene of abundant fields and vigorous people and wholesome meals may sometimes actually be the blissful haven that naive urban visitors imagine, but not inherently so, in and of itself. The farm is merely a backdrop, a potential setting… a pot in which happiness and fulfillment may be cooked, but not the entire recipe.
As I am coming to see things, half the ingredients come from within us.
At least, this is what I want to believe… that it’s not just our physical environment or line of work, alone, that determine whether we will live in stress, or in calm. That it IS possible to farm without being stressed on a regular basis, that it’s possible for me to succeed at this life while still enjoying the work, getting enough sleep, staying conscious of the beauty around me, accepting my own pace and the reality of tasks undone, and never losing the ability to pause and lay it all aside for the priceless, magical moments of a sunset. Is that really possible, I wonder? Of course there’s no way to say for sure, until I’m actually doing it… perhaps I’ll look back at these pages someday, and laugh at what an idealistic dreamer I once was… But oh well, that’s the chance I’m taking. This is what I want to believe for now – that a good and relatively low-stress life isn’t necessarily to be found in the countryside, in working the land… but that it’s not impossible to find there, either.
I recently heard someone say, “happiness isn’t something you get from the world, but something you bring to the world” …and I guess that’s what I’m really trying to say, too. It’s probably not quite so cut-and-dry as the quote suggests, maybe more of a combo… but still, there’s a ring of truth to the idea. So I’m holding onto it, until proven otherwise.