|Toki Oshima drawing
By Polly Shyka
When little pigtailed Flora started running laps around the slide projector while her parents were speaking, no one at the 2009 Farmer to Farmer session seemed even slightly miffed. Not only was the 3-1/2-year-old an important part of their conference presentation, she is an important part of their farm. A dynamic duo, Stacy Brenner and John Bliss cultivate 20 acres of vegetables, flowers, herbs and livestock at Scarborough’s Broadturn Farm. They have two daughters, Emma, 13, and Flora, and balancing the farm business with the family is a daily goal for the couple.
In fact, the room was full of farmers interested in farming as a family, including grandmothers, parents, and even couples and individuals planning ahead to raise children while running a farm.
For many, the farming season in Maine is a short summer sprint. So how do multi-tasking, ever-moving farmers fold their equally active, sometimes demanding children into their daily chores, plantings, harvests, CSA distributions and farmers’ markets? How do parents live and work with their children while trying to meet the deadlines and weather windows intrinsic in working a farm? Participants in the Farmer to Farmer workshop discussed what works for them, what doesn’t, and how they use dedicated family time, technology, clear communication, responsiveness and help from others to work toward financial stability and involving children in the farm. These family-centered farms seek both environmental and humanistic sustainability.
Dedicated Family Time
Farmer and writer Wendell Berry said in an interview in New Southerner (Jan./Feb. 2006,www.newsoutherner.com/Wendell_Berry_interview.htm)
that “a family needs to live at the center of its own attention.” Making time for family togetherness is a common goal for many Maine farmers living and working with children. Some take a day or two away from the farm mid-season for a break from the farm and business. Others identify a day each week as a retreat from field and office work and a time to play and relax with children.
Mealtimes are natural daily balance points that many farmers use as family time. Breakfast offers a chance to stare down the length of the day ahead. What are the farm and family goals for the day? Plans and hopes pepper the talk during that first meal.
Lunch is often a time to relax and refuel. On farms with employees or apprentices, lunch is commonly shared with farmhands, as farmers, children and workers enjoy the fruits of the earth and their labors, relax, tell stories, grow connections. Parental discretion is advised when lunching with some farmhands. Brenner related having to request more age-appropriate topics. “Conversations at lunch are not always PG rated,” she said.
Some farm families eat dinner with their children only, even if apprentices live on the farm. “We feel the children just need the space to unwind, fall apart, whatever. Being with people all day can be a lot for a toddler,” said Prentice Grassi of Village Farm in Freedom.
However farmers map out their mealtimes, dedicating the conversation and attention to the children and company rather than to the farm business is one way to keep the family “at the center of its own attention.”
Brenner’s iPhone, her “office in her pocket,” allows her to check and answer calls and emails while she waits 12 minutes or so for Blackberry, Broadturn’s Jersey, to let down all of her milk. She can use this time to answer and prioritize daily emails from CSA members, restaurant chefs and summer camp parents.
Brenner and Bliss also use Google Earth (https://earth.google.com) to map their farm fields. Clicking on a field label brings up a dialog bubble showing planting dates and crops.
They use Google Calendar (www.google.com/calendar) to create a shared, whole-farm, online calendar with color coded appointments and markets for each of the farmers, employees, children and apprentices, and to email reminders to themselves and employees about appointments.
Uploading farm spreadsheets, letters and other documents to Google Documents (www.google.com/accounts) makes them available online and, therefore, on the iPhone. Brenner can add to farm to-do lists and work on documents from her phone while waiting in the car or in line at the bank.
“I am into the technology as long as it does not increase your workload,” says Bliss of those new microchips in his partner’s pocket.
Since iPhones are limited to AT&T’s service area, which now is limited to southern Maine, Andrew Marshall of Dorolenna Farm of Montville uses a BlackBerry for calls and emails but cautions about using one with dirty hands. “The trackball gets full of schmootz.”
Technology helps with the balancing act when it allows farmers to be more efficient, organized and productive in their businesses. When Brenner checks email while milking, she has more time for breakfast with her family after chores.
Clear communication between farming parents regarding daily farm tasks and work associated with family life is critical to making busy days run smoothly. What jobs need to be done? Who will work on them and for how long? What tasks can the child or children help with?
Dividing the labor of farm and family may run along traditional gender roles for heterosexual couples. Breastfeeding mothers, by necessity, keep themselves close to babies and often in the shade, but as babies grow to toddlers and beyond, many couples designate farm tasks that can be done with children and those that cannot, and divide their time and responsibilities based on those needs.
Lisa Reilich of Painted Pepper farm, a goat dairy in Steuben, uses three-hour work blocks with her husband, Jordan Godino. “Tasks that you can walk away from go to whomever is with the children.” The other farmer-parent can do a three-hour job uninterrupted. “When the family is in harmony with the farm, everything feels great. When not, it can be … well … hellish,” said Reilich. Clear expectations and communication can bring more harmony to family members and the business.
“When things don’t work well for the family, we change the business,” said Amy Sprague of Wolf Pine Farm. She is not afraid of change and is not afraid of saying “no” to extraneous activities. She keeps the family’s needs in mind throughout the year as she weighs marketing options, community events and the farm labor force. She hired a farm manager when her two daughters were young so that she could delegate tasks to an experienced worker. In 2009, when her husband, Tom Harms, left his computer job and joined the farm full time, they started running the farm as a team.
Their most recent change has been to create a winter CSA, anchored by their own root and storage vegetables, but also sourcing products from around Maine. They sold 400 shares this year and are considering growing most of the root and storage crops themselves in the future. Doing the bulk of their business busy-ness in the winter while their daughters are in school part time, and having summers freer since they got out of summer market gardening, makes sense to Sprague.
“There is such a thing as too diversified,” said John Bliss. Having too many ventures can cost the family too much, he believes – and many family-centered farmers agreed.
Megan Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm marveled at the decision-making ability of these younger farmers. “I might have known what you know, but I don’t think I could have changed the business” to meet that knowledge.
Help from Others
Grandparents, babysitters and friends can provide childcare and companionship during busy times. Grandparents or community elders are often thrilled to have a few hours each week with little ones. These productive bursts without children can allow farmer-parents to make phone calls or do other tasks that are more productive and enjoyable when accomplished without interruption. Paying a babysitter to come each Thursday morning so that both farmer-parents can harvest and wash for Friday markets may be a wise use of funds. Inviting friends with children to come to the farm can blend business and pleasure.
“CSA pick-up afternoons are favorite social events for our children and for us,” said Grassi.
The family farm is often idealized in literature and art. Try adding fussy toddlers and/or strong-minded teenagers to the picture, and the hard work of farming can become the really hard work of family farming. Tips on keeping the family and farm married and on good terms include allowing the children to be involved with the farm to the extent that they are interested; encouraging their farming interests; and paying them for work done on the farm.
Toddlers and children tend to help around the edges. They love to pour, carry (and drop) and sort things. When they can be engaged in the real work of the farm, they can be very helpful and fun. Children aged 7 to 12 can be great helpers and generally thrive when they are responsible for their own piece of the work.
Reilich recalled that when one of her daughters was 11, “she was my right hand. She knew all the [goat] lineages better than anyone. Birth dates, production levels, she knew them all.”
As her children have grown, Reilich has struggled to involve them in the work and joys of the farm while encouraging their other interests. Play dates and practices put already strapped farmers on the road. Farmer-parents find themselves saying “yes” to a few of their children’s priorities and “no” to many more.
“Get ponies.” suggested Gerritsen, with a wry smile. Above workshop participants’ chuckles and some guffaws, she added, “I am serious. It gets our girls out to the barn and helping with chores and it keeps them entertained at home.”
Cold, hard cash seems to be the next best tactic for involving teenagers in farm work. Gerritsen continued, “We have never dragged anyone to the field. We have said, ‘We are going to pick rocks,’ and when the kids do tasks a worker would do, we pay them. Half of their pay goes into a college account and the other half is theirs to spend or save.”
Gerritsen believes that if children’s work is valued, they have a better chance of enjoying the work, the farm and their family – and, possibly, of becoming a farmer. None of the workshop participants voiced strong desires for their children to take over the farm only to follow their own paths, but most approved of advocating for the farming profession.
“We have lost priorities in the last few generations,” said Gerritsen. “It is GOOD to be in a farm family. Work is natural and normal, and we should not throw this out.”
Financial Stability for the Family
Family centered farmers make business decisions based on their family situations. Some at the Farmer to Farmer workshop avoided farmers’ markets while the children were young. Others loved the social opportunities inherent in busy community-based markets and watched customers delight in interacting with their children.
Many work off the farm in the winter for added income. Some work off the farm a day or so each week to maintain health insurance for the farm family. Many use MaineCare, the state’s program for assuring that children get proper medical check-ups and attention when ill, or Maine’s Dirigo Plan (which was not accepting new members when this was written and always seems to be on the chopping block).
The financial stresses of running a business can leak into family life. Farmer-parents of older children may share some of the money picture with them, but some parents warn that sensitive children may take on too much stress. One suggested separate farm meetings without children present to work on stressful issues and finances.
“With a 15-year-old, I might share 80 percent of the stress I have over finances,” said Gerritsen. Just as making children work on the farm may drive a wedge between the children and the farm, witnessing too much stress over finances can do the same. It’s yet another balancing act for the farmer-parent.
Farmer-parents seem to be, above all else, a breed of strivers. Forever attempting to balance farm and family is like juggling many balls at once, with happiness on the line.
Clara Rutenbeck of Stoneset Farm of Brooklin and mother of two young children said, “We must be careful, as parents and farmers, of perpetuating the ‘I can do it all’ myth.”
Farming is hard work, and parenting is hard work. When done together, the effort can be immense.
Gerritsen takes a broad view. “My priority has been to build a place where my family can work together. That is a life goal. When I think that we haven’t gained the financial success we may desire, I just have to shift my thinking and I know we have succeeded. Our two sons are now capable men. Our farm is a group effort.”
About the author: Polly Shyka farms Village Farm in Freedom with her husband, Prentice Grassi, and their three young sons.