Stacey has been farming on farms not her own for 13 years. She has worked on different farms all in the Virginia area. Throughout the years, she has held positions as an intern, crew leader, co-farm manager and farm manager.
On my walk this afternoon I counted it out…it’s been 13 seasons for me on other people’s farms. Basically just three farms over 13 years.
This year coming up is definitely going to be a hodgepodge of different farm work. I will be working part-time for a flower farm where we live, and we’re also going to be starting our own farm business on the same piece of land. The farm owners are retiring – this is going to be their last year farming.
We moved here to see if we want to farm this piece of land for a long time.
It’s a transition year for the four of us and an exploratory year to see if we can negotiate an agreement on the land. It’s exciting to start our own business for the first time after many years of working for other folks.
What brought me to farming was that I really wanted to learn how to grow food.
I was even afraid to watch my housemate’s garden and so I thought I would go work on a farm and do that for a year.
Once I did start farming it just seemed like “huh, this is something that really connects everything that I’ve been interested in and it’s caring for the environment…” and it made me want to do it a little bit longer.
I think after 3 years I felt like this is something I could really make a career out of and wanted to stick with it.
I studied ecology in college and I’ve always been interested in the natural world and the relationships between things, the weather, the bugs, the people.
I grew up in the suburbs in Ohio and I went to Ohio State – no one ever talked to me about being a farmer as a career. It wasn’t even on my spectrum of possibilities.
Once I started doing it and working for successful farm businesses, then I felt like this was something I could do.
I’m a bit of a risk averse person and I didn’t want to take the financial risk of putting all my money into one business and hoping that it went well. I think I saw the value in working for other people that were running financially sustainable businesses and getting as much knowledge from them as I could so I would feel more secure if I chose to start my own thing.
That is what I thought early on, but then these positions for me kept popping up.
Because we stayed in the same region and didn’t burn too many bridges, it always felt like another position popped up:
- starting as an intern
- then a crew leader
- then a farm manager with the farm owner around
- then to be managing a farm essentially like it was our own farm and the farm owners weren’t really involved.
I had the opportunity to keep learning while making a lot of decisions myself, but not taking on the financial risk.
I’d say in the past couple years it suddenly became more important to me that it be my own thing and that I would really have the final decision on what the farm was like and what it felt like to be there for everybody…and just creating the workplace culture that I wanted.
Having this opportunity pop up now where friends of ours are retiring and wanting someone to take over their land, it seemed like a good way to start our own business without having to buy a huge chunk of land with nothing on it. It feels like a progression.
It makes me a little bit nervous that now we will no longer get a regular paycheck. I am somewhat eased knowing that I’ve grown in this region for so long now and made a lot of connections here. I feel like we will find a way to sell what we grow and we know the markets and I feel really supported by the community. If we are having a hard time, I know who to ask for help.
It’s a less risky way to start our own farm – being in the same region that we’ve been in this whole time.
Financially it’s definitely scary now to be totally responsible for everything, but I’m also kind of excited by that challenge and I feel confident that we can make it work.
At the end of the day, money is such a huge thing in our lives and I wish it wasn’t but it’s something that everyone thinks about.
Financial decisions trickle down to everything else on the farm. And, it’s important to make good financial decisions, so employees feel like they have what they need.
Relationships are so important and personalities are so diverse – you can tell pretty early on in a relationship or working on someone’s farm if you’ll be able to work there for a while.
I think that’s really important for people to consider through the interview process –
- asking good questions of who you’re going to work for
- asking to talk to other people who have worked for them – to really make sure these are people you want to work with for the whole season.
People can write really great descriptions on their website, but it doesn’t mean it’s a great place to work.
I think for me some of my better experiences on a farm have been working with people who understand what it’s like to work on a farm:
They have either been in your shoes or they are still thinking about what it’s like to be in your shoes and they haven’t forgotten that part, and they are out there with you sometimes.
I think that is really important.
When I’ve worked on farms where the owners aren’t really present, it feels like that creates a disconnect and a divide between the farm owners and the people doing the work.
It affects how the employees feel valued. That’s always a challenging situation.
If I was looking for another farm job, I would want to know how involved in the business are the farm managers and owners and what does that really mean for me.
If starting our own business doesn’t work out, we’ll be looking for farm jobs again!
So, what would I be looking for?
I would say having clear communication between farm workers and farm management or farm owners.
Clear communication – people know how to raise issues, there is a space for people to raise issues and those issues are considered and responded to. Employees also know what is expected of them. I like having some kind of set schedule for farm employees – just knowing what the work schedule is like for everyone involved, so that its clearly outlined and even the farm owners or farm managers stick to that as much as possible.
I would want to be near a supportive community, whether that is actually on the farm or nearby, it doesn’t matter, but it’s really hard to feel like you are kind of doing this hard work all alone.
Sometimes you want someone to bring you hot soup at the end of the day.
I really love growing things and having a tangible product that shows your hard work, but it’s not a frivolous product.
Everyone needs to eat and there’s little waste.
I feel really good making this product.
I do like that it’s generally some type of team atmosphere/community atmosphere in farming unless you’re choosing to do it totally alone.
I enjoy working with a group of people that are creating food together.
The rest of the community that usually surrounds that – people who like to eat it, who like to cook with it. It can get you into a really interesting network of folks.
Farm workers need to be paid more money, but that is a huge issue and there’s a lot of factors to that.
A big piece is helping farm owners and farm managers to be better farmers and be more efficient so that you are able to value your employees’ time more appropriately.
If we can have more efficient farms, then that trickles down to everybody getting more out of it.
I just want it to be better for everybody, that the farm owner feels like they’re making a living and the other people working there are making a living too – but that also requires people wanting to value food and pay more money for food.
When people think about getting into farming, I don’t think they start by thinking about how they are going to manage their crew or if they even like working with other people.
Maybe, they’re thinking they can have an independent job or run their own business or like to work outside. The people management part – you really have to figure out how to do it well.
It can be more complicated than the growing part of farming.
Farm workers and farm managers – anybody working for someone else – should really be able to recognize the value of their work.
If you are in a situation where you don’t feel like you are appropriately valued, you can leave.
I think it goes back to personalities, sometimes they don’t mesh and people can’t understand each other. You can try as much as you possibly can to reword things or explain your opinion or how you think your work should be valued and it’s quite possible that whoever you are explaining it to won’t see it the same way or won’t understand it.