Charlotte has been farming on other people’s farms for 6 years. She is in her 3rd season at the same farm in Maryland.
I co-manage a 34-acre farm in Dickerson, Maryland, although we grow on 7 acres.
We are Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), which is the standard of organic, but made for small scale farming. The certification process is peer-review, which prevents oversight and reduces cost.
The farm I manage is primarily a diversified vegetable CSA farm, with a little bit of wholesale sales, and a very cool institutional partnership with a local healthcare group – the hospital buys our produce, and the produce is given to their employees as an employee benefit. In 2020, we gave out 200 bags of vegetables per week for an 18-week program.
The partnership program with the healthcare group was a launching point for this farm. The owner and farmer of this farm was working with two other guys for about 10 years, with occasional help here and there. But with the start of this partnership, he hired me part-time to run the program. He handed over the reins and I’ve been here ever since.
Three years later, I’m co-managing (with him) the farm, full-time, year-round.
The work here is a nice balance of physical labor and tractor work. We use tractors, mostly for field preparation, some cultivation, and transplanting. But we still rely on our bodies to do hand transplanting, weeding, and harvesting.
Every once in a while, I inhale diesel fumes, but I am so thankful for those tractors for saving our backs and keeping us sane. We prioritize the health of our crew, so we work hard to make sure our systems are efficient.
We service the DC metro area, year-round. We are growing every day and sending out produce almost every week.
Although sometimes it feels like we’re working around the clock, one of the things I’m most grateful for is how we have breaks during the year. The farm owner and I were very intentional about scheduling time into our distribution schedule for us to take a moment, catch up on things, and let us all have a moment to breathe.
IT’S EASY TO GET CAUGHT UP IN THE MENTALITY, “SELL, SELL, SELL!” BUT WE NEED TO HONOR AND PRIORITIZE OUR OWN HEALTH AND STANDARD OF LIFE.
When I got out of college, I worked for several nonprofits and I got pretty burnt out.
It’s really demanding work, people are wearing 1,000 different hats at once with very little training all with low pay. I found myself sitting at a desk in a constant state of anxiety, desperate to move.
I needed to find a job where I was still doing something meaningful, but moving my body, releasing energy.
Farming had always been on my mind. I disregarded it because I thought it you couldn’t support yourself or be “successful”.
I gave myself the chance to try farming by working on a friend’s family farm for a month. I planned to work and then move on to a “real job”.
But I was hooked.
After 4 months on the family farm, I found a job at a local CSA and housing around the corner.
Everything fell into place.
Since then, I’ve been in the same area for the past 6 years, working on different farms all within the same town. I find it remarkable that I’ve found employment and learning the trade all within this small area.
I enjoy understanding connections in the natural world and I can apply my understanding of ecology to farming.
I need to be physically active and farming is 98% that.
I like meeting people and growing a community, and much of farming is engaging with people through education.
Additionally, farming is
It’s challenging. It’s really hard to make any money as a farm. That’s kind of become my new schtick: I want to prove to the world, or to someone, that you can make money as a farmer.
Do good work and make money.
That’s the main driver for me – let’s make this farm an amazing awesome business: feed people, employ people.
I’m not interested in owning a farm, which may seem contradictory.
I’ve worked on too many farms that have gone out of business, not for lack of quality produce or effort, but because maintaining a small profitable farm while also having a life seems next to impossible.
For small farm owners, there is a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety, and a lot of the work is shouldered by that singular person.
I don’t want to bring that home every night.
I would be totally fine having a small property and planting some flowers. If I don’t harvest some of those flowers, they can just sit there and look pretty and I wouldn’t give a care in the world, because that’s home.
I also don’t have the capital to start a farm. I wouldn’t want to start up a farm on a tiny budget. Sure, I could have a fundraiser, but unless I’m a professional documentary film maker with a cute dog, I probably won’t be able to raise the needed funds. You need a lot money to create an operation that functions well and I’m a big stickler for doing it right the first time. Grants have been very helpful for farm projects, but I haven’t found a grant yet that will give me $100,000 to start up an operation from the ground up.
A major reason why I’ve chosen to work with someone is simply, I like my boss.
We get along well and we seem to make good decisions together. There’s a lot of jokes, ridiculous humor, and sometimes we yell at each other, but we’re a team that regards each other with honesty and respect. I am greatly appreciative to him for always being there to help and back me up. Not only do I consider my boss to be my employer, but also my mentor and friend.
Here at this farm, I’m in a position where I can make business decisions without the weight of ownership.
I’m boss, but not the boss.
Right now, this is exactly where I want to be and I don’t anticipate moving any time soon. I’m extremely lucky to have this opportunity to learn and grow, all with my boss’ tutelage, guidance and encouragement.
The mission of this farm is to charge fair prices for local fresh vegetables grown with soil health as the priority. With fair prices, comes fair wages. And these veggies are worth it, they’re grown in an environmentally responsible and conscientious way by employees who are treated and paid well. It’s a form of health.
It feels good to have responsibility, held accountable, and contribute to the success of a business.
I have not experienced harassment on farms, not that I can remember.
I’ve experienced lack of transparency.
The first farm I worked on, the farmer would buy produce from an auction house and sell it at the farmers’ market as locally grown organic. In reality, it was from thousands of miles away with no certification of any kind. It was a bizarre experience to be unwrapping cauliflower from plastic and putting it in another inconspicuous bag, knowing it would be sold to innocent customers as “local” and “organic”. I confronted the farm owner about it, “Do your customers know you do this? Is everybody aware that you are buying in this produce?” His response was, “Oh yeah, everyone is totally aware… this is what you need to do to stay viable as a small farm”.
I was so naive.
It took a year to untangle my moral woes from my desperation for employment, and thankfully I was able to move on to an authentic and honest farming operation.
Now, along with my current boss, I prioritize honesty and transparency – our customers probably know more than they need to!
One of the biggest problems and challenges in farming is housing and health care.
I’m extremely lucky to be able to work off my rent. But I have a hunch my landlords just like me and let me stay. They’re extremely generous.
It is hard for me to imagine someone in the farming world, like me, able to afford rent around here. The DMV area is very expensive.
Support that would be helpful for people working on other people’s farms would be county or state-run programs that provide a chunk of change to build or buy housing for farm employees. Too often people who are in this line of work are crammed together and many homes can be transitional or frantic. Having access to that basic need would be incredible, especially in expensive metropolitan areas.
It would make sense for everyone to have affordable healthcare. Usually, especially businesses like ours that are under 10 employees with seasonal work, cannot afford to provide health insurance. We all must find our own independent insurance, or none. I find it terrifying that the people doing some of the most essential work in the world, and sometimes extremely dangerous work, are not properly supported by the health care system.
I FIND MYSELF IN THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER FREQUENTLY.
Getting people to sign onto this unique style of eating and buying produce requires quite a bit of education and guidance.
The act of eating and preparing food is a very personal thing. It’s nourishment for our bodies and can directly impact our mood, health, energy… So it’s no wonder that people, especially in a direct transaction like ours where the farmer hands over the food to the consumer, want to find meaning and understanding in this produce. People are searching for a connection and sometimes it’s hard for me to generate that connection when there’s a million things to do, or there’s COVID precautions and social distancing, or I’m just plain tired. So much of what I do is communicating clearly, educating, and engaging with people, and oftentimes, I struggle anticipating exactly what questions people need answered.