Tori has been farming on farms not her own for 10 years. She is currently taking the season off from farming.
I’m in the process of transitioning into three new non-farming jobs.
- I’m the building manager of a building, a shop manager of one of the shops in that building and I’ve also picked up a part time job at a tea shop.
- I also own my own soap company which I do on the side.
- I do a lot of volunteer work, as well.
I’m the Secretary on the Banff Greenhouse Gardening Society Board which runs 3 greenhouses in the town that have raised bed community garden style plots.
The town of Banff, Alberta where I live is inside a national park. There are a lot of restrictions on agricultural production and growing in general. The greenhouses are a great opportunity for people to garden in Banff without breaking any rules.
- I’m also on the Banff Pride Board as well.
I’m coordinating a series of outdoor events. It’s an opportunity to increase queer representation in our wild spaces, to encourage people in our queer community to feel more represented and comfortable in our outdoor places and encourage people to meet each other, go to events together and to plan their own outdoor adventures.
It’s all non-farm stuff because of where I’m located geographically right now.
I’ve done some summer-long and contract farming work for periods of time out in British Columbia while I’ve lived in Banff.
I’ll move out there and do farming and come back to Banff for the winter.
I’m in search of the farm that has the right vibe and situation for me, I think.
I’ve been doing that for a little while – I’ll do 3 or 4 seasons on and take a couple of seasons off.
It’s exemplary of this pull to do farming because I love the work; I like the actions, the people that I work with, the conversations that you have, the feeling of planting things in the ground and watching it to maturity, but the social aspect of it is what keeps driving me away as well.
I go through these fluxes where I really want to get back to farming because it makes my heart, body and mind feel good, but I’m just so exhausted from having my heart broken season after season.
I’ve done ten seasons.
I did five and a half near New Hampshire and then I moved to a farm in western Massachusetts. That was an organic farm that was over 100 acres and they employed a mix of college students and Somali immigrants. I worked with them for a while before I moved up to northern Vermont near Burlington, and worked for two seasons there.
The farm in Burlington is called Riverberry Farm.
The farm owner is an open minded mentor type human, always looking for opportunities to share his knowledge.
He had this incredible vibe that I’ve never seen before; he never seemed like he was in a rush.
He was always busy, but if you had a question, he would stop and talk to you for 5 minutes and ask for your input.
I chose that farm for my internship because I wanted to see how that farm functions and succeeds.
Everyone seemed in a better mood, more supported, and the staff kept coming back.
There was someone on the team who had been there for 15 years.
The majority of the crew were queer folks from the Burlington area.
It was so nice to be in such a supportive community.
I ALSO worked on a farm in Quebec for a little while. That farm was in the process of going out of business so I saw the swan song of a farm business.
Here in the west I worked on a farm in British Columbia and then was hired on a farm in that area to step in as the farm manager as the farm owners had their first baby so I was there for about 6 weeks.
I studied Farm Management and Technology at McGill, which was very conventional farming focused. A lot of people who were in that program were coming off of dairy farms in rural Quebec. It was interesting because they incorporated farm business management, accounting, and there were a lot of other classes where I wasn’t sure how relevant it was to me, like large scale conventional poultry management. I’ve completed my degree through the Prairie Horticulture Certification offered through Olds College.
What brought me to farming was I was going to school at Mcgill in Montreal for music performance and I found a farm job in New Hampshire to do during the summers to supplement my costs of going to university.
I made some of the closest friends I’ve made in my life on that farm, I’m still very close with them.
It was an amazing experience in terms of forming connections with people and finding other people who were interested in the same things I was interested in, and working with people who ask you hard questions about your philosophy and demand action from you – like how do we improve our food systems?
Everyone I was working with was really thinking hard about what they were doing.
I kept going back because not doing farming felt worse, I guess.
After, I tried a bunch of different pickup jobs – I did waitressing, I was a barista, I worked at a financial planning firm, I was someone who did those cold calls, those advert calls…that was really rough.
After trying all those I thought: I don’t like any of these as much as I love farming.
Every time I came back into farming, there was always a farm nearby desperate for help, too.
It was easy to fall back into because the more seasons I worked, the more enticing I became as an employee.
Over my farming career I’ve chosen to farm for other people because I approached farming and the farm jobs knowing that I can’t afford to buy a farm outright.
I haven’t structured my life in such a way where I’m financially able to do that. I’m not financially able to purchase land to start a farm from the ground up either.
I worked for other people because I wanted to get the knowledge I would need to start my own farm so I would feel comfortable in my own abilities.
I have a lot of imposter syndrome so knowing that I’m physically capable of doing all aspects of the farm is really important to me.
As I went along and saw how many farms were owned by people getting older with no succession plan, I was thinking, oh wow what is going to happen to these farms?
We simultaneously have a generation of sons and daughters of farm owners not interested in farming and a generation of young farmers who can’t afford to buy the farm.
It’s this catch 22 situation.
I wanted to see people who are like me:
- how are they starting up their farms?
- how did they get funding, do they have a mortgage?
- how are they affording their machinery?
I started looking into these programs.
In Quebec there is a guardian angel program that’s similar to the Intervale program in Northern Vermont; they have a community run farm that is available to young farmers to start up your business. They have the land, the greenhouse and the tools that you have access to, all the infrastructure and expensive stuff is covered.
I was considering doing that for a while.
I don’t know. I have a complicated relationship with whether or not I want to start a farm.
Ultimately, I’m not interested in running my own farm business.
All of the things that differentiate what a worker does and what an owner does, all of those add-ons that an owner does, I don’t want to do.
I don’t want to manage people, do social media, manage accounts, do marketing, manage a website, file T4s or W2s.
The things I like doing are what an employee does.
Farm ownership would distance me from the stuff I like doing the most.
For me personally, farm ownership is not a good fit.
Other people may really like that stuff and I’m happy to work for them.
The thing that I know I’m trading off is the thing that is so enticing – that you get paid better as a farm owner than as a worker. You also get to choose what you grow and what you charge for it, and you base that off of what you envision your life to be. I like the concept, but all of the nuts and bolts of business management drain my energy.
I know that I’m accepting a lower wage, possibly forever, because I’m choosing not to want to do those things.
The biggest challenge for a worker is developing the power to say no, and that umbrellas over so many aspects of farming.
Does a worker feel like they have the power to say:
“No, I’m not going to stay until 8pm to finish harvest.”
“No, I’m not going to get on this dangerous machine.”
No, I’m not going to work with these pesticides.”
“No, I’m not going to drive an uninspected vehicle.”
All of that kind of stuff.
There are just so many dangerous situations that workers are asked to put themselves into because it’s convenient for the farm owner to ask them to do that and it’s inconvenient to think about a safer way or to buy something or fix something so it becomes safe.
There is no real incentive for farm workers to put themselves at risk for someone else’s business.
You don’t get a share in the business for putting your hand in a mixer or standing on a rickety ladder.
I have been feeling shame for not standing up for myself in unsafe situations:
- One farm asked me to stand in the bucket of the tractor to be lifted up to change the street sign out and I did it.
- Another one was replacing the plastic on a greenhouse where the structure was wooden and partially rotten. The owner had me lean my ladder on the frame as it swayed back and forth so he could pull plastic over it and I did it because I didn’t know I had the right to say no.
- How many vans have I sat in the back of that are rusting through and you can see the grass passing by underneath as you drive? There was one van that they had converted to propane and the gas station down the road stopped supplying the right kind of propane, so they ran a hose from the gas tank to a physical tank of propane that they bungeed just inside the door of the van. Every time the door of the van closed, it closed over that propane hose. The farm owner is thinking the van has to work one way or another – this is good enough.
The culture of the workers is that we will do anything we can do to make sure this farm stays afloat.
Why are we sacrificing ourselves for someone else’s business?
That power dynamic is dangerous.
Just educating people what their rights as a worker are – if you have the weight of the law behind you, your employer can’t argue with you and a lot of farms are running off the assumption that they will never get inspected when they’re really just a phone call away from getting cited.
A few of the people I worked with at Riverberry Farm in Vermont started their own farms and it’s been really amazing to see them grow and develop.
They are really wonderful people and super supportive.
A lot of people that worked at Riverberry have then gone to work for them, which is such a crucial sign of mutual respect and support.
These workers are choosing to work on these farms because they know who the owners are as people. And they are reasonable and kind and supportive and make room for conversations about changes to be made and are receptive to them.
A dream farm for me would be something like that, to know for a fact that the work culture is supportive and kind.
As farmers we all understand we do have time pressures. There is a lot of work to get done but the stress that we all experience can be lessened hugely by the attitude of the people around us. I would much rather be in that kind of environment.
If we have 10,000 heads of lettuce to plant today, I would rather plant it with someone who is being positively encouraging or sharing something about themselves than someone who is belittling me or swearing at me.
My dream farm really has a lot to do with the social aspects of the farm.
I have worked on larger farms.
The largest farm I worked on was about 100 acres.
Riverberry was 70 acres – it was a wholesale supplier.
They supplied Whole Foods around New England along with a cooperative of 15 farms in the area.
While I’ve done that work, I really prefer to be on a smaller acreage.
I was working last spring on this small farm in British Columbia that’s 4 acres with three greenhouses. There were the two owners, myself and two other workers.
It was just lovely.
They called me in because of my experience working on other farms. When I got there, I just had a conversation with the two people I’d be working with the most and said, “I don’t want to be anybody’s boss. Can we just talk through our ideas and come to decisions together?”
And that is what we did and it was awesome.
Everyone felt heard and supported.
It seems like it takes extra time to talk something through, but in talking it through you come up with a more efficient solution.
I’d like to find a role on a farm that I can stay in for a long time.
There was someone who was working in the greenhouse at Riverberry who was in charge of all the seeding and hardening off and she was there for 15 years. She was listening to NPR, in her zone and happy to chat with people.
I really liked that vibe where you feel comfortable enough and supported enough, that you’re part of the team and if you suggest something it will be taken seriously and you can just plug away at your work.
What brings me back to farming is a combination of two things.
I really love making connections with people, hearing people’s stories…
everyone has had a different experience and I want to know what that is. How does that make you think about the work? How does that influence how you move through the world? That’s a huge part of it.
The other part is that I have ADHD, and repetitive actions just really calm my brain down significantly.
It’s so soothing to have a bunch of lettuce plugs to plant and know I can do this all day. There are so many different repetitive tasks in farming that calm my brain down because it’s the same task but challenges me to do better: how can I do this faster, how can I get a better germ rate, how can I get closer to the plant when I’m hoeing or cultivating. There’s lots of room for small improvements.
Music is all about that – small changes in pursuit of perfection and never achieving it because we’re human and it’s nature.
There is an element in every season where you go back and evaluate what happened in every season.
Did this variety work?
How did the spacing go?
Did we use mesh netting over the top, did that work, should we not do that again?
There are an infinite number of ways to experiment and play and track and assess. It’s cool to see how the decisions you are making affect the yield, the plant, and how easy it is to harvest.
There have been farms where that part of the season has been really social where we try to get feedback. We hear what people have to say about improvements or changes we can make and the excitement of trying those things next year.
When people ask me what I do, I say I work on organic farms.
I don’t know if it was in the career books, but I always associated the farmer with the farm owner and I don’t think it’s because any one ever said that to me.
I consider myself a farm worker, or I’ll qualify it – like I’ll say I’m the greenhouse manager instead of farmer, and I’m not really sure why.
I felt like I was claiming ownership over something that I had no right to, but I am a farmer.
There is an element of an underlying prejudice against farmers by society at large.
I was working in Pittsburgh at a joke shop, and I mentioned I worked on farms, and they asked, “But what did YOU do?”
There is this misconception about what farming is and who does it.
The assumptions are that farmers are uneducated and unskilled.
Farmers have to have knowledge of chemistry, biology, plant anatomy and mathematics and meteorology, not to mention be a carpenter, machinist, plumber, electrician, etc.
I think people don’t know what goes into it.
Farmers are still excluded from the minimum wage mandate.
That is something that should be changed.
The reason behind it is some depression era food production stuff. A lot of people don’t have access to fresh food because of its cost, but the costs are hidden in what we pay in taxes that go toward subsidies that support large farms so we are paying it out anyway.
I want workers to get paid minimum wage, but I don’t want people’s access to fresh food to be negatively affected by it as well.
Farmers deserve to be paid a fair wage.
Providing information to farm workers about what their legal rights are is so important.
I’ve been working a little bit with that with the working culture here in Banff.
It’s a very transient culture, there are a lot of immigrants in the area. I’m an immigrant.
There are a lot of high labor demand service jobs.
I was rereading the Alberta labor laws, and it says if you work 6 hours you are required to have a paid 30 minute break.
When I told people who I know work in service about it, they said there is no way their boss would agree to that, but it’s the law!
I think people feel pressured to put themselves in unsafe situations, that they have to work holidays, that they can’t get injured, that they can’t get sick time because they are scared they’ll get fired.
The threat of injury knowing they don’t have health insurance is enormous and that’s paired with having to do unsafe things at work.
Knowing what the law is and how it applies to you and knowing who to reach out to to ask for support is crucial.
I also think it’s helpful to hear about other people’s experiences and what they did about it or what they asked for.
How do you approach a boss and ask for change?
Seeing examples of the positive is a step in the right direction to empowering yourself to ask for what you need.
On some of the farms I’ve worked at, they have provided a stipend for workers to attend conferences or go to a symposium.
It feeds into workers’ passion to learn about farming and it demonstrates that the owner is investing in the workers.
When a worker feels like they are valued, they are more likely to stay/return season after season, to accept roles of higher responsibility, to feel more supported and valued by their farming community.
So many people who are working on farms right now are so passionate about what they are doing.
We share resources with each other and are reading a lot and all listening to the podcasts, but I had the opportunity two years in a row to go to the NOFA conference in Vermont and it was just incredible.
Seeing all these farms represented in so many ways and what they are experimenting with.
It’s really cool to see people in their 60s who are still excited to try new things and they are still so hopeful and passionate and learning.
That is what speaks to the longevity of the career.
When someone is first starting out in farming, you wonder, will this ever fade or cease to be interesting?
It’s cool to see people who have been doing it for decades.