Tyler has been farming for 5 years in Michigan and Indiana. Currently he is moving back to Indiana and will be working back at his first farm.
I’ve been farming for 5 years, and I’m going into my 6th season.
I’ve been working on farms in Michigan for the last 3 years and prior to that I was in Indiana at the same farm for two years. I moved to Michigan where my partner is in graduate school and this is her last year, so I’m taking the winter off before we move back to Indiana where I’m planning on going back to the first farm I started off at, which I’m really excited about.
Since we’ve been in Michigan I’ve worked on 3 different farms in the last 3 years.
The last farm I worked at was a really small tea and medicinal herb farm, but before that all my other experiences have been on vegetable farms, both CSA and market.
It was a lot of theoretical and philosophical stuff that originally brought me to farming, thinking about how to be in the world in a way that felt good.
In college, I was having a lot of conversations with my partner about not wanting to be only consumers, this broader anti-capitalist sentiment, and looking for a way to be in the world that mirrored our values.
That is where the initial curiosity came from.
After college, I was working at a museum and in a graduate program for museum studies and
… I just dropped out.
I just had the feeling like, this doesn’t feel right, this isn’t what I want to be doing. It didn’t feel as clear to me then as it does now, but my grandma had passed away at the beginning of that semester and I think that influenced my decision. That was the first person who I was close to who had died, so that shakes up your world quite a bit.
I was interested in work that felt less mediated.
I was working at non-profits and the work wasn’t tangible.
I was doing this work that you can’t really see the results of in a lot of ways.
I had all these questions about the value of work.
All these things coming together made me understand that a shift was needed, and I was really fortunate that something presented itself.
Luckily there was a farm outside of Indianapolis that was hiring and I was able to jump into that. Once I was actually on a farm, it was interesting to see the kind of things I was interested in starting to switch.
It wasn’t so theoretical and became more about the really practical parts of working on a farm, working with my body, being outside, being unmediated – tangible and direct, working with people to actually produce something.
That really started to resonate with me.
I don’t have any aspirations of starting my own farm anymore.
I think a couple years ago had you asked me that I probably would have said yes, even though I had no idea how to go about it. The question of land access became one of the main factors in deciding against trying to start a farm. Part of it was just feeling like I couldn’t imagine a way of being able to buy land or have access to land in a way that felt stable.
The longer that I farm, the more my thought process has shifted even further away from buying land and starting a farm on it.
This also came out of a lot of conversations with my partner.
We were thinking about the ethical implications of owning land as white people in America.
It’s a really complicated personal decision, but it just feels important to us to think differently about property and our relationship to land. It feels like the energy and resources that could be spent trying to acquire land and start a business could be more useful if it was put into working with other farmers to build better collaborative situations.
For me, the most important aspect of a dream farm would be having a feeling of care and respect.
I think that on that first farm I worked at in particular, from day one I knew I was in a place where my opinions and experiences were valued and appreciated.
There was a collaborative feeling even though I was completely brand new to farming.
I felt supported and taken care of and it felt reciprocal in a way that has really shaped how I feel about farming and farm employment.
Reciprocity is something that I come back to a lot.
Reciprocity and care are the standards for me to work towards. That is the dreamiest of dreams, a place where that feels really central to how the farm is run.
I also think about trust in the relationship between a farm worker and owner, especially in any long term situation.
It could feel really unstable as a farm worker, putting yourself in a position where you’re dependent on someone else’s business in a way that it’s not all that dependent on you.
Trusting that there is stability in that relationship and that you’re being taken care of feels like the biggest dream because it feels like the biggest hurdle.
How can this work be long term stable for myself without traditional retirement or equity or those types of things?
I think it comes down to finding ways to minimize the distance between
Some farms are obviously more or less hierarchical than others, but it doesn’t feel great when there’s a lot of distance between workers and owners and you aren’t getting that feeling of reciprocity or care. It doesn’t feel great when you are putting a lot of effort or energy into a farm without the owner understanding it’s a reciprocal relationship.
is something that I started to really think about when I had a management role on a farm.
I was kind of driving myself crazy over it. It made me really anxious, and I was thinking about what kinds of situations overpower the positive, rejuvenative things I get out of farming.
Why can I not remember what I love about farming in this particular situation?
Outside of the physical demands of the job, there are emotional or social aspects that can drain you even if you love farming. It’s kind of weird because that is one of the things I identified in non-profit work that put me off of it.
I think that there is an expectation that your passion about the work will be enough to outweigh some of the difficult realities, and burnout becomes something employees have to manage on their own rather than make structural changes to the work environment.
So I’m starting to try to think more intentionally about what it is about farming that drives me or gives me pleasure and how to access those things in difficult situations.
This all maybe plays into the respect and care thing – if people aren’t being or feeling valued, it just changes the entire experience.
I have been really fortunate in all the farms I’ve worked at, there is a basic level of respect in terms of not being mistreated, which I know still happens on small farms, but at the same time I feel like there needs to be more than a basic level of respect and I think that’s where care and reciprocity come in.
In my experience, unclear expectations and poor communication can really grow the divide between workers and owners. Not receiving clear communication about what is expected – that can start building resentment when somebody feels like they’re doing more than expected but it’s not being acknowledged. Or the owner feeling like expectations aren’t being met. On farms that have felt really good, a big part of that was because of good communication and clear expectations and a harmony where everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing and how to do it.
I keep coming back to farming because
I’m passionate about it,
I care deeply about it,
and there’s so much to learn.
It feels endlessly interesting and rewarding to me. We can never learn all of even just the technical things to be good at, let alone the theoretical or philosophical or social aspects. There is just so much to learn.
I think farming provides a context to start learning how to work together in better ways than we typically are able to.
The promise of farming is this meaningful work we can do together and that is something worth working towards.
Working on farms has impacted who I am as a person and the way that I see the world. What I’ve learned in the past 5 years has more to do with how I see the world than anything I’ve done in the past.
The potential of continuing to do this work is exciting.
In my head I call myself a farmer, but if somebody asks me what I do, I usually say:
I work on farms.
I think when people hear ‘farmer’ they assume you’re the owner. It feels like I’m communicating something more accurate to say I work on farms based on what they are expecting.
It’s something you personally determine based on your relationship to the work I think. For me, I think of myself as a farmer because I think of the word ‘vocation’.
It is the work that I most want to do with my life.
Since it’s so important to me, I would have to think that being a farmer is part of my identity.
Maybe a reason why I’m hesitant to call myself a farmer is because I haven’t had a long term relationship with a particular piece of land, if I think of farmers as stewards of the environment or of a particular place. That hasn’t been my experience. I very much value that kind of relationship, but it hasn’t been available to me. That said, I don’t believe that just because you don’t own land or don’t have a long term relationship with a piece of land, that you aren’t a farmer.
When we were getting ready to move from Indiana to Michigan, I kept telling myself I was going to get a different job and do something else.
I ended up applying to a farm and working on a farm anyway.
The next summer, I was like, “No for real, I’m going to get another job” and I ended up working on a farm again.
I keep coming back to it.
Acknowledging and recognizing that part of me that feels very called to farming makes me feel like I can call myself a farmer.
It would be nice to see more examples of what long term farm work can look like outside of traditional ownership.
We have a very defined story, even in the regenerative or organic agriculture movement, there is still a very defined path:
You buy land and start your farm business, usually as a couple.
It just feels like a very predetermined story.
I listen to all these podcasts and watch videos, and that is the one scenario presented.
I know there are people doing things differently, and I would like to see examples of that. There are lots of people who want a long term, sustainable relationship with farm work who don’t feel like land ownership or the traditional mode is for them. It just leaves me with a lot of question marks, wondering what that looks like in practice. Seeing more examples of that would be great.
The question hanging over my head is:
what can a life long relationship to farming look like without ownership?
Because there aren’t as many visible examples of what it looks like, it’s hard to imagine getting older and working on someone else’s farm.
It feels really nebulous to think about the future – for how long can I keep doing this work that is really important to me?
Things like traditional retirement seem unattainable in a way that probably wouldn’t be true if I was in another field.
There are no traditional safety nets or reassurances to feel comfortable about the future, whether or not it’s misplaced comfort.
When I had an aspiration of owning my own farm, that felt very comforting:
You own the land and have a business, that is something that is conventionally valuable if you need to make a change. You have something to fall back on in a way that doesn’t feel true if you don’t own the farm.
Risk management doesn’t feel as available or accessible without that kind of ownership.
Climate change exacerbates all these feelings of uncertainty, but also feels like it’s completely shifting what stability even means.
In some ways, farming seems like the most stable, forward-looking thing to do.
I have to work on becoming more and more comfortable with uncertainty.
I think understanding that you can’t control everything is valuable work.
There are so many variables that are out of our hands.
We have to trust our social relationships, and trust in the power of working on farms together.