The Quest for the Precious

Farmers have been extolled throughout history for the fine character qualities they possess: dedication, perseverance, insight, devotion, the ability to feed people.  Many modern Americans work at desks and in cubicles; behind counters and waiting tables; in hospitals and nursing homes; in the trade trenches; (fewer and fewer) on the assembly lines; valiantly protecting and serving.  However, for some, the whistle seldom blows.  Farming is more than a full-time job.  It is a lifestyle, one that requires all of those aforementioned characteristics and a few more.

Not every farmer has the ability to stay home all the time—I’m one who can’t yet.  Someday, I hope that we’ll be able to make that a reality, but until then, I need a paycheck so that the mortgage payments can be made and hay can be bought.  I work full-time on a farm, so I’m always on duty.  So many people feel that way, regardless of career path, and it’s difficult to manage the expectations of job and homestead when you’re trying to do right by everyone involved.  What to do?

I am by no means an expert on the subject of balancing homestead and off-homestead employment.  Anyone who knows me, knows that, if anything, I’m an example of what not to do when trying to “have a life” despite my various agricultural obligations.  However, the start of a new year seems like a fitting time to attempt to write down those illustrious ideals that seem so easy to attain while the trees are bare and growing season is so far off.  Thus, I present five thoughts on how to manage when your work-life and your life-life seem to be at odds.

5.  Do not take your work home with you.

Every work/life advice column I’ve ever encountered covers this subject.  Turn off your cell phone, don’t answer your emails, and know that the office can do without you over the weekend or while you’re on vacation.  This is really, really sound advice.  The majority of us out there in the workaday world are not so absolutely essential to the continuing success of the human race that we cannot take a day off.  Most of us are also not so essential to the success of the company that employs us that we cannot take a day off, though the hyper-connectivity enabled by smartphones, Wi-Fi, and the threat of unemployment due to recession-induced cutbacks makes it very difficult for the ordinary worker to escape the feeling of being “essential personnel”, even when we’re not.

But then again, some of us are essential personnel—police, firefighters, EMTs, medical professionals, the armed forces—but of course, even they deserve time off, too.  The farm department at my own place of employ presently consists of exactly two people, and I’m one of them.  When you are responsible for other living things, you are, in fact, essential.  Snowstorm?  4-wheel drive.  Hurricane?  Batten down the hatches at home and head in.  Lambing problems?  Bring in the small hands.  Cows loose and can’t reach the farm manager?  Call in the reserves.

So what can you do to mitigate the strain?  Make agreements.  My boss knows not to call me on my days off unless it’s a genuine emergency, and I respect his days off in the same fashion.  If it’s a casual thought or question, or a semi-important update, we’ve agreed to text messages that will be answered when and if we feel like it.  I’m very fortunate that I have a boss who’s accommodating.  I know that not everyone has this luxury.  However, most employers are wise enough to know that a valuable employee is exactly that—valuable—and will listen when reasonable accommodations are requested.  It shouldn’t be necessary to request that one’s personal time be honored as such, but if you’re being harried by work during your non-working hours and days, it’s time to put in just such a request.

By freeing up your free time and making it truly your own, you allow yourself the freedom to do with it what you will.

4.  Learn from what you do at work.

Running a homestead or hobby farm requires a vast myriad of skills, unless you’re willing and/or able to pay for hired help to cover those tasks where you fall short on ability and/or knowledge.  No matter what you do for off-homestead work, you probably are acquiring knowledge that can be useful at home.

Do you work as an administrator?  Your office skills will become invaluable if you mean to profit from your hobby farm.  Bookkeeping, accounting, taxes, record-keeping, filing systems, computer skills, scheduling… All of those have a place in the home-farm office.

Tech geek?  Design your farm website during your lunch break.  That seminar they sent you to on maximizing social media as a marketing tool?  Do your job and take home the skill set.

Line cook?  Watch the chef and develop your own recipes to include with your homegrown grass-fed beef or free-range eggs.  Test them on your family and friends and hopefully delight them all with your culinary prowess and ingenuity.

Mechanic?  Welder?  Plumber?  Electrician?  The possibilities are infinite.  Fix your truck and tractor; run underground pipes to make watering your livestock or garden easier; or wire your milking parlor or chicken coop for light (after consulting the local authorities, of course).

And if you have the good fortune to be apprenticed to an experienced farmer at work, learn everything you can from your mentor.  Even if you think it’s a silly question (can chickens get hiccups…?), ask it; you’ll learn things that are going to be invaluable at home.

3.  Make sure everyone in your household is as committed to homesteading as you are.

I hear horror stories from time to time about couples and families that launch into homesteading because it’s one person’s dream.  They pack up the station wagon and move to the countryside with the simple life gleaming in their rose-colored glasses.  And then the reality of farming sets in: the chores and milking before going in to work; the weeds that insist on growing while you’re not looking that must be pulled after a day of meeting after dull meeting; the root cellar flooding and requiring immediate bailout lest the harvest go to waste…

If you don’t have everyone onboard, it’s not going to work well.

While in the planning stages, make sure that each and every member of the household understands what a commitment farming is—even hobby farming.  The “hobby” adjective does not make the commitment any less time-consuming or permanent.  It still means early mornings; nighttime checks during foul weather and kidding season; and arranging for a farm-sitter if you even think about going away for more than 12 hours.  It means a serious outlay of your hard-earned savings to get established and keep going—possibly forever—unless your hobby turns profitable.  Not everyone dreams the same way.  Keep this in mind.

Before you buy the farm, ask your loved ones about how involved they intend to be in the new enterprise.  Ideally, everyone will be enthusiastic and in love with the plan.  In reality, you will probably face some pushback.  Try to sketch out each individual’s part in the grand scheme.  One early riser, one night owl?  One gets morning chores, the other evening.  Someone wants to be more integral to daily operations while someone else wants to handle the bookkeeping?  If that works for you, by all means—do it!  The key to a successful, happy homestead is cooperation, and cooperation is different for every household.  Whatever arrangement you make, try to be sure that it works for everyone; if you end up saddled with all the work all the time, it can breed resentment.  A little planning can go a long way in preventing dissatisfaction.

Establishing ideal divisions of labor in advance of, or early on in, your hobby farming adventure makes for a smoother lifestyle, overall, later on.  My husband and I blundered into this homesteading thing quite accidentally, so looking back, I can see how much better things could have gone if we’d had the opportunity to plan.  (However, despite flying by the seat of our pants for two years, we’re doing just fine, so don’t panic if you don’t have time to plan ahead.)  One of you has to leave for work at 5:30 and the other at 7:45?  One makes the coffee, the other does chores.  Whoever’s closest to Agway picks up hay on the way home.  You get the drift.

Weekends provide their own joys, assuming you’ve established your work-life boundaries (see #5, above).  You can sleep in (read: 7:00).  You can do chores in your pajamas.  You can pick hay chaff out of your bathrobe for a month after doing chores in your pajamas.  You can browse seed catalogues over your morning coffee.  You can hang laundry out on the line while your chickens play peek-a-boo with the clothes flapping in the breeze.  But most of all, you can spend time with your favorite people, doing things you care about.

2.  Keep doing things you love to do.

It’s easy to have your full-time job at home consume your every waking minute.  Do not, I repeat, do not forget that there is life off the farm.

Did you have friends before you began homesteading?  You should call them regularly, if not more often.  Did you go out with your spouse occasionally?  Don’t forget to do that from time to time, if you can still afford it.  Did you have hobbies other than watching your garden grow?  You should keep them up.  Oh, and don’t forget to call your mother…

I know how easy all that sounds, but, there are a lot of days when the very last thing I want to do after slinging a hundred hay bales several times over is think about putting on clean clothes and going to meet a friend in town for a drink.  But you know what?  It’s important.  Very, very important.  Even if all I can imagine doing is throwing on some fuzzy pants and collapsing on the sofa for a long, long winter’s nap, maintaining your friendships, your family relations, and your hobbies is crucial to your future as a successful farmer and human being.

I’ve found that the business of maintaining a life is best accomplished in increments.  I am no longer capable of surviving on four hours of sleep a week, so the concept of socializing until all hours when I have to be up at stupid-o’clock the next morning is infeasible; planning an early evening with a friend is not beyond reach, however.  I cannot sit and knit for six hours straight the way I did when part of my income depended on it, but I can manage ten rounds on a sock while I’m waiting for potatoes to boil.  And the hardest lesson I’ve learned is to spend part of my days off from work-work doing nothing of consequence: reading the news, watching the kittens bounce off the walls (and furniture and curtains and…), and planning future dinner parties.  I suggest a similar strategy if you, too, have forgotten about having a life outside the homestead.  Pick one activity to revive, play with that for a week or two, and add another once it’s become a habit again.  The process takes time, but it adds up to a well-rounded life.

1.  Do not bring your work home with you.

This bears repeating, especially if you work on a farm and don’t intend to have one at home.  Do not, under any circumstances, take your work home with you if it fits in a pet carrier and requires a bottle every few hours.  Especially if it has tiny, little, cloven hooves and big, soulful eyes that demand your love.  Extra-especially if your boss decides he doesn’t want that little creature back, because then you might end up with a farm at home and need this article and a whole library of homesteading books to figure out your new life…

And if you’ve already fallen prey to such a happenstance, good luck and welcome to the club.  You don’t need me to tell you that it’s the best life out there.

You already know.

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