What a year! You know, 2020 was a rough year, but back in 2020 you could just say, hey, next year will be better. Who knew 2021 would be even worse? Not much went really well on the farm last year. Worst of all, trying to hire people for the farm last year was nuts. I ended up calling the interview “the mirror test” – if you can steam up a mirror you’re hired. Of course, this meant someone had to show up for a scheduled interview, and then show up for the first day of work. Much harder than you might think. I sent out 23 W-2s in January for what ended up being a 5 person crew. Let that sink in.
And, I especially want to thank my 2021 crew who stayed with me for their full commitment. This was one of the best crews I’ve ever had. A marine engineer, genuinely skilled trades people, a paralegal, students of neuroscience, pre-med, and some undecided. Absolutely amazing young people, all! I will miss you and wish you the best as you move on to do great things. If ever there was a small group of young people to give us hope for the future, this was the crew.
On the other hand, I’ve had felons and addicts work for me before, but this is the first time I had a felon who threatened me and, upon reporting it, had the local police tell me that if he came back, I should take shelter, lock the doors, and call them immediately. And an addict who was hired for full time work, then showed up 22.5 hours in the first 80 hour, two-week pay period, and then 9 hours in the second one; and then was surprised when I said, “gee, this isn’t working out”. And of course, aside from the people who accepted the job and then simply didn’t show up, there were all the people who just walked off the job without saying anything. It is a weird, weird world right now.
Again, the people who did stay were awesome and fun to have around, there just weren’t ever enough of them to get everything done. There were seedlings we couldn’t get planted, field crops we couldn’t get weeded, ready crops that we couldn’t get harvested, machinery we couldn’t repair or maintain, etc., etc., etc.. And then serendipity happened.
Someone told me about a job that a friend might be interested in, and I went on a job website to find it to email to her. While I was there I thought, hmm, I wonder if anyone is looking for engineers. As I scrolled down through the first few engineer ads, there was one for a landfill engineer, which is what I used to do. Then I read further, and it was the company I used to work for! Turns out hiring engineers is as hard as hiring farm workers right now and there were TONS of ads. Who knew? I applied for that and some other things, and it turns out that people were so desperate for engineers they’d even hire me, after the years I’ve been away from it. Again, who knew?
In November I went back to the same place I was 25 years ago. Through December I was out drilling holes through a plastic cover into an 80-foot deep papermill sludge landfill. It was cold and wet most of the time, and so windy one day that I was standing on some ice on the plastic, and a gust of wind came along and literally blew me down! And I’m LOVING it! I am absolutely having the time of my life, thrilled to be back at it. I left when I was about 35 to focus on raising our kids (and start the farm), and when I walk back into that same office I left, I feel just like I’m 35 again. How sweet is that??
I had 22 terrific years doing the farm. But after 25 years, the stresses of the economic, political, and social forces conspiring against small farms like this made it clear that it was time to move on. Around mid January, when I would normally be stressed out about keeping the greenhouses running in the cold, finding seed that was already sold out everywhere, advertising for help (see above), and finding the time and money to maintain the equipment and everything else that needs to be in top shape come April, I realized that I haven’t missed the farm at all since I started my job. Since I made my changes, I’ve watched the price of heating fuel more than double; labor cost is up more than 100% over the last 5 years; seed, potting mix, fertilizer, and everything else is up astronomically since just last year. This model of farming is no longer “sustainable”. Who knew all of that was coming in just one year, and more importantly, who knows where it’s all going?
All I can say is that when a door is closing, start looking for a window. 2021 turned out pretty well after all. I feel very lucky to have had an excellent option. My thoughts and prayers are with all the amazing people I know from farming who are still at it, whether through insatiable passion, stubborn optimism, or sadly for a few, lack of choice. If you’re looking for an alternative, find a local family owned farm who is a member of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association and look for retailers who carry their products. They are great people and they’re the best of the best at what I used to do.
I have high hopes for 2022, primarily because I am incorrigibly optimistic. I wouldn’t have farmed as long as I did if I weren’t. I have enormous gratitude to all the CSA members and restaurant customers who appreciated the fruits (and vegetables) of my efforts over those 25 years. I miss you and wish all of you a very happy 2022 and beyond…