The Growing Season: What Farming Taught Me About Life

A tale of personal growth from a year of farming

Green is good.

In 2017, I decided to take a sabbatical from startups by spending the growing season working on a farm. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Suffice it to say, I learned more than I could have hoped for.

The quick backstory: After seven years working in startup companies, I realized I had gotten off course and lost sight of what mattered to me. During the most intense periods, I did not feel in control of my own life: My time, energy, and values were acutely determined by external factors (the need for growth, constant deadlines, a focus on the future, aiming big for the sake of it, a contrived sense of purpose). I needed a break.

For awhile, I’ve had a fanciful inkling that I’d end up on some rustic land (Farmer Aaron at your service!)— but at some indeterminable point in the future. I figured, why wait? The timing worked out and the uneasiness I had in considering the idea suggested that I should try it (for me, if something is uncomfortable and there is a feeling of resistance, it is probably better to pursue it).

Yea, what the hell, I gave it a go.

Chicken coop with little chicky friends.

What I hoped to get out of farming

Principally, I wanted to be in an environment that provided freedom for mental space, and of course, to see if I actually enjoyed farming.

Tangibly, I wanted to get a better sense of how food is grown and to understand what a robust system for local food production entails. I also love being outdoors and appreciate the visceral feedback of working with my hands. This was a falling back into myself of sorts.

Circumstantially, I’m a firm believer that we (humans) are critically influenced by our environment, that this shapes our character. I wanted to be able to cut away the external faff in order to dig back to my core.

Ultimately, I plucked down on a 5 acre farm in upstate New York. There were many lessons to be had.

Lessons learned:

  • Time moves incredibly slow and remarkably fast. The season can pass in a blink, peppers may take 3+ months to mature. You will be shocked by how quickly lettuce can grow in a day in peak season. You see up-close that time moves at different speeds.
  • There is profound beauty in seeing and nurturing the entire life-cycle of a plant. You develop a sense of care and attachment, it’s hard not to.
  • You are affected by the seasons, it is primal. Living with the seasons is dramatically different when you are outside for 8–12 hours a day. You are ensconced in the world; You smell, see, feel, hear it all. The morning air is unfamiliar in August compared to May, wind patterns alter course, dirt changes in consistency and taste, animals migrate. You are but a small part of the larger scheme.
  • Life is simple. With a narrowed focus of concern, the primary matters are about the tasks of today, keeping an eye on the upcoming weather, and being adaptive to the circumstances. Nothing outside the factors for growing are of much worry.
  • You can live small, self-sufficiently: There really wasn’t a need to leave the farm as there is nearly everything required to survive on the premise. (I did often leave the farm, i.e., to head to New York City. Thank god for civilization).
  • Food matters. How it’s grown matters. Fresh tastes better. Investing in something makes it taste better. People can genuinely love produce.
  • An “alternative lifestyle” is possible and enjoyable! There are other ways to live, other values to operate by. [2]
  • It is very, very difficult to stay pissed off when your hands are in the dirt. Literally, Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacteria in dirt, can trigger seratonin release. [3]
  • Low potential financial reward, high risk. Doesn’t make sense as a business venture unless you really care about the lifestyle. Not for everyone.
  • The day is long. You have time for yourself, time for others, time for ideas, time for meditation all throughout.
  • 1st critical factor for farming (the act of): Planning is 70% of the outcome. You need to map out your growing schedule (take into account the changing weather of the seasons + quantity of sunlight, pest and disease migration, crop rotation, etc. and how all of these factors will influence crop development), be proactive with maintenance, develop proper systems. Flexibility is 20%: You need to be adaptable to the conditions. Execution is physically challenging, but it’s the easy part if you did the upfront work well.
  • 2nd critical factor: Systems make the “machine” run (smoothly or like mucky shit). Everything you do on the farm can be systematized and should be evaluated, tested, and tinkered with. Lean principles work well here.
  • 3rd critical factor: The team; You better get it right. You’re around each other all the time; Personalities in tight quarters are highly influential (good and bad). Weak links show. Division of labor is important, but not always practical.

Conclusion:

It is helpful to remove yourself from your circumstances in order to gain a differentiated view on where you’ve been and where you’re coming from. By doing so you can clear out space (mental, physical, otherwise) to catch the resonance of your inner workings.

In the end, I learned farming is not for me at this time (too location restrictive — as I write this from Budapest, while it is intellectually stimulating from a systems-development perspective I’m looking for other cognitive challenges at the present, not enough financial reward), but I’m open to making my way to a farm in the future.

Saying that, if you’re up for getting back to your roots, I would recommend that you try farming for a season. You may just grow from it.

Sunset over the Shawangunks.

[1] Looking back, in part, I think I experienced frustration because I wasn’t building products I truly believed in and I wasn’t solving problems I really cared about (I deluded myself a bit). This will be a primary criteria when evaluating opportunities going forward.

[2] Funny that such a fundamental occupation for the bulk of human existence is now seen as alternative in the advanced world.

[3] Source: http://www.hortmag.com/blogs/gardening-blog/dirt-can-make-you-happy