What 10 Years On an Organic Farm Taught Me About Myself
Changing your career won’t change who you are.
When it comes to career trajectory, I peaked early. It was 15 years ago; I was in my early 30s, and I was working my way up the ranks as a TV journalist. My wife, Gillian, was on track to make partner at her boutique management consulting firm. We lived in a beautiful house in downtown Toronto. We were earning salaries that had seemed unattainable just a few years earlier. Everything was going according to plan. Well, almost everything.
The problem was, we were tired and stressed out and overworked. Both of us had bosses who acted like they had just been plucked from central casting — total assholes. Then we had two kids in two years, and everything fell apart. Suddenly, climbing the corporate ladder no longer felt like the most important thing in the world. Suddenly, we fell out of love with the rat race. We weren’t happy, and it was clear to both of us that nothing short of drastic change was necessary. So we did something that lots of people dream of, but few actually do. We threw everything away — our careers, our home, our life in the city — and we bought a farm.
Now, the City Folk Move To The Country story is an old trope, one that has experienced a revival in recent years. We all know how the narrative goes: there are humorous interactions with the locals, misadventures with farm animals, and at some point the discovery of the pleasures of a slower, simpler life. It doesn’t matter if it’s Green Acres or A Year in Provence; the storyline is essentially the same. Nowadays, the experience must be also be documented with a blog.
We kept to this script for the first few years after we made the move. We planted a garden and started selling our produce in the farmers’ market in the little village of Creemore, down the hill from our farm. Our coop wasn’t ready when our first batch of chickens arrived at the local feed store, so we ended up with 50 fluffy yellow chicks living in our bathtub. We did all the stupid things you would expect a couple of urban professions to do if they moved to a farm. But at some point our story diverged from the standard narrative, for one simple reason: we needed money.
Abandoning lucrative careers and liquidating all your assists to buy a run-down farm is not often a formula for financial success. After a couple of years of putzing about in the garden and pissing away our life’s savings, we were out of money, and we faced a stark choice: either put our tails between our legs and skulk back to the city, or turn our farm into a profitable business. We chose the later.
We attacked our new project with the same zeal that we had brought to our old careers. We expanded our gardens, started selling to restaurants and retail stores, we hustled and cajoled and cold-called clients, and we worked in the fields from dawn to dusk. But farming isn’t the easiest way to make money, as we soon discovered. To become profitable, we would have to work like dogs. For years.
On the rare occasions when old friends from the city would visit us, we always put on a good show. We would serve beautiful meals that were sourced entirely from our farm, and go for long walks on the spectacular trails that started from our back door. Our friends would lament their frenetic city lives and marvel at our transformation. “You guys are really living the dream!” they would say, or something to that effect. But to us, it often felt like we were living a nightmare.
We had become so obsessed with building our farm business that we had abandoned almost everything else; our friends, our family, our intellectual lives. We were even more tired and stressed out and overworked than we had been in the city. We created our own private rat race on the farm. When, after seven seasons of grinding toil, we started turning a reliable and substantial profit, we didn’t feel the elation that we had always anticipated. We didn’t feel like celebrating. The price had been too high.
That’s when I had the most important revelation of my life. When we became dissatisfied with our life in the city, we changed our careers, because that was the most radical change we could imagine. But in the end, that change didn’t mean shit, because what we changed wasn’t what was preventing us from being happy. The change we made didn’t matter, because we didn’t change ourselves.
I changed my career, but I still thought my career was my identity. I put all my effort into being a better farmer, just as I had put all my effort into being a better journalist. What I finally realized is that happiness would come when I focused on being a better father, a better husband, a better friend.
The good news is that Gillian and I shared this revelation before we destroyed our marriage and completely burned out. It wasn’t too late. We sat down and very deliberately mapped out a new set of priorities. Our life would no longer be lived in service to our business; our business would henceforth be focused on facilitating a good and meaningful life for our family. Creating wealth and opportunity for our employees became a primary goal. We would build partnerships with good food organizations to make our produce accessible to people living in poverty. For ourselves, we would concentrate on accumulating social capital — friends, happiness, good deeds — rather than money. We would, in short, change what’s important — our priorities, our outlook, ourselves.
The result has been transformative. Our business is now established, stable and profitable. We have paid off all our debt. Our farm is a place of community, where chefs, activists and foodies gather to plot the overthrow of industrial agriculture, high fructose corn syrup, and all else that is evil in the world. We’ve been the recipients of a great bonanza of social capital. Changing ourselves is still a work in progress; not everything is perfect, but the change is working.
It took a very long time, but I finally found what I was looking for when I left the city more than a decade ago. I finally found who I really am.