organic farming is the best life possible but it's also probably the most difficult life

Image courtesy Chris Blanchard

When plants and animals don’t take time off and the work can be all-consuming, how can farmers balance work life with personal life?

Leading sustainable farmers from across the U.S. and Canada grapple with this topic—and many others—on Chris Blanchard’s nationally renowned Farmer to Farmer podcast.

Blanchard, who owned and operated Rock Spring Farm in northeast Iowa for 14 years before shifting his focus to farming education, is intimately familiar with the competing demands of work and personal obligations. As his commitments to his farm grew, his marriage dissolved and he found himself disconnecting with the things that brought him joy. “I had always wanted a farm with a trout stream,” he commented, “and in three years, the only times I went down to the trout stream was to turn on the irrigation.”

With concerted effort, which included making space in his work schedule to take up hobbies such as taekwondo, Blanchard learned to take better care of the parts of his life beyond the farm: his relationships with his children and his current partner, and his relationship with himself.

Blanchard presented insights he’s gleaned on achieving work-life balance from the more than 150 conversations he’s had with farmers on his podcast during his keynote address at our 2018 Winter Conference. Here are some of the common threads of advice he shared.

Constrain the work day.

Rather than working from sunup to sundown, put limits on the number of hours you work each day. “Being overworked makes it difficult to make a living,” said Dave Chapman from Long Wind Farm in Vermont. Because you’re more focused and less exhausted, a shorter and defined workday can actually yield better results.

Dan Brisebois from Tourne Sol Co-Operative Farm Quebec implemented a seemingly counterintuitive scheduling approach on his farm: During the height of the season, he lets his staff go home early on Fridays. Brisebois observed that this strategy results in greater efficiency and performance from his employees, at precisely the time when the farm needs it most.

Value yourself.

“Valuing ourselves is a risk management action,” said Laura Frericks from Loon Organics in Minnesota. Put your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those you love first. Otherwise, you may find yourself losing sight of the reasons you are farming in the first place. “I’ve designed the farm so that it serves my life, and not so that I am a servant to the farm,” said Dave Hambleton from Sisters Hill Farm in New York.

Additionally, recognize the financial worth of your work. Make sure you are developing and adhering to a business model that is financially sustainable, not only so that you can continue to do what you love, but so that you continue to love what you do. Anna Cure from Cure Organic Farm in Colorado put it simply: “Profits preserve passion.”

profits preserve passion

Image courtesy Chris Blanchard

Communicate effectively to prevent and manage conflict.

Clearly convey your expectations to employees to mitigate potential issues and confusion down the road. Lydia Ryall from Cropthorne Farm in Vancouver, British Columbia stressed the importance of taking the time to listen to the people around you and treat them with respect—particularly during the busiest and most straining parts of the season. Farmers working alongside a partner or spouse emphasized the importance of discussing and deciding on a division of labor and roles to minimize conflict.

Some farmers have learned effective communication by implementing a clearly defined management model, such as holistic farm management, to guide decision-making and set expectations. Others improvise their own approaches. For Mike Brownback from Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania, effective communication between him and his son often consists of working through issues in email exchanges. In the Brownbacks’ case, the relative distance and impersonal nature of this method of communication serves to defuse some of the emotional aspects of managing conflict.

Ask for help when you need it.

Many farmers are drawn to their profession as a statement and path towards independence, so can find it difficult to look to others for support. Embracing community, however, has been a common theme in the success of many farms. Lindsey Shapiro from Root Mass Farm in Pennsylvania accepted loans from friends and family when she and her partner Landon were starting out.

Many farmers have identified their market customers, CSA members, farmhands, and volunteers as integral to their success. Recognizing—and celebrating—that you don’t need to farm alone, that farming relies on community support, can be key to maintaining your health and wellbeing.

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This article was originally published in PCO Organic‘s spring edition of Organic Matters. PCO Organic works to ensure the integrity of organic products and provide education, inspection, and certifying services that meets the needs of their members.