On becoming a farmer: How it's changing my world
It is six in the morning and the pigs are hungry. They have gathered at the edge of their forested home, familiar with the rhythm of their feedings. The famous Floridian humidity is already weighing down the air, and the sun rises pink and orange through the pine trees. Two of the youngest pigs run laps up and down the fence, kicking their heels with excitement.
The first time I brought them grain in the morning, I heedlessly stepped over the electric fence and was immediately swarmed by eager bodies. It only took one pig squirming between my legs to knock me onto the ground. Now I know the dance. I know to dump a small amount of feed just past the fence before I hop over it. This deception only lasts about five seconds - pigs are smart - but by then I am moving quickly to distribute grain between feedbowls, carefully skipping about to avoid dancing hooves. When my bucket is empty, the grunting pigs lose interest in me and set about eating.
Working at Swallowtail Farm is made up of a thousand tasks like this one. Weeding an overrun bed of beets, frying eggs for a crew of ten, navigating beds of lettuce and tomatoes aboard a tractor, curating a bridal bouquet of flowers, milking a cow, and harvesting pints of strawberries for market. These are the makings of a single day.
Two years ago I was a student at a small liberal arts college in my home state of Minnesota. I lived my days mostly indoors in a third floor Saint Paul apartment, spent the majority of my waking hours on my laptop, and bought all of my food at a grocery store. The only thing I did with my hands - aside from typing and flipping through pages of books - was fix my bike.
Now I live in a yurt, spend twelve hours outside every day caring for the plants and animals of Swallowtail Farm, and eat mostly what is produced on site. I am learning about plumbing, irrigation, livestock care, butchery, floral arrangement, car maintenance, all while farming five acres of vegetables. Over the last year and a half here, my shoulders have broadened and my hands have become rough.
The work I have done so far is unmistakably farming, but I am not yet sure if I can call myself a “Farmer.”
At Swallowtail, to be a farmer is to plant seeds and stake your future on the fragile shoots that poke out from the soil and open their leaves to the sun. It is to reason with unruly livestock before the sun comes up. It is to be bugbitten, sunburned, and sore. It is to know the lay of your land down to every tree and patch of clay. It is to wear many hats: horticulturist, salesperson, plumber, storyteller, carpenter, electrician… the list goes on. It is to have your heart broken with every late frost or natural disaster only to have it mend again when you get an email from a CSA member expressing their heartfelt gratitude: I did not know that food could be like this.
Until recently, I did not know this either. My reflexive response to farming had been to envision back-breaking manual labor, Grapes of Wrath-like descriptions of hardship and despair, and the vast monoculture of corn and soybeans that occupy my Midwestern homeland. At the same time, along with many of my friends, I tended to romanticize small scale organic agriculture as a beautiful answer to the complex question of what has gone wrong with our food system.
It’s not as simple as that. Farming is romantic and it is hard labor, but the work of growing the food that sustains and nourishes us is also honorable and worthy of immense respect. All of the farmers I have met thus far possess an intelligence and practicality that I greatly admire. At a farm I visited recently, one of the managers gave us a tour, directed the harvest [in Spanish], identified a possible pest issue with her pepper crop and came up with a pesticide-free plan to address it, put the finishing touches on a farm fresh meal for us to share, and made us laugh repeatedly - all within the space of two hours. Farmers do not beat around the bush. Their hands are adept and their minds sharp from years of problem-solving. I want to be like them.
There are many things I still do not understand, things I am not yet comfortable doing. Waking in the early morning darkness continues to be a disconcerting and uncomfortable process, even though the sunrises are priceless. I still also struggle with the required “fix it yourself” mentality. For most of my life people fixed things for me. But the kind of practical ignorance I used to possess is not a luxury afforded to farmers. Things break constantly. Fixing irrigation leaks, repairing hoses, operating new machinery - these are everyday tasks and they continue to unnerve me.
We are miles from the nearest gas station and twenty minutes from the nearest grocery store. This kind of inconvenience was unfathomable growing up in a city. But because we grow or trade for most of our food at Swallowtail, that inconvenience is fading in importance as I learn to appreciate the other things about my new life and what it all means.
Here is what I’ve realized since I moved here. First, I never expected to love living in the country. My yurt sits just five minutes from a nature preserve, and ten minutes from a freshwater spring with perfectly clear blue water and turtles. Our neighbors let us borrow rams for breeding our sheep, generators when the power goes out during a hurricane, and their time helping out with farm chores, in exchange for strawberries. We sometimes differ from one another politically and yet treat each other like family.
I began farming because I wanted to do something. I spent my college career studying the myriad environmental crises that threaten both ecosystems and people’s livelihoods across the world. Climate change, conflict over water, and soil degradation will change the world that I know in drastic and far-reaching ways in my lifetime by conservative estimates. Swallowtail’s commitment to organic practices, soil preservation and community engagement appealed to me. Farming in a way that nourishes and sustains the land seemed to be a way to create a better future. I recall taking inspiration from environmentalist Joanna Macy when I was deciding whether to move to Florida: “Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
Farming is keeping my natural cynicism at bay. I have learned that I am most hopeful (and most effective) when I am well fed. Devoting my time and energy to farming has allowed me to see a future that is bright, even as I’m surrounded by change and uncertainty. If my focus in college was on preventing a future I didn’t want to be a part of, what I want now is to create a future I do want to be part of.
The work of farming itself is remaking and shifting the way that I approach the world. I listen more, assume less. I used to think I had foresight and patience but only recently have I begun to learn what that means. Now, as the spring rain nourishes our fields and promises fresh green pasture for our dairy cows I am learning to, literally, watch the grass grow.
So am I a farmer? I’m not sure. There is still so much to learn, so much to do. I’m pretty sure we won’t always be able to count on importing fruit from South America and vegetables from New Zealand. I think, someday, there will be a strong need for people who know how to grow good food in adverse conditions right here in the United States. Perhaps I will be one of them. Perhaps I am already becoming one.
Tomorrow the Swallowtail crew will gather as we always do - to share a meal and plan the day in darkness.
Mornings are my favorite time of day here. The scent of coffee drifts out of open windows as the sun crests over the horizon. The sunflowers turn their faces towards the light, the creek makes its way past our fields of broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and the birds sing. After we finish breakfast a purple sky will greet us as we spill onto the porch and pull on our boots to begin the day. There will be weeding, planting and harvesting to do as long as there are people to feed.
Emily Sylvestre grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from Macalester College, where she studied Environmental Studies, Geography and African Studies. She is passionate about food justice, land stewardship, and community, interests she continues to explore every day at Swallowtail Farm.