I dream of having a farm

Have we missed our chance to leave the city and buy a tractor and raise crops and animals?

Published June 7, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'll be honest with you. I am having a midlife crisis and I need some advice. I'm not interested in having an affair or traveling around the world or buying a sports car. I just want a farm.

Here is some background on my situation. I've been happily married for close to two decades and we have one delightful child. My husband and I both have college degrees in the fine arts (I have a master's degree) and after graduation, chose to pursue administrative positions in arts organizations rather than creative jobs, as we felt that there would be more job security and available positions out there.

We've both worked for our respective organizations for more than a decade, and we are both feeling burnt out. The downturn in the economy has been very rough on arts organizations. We are asked to do more and more yet neither of us has had a raise in years, and many of our benefits have been cut, including health and dental. Other jobs in our field are now few and far between, and have the same declining pay and benefits, so new job searches have been futile.

Neither of us is interested in pursuing a new degree at this point in our lives.

We bought a modest old house in a Rust Belt city before the downturn, and we own one car, which has been paid off for a few years. We live frugally, with our only indulgence being a yearly vacation, usually to a national park, because I think it's important for our child to see different parts of this country and have new experiences.

We have done our best to pay off debt, and pay cash for any repairs to our aging house. Still, we have very little in savings because of our low salaries, the high cost of city living (it's difficult to live anywhere else because arts jobs tend to be in metropolitan areas) and the fact that we now have to pay medical and dental bills out of pocket. I constantly remind myself that there are so many other people who have it worse than we do, and to be grateful for what we have but I still can't help feeling trapped.

I have had a dream for many years now. I would love to live on a small farm. I want to be away from the city, grow much of our own food, keep animals and enjoy the solitude of nature. I try to satisfy this desire in my current situation by participating in a community garden, going hiking in our metroparks when we can, driving out in the country to look at the scenery, and visiting farmer's markets. These trips often make me feel worse by intensifying the longing. In a simple world, we would sell our house and move. Life is never that simple, though. The housing market in our community has tanked. There are homes on our street that have now been for sale for years. I can't imagine we could manage to sell our house for anything but a large loss, if at all.

I think about this new life I want much too often. I think about leaving my job and spending my days digging in the dirt. I know it's completely unrealistic -– with the money we make and the amount we could expect to get from selling our house we could never afford even a modest farm. Not only do you need to finance the land, house and barn, but you need equipment like tractors and feed for your animals. If we lived away from the city my husband could no longer take public transportation so we'd have to buy another car. The cost of gas to commute would be astronomical. Telecommuting is out of the question. We can't afford this much. I feel trapped and floundering. I wish we had taken a risk like this years ago, when we were younger and the economy wasn't so bad, but we've never been risk-takers.

What really took my feelings over the edge was a conversation I had recently with my mother. She is a child of the '60s and always wanted to get involved with the back-to-the-land movement but it never happened. When I was a child she would talk about how our family would someday move to a farm. It never happened. When I was a teenager she would talk about how she and my father would move out to a farm so that their grandchildren could play in the woods and ride a pony. It never happened. Now her only grandchild, my child, is too old to ride a pony. She told me that she hopes we can someday have some land and animals, because she realizes that her time has gone and she will never have her farm, and it breaks my heart. Her dream never came true, and now I can see I am on the same path. I'm afraid there is just too much at stake to take a risk, though. I don't want to lose what we have, even though it isn't much, but I also don't want to wake up in 20 years in the same house with the same job and realize my time has gone too.

Wishful Farmer

Dear Wishful Farmer,

There has to be a way to increase your participation in nature and farming without necessarily buying a farm yourself.

Growing stuff yourself is one way. I know you are involved in a community garden. Keep at it. Grow things and eat them. Work with what you have. Do more of what works. Support urban farming.

The other way is to form a partnership with someone who has a farm. If there is a way to bring an arts program to a farm, then the arts organization gains space and the farm gains customers for its produce.

Arty people like barns. They also like a new place to drive to if their friends don't know about it yet.

Here is a weird thing. Maybe it will show what I mean about arty people and barns and farmers.

So Sunday our friend takes us to a late brunch/early dinner at this kinda fancy hip place in North Beach in San Francisco. So we're eating food, right, which is normal. But the restaurant has brought The Farmer right into the restaurant in his overalls so people can see and talk to The Farmer. The Farmer goes from table to table with his cherries. He gives us cherries. He towers over us, beaming. The farmer in his overalls is tall and happy-looking.

I figure The Farmer is happy because going from table to table giving people cherries is the easiest work he's ever done.

It was very "Portlandia."

Meeting The Farmer was a little like being invited backstage after a show. You don't need to go backstage. You just saw them perform. But people want you to go backstage and say words and touch them so you do. You say words and touch them and then you can leave.

So now farmers are rock stars.

When farmers are rock stars it tells you something about alienation. But if this is postmodernism, can there even be alienation? I'm not sure, I'm still trying to work it out. Maybe it's a different kind of alienation, an un-self-aware alienation.

Our friend has luxurious taste. We were talking about flying and fear of flying and her friend says, "She has fear of flying ... coach."

So you've got this weird cultural divide. You've got people who love food and you've got farmers who are fetishized like rock stars.

At the bar were these amazing-looking couples, and I was thinking, where do they get people like that. My wife says, "They're the rich." Oh. I thought they were athletes or movie stars. I live in a city full of rich and famous people but I don't see them much. I don't see farmers either. That's why they have to put them in restaurants, I guess -- so we see them.

Further on this problem, though it may seem tangential: I was thinking yesterday that there's something wrong with money. That's why we live in bad houses. A developer figures out how to make enough money based on the salaries people are given and people move into houses based on what they can afford. But the houses are bad. That doesn't make sense. Houses should be good. We should figure out the money part. That's why I think there's something wrong with money, if we're living in bad houses.

Why is money such an inelastic commodity? Why is it so limited?

This is where I get into trouble with money.

I also think there is something wrong with the small economic units we work in, units of the nuclear family. There ought to be larger economic units for purposes of larger projects.

There are probably farm owners who would like to sell a share of their farm, or barter a share of their farm in return for labor and/or an expanded market for their cherries.

Between your family and my family is an informative contrast. Things can go wrong either way. My mother bought a bunch of land, cheaply, way off the grid and she went up there and homesteaded and lived for the last 25 years of her life, until in her 80s she couldn't tote stuff up and down the mountain anymore.

It was pretty remarkable and pretty strange what she did. She loved nature and solitude and that's what she got. She got what she wanted but it came at a high price socially. It was hard to get up there and there was no running water or electricity so houseguests were few, including her own children, who liked to visit but found the going too rough. This took a toll psychologically on everyone. It created ruptures in the family as we tried to maintain relationships. It also meant huge amounts of her labor were spent in routine tasks such as bathing and preparing food and keeping the place habitable, though she still had ample solitude and free time in the woods.

But back to this problem of the farm.

You are good at economic planning and are not a risk-taker. You both administer things that involve groups. I think you could put together a plan that would involve farm activity and animals. You could do it either in your town or with a farm outside of your town. You could do it in such a way that it does not place an unworkable economic burden on your nuclear family. The nuclear family may be too small an economic unit to support such large ventures. I really think we have to reevaluate our economic units.

And I think there's something wrong with our money.

I wish I knew where you live. I could come there and drive around with you and look at places.

I should do that. I should come and drive around with you. It would be very "Portlandia."

Maybe we could find a farmer and put him in the back seat.

By Cary Tennis

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