Last night there was a potluck for Baltimore-area women farmers. The meet-up was really inspiring, a little bit nerve-wracking, but definitely the thing I needed to snap me out of this winter hibernation mode I've been feeling lately.
There was a range of farming experience among us, from desk jockeys like me (hence me feeling a little nerve-wracked at my lack of formal training or even farm internship experience!) to women working at various non-profit urban farms in the area, to at least four ladies who started farms on their own.
That's right, one young woman grew enough food to feed a 40 person CSA all on her own, on rented land in Calvert County. Whoa!
Of course, even the 40 person CSA and selling to restaurants on the side only netted her about $4000. That's for an entire growing season, with twelve hour days of hard labor, and little time to see family or friends because the farm always needs attention. We talked a lot about this dilemma.
Can farming be a sustainable path?
There are farmers out there making it work. Interns and volunteers provide essential assistance, and are welcome company for solo farmers. At Boone Street I can't say thank you enough to all of the volunteers who helped us build the hoop house, weed, pick up trash, and mow.
Direct to consumer CSAs and restaurant marketing provide a solid customer base, and many farms seem to earn enough through this path to get by.
I mentioned that it would be great for farmers to partner directly with a restaurant so they could reap more of the profits earned from food sales. In my experience, value-added foods are great for stretching farm profits, but there is no way a farmer has enough time to make hand-made foods on top of growing the produce themselves.
Small scale farming is tough, and we talked about what we see down the road.
The ones who earned a few thousand dollars through successful CSAs plan on trying it again next year, but the long term plans are still to be worked out. The ones who struggled with their land or had other issues with their farms are figuring things out, looking for new land or volunteering at other farms. Those of us at city non-profit or volunteer farms like Boone Street will keep going however we can, and hopefully we will learn as we go how small scale farming and gardening can be brought back into cities. Each year brings new lessons.
We talked about loneliness for the solo farmers, the empowering feeling of making decisions and seeing things grow, the importance of support systems, and how it's nice to have winter to regroup.
The meet-up gave me some food for thought about my own motivations and future plans.
I wouldn't call myself a farmer. I don't know if I have the desire or dedication required for the job. My personal plan for next year is to do as much work to support Boone Street as I can, because it's been so great having neighbors stop by the garden and get excited about the growing plants, and to have that fresh food available in a neighborhood dominated by fast food.
But I think my personal goal and main focus needs to be simpler: to grow enough cheap, pesticide-free, amazingly fresh, non-conventional produce as I can to eat all year round and share with friends and family.
It will always be a bit of a struggle to maintain a healthy balance, doing all the work necessary to grow and make your own food on top of a full time job, but I think that's the path for me.
After meeting with all of these amazing women and seeing their own dedication and hard work, I won't feel like as much of a weirdo when I'm canning at 1 a.m. in the morning any more. I'll just remember all of my farming lady friends, and know they'd understand.
And now for some exciting news!
I just found out moments ago that Boone Street was awarded a grant for next year, so we can now afford a refrigerator for storing produce, market supplies, and even a small stipend so we can give away free samples of produce at our market.
Now all we've got to do is figure out how to balance earning a livable wage and growing food!
The good thing is, we've got a support system to help us figure that out and keep us inspired while we do it.
If you're interested in reading more about homegrown living in Baltimore City, come say hi over at http://www.baltimorediy.org/