guest essay: partnering with mother earth
by Denise O'Brien of Rolling Acres Farm
photos by Roderick Aichinger, courtesy of Denise
Today is cold, windy and cloudy - an ordinary weather report for a January. I'm trying to concentrate on putting Christmas decorations away while listening to some great blues from a favorite radio station in Pittsbugh, Pa. Once in a while I will jump up and dance especially when I hear Aretha sing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T!" it's impossible not to dance to that song. Although I am not too partial to the intense cold we have been having for the past few weeks, I love winter so I can slow down and rest. If I could, I would hibernate like our bear friends.
Forty three years ago I met a great looking guy at a bar in my hometown who said he was going to be an organic farmer. I'm not sure that it was the organic farmer part or the good looking part but six months later we married and starting a life in farming. Whew! Our time together farming has been a rollercoaster ride with incredible highs and lows but farming is where we started our life together and will more than likely end it; not that I am looking for it to end any time soon.
I am lucky - I married someone who was from the land both literally and figuratively . Larry was and continues to be the most grounded person I have ever met. He comes from the land and will go back to the land. Because he grew up on the farm he absorbed the rhythms of the land and the animals. When the sun comes up you go out and feed and water the animals. Before the sun sets you make sure everthing/one is comfortable for the night.
My life was touched by farming when I was a little girl about two years old. My father used to tease me and tell me we had to move out of our Omaha home because I was so ornery. I'll never know. My father and mother moved from a house that my father built with a GI loan after WWII to an acreage with four kids on the edges of Omaha, Nebraska where we had electricity but an outside toilet. We had chickens and a couple of cows. My father worked off the farm as an ironworker just out of the Navy. My mother was home with the first four of eight children. I must have also absorbed the flow of things farming because later in my twenties I would finally become a farmer.
When we started farming there was very little information about organics. The Rodale Press was about the only source. The skills I brought to this partnership was a willingness to learn and a very strong commitment to working the land. Larry brought a strong commitment to the environment wanting to leave the earth in better condition than when he took on the responsibility of farming. Young and idealistic, we thought we would change the world.
Challenges are plenty - using old equipment that always had to be repaired. It still makes my day when I head to the field without having to fix something first. Long hours, low pay but beautiful sunrises and sunsets make up for some of the negative aspects of farming. I chuckle to myself when people say to me "You are so lucky to be a farmer!" or "I would love to do what you are doing!". Yes, I do feel lucky but also know that their romantic version of farming is far from reality.
The challenges that rear their heads have been pretty consistent over the years - money, weather, disease, pests and the lack of time to accomplish all that needs to be done. I am grateful every day that I can be on the land and that people actually pay me to grow their food. There are times that I stand tall, take a 360 view and breathe in deeply eventually letting out a long satisfied sigh. There are other times that I am overwhelmed and stressed by the work ahead of me - toiling in the field in 100 degree temperatures or being outside when it's -20 trying to keep things running and surviving. That's when I wake up at 3:30 a.m. and can't get back to sleep.
Being a partner with Mother Earth makes me feel fulfilled but it doesn't pay the bills. I feel fortunate that Larry and I have been able to raise three children who are happy and healthy and now raising children of their own. I often feel that times are different now and being a farmer now is even more difficult. We lived in a time when we could pay our college debt and live without health insurance because healthcare was less costly. We lived in a time that land costs were less and that we had access through Larry's family. Larry's mother and father made a lot of sacrifices for us to be able to farm their land and eventually buy a piece of it.
Our commitment to justice for the land and the people who participate in every aspect of the food system is deep within our souls. Every day I am grateful for my health and for the opportunity to work the land. I can do that because Larry works off the farm and brings home a paycheck. The farm pays its own way but our daily living comes out of his check. There was a time in the 80s when we both worked the land and were somewhat able to make a living. Some of it was luck and some of it was the hard work we put into the farm every day.
My reflective mood on this wintry day in January gives me the courage to continue to pursue my dreams as a farmer. It also helps me appreciate all that has unfolded in my life to give me the experiences to make me feel complete.
Okay, reflection time is over - time to get back to the business at hand. Christmas and celebrating the New Year has gotten in the way of finishing my books for the season, calculating production and putting my seed order together. Planning how and when we will put up the 20' x 96' high tunnel in the spring. Winter seems to get shorter every year - soon I will be starting tomatoes and peppers to be planting in the high tunnel in April.