Organic Broadcaster

The Bollingers (Oliver, Mike, Katie, Adeline) enjoy biking in the mountains in Jamaica in December. Photo submitted

Carving out time for family, social life helps farmer create work-life balance

By Mike Bollinger

I didn’t grow up on a farm, my parents did. Their South Dakota farm was located about seven miles from the border with North Dakota. It took almost six hours to travel there every holiday break and the handful of other times we would go to see my grandparents each year. At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that we were always traveling to see my grandparents and rarely was it the other way around. I was focused on whether or not I was going to get to ride the four-wheeler around the farm, or if they were going to open up the school gym so I could shoot baskets. I was also concerned with how long it would be until we were headed back home to the city.

At family gatherings, sitting around the table sharing stories about times past, we would often replay stories that would bring us to tears as we laughed. One of those stories we like to recount is a time my grandfather came home and went down to the basement to take a shower and clean up, as was his usual routine after long hours working on the farm. When dinnertime came and he hadn’t come back upstairs, my Mom asked me to go down and get him. Before I saw him, I heard him. I came around the corner and saw him sawing logs on his favorite chair. But, what gets my sister teary-eyed laughing, was how he was sleeping on the chair—bent over with his head resting where you normally put your rear end. As non-farmers and grandchildren, we found that hilarious. For him as a farmer with countless hours of work, that position gave him a place to rest his head and put his aching back at ease.

Almost a decade later, I was on a farming adventure with my new partner in life, Katie. We were stewarding the small homestead of back-to-the-land gurus, Helen and Scott Nearing, on a beautiful small cape in coastal Maine. We were living in a community of incredibly inspiring people—farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, artists. As is the case with entrepreneurs and small business owners, they always had projects they were working on and, for that reason, we usually just waved in passing. Except for Wednesdays. Wednesday was sauna and potluck day. Basking in the heat of the sauna, rinsing in a pond or a spring, and eating abundant homemade dishes made by each person attending felt like a luxury.

The original intention was to carve out one time a week to step away from work, spend time in community, and, of course, to bathe. Mealtime was always a joy. In the midst of real-time conversation, jokes, stories about “that one time when…,” there were also moments that seemed like ritual to us, one of which was the reading of E.B. White’s essay “Memorandum” each spring. His essay is essentially an endless list of things he ought to do on his farm that day. “I ought to finish husking the corn and wheel the old stalks out and dump them on the compost pile, and while I am out there, I should take a fork and pitch over the weeds…” The list of things he ought to do that day lasts for more than seven pages. The story ends because he notices it is getting dark out and that he better get started. At the close of the essay, laughter breaks out amongst the group. Understanding the realities of the coming season and the work that will pile, the simple outburst of laughter acknowledges that one will never be all caught up, there is always something to be done—we all have come to terms with that.

It has been almost 15 years since our time in Maine, but that time solidified our passion for agriculture. Since then, we’ve had many opportunities: as workers for the Chicago Botanic Garden, as managers, as agricultural consultants, as co-founders of a greenhouse company, and, for the last several years, as owners of River Root Farm in Decorah, Iowa.

At the outset, it was just the two of us with our abundant energy, time, and a drive to pursue our passion for agriculture. Since we’ve had two children, Oliver (11) and Adeline (9), we bought and sold a farm, moved our farm infrastructure, explored wholesale markets, farmers markets, and tried a winter CSA. Now that the dust has settled, we seem to have found our niche selling wholesale salad greens, microgreens, herbs, florals, and spring plant starts.

Work-Life Balance
I don’t claim to be an expert on work-life balance. In fact, since being asked to write this article, I’ve tried to be a quick study. Wikipedia was a good place to start. Forbes wrote a good article outlining the art. And, if the Organic Broadcaster handled multimedia, I would replace this article with Chris Blanchard’s keynote presentation at the MOSES 2018 conference.

Joking aside, having worked side by side through every agricultural enterprise with Katie, we have been through times where we felt like we had it all figured out and times when one or both of us were ready to throw in the towel. I definitely didn’t have it figured out the year I got home from an early morning delivery run to Katie making breakfast for the kids only to realize several hours later that it was her birthday. I also didn’t have it figured out the day I came in after a long day, ate dinner, sat down on the couch to ask the kids a couple of questions about their school day and literally fell asleep before they had a chance to answer. I woke up to Katie sending me a video of me passed out snoring on the couch. And to bring the story of my grandpa full circle, the time I came in for the day and just took a nap right on the living room floor!

While I could go on, I’d like to shift gears. To do this, it makes sense to go back to Maine, and more specifically to the Nearings and our first real deep dive into living with intention. In Living the Good Life, they wrote, “We were fairly hopeful of the future, but inexperienced in the ways of subsistence living and somewhat uncertain as to how we should proceed. After due consideration and in the spirit of the times, we drew up a 10-year plan.” They continued, “This plan was not made out of whole cloth, all at once. It was flexible, but in principle and usually in practice we stuck to it.”

To the Nearings, a “good life” provided equal value and time to bread labor, avocational pursuits, and to civic and social engagement. Their bread labor was their work—time in the garden, chopping wood, building projects, and saleable crop production. Of equal value to work was personal time. For Helen, this was often music, but it could be anything. Self-care is important because it nourishes the body and mind, feeds creativity, and is in direct opposition to the stress we often experience in work. The third equally valuable tenant was the importance of civic and social engagement. In this regard, they wrote, “The chance to help, improve, and rebuild was more than an opportunity. As citizens, we regarded it as an assignment.” Although Katie and I have not designed our daily activities to function in the same manner, I do find myself coming back to these basic tenants regularly.

Over the years we’ve engaged in a myriad of farm enterprises. We have always had the mindset that the farm needed to suit our family, the needs of our community and the needs of our regional markets. Although we started out as a diverse market-style farm growing a multitude of crops, we quickly realized it wasn’t a model that was going to work for us. We were in a small rural community filled with talented vegetable growers that were already going to the farmers market, and already providing CSA memberships. We explored local and regional markets and determined early on that the best approach for us was going to be to focus on wholesale markets and a handful of high-value crops. We weren’t going to be getting top dollar, but we were going to be able to save a considerable amount of time. We streamlined our systems with efficiencies around a small number of crops. We sent our availability, received orders, then harvested, packed, and shipped without the added time associated with farmers market and CSA models.

We have also worked hard to constrain our work hours to a limited number of hours in a day. Chris Blanchard talked about this in the keynote presentation I mentioned. By constraining the number of hours we work on the farm each day, we force ourselves to be focused and to make the most of our peak productivity hours. I am an early riser. In the morning, it’s quiet and I can make a coffee and take time to think about the things we need to accomplish that day. It also gives me time for any prep that needs to be done before the staff comes in, so, when our employees are here, we get the most of their effort as well. By the afternoon, it’s usually hot and I am not as productive. This also suits the desire to spend more time with our kids. They are home at 3:30 each afternoon and most days Katie and/or I call it a day.

We’ve also made a conscious effort to engage in activities that have nothing to do with the farm. Katie regularly attends yoga classes. I’m in a bowling league. I’m not a great bowler, but I look forward to those Wednesday nights. A few years ago, my parents moved to a nearby lake town. Any chance we get in the summer to spend time playing in the water we do. In fact, their park and rec summer program has a sailing camp and our kids are learning to sail.

The final key component, which is at the heart of our ability to do any of this, is community—all the people who have worked for us over the years both as employees and as volunteer weekend waterers. Without this community of hard-working people, our farm would not exist. The biggest hurdle here is learning to ask for help and being OK with needing help. For whatever reason, farmers often have this “I can do it all’ mentality, and it’s just not necessary. Partnerships and community-building make us more resilient and provide the opportunity to live more fulfilling lives. And, to quote Scott Nearing one more time, “An act repeated makes a habit; a habit, repeated, makes character.” And, I would add, it makes community.

Mike Bollinger farms at River Root Farm in Decorah, Iowa. He serves on the MOSES Board of Directors.

From the January | February 2020 Issue


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