Reflections on 2017 from Raleigh’s Hillside Farm
By Lauren Rudersdorf | Photos By Lauren Rudersdorf 0
It’s becoming a sort of annual process. Every year that I farm, I head toward the end of the year filled with gratitude and possibility. I spend my December wrapped in reflections on a year well spent, certain that I’ve learned from my mistakes and not going to make them again. Every December, I feel good. I feel like a smarter, wiser, more polished version of myself. I work on projects that will streamline the year ahead and research how to avoid roadblocks we hit the year prior. Every December, I work hard to become a better farmer. I head into the new year confident with my newfound wisdom. Every year, I think I’ve got things figured out.
But as the new year begins, I always find myself pleasantly surprised. The things I had strategized may go to plan, but there are new mistakes and new lessons: new opportunities for knowledge and growth. This farm life is filled with surprises and nuances. I am constantly humbled. I continue down my path of farm discovery in ways I never expect. That’s my process. And 2017 was certainly no exception.
We headed into 2017 knowing that our farm had a long way to go in becoming a place of efficiency. After four years of production with no dedicated areas for washing, packing or storage, we drew up plans. We would add a driveway, a well and a pack shed to our rapidly growing CSA operation.
We called the electric company for a quote. We found a builder. We brought an excavator out to see our site. We talked to the township. Things were moving. And then quick as can be, the illusion was shattered. We couldn’t build on such a slope. Well, we could, but it would be much more expensive than we’d planned, and because of the way the building would be set into the hill, it wouldn’t meet many of our needs. The season hurtled forward and we had to put the brakes on our grand project. We couldn’t pivot our plans quickly enough. It was just too much money to throw into a hurried decision.
We doubled our farm sales regardless of not having the proper infrastructure. We met the goals of our budget but broke ourselves in the process. We worked harder than we needed to, got frustrated in the chaos, and slipped up in new places.
By numbers and photographs, we had our best year yet. Our CSA boxes were amazing: full of the color, vibrancy and variety I’d always known they could have. Our fields were managed well: weeds were under control, succession plantings were timed perfectly, pests and disease were stopped in their tracks. Our crops flourished. We had so much excess that we decided to offer our first ever storage share and sold out in a couple weeks. We welcomed three new employees into our operation alongside a dynamite team of worker shares that truly felt like family. We participated in an event that had long been a dream of mine. We worked with artists who painted a mural on our cooler. We got some seriously exciting media attention. We built dynamic new relationships. We collaborated. We celebrated. We grew. It was truly an incredible success of a season.
But it was also a serious struggle a lot of the time. We didn’t have the space, equipment or infrastructure to do all that we had planned. We made it through, but just barely (and I know we made it through only because of the sheer strength and perseverance of the amazing man who stands beside me). This was the year I realized perhaps the most important lesson of my farming career: that in the end, a farm is still a business. You can love a farm. You can appreciate the way of life it brings. You can nurture it and care for it and watch the beauty grow. But at the end of the day, it is still a business we’re running. And businesses that try to operate without the tools they need will fail.
In the end, our decision not to build was actually a gift. We made time this winter to think and to strategize. We decided we would expand my parents’ well instead of drilling our own. We decided that instead of hiring a contractor, we will recruit friends and put up a simple building ourselves. And with the funds we save, we’ll purchase the tractor our operation so desperately needs.
Or at least that is the plan. We’ll see what 2018 has in store.