Farmer Voices

When Things Go Wrong

By Lauren Rudersdorf | Photos By Lauren Rudersdorf 0

A few weeks ago, we took out our rototiller to use for the first time since fall. A sunny weekend forecast lay ahead and we were eager to get things planted. Kyle walked the tiller down to the field. The engine surged gently, a problem we were aware of last season and had spent much time researching over the winter, assuring ourselves that our main piece of equipment would be in good shape come spring. The surging was unexpected but we told ourselves it was just waking up from winter.

When the tiller died in the field after an hour’s work, we were beyond frustrated. We thought this was an issue we’d already resolved. We had done all the necessary maintenance. We started the tiller up a few times during early spring to ensure it was still operational. We called our friend who had experience with small engines, who had diagnosed the surging issue, prescribing an addition of Seafoam to our gasoline to help clean the carburetor. We read manuals, reached out to friends and watched YouTube videos. We were irritated. What more could we have done?

Our game plan for the weekend quickly changed. It was apparent we wouldn’t be getting anything in the ground. We spent our weekend clearing the tree line where a driveway will go in this summer, building a cold frame and cleaning up spaces that needed to be tidied. We adapted and made the best of things, but this didn’t do much to hide our disappointment. The next three days showed rain in the forecast and we were quickly getting off schedule. Spring only has so many sunny days and there’s a lot to pack into them. When nightfall came, we put the rototiller into neural and together pushed it up the hill. 

These are the stories you don’t often hear about farming. The mundane, everyday problems that arise and need to be solved. The things that go wrong. The stories we most often associate with farming are beautiful. The days filled with sunshine. The plants in the field growing tall and strong. The family farm passed down from generation to generation, slowly taking shape from what it once was to something new entirely. The relationships nurtured and strengthened through working together. The stunningly gorgeous harvests. The new structures built. The new technologies implemented. The new markets discovered. The exciting stuff is what we share with the outside world. And in farming, there are dozens of exciting things happening on the farm each and every week. One crop as waning as another is racing to replace it. There’s a lot of good and beauty to share.

But for every five stories of success, there is another of hardship. There are pest and disease issues, equipment failures and bad employment decisions. There are perplexing zoning codes, bad investments and severe weather. We farmers don’t like to share these struggles with the outside world, be they minor or cataclysmic. In part, it’s because we, as a people, just aren’t big complainers. We know the work we chose is hard, and we tend to pick ourselves up, figure out a way to fix things and move forward. We aren’t going to waste time burdening people with our day-to-day struggles (because, trust me, sometimes there are daily struggles). We’re fiercely independent and know we can find a solution on our own. In fact, we usually welcome the challenge.

But also, and especially on our farm as beginners, we sometimes don’t share the struggles because we blame ourselves. No matter what went wrong, we take personal responsibility that we didn’t have the smarts to figure it out. We don’t say anything because we’re ashamed of our mistakes. If an early spring storm comes through suddenly and wipes out a bed of newly transplanted seedlings, we scold ourselves for not watching the weather more closely. If an infestation of cucumber beetles plagues our farm, we fault ourselves for not using preventative sprays quickly enough (never mind that we hate spraying preventatively and to not spray is a conscious decision we made), or for not planting more hedgerows for beneficial insects (never mind that in our early years it’s hard enough to find funds for crop seeds, let alone anything else). If the tractor doesn’t work, we lament that we don’t have the skills to fix it ourselves (even though we never set out to be mechanics), or we fault our decision to buy it in the first place.

We farmers are hard on ourselves. That’s why you don’t often hear about a farmer’s struggles until the very end; until the business can no longer sustain itself for personal, emotional or financial reasons.

To me, that’s a sad world. A world where you’re encouraged to always learn more, work harder, be smarter—and fail in private. That’s not a world I can live in. I wear my struggles on my sleeve as proudly as my successes. It’s where real growth can be found. It’s where we’ve found our greatest strength and sense of community. It’s where our deepest relationships have been built. In many ways, our struggles are where I have found the most beauty.

The next few days on our farm were spent troubleshooting further. We found someone to take a look at our tiller and dropped the machine off. We were addressing the problem, but that didn’t change the fact that we couldn’t work up the ground. And it was planting time. A message to a friend asking for emotional support as I sat disappointed in our field led to her realization that, now armed with a tractor and rotovater of her own, she wouldn’t be needing her rototiller for at least the next week. We raced to her farm a mere 20 miles down the road to borrow her tiller and immediately got to work.

The relief we felt was all-consuming. I stuck my toes in the freshly tilled soil and appreciated it more than ever. I watched the sunset and counted my blessings. I breathed in deep and felt immense gratitude for the community that surrounded me: people we’ve aided, people we haven’t had the opportunity to yet, and people who have been there for us when they were buried in work themselves. It’s in these moments I feel the most strength. In these moments, I know we can never truly fail. 

Lauren Rudersdorf owns and operates Raleigh's Hillside Farm outside of Evansville, Wis., with her husband, Kyle. Together, they manage four acres of leased family land, growing vegetables for a small CSA and area restaurants. In her free time, Lauren loves to share stories about farming, life and food on her blog, www.TheLeekAndTheCarrot.com.

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