Says Jennie Kahly of Possum Tail Farm, whose story you can read more of here and here, “I think it was the ancient Greeks who said the only truly meaningful professions were being a soldier and being a farmer. And I really feel that. For me, farming is a kind of alchemy. It’s one of those careers where you get to create and be witness to magic. The other careers I’ve been part of have been in education and in helping families to have their babies, and for me farming has the same magic.
“I’ve grown into this feeling that our bodies are here to labor. Our bodies love to be used, and I feel like many careers don’t allow people to use their minds in creative ways to solve problems and use their bodies physically, and that’s one of the amazing things about farming.
“Farming allows us to be self-employed so we are available to our children, which is one of our number one priorities. So sometimes I feel extremely lucky when we get to wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 and hang out with our family. No one is rushing to get dressed; no one is rushing to get on the road to fight traffic. We just walk out the front door, and maybe sometimes we do our work in our pajamas, and our kids are right there with us. We watch the school bus go by and we laugh and wave. And that’s amazing!”
Jennie homeschools her 13-year-old daughter and plans to do the same with her 3-year-old son when he’s a little older.
Raising kids on a farm will be a recurring theme on Grounded Women, because, well, I’m a mom and mothering issues take up a large part of my brain (along with food). Having raised a suburban child, I definitely have my own (positive) thoughts about the kids I see growing up on farms. But I was curious what Jennie’s thoughts on the subject were.
“I think kids growing up on a farm know they are needed, and I mean that in a really big sense. They are absolutely necessary as a member of the family and a member of the farm. I think that kids who grow up in the cities are almost ornamentation. They feel that they are just sort of there, that there’s no reason for them to be, that there’s nothing for them to do. Nothing they are needed for.
“But I think that you can definitely accomplish that sense of being needed in a city. If you think consciously about inviting your children into the work that needs to be done. Maybe even in community—like helping the elderly neighbor mow his lawn.”
How was the transition for her daughter, I asked, in moving to the farm from State College at age 8?
“Oh my gosh. My daughter struggled. Now she loves being on the farm, but there’s still more of an I-I-I mentality rather than a We-We-We mentality. Because on the farm, life is really “We need to get this done, the animals need to be taken care of.” My daughter also struggled for the first couple of years rising to the challenge of the physical demands. My son, on the other hand, was born on the farm and has a completely different way of being. He sees us working, and he picks up a tool and he says, “OK, we are working! We’re going to work. Here we go! Here’s my shovel, here’s my nails, here’s my hammer. I’m here to help.” Which is completely different [from my daughter] and I think that’s totally awesome.”
“The balance to that is that they don’t necessarily have the opportunities for cultural enrichment. We are a musical family and actually do have a lot of music at the house among family members, so they do get that. But they don’t see art museums, things that you do get if you live in a city.”
The cost of farming
I asked Jennie what she would want people to understand about farming, and she didn’t skip a beat. “The food is expensive because it takes that to raise it! It’s so hard to go to the farmer’s market and have people say, “What are you feeding those cows, gold?” My beef prices are exactly the same prices as organic beef fed in feedlots that you buy at Sam’s Club. The same price. $6.50 a pound.
“People just don’t understand what it costs to raise good beef.”
Jennie admits that she and Brian are able to do what they do because they already owned the land and don’t have a mortgage. And they live frugally. They would make more money if they produced higher volume. If she raised 5,000 chickens a year, for example, instead of the current 700, “I would make an exponential amount more money, but then the balancing act is remaining the small family farm. So where do you lose the small family farm? How many employees do I have to employ before it’s not a family farm any more, but it’s something different?”
As we talked, I sensed some sadness in Jennie’s voice. I asked her if she regretted taking on the farm, and she said, quietly, “in some ways.”
“My husband had an excellent job [as a software engineer in State College, Pennsylvania], and we lived on a couple of acres. We could have continued to do what we did, maybe expand it. I’m all for homesteading. I’m just not sure if I’m all for farming.”
Jennie explains the distinction. Homesteading is being as self-reliant as possible and needing as little as possible from outside your own community. Farming, on the other hand, is raising food for other people. Jennie thinks that possibly she could have derived as much pleasure out of doing things on a much smaller scale. It’s doing it on a larger scale and providing food for other people that feels like it stretches them too much.
And yet: “We have customers who are so happy to get what they get from us, and I love the personal relationship we have built with our customers. That’s a big reason why we wouldn’t want to quit farming. Those people would have to get their food somewhere else! We are their source of food. So that feels really good. And it feels really good to know we are eating food we grew, too.”
What a hard-working farmer fantasizes about
But farming is a tough lifestyle.
I was surprised when Jennie told me her secret dream. “I fantasize about Brian going away to work and then all I have to worry about is being with the kids and homeschooling, and working in the garden, and then he comes home at a normal time—like 5 pm—and we actually have our nights together.” Jennie begins to cry. “I really miss that, and it’s something that we don’t get. Because Brian is working so much.
“I mean, we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and I know that’s amazing, and yet it’s such…hard…work, that I fantasize about the other.
“My son talks about chopping heads off of things, and bleeding, because he’s been exposed to so much farm life, it’s just normal for him. But it’s kind of weird!!”
I pointed out that he could be sitting in front of a computer screen talking about killing things, or that Brian might come home from his fantasy job worn out, soul-sucked, with no energy or joy to really be present with the family. Don’t most of us fantasize from time to time about living a different kind of life? I know that personally, when my life feels overwhelming and harried and complicated, I fantasize about being out in the open space of a farm. As if I wouldn’t feel equally as overwhelmed and harried on a farm if it became my livelihood!
And there’s Jennie, fantasizing about living a more 9 to 5 kind of life. I have to chuckle at that one.
I couldn’t help but remind Jennie of the lack of satisfaction Brian felt in his job in State College, and why they left in the first place. “Yeah,” she agreed, “now our life is chock-full of soulful meaning. We’ve got that coming out of our ears! But we have to work really hard for it.
“That’s why I love the winter so much. That’s the time when our family cozies up to the wood stove in the evenings, because it’s impossible for Brian to work after dark. Farming has really made us part of the natural world and the seasons. The way we schedule our lives is really based on seasonal changes.”
I could hear Jennie reminding herself of the reasons they farm. She says that the primary reason they host WWOOFers is because the WWOOFers mirror back to Jennie and Brian all the great things they are doing on the farm. “Oh yeah, what we’re doing here is really awesome.” They get to see how outsiders experience the farm, and they are reminded all over again about why they chose to make farming their life.
I was curious if Jennie feels isolated and if that was part of what fuels her “regular life” fantasy. She replied that No, she doesn’t, but she thinks that some people would. “I personally have a genetic makeup that makes this a comfortable experience, but I think extroverts would have a hard time being on a farm like this.
“I like being out here because of the visual impact that the environment has on me emotionally and spiritually, and for me, being farther away from people is very calming.
“But I would like to encourage people not to think of farming as a pastoral dream, because it’s not. What we do here can be done on any scale, anywhere. That just because you live in a suburb, for example, does not mean that you can’t do amazing things where you are. And really, it needs to be done everywhere. The idea is not to move out to the country and leave all the bad stuff behind, but it’s being the change where we are. This is the farm Brian grew up with, so in a way we are being the change where we are. But I don’t think people need to go out and buy these 150-acre farms just to have this. There are many permutations to living an authentic life, and it doesn’t mean you have to be in the country or own lots of land.
“We have to shift our thinking about this. It’s not 100 years ago when there was a lot of land. You can do an amazing amount in a city environment.”
Thank you, Jennie, for sharing those inspiring words. We can all be part of the move to reclaim the health of our food system and the land right at home, because for so many people farming is just not a reality.