It’s all I need to say. ‘Fess up to my hippie aspirations and be on with my day – or my glass of wine, as the case may be.
Instead, I adjust my grip on the stem, take a breath, and launch into a hazy, emotionally abbreviated sketch of what could loosely be described as my five-year plan: move to Ghana, buy two acres of land, start an organic vegetable farm, teach kids how to do the same.
I’ve started to notice how often I’ll add in a “well, we’ll see” because I can’t quite hide that I’m not sure of my plan or myself. As a novice farmer and first-time entrepreneur, certainty is something that I have only in short supply.
But an hour into this dinner party – and more than a few glasses into the Pinot – I’ve managed to feign enough confidence to survive several “What are you up to?” conversational bombs. Apparently this question, along with the plainly diabolical “What’s your plan?”, are requisites in a group of parents and young people not long – but long enough – out of college.
As a 23-year-old British-born Ghanaian woman, an educator, an artist who arbitrarily makes films or writes stories “when I feel like it,” and a farmer’s apprentice with a degree in anthropology from Stanford University, I’ve been finding it hard to give a coherent answer.
We’re all wondering what I’m doing.
We’re all wondering what I’m doing.
Sometimes I can cobble something reasonable (even admirable!) together. For instance: I’ve loved teaching kids how to get to know themselves and their communities through the documentary filmmaking workshops I’ve done in Ghana. In my mind, the logical next step is to teach them how to support themselves and their communities. Why not do that via something as nourishing as natural farming? Hence my current apprenticeship on an organic farm in a tropical climate; I’ve got to learn how to do it myself first.
If I speak with enough enthusiasm and speed I can overwhelm any concerns or questions before they become more than lightly creased eyes and slightly plastic smiles. But sometimes I can’t quite manage the conversational gymnastics required of “What’s your plan?”
The author in an aquaponics tent at the Mohala Lehua Farm on the Big Island of Hawaii.
One wonderful mother smiles and makes the universal “say no more” hand gesture as I struggle to make communicate all the ideas and experience I’m holding in my head. “I understand!” she says generously. “Your vision is incubating; you’re not ready to share it yet.” I un-squint my eyes, un-purse my lips, and after a moment of surprise release a smile and a “Yes!”
That’s precisely it.
There is so much to what it means to be a farmer – to my decision to become a farmer – that it is difficult to give people the simple, well-defined answer they are looking for. I don’t have a fully fledged plan. I have a few ideas, an education behind me, and a surprising amount of faith.
When I think or say “I’ve decided to become a farmer” I’m thinking beyond my decision to learn the trade through my current apprenticeship; beyond knowing when the growing season is and why nitrogen is good for plants. (By the way, that sentence encompasses all the things I’ve learnt from starting to live as a farmer and from living with farmers.) Farmer life is more than just physical labor and science; it’s the excited joyful feeling of sprouting seeds and harvesting plants; it’s self-reliance and community; it’s the unremarkable peace of living with the land and nourishing an inquisitive imagination. I envision not a job or even a career, but creating the conditions for my mind and body to experience equanimity and growth.
I have a lot of visions.
As a young woman of color, what does it mean for me to go “back to the land?” To be excited to be toiling in the fields? Am I squandering important opportunities to show the world what a young black woman with my privilege and social capital can do?
But I try not to have any illusions. Being a farmer is not built on faith alone. It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s often very stressful. I’m already experiencing anxiety over deciding on a garden plan. What’s going to work best in the space? Will I be making the most efficient use of the land? Is there something I’m missing? Is my garden going to be beautiful? What seems so straightforward quickly turns into a monumental decision that calls into question my intelligence, my skill, my creativity. And it’s not even (yet) a matter of my entire livelihood – just my ego as a student who wants to do well. There’s also the question of land: How do I find the money to purchase it? Am I even qualified to be responsible for land, let alone build a business and a life on it?
Then, in some ways, I’m afraid it’s inappropriate. After four years of “elite” academic college education, I worry my aspirations don’t fit with the cultural and financial investment that’s been made in me.
As a young woman of color, what does it mean for me to go “back to the land?” To be excited to be toiling in the fields? Am I squandering important opportunities to show the world what a young black woman with my privilege and social capital can do? Inevitably, I’m acutely aware of the deeper historical and cultural resonances of my individual choices.
But, beneath the fears and the rough explanations of “my plan,” I know that I have to opt into what is appropriate for me. I can only do what I am driven to do, and that’s creating a sustainable home for my mind and body. I’m committing to my belief that we can have an intimate, uncompetitive relationship with the world around us. Being a farmer is my way of caring about the environment, people, and myself.
I still don’t have a ready or detailed answer to “What’s your plan?” And I’m a little nervous about that. But I trust that if I commit to being a farmer, if I toil hard doing the work I already enjoy, and rely on a little bit of luck, I’ll literally get to see all the fruits (and vegetables, and fields, and trees) of my labor.
Now just to tell my mother.