Farming & Parenting
BY ELIZABETH GABRIEL
Kelli and Mike Roberts started Roots Farm in 2009 in Tiverton RI, a certified organic diversified vegetable farm with a focus on year-round and no-till growing. Their farm and family have grown over the past decade, now with two children, six moveable high tunnels, and six employees. You can find more info at www.rootsfamilyfarm.org and on Instagram @rootsfamilyfarm
Before we get into parenting, how did you get into farming?
My husband (Mike) and I met as undergraduates at MIT, where I studied materials science & engineering, and he studied mechanical engineering. I moved out to Seattle to do my PhD in materials science, researching magnetic semiconductor materials. About 2/3rds of the way through my PhD, I had an epiphany where I realized that despite enjoying the science and research of my studies, I didn’t want to be part of developing smaller and faster devices for humanity’s ceaseless consumption. I also felt that we didn’t need higher tech to solve the problems of the world, but rather we needed appropriate tech and change from the ground up. I wanted to shift my career to something more tangible and in line with my values. While out in Seattle I had become interested in organic farms and food systems, and so after finishing my degree, Mike and I moved back east to apprentice on an organic farm in Maine. We were looking at our year on the vegetable farm as a way to learn how to grow our own food, and think more about the bigger picture of tying our life’s work into something we were passionate about. And then… we fell in love with farming. After that year in Maine, I took a postdoc research position at Cornell University, but I was restless in the office and found myself wanting to get back in the field. We would shop at the farmers market in Ithaca NY, and I was happy to be supporting local farmers, but I knew I wanted to be the person on the other side of the table, actually growing the food, not just buying and eating the food. That winter we made our business plan, and within six months we’d moved to RI (where I am from) and were renting land to start our own farm. What challenges have you felt specifically as a mother and a farmer?
The two biggest challenges I’ve felt are (1) finding the balance between the needs of your children, your partner, your farm, and yourself; and (2) learning to let go.
First, to address finding balance, as farmers we are used to giving ourselves above and beyond for the sake of our farm: the land, the soil, the crops, the customers. And as mothers, we feel that even more so for our children. I knew I didn’t want to burn out on farming, and I certainly didn’t want to burn out on parenting. It is important to figure out what you need to keep the balance for maintaining the long-term sustainability of the whole farm system, which now includes not only the farm, but yourself, your children, and your partner. And by “sustainability”, I mean the social, emotional, physical, and economic side of all of it. It’s complicated, and every family and farm is unique.
For us, this balance has been accomplished over the years by (a) developing strategies for decision-making, prioritizing, and optimizing our time, (b) getting help with childcare, (c) hiring more farm employees (especially in that first newborn year) to pick up where we knew we wouldn’t be, and (d) constant check-ins between partners to make sure we are feeling content with the roles we are playing in both the family and the farm. Being honest with yourself, as a mother and farmer, about what you want for your farming career and your role on the farm will help you make the decisions about hiring, whether it’s childcare, farm employees, or planning to scale back for a period of time.
In regards to the second challenge of learning to let go, there are two ways specifically I’ve learned to let go: (1) letting go of other’s expectations of what a farm family should be, and (2) letting go of your own expectations of how much you will get done when you have the kids with you.
For letting go of others’ expectations for a farm family, both prior to having children and even after, I always felt there were a lot of preconceived ideas that as a farm family, the farm kids are home with the parents on the farm, all the time. When we had our first child (9 yrs old now), having this preconceived idea in mind, I naively thought I could put him in a backpack and still get it all done. I was certainly wrong! It became apparent when he was still less than one-year-old that I certainly wasn’t going to get it all done with my colicky baby in tow, and I had to scramble to find work shares and volunteers halfway through the season to help. The following year I knew that I needed to find a better balance that fit both my farming goals and our family’s needs and our individual personalities. I wanted my son on the farm, but I also didn’t feel like having him on the farm with me all the time was going to be the best for him or me. That was when I decided to get help with childcare. And we also hired our first employees. It was definitely worthwhile, and I felt excited that when I was farming on my own, I could really focus and get a lot done, and when I was farming with my son, it took away the pressure of trying to accomplish more than was possible. I could then involve him in the farm in a way that was more enjoyable for him and for me. (Of course, in hindsight this all sounds like it worked out perfectly – but there certainly were lots of stressful, exhausting times then also.)
We now have another son (5 yrs old), and we have approached the balance between kids on the farm and childcare the same way. We have used part-time babysitters, preschool, summer camps, and public elementary school, and have been happy with the balance that has allowed us. Accepting that each family is different, and the right balance of childcare and kids on the farm is unique to that family didn’t come overnight, and it didn’t come easily. Occasionally I find myself wondering “I wish…” or “What if…”, but I know that doesn’t fit us, and so once again, I have to remind myself to “let go” of other’s expectations of what kids who grow up on a farm should be doing.
Luckily, I’d learned quite a bit about “letting go” from farming prior to kids, having experienced the disappointment and heartbreak of failed crops or being short on labor and having to let certain things go. Dwelling on mistakes or failures in a negative way doesn’t move you forward. Prior to having children, I made progress in accepting failures on the farm and learning from them. So when it came time to let go of what I thought I’d get done that day with children along, well…there’s really not a lot of debate to be had. Having children truly forces you to stop working when it’s mealtime or bedtime, or meltdown time, or whatever stage you are at. Since these times really aren’t negotiable in regards to children’s needs, you stop farming for the time being, and you adopt a better work-life balance. You can’t make up an excuse to work into the dark when the kids need dinner. However, that being said, we often do a fair amount of office work in the evenings after the children go to bed. That is something that I hope we can change someday, so that we can also prevent burning out on evening office work by shifting it to more daytime hours.
Did the farm change once you started a family? (Or how did the farm adjust once you had kid/s)?
With our first son, since we were still relatively new to farming and babies, we naively thought we could carry on as before and just bring him along everywhere. But since that didn’t work out, and my productivity was drastically reduced, we relied more heavily on volunteers and work shares that first year. The following year we hired our first employees. I focused primarily on farm planning and managing the crew, but didn’t do as much fieldwork as I had prior to having my son. As he got older and I got help with childcare, I was able to resume more fieldwork and day-to-day tasks. We had to adjust again four years later when we had our second son. I planned to step back that first year with him, and then resumed more of my farm roles as he got older.
So many farmers struggle with health insurance costs (there happens to be an article about this in this TNF), especially when providing insurance for a family. How have you handled this in your life?
I think the specifics of this varies state to state, but I will relay our story. In our first few years, we had off-farm jobs that provided health insurance. Once we left those positions, our yearly income was certainly less, our benefits were gone, and we qualified for Medicaid.
So far, we’ve been able to maintain our income below the Medicaid threshold, both by re-investing money into the farm and by contributing to retirement accounts (as an added bonus, our employees who qualify can also make pre-tax contributions to retirement accounts).
We expect we’ll be able to stay eligible for Medicaid for a few more years; after that, we’ll probably have to look to purchase health insurance, though the kids should still qualify for Medicaid since their cutoffs are much higher than for adults.
Have you developed any unique ways or approaches to include your kid/s in farming? Any you don’t recommend?
I found that this was very specific to my kids’ personalities, but yes, we have found ways to include them that fit our family well. A few tasks that I found to be successful both for them and for the farm, even in the toddler years, are filling pots with potting mix, seeding larger seeds in trays (spinach, beans, peas), anything involving spraying things down with a hose, measuring and mixing soil amendments, harvesting (many crops), hoeing (large open areas preferably), and the salad spinner! They also both like to be part of any machine work, so when possible, we let them ride along on the tractor, mowing, etc.
However, what has been the most successful is actually giving them each their own large garden, where they can put into practice what they learn from us on the farm. This actually started when our older son was about 6 years old, as a way to deflect his strong will and persistent ideas on how we should be running our farm and his keen interest in lots of machine work, into his own space where he could experiment and we could let him take charge. It took away the constant struggles of too much water and where to step and how much compost… And I can’t say enough how incredible this has been. He is now 9 years old, and he makes his whole crop plan in the off-season, including mapping out his 12’x20’ garden. He decides on soil prep he wants to do (harrow, broadfork, compost, amendments, etc.) with some minimal advice from us. He makes his own soil blocks, seeds his own seedlings, transplants them to his garden, and even sets up his own irrigation system. He cultivates with hoes (sometimes) and harvests when he wants. He sets out his crops as add-on items for our CSA pickup, and he is often making decent sales for his work. This past season he saved up and bought a solar panel, inverter, and battery for the renewable energy system he is working on. He has learned so much by running his own micro-farm. And by giving him full reign of it, he has really taken pride and ownership of it.
Our younger son had his first garden this past season. His participation was less than the 9-year-old, and I had to help him along for nearly all of it. But he chose what to grow and helped seed it and weed it. We hope his garden becomes a passion for him as well.
What advice do you have to other farmers who are thinking of starting a family?
Find a balance that fits your family’s needs, and let go of others’ expectations. Maybe you will keep the kids home full-time while you farm and even homeschool. That’s great if you do. But if that doesn’t fit your family, don’t beat yourself up over it. Do what will keep you farming and parenting without burning out.