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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Letter from the Editor: Farmer Stress & Wellbeing

Letter from the Editor

As you may know, this issue on Farmer Stress & Wellbeing was supposed to be published in September 2022. I’m not sure if the best word to describe why it’s coming out so late is paradoxical, ironic, coincidental, beshert or just happenstance - but, here we are - it’s February 2023 and finally, you have this paper in your hands. I’m so relieved!

The delay occurred because while I was on our annual vacation in the Adirondacks in early August - our farm left in the capable hands of our single employee - with my partner Steve and son Aydin, and 32 weeks pregnant with our daughter, I ended up being ambulanced to a hospital in Westchester, having an emergency C-section and sitting with my baby girl for 3 weeks at her hospital bedside. Would my baby be okay? When could I hold her? How would my two-and-a-half-year-old cope with his mama being gone for weeks? When could she go home? I needed to be with her but Aydin was terrified - he needed me too.

Steve had his own set of questions to struggle with in addition to my questions. Will my wife be okay? How can I be with my wife and daughter in Westchester when my son (and farm) need me in Trumansburg? Our farm employee had agreed to care for things for a week, but several weeks was too big of an ask. While we could let some things go - the seaberries were enjoyed by the birds and the chicken tractor didn’t need to move every single day - the chickens still needed food, we had sheep to move to new paddocks, and mushrooms to harvest and deliver. These were some of our external concerns - about other people and other things - but there were also our own personal feelings, our own traumas, and our own recoveries. Those had to come later.

We started our farm in 2011. In 2012, we built a yurt as our primary residence, which at the time, was one of the more stressful things we had done. My partner still says it wasn’t until we built the yurt together that he believed we were ready to be married because we proved we could get through adversity. What we didn’t know was what kind of adversity we would need to overcome together - since 2015, I’ve had four surgeries, three of them emergency.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2015 and had my first emergency surgery, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy and two more “procedures”, we took stock of our “to-do’s”. We were in a state of upheaval. We hadn’t prepared for these life events - who does, especially at 35 years old?

We were juggling a farm, caring for two dogs, being accountable to off-farm jobs, making plans to build a house and many other obligations and had no system to handle and manage the stress, let alone care for my health and each other. Our plans to build a house that year halted immediately. Our plans to start a family halted immediately. Our plans to expand the farm halted immediately.

Fortunately, we had a strong network and family and friends who supported us during that time with everything from meal delivery to labor on the farm to offering us their insulated home for the winter. We also had other privileges afforded to us: good health insurance through Steve’s employer, I started seeing a therapist (also covered by insurance), got regular massages and acupuncture treatments, my physician father found me the best oncologist and colorectal surgeon in the region, and my naturopath sister-in-law provided me with individualized nutrition and supplement guidance to ease the chemo’s side effects and strengthen my immune system.

Despite a strong support system which we were (and remain) endlessly grateful for, once we were out of the thick of this hard time, we knew we needed a long-term strategy - one of preparation and forethought, one of anticipating unexpected emergencies - that would prepare us.

In 2016, near the end of my treatment, I attended a weekend-long Holistic Management (HM) Workshop in Naples, NY with some incredibly inspiring farmers (Klaas Martens was there, and Petra-Page Mann, Elizabeth Henderson, and Erin Bullock just to name-drop a few). Years prior I had read the Holistic Management Handbook and was curious to learn more and apply it to our farm. What I didn’t realize was that the HM approach applies not only to a farm but to one's whole life! While this piece isn’t intended to get into the nitty-gritty of what HM is (there’s more on HM in this issue), simply stated, a holistic goal - one of the main tenets of HM - describes the quality of life desired, looks at what is blocking you from getting there, the forms of production you want to get there, and a list of future resources that are needed to achieve this goal. It isn’t a business plan, but rather an end goal and the foundation from which you build. It allows you to consider everything you find important when making a decision so you don't inadvertently compromise something you value.

As I sat in the chemo-suite for the second-to-last time, Steve and I started our holistic goal-setting process by making a list of priorities we value and asking ourselves: What requires our attention the most and did we need and want to keep doing it? Where could we downsize? What resources did we have (or not have and need), and who could help us when we needed it? What did we need to do to get through the day, the season, and another emergency? We kept it simple. Our list of priorities from most important to least included 5 things: 1) me and Steve, 2) Sadie and Vida (the dogs), 3) the sheep (and at that time, the ducks), 4) the mushrooms because they bring in revenue, and then 5) everything else.

The three-part process of writing a holistic goal led us to realize a few major things: 1) that we didn’t enjoy growing annual vegetables and would convert our 4,000 square foot garden space to be a fruit orchard, we would grow only the vegetables we thought were easy (garlic and potatoes) or wanted to preserve (tomatoes and cucumbers) or wanted to eat daily (lettuce and herbs) and instead, we would join one of the amazing CSAs in our area that grew vegetables really well, 2) that neither of us wanted to farm full-time, 3) that we needed a comfortable place to live with insulation and hot running water all year round, 4) that we wanted to feel more part of a community and figure out how to integrate more social justice into our life and farm, and 5) that we needed to regularly leave the land to socialize, take a hike or go to dinner, including that we needed to prioritize taking vacations 1-2 times a year - whether they are a short road trip and camping or a plane trip to a beach.

Over the next several years, we would revisit our holistic goal each winter, and adjust it as life evolved. Having it guided some major choices we would make including me taking a full-time job as an Executive Director (and only farm on weekends) so we could leverage my salary to get a loan to build a house, giving our duck flock away, hiring an employee instead of running an apprentice program, scheduling a week-long vacation in the middle of our CSA season, expanding mushroom production from log-grown shiitake to an entire indoor suite of mushrooms, growing more pick-and-eat veggies like peas and cherry tomatoes so Aydin can help himself, and eventually leaving that more than full-time job for this part-time TNF Editor position to enable more time with my kids and on the farm.

Back to August - our annual Adirondack trip - as I sat in the NICU holding Maiya’s hand, I was terrified. My stress level was at an all-time high, and I couldn’t help but recall the other times I had been in a hospital gown; how simultaneously resilient and weak I felt, how simultaneously strong and exhausted I felt, how simultaneously surrounded by people (nurses, doctors) and lonely I felt. And yet, I also felt so lucky. Maiya’s lungs needed to develop and she was tiny, but she was completely stable - which wasn’t true for some of the babies next to us. I also felt fortunate because I knew our insurance was good, and because I spoke English and could understand what the nurses and doctors were saying about my baby as they did morning rounds or throughout the day as I sat - which wasn’t true for the Spanish-speaking family next to Maiya, who always needed to wait for an interpreter every time they arrived and only stayed long enough to answer some of their questions.

As we prepared for Maiya to come home, a month earlier than we even expected her to be born, we revisited the questions we asked when making our holistic goals:

What requires our attention the most and did we need and want to keep doing it? Where could we downsize? What resources did we have (or not have and need), and who could help us when we needed it? What did we need to do to get through the day, the season, and another emergency?

  • We would keep Aydin going to nursery school for half days, rather than full days as we had planned for in September, in hopes it would help him feel close to our new family and more grounded.

  • We agreed to send the chickens to be processed instead of doing it ourselves on the farm and we asked a neighbor to drive them to the processing facility in trade for some meat. We wouldn’t keep any as layers this year.

  • Production was supposed to start for our fall mushroom CSA after our vacation, but we would cancel it and only continue to sell wholesale.

  • We would hire a cleaner to clean our two on-farm rentals until I was 8 weeks post-surgery and could start again.

  • We would ask our farm employee to work until the end of November, rather than October (she was thrilled!)

  • We would see if our friends would continue bringing us food through the Mealtrain for another month (of course they said they would!)

Today, as we delight in Maiya gaining weight, giggling and starting to roll, we’ve settled into our new life as a family of four and gained some space from Maiya’s birth. Sure, we all still have a lot of work to do to personally process the traumas, but there’s no rush. We talk to Aydin about our stay at the Ronald Macdonald House and how scary that time was so he knows it’s okay to talk about it, Steve and I each see a therapist biweekly, and we integrate rest and relaxation into our lives with daily walks on the land, weekly hikes, movie nights and the like. I’m still looking for a postpartum support group, gaining my physical strength back is taking a while, and we sometimes skip our weekly farm meeting, but we try to be kind to ourselves, and keep our holistic goal in mind: “Our life is a balance of work and recreation, where we support each other to learn new things, where we always improve our farm systems so they are more regenerative and less wasteful, and where we always make space to truly see each other and love ourselves and our kids deeply.”

As you delve into this issue, I hope you honor the personal stories that are shared - I truly believe that hearing the stories of others who struggle can be a great way to find personal support and shed light on strategies that can help meet your challenges - and perhaps encourage you to share your own in a future issue. I hope you feel inspired by Holistic Management as you read a few different perspectives about and approaches to using it. I hope you recognize the severity of the farmer mental health crisis that is pervasive today and think about how you might support yourself and others - perhaps your farm employees - to get the support they need. And most of all, I hope the issue sparks us all to reach out to others and look toward each other, to not remain quiet about personal struggles, and to recognize we’re not alone.

Feel free to continue to submit articles, stories and photos about farmer stress and mental health and we will share them in upcoming issues.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth Gabriel

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