Our Wild Farming Life
By Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer
Reviewed by Chris Travis
Our Wild Farming Life by Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer is a great choice for anyone with little knowledge of the rigors of farming, who may be considering a foray into the business of agriculture. This book is a genuine and heartfelt account of the trials and errors two women surmount on their journey to becoming successful farmers. Whether by intent or happenstance, the muck and muddle of two neophyte foresters turned neophyte farmers, building a working farm from scratch, will catch at your boots and give you pause, but you will be able to see the saplings by the thousands, the tens of thousands.
The first three chapters are a slog, the only cogent and cohesive message communicated has something to do with Scottish Croft law and the alluded to, but never entertained, the serendipity of luck, love, and envy-inducing benefactor leading to croft ownership.
The real fun of this pan-Atlantic missive begins in chapter four, replete with lessons about what not to do. These new farmers stumble into a life of farming with absolutely zero understanding of what that entails, poisoning their own well water in a scene that had me asking the pages of my book why anyone would do such a thing.
But slowly, parenthetically bracketed by cringe-inducing trial and error, these inexperienced farmers gain confidence, footing, and knowledge of the life they have chosen. A shining example of their success is their kitchen garden. This small nucleus of joy serves as subsistence for mind, body and spirit, and in many ways, it seems that this kitchen garden serves as the touchstone for the ladies; they come back to this garden as if to center themselves, to center their vision. The garden also seems to serve as the germ seed from which their success and inspiration grow outward. Reading of their incremental progress toward a fully realized farm is plodding and painful, and the author provides us with a front-row seat to the sweat and tears shed in pursuit of an unclear future; but when they finally start to figure it out, things really take off.
As these farmers get their legs beneath them and all the pieces begin to fall into place, one important detail of their journey is access to grants. This lesson is tucked into the mud and muck of their failures, but shines through and demonstrates how grant opportunities provide a genuine opportunity for growth and goal.
The ensuing chapters tease at a handful of salient agricultural topics as these farmers muddle their way toward a successful enterprise. Kudos for the description of their experiences implementing permaculture practices, silvopasture, animal husbandry, ecosystem management, re-forestation, agri-tourism, value-added products, farmer-community relations, and deer management. They skim over these topics like fog scudding across the heath, but any aspiring farmer would be well served to note their struggles and take a deep dive into any of these subjects.
Honest about their difficulties with money, a passing suggestion regarding the true value of food and farmers' dependence on subsidies hinted at fundamental problems in agriculture. Yes, their farm is one example of a possible solution, the authors acknowledge land acquisition is an obstacle many aspiring farmers never overcome.
It is easy to cheer for these young farmers as they grow thirty-thousand saplings, their business acumen, and their herd. It is easy to cheer for them as they struggle with the ever-present issue of off-farm work, through cold and wet, bend their shoulders to hard work and sacrifice, to finally achieve success - a success achieved thanks in large part to a dynamic business model adapted to opportunity and community feedback. This an important lesson for young and old farmers alike.
The most important lessons to learn from this hardy, entrepreneurial farmers are: look before you leap, and do your homework. These farmers show us just how uncertain making it up as you go can be. They also show us that with enough determination, perseverance, a whole lot of on-the-job learning, and a dash of self-awareness, success can be found in just sticking to the basics.
Reading about their five years’ worth of painfully earned and tearfully gleaned knowledge, I felt mud over-topping my boots as I slogged through the muck of bog and heather. The trials and failures of these farmers will challenge the reader to understand that the real gift, the treasure buried in the mud beneath the sphagnum, is the relationship a farmer builds with the animals, the community, and most importantly, the environment. We can only hope that their thirty-thousand saplings become a towering forest.