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Solo Farming

CHARM today: striving for sustainability (and trying not to break any more bones)

One of my motivations for starting CHARM was to find an innovative solution to a common problem: how to sustain a small New England farm from one generation to the next with the reality of what health insurers call “life events.” For decades, our farm has been sustained in the same (suboptimal) manner as many others: by off-farm employment. This is not just a fact of life in New England - a recent study found that 82% of farms are sustained by off-farm income nationally. The original 200-acre family farm was divided, and only 25 acres remain in our family (Chuck’s family, really) after 100 years because his parents could not sustain the economics of farming sixty years ago on a single non-farm construction income. And while I have always contributed labor to the farm operation, that contribution was secondary to my financial contribution. 

What is sustainable at CHARM?

Over the past three years, I have had to acknowledge that I can't be both a full-time farm operator, whether of a non-profit or for-profit, the farm work is still demanding, and to work a full-time job that comes close to supporting the farm operation. I have a long-running ‘joke’ with non-farm friends who would ask over the years if I lived on a “working” farm. I would always ask if their definition of “working” meant: is it a lot of work, or does it make money? Because all farms are a lot of work, not very many make money, and very few make as much money as most individuals - especially with increases in the minimum wage - would make in just about any other job. Even so, I am committed personally and as a matter of policy to figuring out a model for keeping farms like ours in agricultural use and, if possible, in our family.

This last week, that got a lot harder. If it is hard to be a single farmer with an off-farm job, it is a lot harder to be one with a broken rib and a few broken fingers. The mishap itself was only tangentially related to farming. After the big snowstorm prevented our dumpster from being emptied on its regular day, and spring brought bear mating season and with it challenges to keeping said bears out of our dumpster, keeping the dumpster secure was one more item on what is always a long list of things to do on the farm. Adding to my dumpster challenge was cleaning out our in-law housing apartment. When I realized I could not close up and secure the dumpster, it was already late, and it had been a long and tiring day. Most days of farm work fit that description! Chuck used to use the bucket on the tractor as a trash compactor in these situations, but I sold the tractor some time ago. I realized that there was plenty of room to compact and determined the best course of action was for me to jump on the pile in the dumpster a bit, and that would be the quickest route to getting the job done and me inside for a much-needed shower. Luckily (or not), I had used the four-wheeler to bring an enormous load of trash to the dumpster, so I simply maneuvered it perpendicular to the dumpster to facilitate my plan. And yes, I realize jumping in a dumpster isn’t very Gubernatorial. Lots of farm work lacks glamour. 

As soon as I was putting my weight entirely in the bed of the Kubota, I had trouble. I felt the Kubota tipping me into the dumpster. Luckily, the machine did not flip onto me as I initially thought. Instead, the bed had not been secured and simply tipped up quickly with my weight, and my upper body took the blow of the edge of the dumpster while my left hand and arm shielded my head and neck from the top of the bed, heading toward me. I ended up standing between the dumpster and the vehicle, and once I figured out what had happened, I could latch the bed and finish the job. 

I did not process until the next day the extent of my injuries, and it was only after attending Mass that I brought myself to the ER and learned of the diagnosis. Most importantly, my rib was not displaced, and I did not injure any internal organs. I was able to get the pain medications to help me deal with what has been an exceedingly painful few days. However, the limitations to my movement and the need for rest aren’t particularly conducive to farming.

If there is one silver lining, all the challenges that have required me to solicit additional help up until now have been a godsend. Not only is my oldest daughter working from home, but the numerous volunteers we have helping in the barn and friends willing to help have kept the place running while I rest. As we prepare to enter our second full year of operation as a non-profit, I have learned much and figured out even more that I still need to know! I typically pushed too hard and took on too much in our first year. And while the programs were a huge success for the students who participated, they hurt my goal of sustainability: financial and operational. We have scaled back and are testing new ideas and ensuring we are conservative in our planning to achieve that financial & operational sustainability goal.

What does CHARM look like today?

  • We have fewer rescue animals - four mini-goats to keep the many laying hens and six messy ducks company.

  • There is a committed core of volunteers—family units of moms and daughters, grandmas, and granddaughters (do you see a theme?); and young adults learning skills either through a program or have found us on their own (thank you to the BCARC trio who came this week and cleaned the goat stalls!

  • All three of my daughters are spending time on farm projects as their full-time jobs and grad school allow - this has been a distinct silver lining of our challenges.

  • We are still selling eggs - duck & chicken eggs - and potpourri and plants from our “Store.”

  • I hope to add honey from the bees (I have research to do!), return to growing more cut flowers, scale back the vegetables, cultivate the berry patch (blueberries & raspberries) and try to expand our small patch of lavender.

  • We love hosting school visits and have found that middle and high school students benefit significantly from our programming, which is experiential, work-based, and primarily outdoors.

Where can we still use help?

  • Come to the store and buy eggs & whatever other projects make their way to the store (occasionally, frozen custard!) (580 Henderson Road in Williamstown)

  • Schedule a school field trip or encourage your children’s class to do so!

  • Volunteer! We will need help planting, weeding, and maintaining the horticulture area this spring, summer & fall.

  • If you know bees, give me a holler! (or a buzz?)

  • Share our AirBnB listing - this is by far the most lucrative activity on the farm and we hope to add more farm-related options for guests as time allows.

  • Donate. A high school class at Drury is raising some money, and we are tremendously grateful for donations. Our products (primarily eggs) barely cover the cost of the supplies to sell them. 

  • Share our page on Facebook and Instagram.

  • Pray for good weather this summer and fast healing for my rib. 

I am getting better at asking for support. I have plans to solicit more input on strategies for long-term sustainability because I don’t know everything!


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