I started on this whole journey of cramming agriculture into the context of cities after becoming involved with a policy effort to allow backyard chickens in Asheville. I was fortunate enough to be in an urban planning program at the time and was able to look at the things that I had grown up with (keeping chickens and growing food) as something that could be beneficial even in urban areas.
What I’ve found since I started is that I wasn’t prepared for the tremendous amount of work that it can be coupled with the emotions that come when things don’t always work as expected.
As we muddle through the winter, waiting to transition into the growing season when things are pretty and less muddy and there’s more visible productivity, one of the things that I’ve struggled with is the inevitability of loss and the ever looming potential of failure. Just today, this was brought home when I opened up a bee hive (which appeared to be thriving just weeks ago) to find that the hive had been lost. A few days ago, when cleaning up after our new baby quail, I found that one didn’t make it.
A few weeks ago, during the height of the cold, we had to move a young hen to a new part of the farm, while the other hens braved the cold, she was unable to take the stress of the move and the loss of her companions (one rooster had to be rehomed, one choose to brave a night outside the coop and met death at the mouth of an unknown predator) And at the beginning of the winter, we had to euthanize a duck (who we had hatched from one of our own eggs) after she was unable to recover from a leg injury. This isn’t even accounting for all the untold plant losses which we’ll discover in the spring as a result of the record cold.
Urban farming can be particularly traumatic because the micro-scale highlights the intensity of life. The animals usually have names (although I haven’t named our bees), and they’re individually counted before they go to bed each evening. The “farm” becomes an odd hybrid of hobby and work… of raising livestock and keeping pets. It’s bizarre to think that for the first time in my life, I grew attached to a box of some 30,000 bees to the degree that I was saddened by their passing.
Even something as simple as a dead tree becomes more intensely meaningful when you’re made aware of your dependence on it (I’ve spent the last two year cultivating a fig tree only to have the trunk explode during our latest cold snap). Each time something dies, be it mammal, bird, insect, or plant, I’m forced to wonder if it’s my own lack of caring that some how caused its passing.
As a result of this adventure, I’ve become more aware of the successes of agriculture (you know the simple things – eggs that have their full shells, plants that actually grow, animals that produce more value than they eat, etc.). I’ve also become painfully aware of societies lack of knowledge regarding the failures of agriculture. When we go into a grocery store, no matter how green and sustainable it is, we are surrounded by the misnomer that agriculture is a win-win proposition (farmers grow food, we buy it). The reality is much more complex than that, agriculture is not only hard work… it’s emotional work that forces us to deal with the idea of loss and not succeeding on a routine basis.
So… as I continue on my journey, I have to learn to deal with loss and negative emotions as something inevitable in my struggle to learn what the hell I’m doing. I have to learn that success doesn’t come in isolation; it’s the culmination of experience and learning to embrace the opposite of success as I work to put systems into place that brace for the mistakes of the past.