Finding Joy as a Driftless Farmer

By Keewaydin Farms –

If you would have told me I would become a farmer when I was younger (or even live in the country for that matter), I would have laughed in your face.

My father can confirm this. Born in Driftless dairy country, I couldn’t wait to drift away from the rural landscape, to find myself under the big city lights, to shed my backroad boredom, and wake up in a place with a pulse. I cannonballed into the UW Madison campus, like a kid showing off at the pool (only the pool was full of cheap beer). I was captivated by the culture, the diversity, the books, and the never ending options.

A decade later, in Fairbanks, Alaska, I was disenchanted with a life I’d chased, with every ounce of my ambition. I’d followed a well worn path. I sat in the front of the class, studied obsessively, landed a job, but steadily lost interest. In the office, I was bored beyond any monotone lecture I’d ever sat through. Only now, there was no end in sight, no clear punctuation marking when I could move on. I hit a breaking point, an invisible threshold for a life I didn’t want to live.

I was staring down my sixth Fairbanks winter when it hit me. I’ve got to get out of here. I was unhappy with every aspect of my life, broken by a job and a marriage that didn’t fit me. I needed to come home to the Driftless, to heal, to regroup, and figure out what I really wanted. I started graduate school online at Johns Hopkins University, studying Liberal Arts, and settled into the contentment of working toward a well defined goal. Then, I met an organic vegetable farmer named Rufus, who made me fall in love with him, his farm, and farming in less than a full season.

When I planted my bare feet in the garden and looked into his blue eyes, those connections held an authenticity I’d been looking for. I quit my job, broke my lease, and packed my bags for Keewaydin Farms. Mind you, I had zero farming experience. I’d never even grown my own garden living in cities, but I was instantly in love with it. Looking back, I wonder if some emotional brain waves got crossed while I was falling in love. I was tumbling head over heels for Rufus as I helped him farm and gained an equal measure of affection for man and motion, a 2 for 1 deal my heart couldn’t resist. I would help him on the farm until I graduated.

I was a rookie, but I didn’t have a regular boss. I was tired, but I got to be outside. I was broke, but I was happy. These were trade offs I was more than willing to make with myself, not like those hours of watching the clock at the office. Sure, back then I had a decent paycheck and health insurance, but it felt like my soul was being sucked through a computer screen and my posterior grew to fill the size of my plush office chair. I still cringe to think of how many hours a week I sat at a desk. It just felt flat out unnatural to sit still for so long, bordering on physical punishment if you ask me. Why had I run so willingly to this sedentary life? Why do any of us?

All I know is that farming absolutely ruined me for seated employment.

When I moved into the farmhouse, I found a pin on Rufus’s bedroom windowsill that said, “Farming is Freedom”. I picked it up and held it in my hands, repeated the slogan and smiled to myself. Is it? I wondered. I could see how both the proclamation and it’s opposite could be true. I guess it depends on what you’re looking to be free from, I thought.

When I graduated with my Master’s degree from JHU, I burned up my brain filling out job applications, editing my resume, and searching for a career that fit me. I’d just completed my graduate research project, “Socially Responsible Food and Ethical Food Consumerism: A Community Based Research Project in Driftless Wisconsin”. My thesis conclusions were still throbbing in my temples. I wanted to make an impact on the food system, but couldn’t see a clear path forward. The unimpressive salaries of the positions I considered seemed like a cleverly baited trap. I didn’t like the trade offs. My years in graduate school, reading about social justice movements, the grave failures of late capitalism, and endless layers of systematic malfeasance didn’t exactly tailor me to fit neatly into some CEO’s pocket. Just the opposite actually. I wanted to set his pants on fire (figuratively of course). I wanted to shine a light on all kinds of injustice suffered at the hands of the elite, not work for one of them. I needed to find a way to make a living in alignment with my highest values that didn’t park me at a desk.

One night, I was pacing the floors, worrying I might have to take a desk job I’d reluctantly applied for when I blurted out, “What if I just be a farmer!?” Rufus looked at me like he didn’t know if I was serious, but a glimmer of hope backlit his steady gaze. “Well, let’s talk about that”, he said, keeping his eye on me. We worked out some budget numbers to see if we could make it work. We figured we could live lean.

Once I decided to join Rufus as a Driftless farmer, it was as if I’d been pardoned from a sentence I’d dreaded serving. No office politics, no dress code, no fluorescent lights, no clock watching would berate my consciousness. I knew what I wanted to be free from, and that, for me, farming is freedom as well as a platform for social change. I’m still a rookie. I still sit at a desk sometimes, but I’m finding joy as a Driftless farmer. I feel connected to the land and her beautiful patterns of life in a way that brings me profound contentment. Each season brings steady rhythms, variation, and ad libitum. I often think about others out there like me, who followed a well worn path to unhappiness at a desk. I wonder if they daydream out the window on sunny days like I did. I wonder if they’ve ever considered anything as wild as becoming a farmer, or if that path (one of the most historically well worn paths if there ever was one) is now closed off to most of us. My hope is that as many as wish to pursue it find even a fraction of the freedom, beauty and joy I’ve reaped from life on the farm.