When everything is at its dirtiest, showing up to face the muck and share the load are the most important steps.
I take a tentative step on the woodland trail I’ve been breaking all winter. The snow is too soft today. I sink to my knees. Sighing, I call to the dogs. We abandon the woods and instead sludge through the mud of the driveway and out to the road for our morning walk. As I step out to the road, I face the ugly baring of winter’s soul as I dodge the dog shits that were deposited and then tactfully hidden for four months by gently falling blankets of white. The snow banks are dirty. The ground slurps as I traverse it.
It seems only fitting that we should choose mud season as the time when we begin working on our family’s farm transition plan. My parents bought the land in 1979, and Bob and I joined them twenty years later. After being in business for 36 years, mud, slush, dirty snow and dog bombs seem a fitting landscape as we begin this process.
Mom and I signed up to take a farm transition class together at our local extension office. We thought it would get us off on the right foot. We’ve been spending every Wednesday afternoon down there for the past few weeks. I don’t think we knew what we were in for. This simple life that we are trying to ensure for her and dad, for Bob and me, and for our children, is turning out to be anything but simple. Morning chores, trips to the farmers’ market, afternoons by the pond, evening chores — the defining features of our weeks during the summer — are no longer at the fore. Suddenly we are confronted with the grim bottom line of our romantic agrarian simplicity. Thoughts of the garden, plans for lambing season, and even the present reality of boiling sap are supplanted in our minds with flinty explanations of liabilities and assets, cash flow spreadsheets, financial score cards, enterprise budgets, estate plans, business plans, living wills, long term care insurance, disability planning, life insurance, partnership agreements.
I make my way down the road with the dogs, trying to wrap my head around these issues that have suddenly risen in my life. Nikki, my biggest dog, dashes off into the woods for a minute. He returns triumphant with a skull from some fallen wild animal. He tries to carry it along on our jaunt, but finds it too cumbersome. The other two dogs and I stop and wait for him to decide what to do.
He looks around. The snow banks on the roadside are too high for him to climb up and hide it in a field. The driveway is too far back now to leave it there. Finally, he comes to a decision. He drops it on the side of the road. Then he pisses on it before moving on. The whole macabre scene seems to wrap up my feelings of late. My parents have put their life and souls into our family farm. And now, to segue in a new generation and safeguard all that they’ve done, we make plans for their deaths. Then we piss on their agrarian remains to claim them as ours. It all seems so unfair to them. And as for me, it seems equally unfair. For forty-one years, I’ve been the farmer’s daughter. I have supported them by my presence. The farm has been theirs, my job has been to fill in the interstices — manage markets, come up with supplemental ventures to support my family, work in the cutting room, help with the website, take care of customers. They are the leaders. I am only their support. But now, whether we want to or not, to keep taking care of the land, to keep supporting our customers, we must make a shift.
And just as we must endure the ugliness of mud season in order to find spring, our family must face head-on all the ugliness in our business. We must confront our communication barriers, our emotional hot buttons, our accounting errors, our management mistakes, our miscalculations. We must plan for mom and dad’s death, and the ability of the farm to live on in their absence. We must plan for Bob’s and my death, and the ability of Saoirse and Ula carry it all forward, should they so choose. We must lay bare every shred of nastiness, every mistake, every vulnerability, in order to move into the future.
At this moment, I envy anyone who does not face a farm inheritance. I envy anyone who can inherit something as simple as money. I envy anyone who can inherit nothing, walking into the future with only memories.
But it is mud season. And mud season asks us to look at the destruction around us wreaked by winter storms. As the snow recedes, it exposes bit by bit our mistakes from the previous year, and the things that need fixing — the boards that need re-nailing, the ground that needs raking, the fence lines that need tightening. Like lush summer, or glorious fall, or restful winter, it comes every year. It is not a surprise. And once we’ve shuddered at the bitter elixir of hard truths that it shows us, we know what to do. We pick up the rake, the hammer, the pliers. We pull on our gloves, walk out into the sunshine, and face whatever it is that we must fix. The seasons will turn. We will have another growing season. We will have another resting season. And then mud season will come around again.
In a lifetime of farming, I have learned this much. Mud season is as important as summer growth. It is the chance to rebuild, redesign, repair. And the way to get through it is to get up each morning and stare it in the face, do what the day will allow, go to sleep at night, then get up and do it again the next morning. Our victory will not be found in one glorious maneuver. It is slowly uncovered through daily toil, through commitment to process.
I turn at the bottom of the road and call the dogs to me for our climb back up the mountain. As we retrace our steps, the dogs find the skull that Nikki marked. Each of them takes a turn carrying it the rest of the way home, a prize for the pack, brought about through teamwork. I laugh at their antics, my joy restored. With a light heart, I go back inside, take off my boots, and get back to work.
This year, mud season presents my family with the chance to pull together more closely than ever. We must put pencils to paper, crunch numbers, examine our relationships, and make tough decisions. We are in the ugly part right now. But if we can work through it, there will be more maple syrup, more honey, more wild apples for the cider press, more grapes on the vine, more spring lambs, more wool blankets, more chicken dinners, more burgers on the grill, more days laughing with customers, and more hot summer afternoons by the pond …. for many many years to come.