A familiar scenario played out this week: a chef acquaintance got in touch, interested in purchasing a number of plants worth a little over $100–a number considerably higher than our average plant purchase at the market, and quite a welcome order. It was an urgent request, of course, and they needed the plants ASAP. Dutifully, I pulled the plants, emailed to confirm what I had on hand, and then coordinated with the person the chef was planning on sending out to the farm to pick up the order. We were on for Thursday afternoon.
I hung close to the house that day and kept my phone close at hand, three trays of plants ready and waiting to go. Hours ticked by–2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. No one showed. I checked my texts, my voicemail, my email. Nothing. It’s been three days since the supposed pickup, and I still haven’t heard a peep about these plants.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but we go through this sort of thing all the time. People schedule a time to come pick out some sheep for breeding stock; they never show. Folks schedule a tour of the farm and never turn up. Interest is expressed, we put time and effort into meeting it, and then the original intention vanishes into thin air. At best, it’s a minor inconvenience. At worst, it disorders part or all of our day.
I’ve learned not to let it affect me (much)–quite an accomplishment for a self-professed type A control freak. Because if there’s anything that’s certain in the world of farming, it’s uncertainty. People are unreliable. The weather is unreliable. Plant growth is unreliable. Even our own bodies are unreliable, sometimes failing us when we need them the most. What matters is that when someone or something fails you, you pick yourself back up and forge ahead. Perhaps not in exactly the way you did before–course corrections are a must–but you just keep going.
I’ve been seeing rabbits around the farm all week. One over on the edge of the woods by the chicken house. Two last night on my way down the driveway to do chores. One paused just ten feet away when I went out to shoot the photos for this post. Rabbits are all about agility and the ability to move quickly, to think on your feet. They come up short when they sense danger, all eyes and ears for the situation at hand, but when the time comes to do something about it they explode in a flurry of fur and feet. Seeing them reminds me to be flexible and aware, to not get locked into unproductive ways of thinking about uncertainty.
Uncertainty can be a thrill–there is something to be said for novelty, for the exhilaration that comes from taking a leap of faith. I’m not really hard-wired to find excitement in uncertainty (it usually just makes me queasy), but there are certainly those who do.
Sometimes uncertainty becomes something of a ritual around here. For instance, right now we’re in the process of scheduling this year’s sheep shearing, and it’s always a delicate negotiation between the weather, our schedules, and the schedules of our shearers. We look at all the factors and make tentative plans–next Thursday, or the following Monday or Tuesday–but there is never any certainty about when shearing will occur until the shearers pull up to the barn in their ancient pickup truck smelling of lubricating oil, lanolin, and hard labor. The only certainty is that they will, eventually, make it around to us. It used to be a source of stress, but now it’s a familiar routine. We know they’ll be here sooner or later, and they know we’ll have a huge spread laid out for their dinner, hot showers, and warm beds if they need to spend to the night before heading home to Asheville.
The only certainties in the garden are that the sun will come up tomorrow, that something will grow (even if it’s just weeds), and that something will go wrong. One summer it’s a great tomato season but the beans do poorly, the next it’s the exact opposite. Uncertainty is the best argument for diversity on a small farm, because you can be certain that there will be some sort of crop failure just about every year. If you’ve put all your eggs in the basket of monocropping, that loss becomes crippling, catastrophic. That’s when you lose the farm. But if you’ve spread out your risk across multiple crops or products your operation is far more resilient and able to absorb the loss.
And of course the biggest variable of all is the weather. Right now we’re flirting with dryness–I won’t use the other, dreaded d-word just yet–at a time of year where we really need the rain. Last summer, when it rained so much I never had to irrigate anything, was a glorious anomaly. And it’s not just about rainfall: this year alone we’ve dealt with winds high enough to tear the plastic off the hoop house and lingering frosts cold enough to risk serious damage to our plant starts right before our spring plant sale. You never want any of this to happen–you never want someone to order plants and then leave them sitting there, unclaimed and unwanted–but you’d darn well better be flexible enough to pivot when things go awry. Because they will absolutely, unquestionably will go awry.
We eliminated one uncertainty today by wrapping up our spring chicken processing. We processed thirteen on Wednesday before it got too hot, and planned to do another thirteen today, leaving us with nine to finish up sometime in the coming week. But the weather ended up being too perfect to refuse–cool and cloudy, if somewhat drizzly–so over the course of the morning our conversations turned from “when are we going to do the last batch” to “let’s just push through it and get it over with.” One of the hardest lessons of farming (for me, at least) is that you will never completely clear your to-do list; tasks large and small will always remain. There will always be some fresh fire to put out. But when you can cross one substantial task off the list, get it squared away and get ready to face the next big thing…well, that’s a pretty sweet (if brief) feeling of certainty.