When Enough Is Enough

When Enough Is Enough

Excerpts from the Horsedrawn Circle Letter

compiled by Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

Past contributions to the SFJ from the twelve scribes of the Horsedrawn Circle Letter have focused almost entirely on the practical aspects of farming with work animals. The discussion in the last two rounds of the circle letter packet has explored a new, but related topic, the critical issue of dealing with farm stress.

Newcomers to farming might be perplexed by the very notion of farm stress. After all, many of us began farming precisely to avoid the stress associated with the modern lifestyle and workplace – and to enjoy the freedom and independence of “being your own boss.” So it may come as a surprise that agriculture, like any profession, has its own set of stress-inducing challenges, compounded by the vagaries of the weather and marketplace, and the insecurities unique to self-employment.

Part of what makes farming so attractive is that it combines business and lifestyle into one, holistic, life endeavor. However, the difficulty of balancing the needs of the farm and family can lead to a more intractable form of stress than found in the regular nine-to-five job. You can’t leave your problems at work – or at home – if they are both one in the same. Likewise, the benefits of being your own boss may sour if you turn out to be your own worst taskmaster. A good deal of restraint and discipline is required to know when “enough is enough” and prevent burnout.

Clearly, the circle letter scribes could not say enough about enough, judging from the lengthy response to Leo Trudel’s question which started this topic. Putting this discussion on farm stress in print, including the sometimes negative and depressing details, is not meant to discourage anyone from realizing their dream of becoming a farmer. To the contrary, sharing the real life pressures experienced by this circle of small-scale farm families may better prepare aspiring stewards of the land for the inevitable challenges of this way of life and reduce farm stress in the process.

The challenges mentioned by the circle letter scribes range from the radical readjustment of work roles due to the demands of a newborn, or the homegrown workforce leaving the farm, to the financial pressure to pay for family health insurance or college tuition for kids; setbacks due to accidents, illness, or loss of off-farm employment; and the increasing corporatization of the agricultural marketplace with the consequent devaluing of farm life and farm products.

New HDCL members, Bob and Linda Kidwell, and Michael and Karma Glos, shared their words of wisdom on managing these challenges in the last postal circuit of the packet of letters. The Kidwells have more years of experience farming with horses – on more acres—than anyone else in the circle. With the help of six Suffolk horses, they raise hay and field crops for sale and to feed their flock of Tunis sheep (150 ewes) in Montgomery, Michigan. Longtime readers of the SFJ and other farm publications may recognize Bob’s name from his byline on articles covering everything from mixed powered farming to farm economics and building with stone.

Michael and Karma’s highly diversified operation in Berkshire, New York reflects their training as wildlife biologists. With their His and Hers teams – Percherons and Haflingers – they care for an acre of produce, a half acre of culinary herbs, 400 layers, 800 broilers, 100 ducks, 50 turkeys, 25 hogs, 4 beef and 1 dairy cow. In Karma’s introductory letter, she summed up the motivation for why most of us in this Horsedrawn Circle persevere in our calling to farm despite the pressures and stresses inherent to this profession:

“I often say that everything we do on the farm is all for the horses. The farm supports the horses and the horses support the farm. The same can be said for the cows, and the hogs; chickens to a lesser extent. We are always working to complete the circle. But the horses are the greatest joy of our work.”

Joseph, I agree with your twist on some of us farmers/homesteaders being ruled by the farm and its work. It’s a case of the “tail wagging the dog.” Maybe we should discuss our time management methods of deciding when to determine when “enough is enough.” We are not in it for the money and this is the lifestyle we choose. So…why is it so stressful? Is this the way it is supposed to be?

Leo Trudel

These last three months have just been a whirlwind here at Windhaven Farm, both literally and figuratively! The weather has been very violent this spring, lots of days of high winds, plus cold rain/snow, just basically not fun to be out in. Along with that, just after the packet left here the last time, I developed a vision problem that has grounded me from my flying job, indefinitely. So it is that I’m a full-time farmer after all, a couple of years earlier than I’d intended. Don’t anyone get the impression that that’s a bad thing, though. I’m feeling better than I have in years, and the financial situation, while difficult, is manageable. Such a relief to not be doing the flying thing these last few months…

Lambing started April 24th, and we started milking once-a-day on May 3rd. Now we’ve weaned the lambs, and have settled down to twice-a-day milking 30 ewes, who are currently producing about 130 pounds of milk a day. Not much by cow standards, but very respectable for sheep, and we’re very pleased. On top of the good production, the cheese maker that’s buying the milk just announced that they’re going to increase the price they pay for milk, by about 17%, so we’re actually going to get a good bit more income from the dairy operation this year than I had planned on. Good thing, since my main income just disappeared!

I had to comment on the thread about farmers of our type tending to overload themselves and stress out, forgetting to have a life. It’s not that we don’t have a life, I really do enjoy working 14 hour days on the farm! It does wear you down though. Even though I’m having fun, I do need to remind myself (or have Margie remind me) to step away from the farm once in a while to recharge. “All work and no play makes Keith a dull boy!”

Keith Morgan-Davies

I think Leo has brought up a very interesting topic, When is Enough, Enough? – dealing with stress – and why is a lifestyle that we have chosen – not forced into – so stressful. Is this something that we can put input into for Eric to write up for the SFJ? From my family’s point of view – it’s not stress but pressure to make enough money that is so disturbing. Maybe they’re the same thing. But when I left the business world over eight years ago to make our living from farming I had absolutely no idea how much money it was going to take to support my family. Maybe I could take a laid back approach and say we will just have to get by with what we have and there will be no college for the kids or medical insurance for the family, but that is not my way. So this need for money has pushed and pushed me into a lifestyle I just dread. I wish I could look forward to the season like Eric does but I just can’t. I love farming but I have learned to hate the absolute endless commitment it takes to survive. With one son in college and another due to go next year and with medical insurance in an endless upward spiral, the only way I can make ends meet is to simply work more and more hours. And it is so frustrating because I know that next year I’ll have to work even more hours to keep up with the increasing bills. So as Keith says, all work and no play makes for a very boring person. Well, that defines me. What is most frustrating is that we have no time to pursue other points of interest. Just work more hours to make more money to pay more bills. Only 15 percent of today’s farmers are good enough to support their families entirely from farm income, so I feel fortunate to be included in that elite group but I have no idea When Enough is Enough and how to control stress on today’s farms.

Paul Hauser

Preparing for the baby’s birth and caring for Kaycie has thrown us a curve but we’re making adjustments. Now I seem to do most of the farm work as Kaycie’s dealing with breast feeding the baby and making sure all of her needs are met. The garden is not well tended but the fields are getting clipped and all our animals are healthy. Recently, I’ve renovated a hay loader from the hedgerow and retrofitted a hay wagon so I’m able to put up hay with less effort and by myself. Now we just need the barn. Fortunately, our horses respond well to verbal get-up and whoa so I’m able to focus on stacking the load instead of holding the lines… I haven’t put up hay yet but I’m using the weeds and grass for mulching between the berries. This has made managing things much easier. We intend to do our garden next year the same way, mostly mulched.

Leo and Julie – I don’t believe farming is supposed to be this stressful. To some extent I believe it’s the individual’s temperament. Mostly, it’s: 1) the lack of extended family; 2) overall family size is small, i.e., my grandparents were each one of ten children; 3) rural infrastructure is gone, i.e. harness makers and other craftsmen were in every community. Now we spend hours on the road to find these craftsmen; 4) Society places priorities differently than they once did! We live in a society that is far too sexy. The consumers spending dollars are spread among many other things. 5) Corporate America has lobbied for transporting food across the nation and globe. Educated consumers who would boycott imported food and buy local would put more money in farmers’ pockets for less hours worked. Be it as it may, we’re still among a short-sighted, disinterested, deluded and degraded citizenry, who no longer understands the value of good food, the natural world and the pleasures of rural life. I’ll stop here. Otherwise, my blood is really going to boil.

Joe D’Auria

Every parent I spoke to when I was pregnant alerted me to the enormous change life would take once the baby was born, and I thought I had heard what they said. But, as you parents know, there is no way to truly understand how a baby will change your life until a baby is on the scene. It has been an adjustment for sure! I am just totally amazed how many parents there are out there.

So far, the work of parenting seems to top off farming, especially since it’s difficult to get through a meal in one sitting and impossible to get a good night’s sleep. And I’ve got it easy – a full-time mom, in good health, with a happy baby and a very loving and helpful husband.

My question is: why is it that most people fantasize about the life of farming but won’t get into it because it’s too much work, but the majority get into parenting?

Anyway, the one thing I have been able to continue since having Linnae is milking the cow and dealing with the milk in the kitchen. The garden looks horrible, but the cow is getting milked… and when I can’t deal with all the milk, the pigs bail me out.


Our other cash crop is hay. We sell to people with fancy horses who are willing to pay a fair price for good quality hay in small bales. The main drawback to selling hay is all the physical work it requires. This becomes more obvious as you age and the children leave home. I’m not sure how the next years will play out. You can, I think, make more profit selling hay than lambs in the short term, but it’s better to have that manure to return to the soil. I don’t think organic hay selling is sustainable. It’s odd that there always seems to be more money to be made in selling to a non-food market. Farmers with cows could never afford the hay that horses can. Pleasure horses, that is, not hard working draft horses. Our horses usually get what the buyers don’t want…

I can appreciate your frustration, Paul, about working so many hours and not making enough money. I could go for pages about it. If having a certain amount of money is necessary and important to you, and that requires you to work harder and harder in an ever increasing spiral, then you need a non-farm income that comes from the city economy. The other choices are to be miserable or spend less. Spending less isn’t all that bad and doesn’t deprive your family as much as we’ve been led to believe. Years ago Alan Slavick wrote an article in the SFJ about farming with a single horse, in 1990. We visited him shortly after that time and now use his lifestyle as a benchmark for frugality. He and his wife lived on the income one could earn with one horse. I believe it was less than $500 per year. That’s what they spent. Probably they saved money in addition. They lived pretty much a subsistence lifestyle, and seemed quite happy and relaxed. No electricity besides a solar panel, light bulb, batteries. Refrigeration was a springhouse. Not many people would want to go to this extreme. Health insurance is the biggest problem. Debt repayment is a close second. We went about 12 years with no insurance. Fortunately, our only big medical expense was $7,000 for Craig’s emergency appendectomy. Medicaid paid the entire bill. Even if the government hadn’t paid that bill we still would have come out ahead over paying premiums all those years. We do have major medical insurance now with a high deductible through Blue Cross.

It is too bad farming isn’t valued enough for farmers to be paid a living wage. I guess we have to live within the economy as it is, though. Just need to wrangle a way to spend a few hours working horses on a regular basis without any thought about hurrying to get finished or your hourly wage. With the right attitude it can be good therapy.

Bob Kidwell

One way we have tried to reduce the stress of market gardening is to hire help with the marketing. Anne now has three friends with sales experience helping her at the stand. Not only does this provide better customer service but reduces the exhaustion factor of dealing with so many people in a short period of time. Also, one of the ladies has come to the farm a few times on Friday mornings to help with picking and packing the day before market as well as making flower bouquets. And occasionally the neighbor girls help out on Friday evenings. It is amazing what just getting to bed an hour or two earlier does for your outlook and energy.

The other way we have tried to reduce burnout is simply by not trying to do everything! We pretty much focus all of our energy on the vegetable crops during the growing season. Consequently, we must buy in the oats for the horses and other grains for the pigs and chickens, and the pastures look very neglected. Instead of buying hay the last few years we have been fortunate to work together with a neighbor dairy farmer to make hay off of our farm. We supply the fertilizer and he cuts and bales the hay which we split 50/50. That way we don’t tie up our time with haymaking during a very busy part of the market gardening season, but still can feed hay from our own farm grown without chemicals. The downside of the choice to focus solely on the vegetable production is we miss out on the more rewarding and romantic aspects of farming, and lose out on the benefits of developing a truly closed farm system.

It is interesting that the word “enough” came up in the last spin of the circle, because a few years ago several young farm couples visited us, independently of each other, and they all wrote us letters afterwards saying that what they learned from the visit is the concept of Enough. All we can guess is that the scale of our operation looks manageable. (During the peak of the marketing season it seems like way too much to us!) Unlike many growers, we have not increased acreage to increase income, but just keep trying to fine-tune the system and mix of crops and markets to keep up with inflation. As a result, our workload, if not acres, has increased over the years. And like Paul says, we don’t see how we will be able to keep up the pace, let alone increase it, as we age.

We agree with the rest of you that part of the problem for the small family farm is that society-at-large does not really appreciate true farm stewardship and what it takes to get food to their plate in a sustainable fashion. Another thing that works against us is this whole notion of a Growth Economy which the modern world insists is necessary for survival. Really, the expression seems like a contradiction in terms. I mean, what is economical about growth? About creating more and more stuff to consume and then create more and more waste? We won’t ever approach a sustainable society until this worship of Growth is replaced with a love of Enough by everyone. In the meantime, the cost of living that keeps spiraling higher and higher in our growth economy puts unreasonable pressure on us small-scale producers, forcing us to rely on off-farm income or to invest more of our “free” labor in income-producing activities just to keep up. Or to live completely outside of the Growth Economy, which is only possible if every member of the family is interested in changing their expectations. Guess we do a little of both, living outside the Growth Economy to an extent, and subsidizing our operation with our own cheap labor and off-farm investments. (Incidentally, putting our savings in revolving loan funds designed for community economic development has actually turned out to be a better investment than the stock market! So far, socially responsible investing pays even in a boom-and-bust growth economy.)

We also try to keep the struggle to farm in perspective by considering what it might be like to farm in war-torn parts of the world. I mean, the stresses we associate with surviving on the small farm in this country pale compared to peasant farmers who must arm themselves to go to the fields, negotiate land mines with their teams, or see their crops and homes burned or bombed by government and rebel forces, not to mention having their hard working children abducted by these warring factions. By comparison, we have it pretty easy, even if it is the same greedy corporations and politicians behind the injustices of the food system we face here and the violence and dislocation small farmers face elsewhere in the world.

Eric Nordell

Regarding the topic of enough is enough, we are in the middle of rethinking what we are going to be doing on the farm in the future. I have come to the conclusion that I can’t continue to keep going at the pace I have been and remain sane. With Buddy’s accident, well, it just put things in perspective for me. This year I tried to log, saw and build a house. The frame is about half complete. At the same time, prep and assist Julie with two acres of gardens, maintain a potato seed contract for Fedco, and make enough money to make ends meet in between, all the while attempting to increase infrastructure on the farm. Buddy was working off the farm, Danni helps out some and Nicki was on a canoe expedition for a big part of the summer. If this seems like whining, then I apologize. It’s not meant to. But, it does go back to my original question of when is enough, enough?

Leo Trudel

Your thoughts about “what is enough” really strike a chord here, since that question is the direction Margie’s career is taking – she’s an economist, Ph.D. from Cornell in fact, and is very interested in researching the idea of a “sustainable economy,” rather than a “growth” economy. The very concept that the economy must grow (and that we must all buy more stuff to be good Americans) to be healthy is so clearly illogical and unsustainable that it boggles the mind how our nation bought into it, but it has. (The economist speaks: Unfortunately, what they all say is true, and it would put a lot of people out of work [not upper management, for the most part] to abandon our consumption- oriented ways. We need to come up with a way to minimize that, but it won’t be through the “market.”)

Here I have to make a personal observation. We farmers can never make enough money to buy everything that our culture says is “vital.” Even working as an airline pilot I couldn’t do it. Why do we insist on killing ourselves trying? I have to wonder if we haven’t overlooked an out, some reduction in needs and wants that would allow us to live well enough, on less cash? Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I hate to see good people working themselves to death on what sounds like an impossible mission.

For us, Margie’s part-time work teaching brings in a little income, and starting next year is supposed to give us health insurance, too, when mine ends. This is not a small thing, and I’m grateful, but I can’t help thinking that the insurance racket is a fixed game I can never win. We’ve talked about putting together our own “insurance group” where each member puts in $1000-2000 per year to an account, which is then available for those serious injury-type accidents that ruin farm families that don’t have insurance. I think it would work, trouble is it looks like the state of New York has laws prohibiting such things – no doubt laws sponsored by the insurance companies!

Keith Morgan-Davie

So you want to know how much is “enough”? Probably never will happen. As Tolstoy once wrote: It is not given unto man to know how much he needs. Greed and avarice are probably in our flesh and not learned. In my travels I’ve met more than one millionaire who swore they were just modestly comfortable. Myself with my little 50 acre spread here am incredibly extravagant and living far beyond my real needs, far beyond what is enough but by North American standards I live a wretched, impoverished, dismal anything but a comfortable way of life. To the masses of the world I’m a very rich fat cat. And they are the ones we should compare ourselves to and stand with, but the flesh says otherwise.

John Coffer

It was good reading everyone’s thoughts on “Enough.” It seemed to be an almost unanimous thought that “less is best” but many of us – especially us – find it very difficult staying on that track. Which leads me to ask, is a real low income, soft path though life, sustainable? Or do we have to adjust our lifestyle in order to meet the changing demands that we face? I was adamantly opposed to insurance until Carol and I both got real sick last winter. Now as we get older our medical needs are constantly increasing and I really want to have that insurance crutch. I never dreamed or thought college would cost so much – so I had to adjust my income levels to meet those needs. We have never had a central heat system – I just despise that thought but Carol keeps feeling that as we age, a central heater might make our lives easier. We are now planning for a future of less marketing and farming after our children are gone – providing we’re still on this farm. I’ve promised once college tuition payments are done – I’m back on the slow path.

Paul Hauser

I have no idea when enough is enough. I admit to spending an awful lot of time on family function type stuff, and it has frustrated me endlessly. I never know how much time I actually spend working on farming tasks but it sure feels like it’s never enough. I don’t know what would happen if we ate out of a box and I didn’t cook meals. If I didn’t help out when the girls need help, would they have helped me?…

The great news around here is that Erika, my oldest, has decided to stay and help out on the farm. She figures she’ll stay after high school graduation, work the summer and the fall, travel some next winter, perhaps in Central America as a working member of an aide society of some type, and be back to help in the spring. She did very well in school, Honor Society, three varsity sports, but she can’t picture why she should go on when she really likes to farm. We’ll see how this works out, and I’m trying to view this casually and act calm, cool and collected, but really I’m jumping for joy! I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

Katy Sweeney

We are attempting (and succeeding) at farming a small acreage and making a living. We don’t want to have employees, are not interested in being a “big producer” and don’t want to be specialized. But we do want to support our family, produce quality products, and be diverse without spreading ourselves too thin. As the years have gone by we’ve reduced our off-farm income considerably, now relying on the farm for much of our income. This off-farm income has been part of our diversity and has helped reduce some of the risk inherent with farming. We started by growing all the vegetables and have reduced this considerably and now focus on just a few crops (but many varieties of each of these). We have always worked hard but always took the time to not let “work” prevent us from enjoying our lives. Fortunately we enjoy our work but have always allowed ourselves “time off” even during the busiest of times. We’ve seen too many young farmers who farm “environmentally sustainable” methods but not “farmer sustainable” methods. After 5-10 years they have better soil but their backs are sore (as well as their heads). And not uncommonly their fiscal situation and personal relationships are no better off. We have strived to balance everything so that we enjoy what we are doing and want to continue doing it.

One way to achieve this balance was to have a child. Rosie (now 5 years old) has helped slow us down and forced us to smell the roses. I especially need slowing down or will work in the fields until it’s dark and then retire to the barn where there are lights.

This is a roundabout way of saying what I think of “enough.” There never is enough. After the first year of farming I found myself at our neighbor’s barn (during milking). I must have been complaining to him about never having enough time to get everything done. When one task was completed there was always another one to do. I remember him looking back at me, this dairy farmer that had milked for 30 years (never missing a single milking) and said matter of factly, “Well… when you’re done, you’re dead.”

Michael Glos

One thought on “Enough is Enough” that I have heard is… “Enough work lies somewhere between working so much that one feels the need for a day off and working too little causes one to feel guilty for not putting in more time.” Granted most farmers of any sort find themselves looking for or needing more than one day off. This makes me wonder if farming is serving the needs of the farmer and the community if it leaves a population of overworked, undersocial, stressed out people scattered around the countryside.

Joe D’Auria

We have actively been trying very hard to figure out when “enough is enough” for us. We figured out that working until we drop at night, feeling lucky to get a halfway decent meal in before bed, is way too much. So – in the past two months, in a strong attempt to maintain a sane, spirited, balanced family life, we try hard to complete all our farm work (except milking) by 5:30 pm. Dinner is on the table by 6:30, and we are in bed by 10:00 (even though it’s usually 11:00 or 12:00 for me with the baby). This simple system works like a charm for us when we actually live by it. We’ll see what happens when the days get longer.

Kaycie D’Auria

It seems almost enough has been said about what is enough, but I can’t resist just a little bit more. It seems everyone has to set his own individual limits to achieve that balance between creature comforts, conscience, preservation of the world’s resources, and quality of life. If only more of us could realize that quality of life improves with simplicity. Last Fall I met a family from Ontario, who farm organically with Suffolk horses, and don’t have a car or truck. They use a horse and buggy for distances less than 15 miles or so, and rent a car from relatives for longer trips. It takes a lot out of the farm to support cars and insurance. The rest of their lifestyle does include electricity and computers appearing quite normal for today’s world. They do raise 60 acres of soybeans organically with only living horsepower. I hope to find out their secrets eventually. I’ve always found weed control in soybeans much more difficult than corn.

Bob Kidwell

Joe and Kaycie’s comments on knowing when enough is enough reminded us of two ways we try to keep farm work in perspective. We don’t have the discipline to end the day early during the growing season. So we shorten the day at the other end, rising when or after the sun gets up. That probably does not sound very “farmerly” but at least it insures us a reasonable amount of sleep.

We also try to keep the work rhythm of the whole farm year in perspective, remembering in the heat of the summer when “we are working so hard that we need a day off” that in the winter we may be “working so little it causes us to feel guilty for not putting in more time.” We have to remember our business is seasonal and to savor the opportunity to be extra busy, and to rest, at the appropriate times of year. Part of adapting to this seasonal fluctuation in “enough” is simply being content with our identity as farmers. Otherwise it is tempting to compare ourselves with the rest of society which is on a completely different schedule – vacations in the summer and set hours the rest of the year. I am thankful that we can set our own hours, even if we exploit ourselves sometimes in the process, and that our rhythm of work follows nature’s schedule rather than the clock or the calendar.

Eric Nordell