The couple had moved from San Francisco the year before to a small farming town, population 3,000, because Lisa had wanted to raise animals and grow food. For years, she’d been saving money to buy land. When she married Will, they pooled their income to make the purchase sooner. But it might have been too soon.
“I don’t think I understood what I was getting into,” Will said, the morning I visited. “I didn’t realize how much work it would be and how little money we would make. I left my job and everyone I knew so that we could come here.”
While Lisa raised sheep for meat and grew organic produce, Will was taking freelance tech gigs to pay the bills. As he typed at his desk, his back was to the orchard and garden outside. He didn’t even want to discuss farming, especially with their neighbors, who only talked crop yields and irrigation techniques.
“He resents me for making him come here. And I resent him for not wanting to stay,” Lisa said.
And Will and Lisa aren’t alone. As one grass-fed cattleman put it, “If you marry a rancher, you marry a job.” There are calving cows in the middle of the night, steers on the loose when you’re the only one home to do anything about it. Three hundred sixty-five days a year there’s livestock to feed and fences to move. That’s a tough ask in a country where only 1 percent of the population farms and most potential mates are more accustomed to 9-5 schedules than to 4 a.m. milkings.
From Farmer to Farmer’s Wife
Even when two people agreed on all points agrarian, running a small business together tried many of the farm couples I met. Who would set the schedule? How would they make financial decisions? When the crop price came in low and the lettuce field froze over would they still feel like sharing a bed at night? And once they had two kids, who would come in from the greenhouse to clean diapers and spoon baby food?
“I miss putting in a 15-hour day outside,” Haley said over the phone from her organic dairy in Maine. “Now that we’re parents, my husband Rick is out with the animals most of the time and I’m inside with the kids. Sometimes I see him walk by the kitchen window, but that’s about all the interaction we have until supper time.”
Before she and Rick had children, Haley ran organic produce farms on the West Coast. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in agronomy and a Master’s in International Agriculture Development from UC Davis. Farming was her career. And like so many mothers in any line of work, she had had to step back for the time being.
“When we sell at the farmers’ market, customers think my husband is the real farmer. I’m just the farmer’s wife. I’m just mom,” Haley said. Soon after the birth of her second child, she started seeing a therapist to deal with depression. She was anxious to return to farming full-time once her daughter and son were older and needed her less.
“Farming with family only works if you have childcare and community support and most of us don’t have either,” she said. Hiring a babysitter is too expensive for the average small farmer and urban or suburban transplants like Haley and her husband rarely have large networks of friends and relatives to call on for help.
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