Friday, January 27, 2012

farming? (why and how)

I spend a lot of my time writing books and plays and am involved with a dozen different theatre and film projects.  But I've also been a pretty serious gardener for a while.  I used to coordinate two different community gardens in Roxbury.  I started the 200 Foot Garden public garden in Brookline three years ago.  Last summer, we grew in three different gardens.

Now I'm taking the next step.  This year, I'll be in a farm training program, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, and farming a quarter acre incubator plot in Dracut, MA.  The incubator plots come with irrigation, a shared hoophouse and tractor, tools, lots of technical support, and the ability to sell to the World PEAS cooperative CSA.  We'll also be selling our produce at two farmer's markets over the summer and fall, under the name of Puddingstone Farm.

This means I'm going to writing less from April through October, which is not a small thing for me.  When the kids were little, I was always scrambling to find more time to write and do theatre.  Now they're a lot bigger, and I'm committing to a huge project that's going to eat writing time like never before.


For the most part, it's for the positive things that appeal to me about farming:
  • I like to work with my hands.
  • I like to be outdoors, growing things.
  • I believe that growing healthy food is important, not just for my family, but also for my community as a whole.  Bringing backs sustainable small farms is important for the health of the environment.
  • I like developing the ability to feed myself.
  • I look forward to meeting and interacting with new people at the farmer's markets.  At our stand, we plan to have a small lending library of our favorite cookbooks and books about farming and food.  Mostly to serve as a jumping off point for interesting conversations.
  • I enjoy getting to know other farmers.  I know a lot of theatre and book folk, but it's good to widen my circle.  The people I see at the NOFA conference talk about different things from people at theatre conferences.  That's a good thing for me as a writer, and as a person.
  • It's hard.  I like to do hard things.  (Hence writing plays and novels.)  The mental part is just as challenging as the physical.
  • There's a certain concreteness to it.  I plant a seed and it germinates.  I take proper care of the seedling and it turns into a plant that I can harvest.  There's a simple, natural logic to it.
  • People know that they need to pay for food.  They may not understand that they should pay what it really costs.  (Which might make it similar to working in theatre or writing books.)  It's very hard to make a living as a farmer, and I'm not even planning to attempt to make that much money.  But I will be one of the few people entering farming who will see it as a pay increase over what I've been doing.
  • The New Entry program really fits into my style of learning.  I like to be independent and am not afraid to make mistakes and fail.  
There are also a few things about writing that have been dragging me down, which makes it palatable for me to trade in some writing time for farming time.
  • The book business makes less and less sense to me.  I don't intend to stop writing books (I'm deep in revisions for a novel right now), but I'm not sure publishers have a good plan for the future.  And I'm not sure where the kind of work I write fits into the system.  There used to be a place for mid-list writers.  I'm not sure where that is anymore.  Self-publishing ebooks is okay, but the amount of promo time required is onerous, and even then, there's a fair bit of luck involved to sell many copies (especially if you're not writing genre fiction). 
  • I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find productions of full-length plays in the current theatre climate.  Part of the reason is that there are more playwrights (there's been an explosion of graduate writing programs over the past 20 years) and fewer slots for full-length productions.  I've had a lot of readings over the past few years, some great development opportunities, and my short work gets performed a lot.  But I'm still trying to get my head around the state of modern theatre and new plays and where I fit in.  I'm going to keep writing new full-length plays (I can't help myself), but if they don't end up on stage, professionally produced, I'm going to keep bumping into limits as to how much I can grow as a writer.  
  • Money in theatre and fiction writing feels like it's drying up.  I'm not in it for the money, but I also wouldn't mind making a little more than I spend.  My writing just barely does that, in a good year.  Farming isn't likely to be much better, I realize, but I can at least make some good guesses in a spreadsheet and find a scenario that has a positive return.  As Kira enters college (in a year and a half), we'll see how any long I can keep up any of these endeavors.

I'm fully aware that I'm in my mid-forties and am reaching that age when people have their mid-life crises and dream about big changes.  About life on the farm.  Hell, lots of people dream about life as a writer.  I'm not giving up the writing life, but I am branching out and learning some new skills and mixing things up a bit.

Because of the commuting required to the incubator site, this particular farming project is likely to only last a year.  But if it goes well, I will look to farm elsewhere next season (closer to home).

Writing and farming both appeal to me for some basic reasons:  I like to create things, and I like interacting with people.  What mix of growing food and writing stories ends up meeting those needs remains to be seen.  I'm tempted to change the name of this blog to The Writing and Farming Life (x3), because whatever happens, it's going to remain a mix.

I'm excited to see how this ends up affecting what I write about.  This will be year with a lot of new experiences.  I'm sure I'll find the seeds for a few new plays and books in there, somewhere.

(The 200 Foot Garden from last year)


Mike Cooper said...

I for one am quite looking forward to schoolyard deliveries of next summer's vegetables :)

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Mike! It's going to be a fun summer and fall, that's for sure. I can just picture myself coming by after school with my little pushcart (or the bike trailer).

Deb Vlock said...

Pat, I would love to see some articles/essays growing out of your combined endeavors. Interesting stuff!

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Deb. I have a feeling there will be a lot to write and think about.