I got a call from a colleague this morning asking how I was dealing with the corona virus pandemic and I said I was feeling grateful. Grateful to live in a rural area where my primary activity outside of working for the Land Stewardship Project is goofing around outside collecting firewood and going for long walks, grateful to be healthy and that my family is healthy, grateful to be financially safe.
Much of my gratefulness litany is related to my job: I can work at home when I’m not leading workshops, we have terrific healthcare benefits, I have lots of vacation and sick time accrued, and we have incredible leadership, both in management and on our board, that understands and considers the larger picture for all of our staff. Because of this job, I also have a savings account that can provide some safety as the waters get choppy.
All this gratitude is set against the recent memory of being so poor that I was relying on nettles as a major source of nutrients and skipping as many meals as possible to save money, mostly to make sure that I could pay for gas to get to work that paid. Guess what, I was farming! I’m not trying to compare my situation to the current farm crisis. My farming didn’t look like a lot of small- to mid-sized operations — I was growing organic flowers for a cut flower market, worked as a hired hand for a local conventional farmer, I was the primary help at a couple of local vineyards (pruning all winter and managing the canopy and grounds in the summer), and had a variety of other side jobs, from blacksmithing to substitute teaching.
I sometimes had healthcare, but with multiple meager income streams and being single with no children, MinnesotaCare was very easy to lose between shifting requirements and bungled red tape. But the poverty was real, and even being fiercely self-sufficient, thrifty beyond logic, and modest in all consumption, I wasn’t making it.
A few points of honesty and clarification: I was able to live so close to the edge for so long because I benefited from several things: I didn’t have kids, I lived on another family’s farm in a trailer and did not pay rent, I could barter for meat, the utilities were in that family’s name and I reimbursed them when I could (usually after a tax return), I heated with wood and had access to wood, I didn’t have much student loan debt, and I have my own family who would take me in if I needed it.
On the other side: I was so poor because my agricultural and crafted products were continually undervalued, because my labor was really undervalued, and because the “support” systems out there are structured to discourage use and made to shake people off rather than help them get to a point of self-sufficiency.
Once, while on my way to visit family for the holidays (my mom sent me gas money), I stayed overnight at a friend’s house in Minneapolis to break up the drive. My car was ticketed while parked for, and I’m not joking, a dirty license plate — I live on a gravel road. The ticket was for $80, which I did not have. On top of being terrified of the entire situation, I could not afford to drive back to the Twin Cities to contest the ticket. So I ignored it.
Fast forward six months and I am pulled over for a burnt-out taillight, and find out that my license had been revoked. The cop, who knew me and my car, told me that if he caught me driving I would go to jail. This was a big problem, there are no buses in rural America, and my workplaces were spread over a 60-mile radius — how was I going to get to work?
I drove a lot of way back roads, caught rides with the neighbors, rode my bike as much as I could, and my sister came out to help drive me for a spell. I borrowed money from my parents to pay the ticket and fines and court fees, I lost weight and sleep with the stress and anxiety about getting caught, going to jail, making enough money to pay for gas and food. I started looking for a way out of production agriculture, and after 18 years of farming was infinitely lucky in landing this job at LSP.
My point is that for so many of us, one major disruption is all it takes to knock the whole structure of our lives apart, and this pandemic is an epic disruption. Remove one source of income and the car, the gas, the heat, the electricity, the water, the house… all of them are at risk. When I was that close to collapse, I didn’t talk about it, I didn’t even really have the time or energy to even think about asking for help. I couldn’t step back and see the bigger picture of my situation, I was just focused on keeping it all held together.
How many of us, how many of our neighbors, are in a similar situation? We need to ask these questions, offer support, and acknowledge the edge that many of us, both rural and urban, are walking. I want to use this gratitude to keep my eyes open, to help build networks of support, and to keep our lives intact as uncertainty deals its blows. There’s no shame in eating nettles, or in admitting we need help. Let’s be there for each other both in community we know and in the society we build.
Land Stewardship Project organizer Robin Moore works with non-operating landowners who are seeking to get regenerative farming practices established on their farms. She is based out of LSP’s office in Montevideo, Minn.