It was twenty years ago today

January 2023 marks the 20 year anniversary of when Packy and I moved to the north Oregon coast to start a farm. I’m pretty sure it was January 14th, 2003, but 20 years is a long time and I don’t seem to have any actual record of the day. I do remember being both excited and very nervous. Most of our worldly belongings were tightly crammed into a shipping container that we trusted would arrive at some point, and whatever seemed essential (including our semi-feral cat Elsie) was packed into our old Honda Civic (Packy and Elsie) and our Toyota pickup (Me unable to see out of the back window because the pickup canopy was completely full).

We had bought some walkie-talkies so that we could communicate with each other on the drive (yes children, this was before cell phones were ubiquitous) and set out on a thirteen hour drive from San Rafael, California to Seaside, Oregon. About two hours into the drive Packy realized that the sedative we’d given Elsie had either worn off or been thrown up, and she was not happy about being stuck in a dog crate traveling in a car to places unknown. Sadly for him, every time he turned on the stereo she would yowl insistently and loudly, so he had to make the drive without music, and if you know him you will know how painful that was. He would barely let us stop to get gas and use a restroom before we were back on the road and heading north at full speed.

As we hit the Siskiyou Pass heading into Oregon, seeing snow piled up on the roadside and realizing that neither of us had even thought about carrying snow chains for our vehicles, I began to get a sense that we might not be as prepared for our coming adventure as we thought we were.

Arriving at the farm we were renting in Seaside just as the sun was setting, we carried our bags, bedding, and seriously annoyed cat into an old farmhouse that had been empty for months, whose only heat source was a wildly inefficient wood stove. We had not thought to pick up any firewood. The kitchen had a stove but no fridge, and an open hole in the kitchen wall where a vent had been removed and not replaced. Setting up the thin futon mattress we’d brought with us on the bedroom floor and piling on every blanket we had, all three of us crawled under the covers shivering and wondering what the hell we’d done.

I take responsibility for our predicament–it was my life crisis at 35 years old that inspired this ‘jumping off a cliff’ moment in our lives. I was drifting and feeling lost, and had been searching for a greater sense of purpose, some meaningful career to be working towards, a way of life that I wanted to lead. After much reflection, counseling, and interminable journal entries, I had concluded that I wanted to grow plants for a living, and that I was pretty sure I wanted to be a farmer. I talked it over with Packy who was unfazed and probably didn’t think I actually meant it, and I had a long conversation about the idea with my parents, who were bemused but supportive. That conversation took place a little over a month before my mother died.

She died from emphysema, and although it was not entirely unexpected, her death still came rather suddenly. My close participation in her end of life care and being with her when she died affected me deeply. It shocked me how a person could be alive, making plans, talking about the future with me one day and then so quickly be gone. My mother was 75 years old when she died, and I couldn’t stop thinking that would be only 40 more years for me if I died at the same age. That’s not very long. Clearly it was time to stop faffing about and take some risks. About a year and a half after her death we would be driving north to Oregon to start a farm.

Although I would have considered myself a serious gardener at that point in my life, I had no farming experience. I confidently thought I could figure it out–an attitude I now know bordered on naive insanity, but at the time seemed perfectly reasonable. ‘I’m going to figure out where and how to farm’ was a goal, and it gave my life a much needed sense of purpose and direction. Fortunately for me, Packy was looking for a change in his life as well, wanting to live someplace smaller, quieter, and less dominated by obscene wealth than Marin County, California where he had grown up and where we were then living. (We were definitely not wealthy, it made living there a depressing challenge.) He clearly loved me enough to take an enormous risk, but he truly had no idea what he was getting into.

I’m still learning new things every day about farming and its many challenges and rewards. After seven years on the rented farm in Seaside and many hard lessons learned about the realities of actually farming, we managed to buy property about 10 miles outside of Astoria, packed up our farm and two cats Eddie and Squeaky–Elsie died in 2007 and is buried on the old farm–and started over on what has become 46 North Farm.

All that might sound simple and easy, but it has been anything but that. We have come close to failing on so many levels so many times. I’m still not sure what has held us together and kept both us and the farm going–some combination of stubbornness and optimism, and my belief that just about anything would be possible if we could just be patient and curious enough to figure out how to make it happen.

Our farm has evolved over the years, and looks nothing like what I thought it would 20 years ago. We started with cut flowers and plant starts, added in produce, and sold at five different farmers markets along the coast over the years–not all at once! We sold to restaurants and grocery stores and direct to customers through a CSA program for both produce and flowers. I’ve done flowers for weddings, even though I swore I never would. We’ve sold through pop ups and online markets, and added and dropped crops and added and dropped selling venues as our farm business changed and we changed.

We’ve gotten married and almost broken up, and figured out that we don’t actually want to break up. We’ve had parents die, family members die, friends die, beloved pets die, and also watched so many friends give birth to so many babies that we’ve now seen grow into weird and wonderful young humans. I’ve observed a lot of kids take their first ever bite of a strawberry, and it never gets old. We’ve hosted weddings and memorials at our farm, some wild bonfire parties, some wonderful music, and some delicious meals. We’ve pulled a lot of vehicles out of mud. We’ve learned not to name our chickens. We’ve had so many people help us work on the farm over the years, mostly wonderful, some challenging, each one teaching me so much about the importance of good communication and having compassion for others.

Fences and greenhouses have been built and repaired. We’ve learned about drip irrigation and dry farming, studied soil science and entomology, dug beds, pulled weeds, laid out tarps and chased after tarps blown away by wind storms. We’ve sown cover crop, tilled, and explored no-till growing. We’ve planted, harvested and processed vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers over and over and over again. We’ve injured ourselves too many times to count, and helped each other recover. A lot of our own blood has soaked into this soil.

I’ve killed a lot of plants, and fortunately had even more survive and thrive. Along the way we’ve become part of a wonderful community, gained skills I never even imagined I would need 20 years ago, and managed to keep evolving both as individuals, as a couple, and as a farm. I’ve watched a new farming and local food community emerge and begin to thrive here on the north Oregon coast, slowly becoming the local food community that I wish had existed when we arrived in 2003.

Sometimes I wonder why I feel so tired, and then I realize that I’m 56 years old now and still working a very physically and mentally challenging job. I’ve lived through some intense years recently, with a global pandemic and all the societal upheaval unleashed and exacerbated by that tragedy still swirling around us all. The increasingly intense and uncertain weather patterns that climate change is bringing make each growing season a lesson in adapting to potential disaster that I can’t predict or control, just respond to as best I can.

After many years of helping me figure out how to farm, Packy decided that he did not want to work towards being a full time farmer. It was a blow to me, but something I’ve learned to accept, understand, and respect. He works full time in Astoria at Fort George Brewery and the farm has slowly adapted to the change in our trajectory, trying to make sure that all his time off isn’t spent doing farm chores, even if it means his farm to-do list is never-ending. It always would be never-ending, that’s the nature of farming. We’ve learned that taking time off is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Our property mortgage is not subject to the variable fortunes of farming, and I am deeply grateful for that.

In recent years I’ve found it hard to remember the crazy optimism of that younger me of 20 ago, so convinced that I would just figure it all out somehow. And yet I did, somehow, figure out enough to keep going, keep building what has turned into a pretty good life, a career doing work that is meaningful to me, that does give me a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging in a community I care deeply about.

One lesson I’ve learned is that change is inevitable, and that moving into it gracefully and with acceptance is key to making the transition less fraught and stressful. I find that It’s now time for both me and our farm to evolve once again, to find new ways of working that are more appropriate for a person at a different place in her life than who I was 10 years ago, or 20 ago.

2023 will mark a number of changes for our farm, some big, some tiny. It’s a year where we are scaling back or stopping some things that we’ve done for years to make room for new opportunities to emerge and develop. I’m back to being both excited and nervous again, something I’m oddly enjoying.

One of the best parts of getting older is reaching a point when that nagging voice inside that says “what will people think?” becomes easier to ignore, and the more I ignore it the more I am able to breathe deeply and feel comfortable in my own human skin, doing what feels right for who I am now.

Twenty years is a long time, and also not even half of my life. If I regret anything it is that so much of this time has passed in a blur of work, exhaustion, stress, and anxiety. Yet amid all of that I have many memories of joy, laughter, accomplishment, satisfaction and contentment. If you had asked me at age 20 where I would be living and what I would be doing at age 56, there is zero possibility that I would have answered, “living on the north Oregon coast running a small farm.” And yet here I am, running a small farm on a beautiful piece of land on the north Oregon coast, doing work I still love on most days, sharing a life with a kind and patient partner, surrounded by good friends of all ages, being part of a wonderfully quirky community I care deeply about.

I may not be the best farmer, the best businesswoman, the best wife, the best friend. I no longer aspire to being the ‘best’ anything, just being as good as I am able to be while still standing upright, moving forward at a walking pace. It’s been a long, interesting, challenging, and frequently amusing journey to get to where I am standing now, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the road ahead leads me next.