My “Pathetic” Life as a Small Farmer-Vendor


 
Xiaobing Shen
 
 
Remember the Salon article: “What nobody told me about small farming: I can't make a living”? It caused quite a stir when it was published in early 2015. Even though the author, Jaclyn Moyer, received a lot of sympathy, a fair portion of the feedback was negative; many accused the author of lacking farming and business skills, of being a dreamer, and of being naive. Dishearteningly, some of these comments were from the small-farm community. 
 
The article has stayed with me since its publication. A few weeks ago, when I checked that farm's facebook page, I realized that their farm had changed hands. I was a bit taken aback but on the other hand, I knew I really shouldn't be surprised. 
 
 
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Our farming dream started in 2012 when my partner attended a workshop about food and farming through his work. Unhappy with the comfortable but meaningless life in Toronto, the “grind”, he quickly accepted organic farming as a way to a new, more meaningful way of life. In the meantime, I was not happy with my job, ready for a way out. 
 
When my partner proposed his idea, I laughed at him. I knew farming was hard because my mom was a peasant and I spent the early years of my childhood in a village in central China. My mom, like the majority of peasant families in our region at that time, grew rice in the summer and wheat in the winter on a half acre of land every year. She raised pigs and chickens, and produced all the vegetables the family needed. 
 
My brother and I helped with chores, picking wild vegetables that the pigs ate or collecting wood branches for the cooking stove. For the years before I started boarding school, my mom dragged us out of bed everyday. We walked up and down the village road in the early morning mist, carrying a basket and a shovel, looking for animal manure. A peasant's life was basic and routine, peasants were poor and looked down upon. Nowadays, peasants find labour or other low-skilled jobs in the city to supplement farming income, and this has brought the aching reality that many peasant couples live far apart for most of the year. Still, some families have no other choice but continue the old practice, making them the poorest of the poor. 
 
There is an old saying: a king's son is born to be a king, a rat's son to dig holes. To change their fate, peasant kids had two ways to get out of farming: study hard to go to a university, or join the army. I was one of the luckier ones who went to university. I eventually was able to study in Canada and find work in a well-paid profession.
 
While the idea of going back to farming sounded silly and counterintuitive, as time went by, and as work stress continued to grow, the idea started to take root with me too. By the end of 2012, we were making plans. 
 
We first enrolled in a weekend farming course in early 2013. I still remember the class of around a dozen city dwellers with different professional backgrounds, and the young, bright instructor who was a full-time farmer and had only been at it for a few years with no farming background. The course focused on exploring the farming “dream”, including a lot of self-evalution of our compatibility with the various aspects of farming as something still hypothetical. While the course was well-designed to weed out the merely romantic from the serious, it relied on our being honest with ourselves, and looking squarely at how prepared we were for it. 
 
At the end of the course, most participants said that they were still interested in farming, but not at a point where they could take it on as a life. We, on the other hand, said we were ready. In retrospect, the anticipation of a new chapter of our lives overrode the potential realities of farming. Was our adventure not doomed to fail from the start?
 
 
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2013 was a busy transition year. We rented a small plot from a community garden in Brampton that spring, a 45-minute drive from where we lived in Thornhill. To tend to the garden, I took one day off during the week from my work. We grew a few kinds of vegetables. The harvest was good and satisfying. I tasted the best cherry tomatoes of my life. By mid-summer we had sold our house and then quickly bought a small farm in eastern Ontario. On a sunny day at the end of August, we started our journey with all of our belongings in a 27-foot rented truck.
 
We arrived in time for fall and winter, which meant a long period of largely idle time, spending money but not making any, and learning to manage a country household. We were cold and out of our element. And still, we were content, looking forward to the first season on the farm, and eager to go out to events and meet locals. 
 
People were drawn to us. We were young, approachable, and aspiring to doing something positive in the community. Soon we made a few good friends who were eager to share advice and take us under their wings. One farmer friend even brought us garlic and asparagus seedlings to plant in time for winter. Neither of us would have thought of this.
 
Spring came late and we started our gardens, digging up rows out of hayfields with just a shovel. We bought a second-hand hoophouse and installed it without any outside help. We had a business plan and anticipated that the farm would be an attraction in our area – the place locals would get their produce.
 
By mid-May, the local farmers market started. We had checked the market the previous fall and had signed on with them. We had no produce to sell yet, only pork from pigs we raised over the winter, so I decided to make some Chinese steamed buns with the pork and my partner baked some scones. With the car packed with market supplies, we headed into the unknown. Our first day went alright, and after a few weeks, a woman came up to tell us that she had heard good words about our buns and wanted to try one herself. Like a proud dad talking about his high-achieving kid, I mentioned the long history of the steamed buns and how popular they are in China. 
 
We had anticipated finding 10-15 CSA customers, but had found not a single one, despite a survey we conducted locally during the winter, the results of which showed a great deal of interest. And while we did have visitors to the farm during the summer season, it was on the order of one or two per day, mostly people curious to see who had bought the house and started farming.
 
The two small markets in our township turned out to be vital to our business, in that it gave us an outlet with an existing customer base. On better market days, we would make close to $200 sales from steamed buns and produce. But more often than not, we would sit as traffic passed us by on a busy Friday afternoon. There would be half a dozen vendors gathered on a greenstrip at the edge of town, the crickets chirping, the occasional customer stopping and perhaps going directly to one vendor, buying one item, walking quickly back to the car and avoiding eye contact with the other vendors. When closing time came, we would pack up, drive home, water our gardens, feed our animals and prepare for the Saturday market, usually getting to bed late. Saturday morning we would get up early, do it again, hoping for a good day. 
 
In a small-town market, a vendor remembers the names of all his or her regular customers. The vendor waits for regulars each week, a bit like an inmate who looks forward to family and friends on a visitation day. When a regular doesn't appear, one can't help speculating, is he or she away? Does he or she not like our goods any more?
 
One winter evening after the first season, we had a few friends over for a meal. One of them had been coming to our farm frequently to order different things. He hadn't been to the market for a few years. I asked him why. He said it made him uncomfortable seeing the gaze from each vendor that showed a yearning for a sale. We all laughed. I couldn't deny how petty life had become as a small farmer-vendor. Market days became a roller-coaster for us emotionally: good days brought up high hopes while a bad day would beat them back down.
 
At the peak of summer we had a bit more consistent business on Saturdays at least, and an opportunity arrived when we decided to look into a bigger farmers market in the city. We were able to sign up and start in September thanks mainly to the fact that we were selling something unique and not encroaching on existing vendors' niches. We would have steamed buns and combos with rice and vegetables, and over the couple of months we attended before the season's end, we saw steady progress as people began approaching and then coming back.
 
 
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Winter arrived again. We were able to keep the house warmer and more comfortable, having stocked the woodshed and learned how to properly operate the wood furnace. Keeping animals over the winter meant we would not be getting away, even for a day. Staying on the farm gave us time to think about how we could do better in the second season. 
 
We hadn't achieved our goals for the first year. Our business plan was based on the operations of a few small farms we visited at the end of the farming course. Our income, as anticipated in the plan, would come from CSA subscriptions, farm stand, farmers market, and meat and eggs. The numbers were modest, but still overly optimistic in retrospect. However, we hadn't completely failed either. We were earning income from our prepared food, which was not part of our business plan. The understanding that we were in a better position in our first year of operation compared with some farmers we knew gave us a glimmer of hope.
 
Starting in February, life became busy again: recuiting CSA members, refining our growing plans, ordering seeds and farming supplies, and starting indoor seedlings. With the hoophouse already in place, we started greens early and were able to bring a few bags of fresh vegetables to the market once it started. We even attracted a couple of friends to join the CSA.
 
We had decided not to attend our small-town market since sales on a regular day in the city market exceeded the best day in that one. But it was not enough income – we needed a second market, preferably during the week as it took time to prepare steamed buns. A neighbouring tourist town happened to have a market on a mid-week afternoon, and so we signed up. 
 
On the opening day we received a warm welcome. The market organizers had invited friends and locals, and many of them, along with a few fellow vendors, tried our food and offered praise. We were made to feel that we were a great addition to the existing crowd, and that business would surely grow steadily as the season went on. But, for whatever reason, we fell flat. Business stagnated. Luckily a few customers enjoyed our food and kept coming back. Nonetheless, we started coming to the market without much expectation.
 
One evening in August, a live band was hired to play old hits on the pavillion beside the line of vendors. The usual electrical outlets were not working and we and the band ended up having to share one. While heating up food for a customer, I realized we had lost power to our griddle, the lifeblood of our “ready-to-eat” food offering. With the band still playing, I found out our cable had been unplugged so that the band could play without overloading the circuit. I approached the managers, unhappy about the situation. The managers tried different outlets and came up with nothing. Finally I could not contain my frustration. I told them I could not understand why the band had priority while we, who were reliant on this power to make our living, were left to go without our sales. 
 
We mostly sat in silence for the remaing hours without power as people walked on past. The market manager came by in the end and offered to buy our remaining stock as a gesture of good will, but I said no, as I didn't want a sympathy purchase. We skipped the following week. When we went back the next time, the power problem recurred. 
 
We stopped going for the remainder of the season. For a few weeks afterwards, my partner and I would pretend, as 4pm on Wednesday came, that we had forgotten to prepare for market. “Hurry,” I would say, “we only have 20 minutes to get everything ready!” We thought this was funny. 4pm would pass and we were still at home, and it was much more relaxing to skip, to avoid loading up the car and unloading at the end of the day and facing more chores as the sun went down.
 
 
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There seems to be a lot of happendings around local food and it has been a fixture in the media. Upscale restaurants, celebrity chefs, and foodies always resort to fresh local organic produce to make something exquisite. Farmers markets are everywhere. There are close to 20 of them within a hundred kilometres of us. Some open on weekends, others open several times a week. A farmer could spend seven days a week doing different markets. With so many in the region, one might think the demand for local food must be great and farmers must make tons of money.
 
Just this year three more sprung up in our area, bringing the total number of markets to 7 within a 20- minute drive. These new markets serve either a different part of the city, or a town that didn't have one before. The organizers happen to be fellow vendors from markets that we have been part of. When they contacted us last spring, citing all the facts that indicate a good market potential, we were skeptical. Still, in the end, we chose the one in the city as it sounded like a better one.
 
We only attended that one three weeks, with sales going down each time. The gigantic parking lot where it was located made the small market especially empty. Our decision to quit brought a bit of a rift between us and some fellow farmers as they thought all successful markets need time and sacrifice to build. But for us, a poor market day just meant a waste of our time and a drop in morale.
 
Two of our fellow farmer friends spend most days doing markets around this region. Sometimes when we chat at the market, they complain about how bad the previous day went. I ask why not quit the bad ones? They say, “a sale is a sale,” or “I made some gas money or the stall fee back.” It seems that a routine is hard to change. Perhaps there is always hope for a better day?
 
 
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Talking to my father has not been easy. I know he has tried his best to respect our decision, sincerely wishing us to be able to make a living. 
 
My father was the pride of his peasant family. He was the first one to go to university and had a promising career in the local government. He is the kind of old-fashioned communist who only earns an honest income. On our regular talks on the phone, my father asks how we are doing. I tell him we have a freezer full of meat we raised; or we are eating a lot of fresh organic vegetables; or we are selling a good number of steamed buns at the market to appreciative customers. And when I tell him this, I am genuinely proud of what we have achieved. My father, on the other end of the line, laughs a bit, indicating he is not impressed. I can picture him shaking his head. 
 
He usually doesn't ask for the details about our farming, as if afraid of opening an unhealed wound. He has stopped asking me when I plan to come back to visit. He recently said he would talk to my siblings about arranging for me to live in his apartment after he passes away so I won't be alone when I get old. 
 
In a way, I am returning to my family's roots, doing what my mom did most of her life – working hard and mainly subsisting. And I have became the black sheep of the family, the least successful and the most likely to need help from others. I can't convince my father that our lives are good. We are not overworked like many fellow farmers. We have amazing sunrises and sunsets from our windows. We have been enjoying doing yoga in our park-like backyard. However, my father knows well what farming is all about.
 
 
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On occasions when we have met other farmers this year, invariably the record drought has been the topic of conversation. It has brought extra hardship and anxiety to many. Some CSAs have folded early, returning payment to customers, while others have taken on extra costs and numerous hours to keep their fields watered. It is not a surprise that a recent study by a Canadian university reveals Canadian farmers suffer mental health problems at a rate several times higher than the general public. While there are many layers to this, the underlying issue is financial hardship and uncertainty. 
 
Nowadays when I read articles about young people wanting to start an organic farm, I react with a laugh and want to say to them: “Good for you, but maybe you should be a Bay Street banker first, otherwise you will be poor for the rest of your life.” Had we not brought a bit of savings into this venture, we would not be where we are. While it is true there are successful ones who can making a decent living from small farming, statistics indicate those might be the anomalies who have tapped into a special niche in a particular location that is hard to copy. 
 
 
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My partner started to work two days a week in a local family-owned organic dairy plant late into our second season to supplement our farming income. It is physical work – stacking milk in crates, pushing bottles through the washer. We get discarded milk for the pigs and a discount on milk for ourselves. He tells me he prefers it to working on the farm because the income, although small, is assured and the work follows a routine, with the tasks completed at the end of the shift and nothing more to be done until the next one. He calls himself an agricultural worker, not a farmer.
 
I am still full-time on the farm in our third season with no trace of my former career left. I work half of the week in our half-acre vegetable garden, taking care of our CSA member boxes, and spend the other half preparing steamed buns and fermenting vegetables from our surplus. Our niche has expanded into a variety of Chinese delicacies, mostly made from our own farm's ingredients. This remains an important selling point, and a matter of pride. 
 
We have a good following at the market, though our current business practice will not get us above the poverty line. We are careful with our spending and don't have medical and dental insurance. We hope the live-well-eat-well farming lifestyle keeps us healthy. 
 
I have been wondering what our lives would be like if we hadn't discovered Chinese peasant food from my heritage. Would we have found other ways to sell our produce? Would we have given up on farming after the first year? Would we be better off that way? What I know is that we have something we are able to sell and a market we can rely on. How long can it last? I don't know. 
 
With this little time bomb ticking, we have been thinking of new ideas on how to expand and sustain our farm so that in the long run we won't find ourselves truly poor. We have looked into food trucks, a growing trend in most cities, with the idea that a steamed bun combo would do well. But hefty entry costs and ongoing licence and insurance fees have prevented us from jumping in without serious research. Also, in much the same way Jaclyn left farming for another food business, starting a food truck would take even more of our focus away from growing and harvesting, and more to preparing and selling. We are not sure whether we are ready for that yet. But this might just be our destiny – it is what has worked for us. 
 
 
 
 
Xiaobing Shen spent his childhood in rural China in the 1970s and 80s and came to Canada as a student in 2000. He is currently a small-scale farmer and market vendor in eastern Ontario. His specialty is Chinese peasant food made from his own farm's ingredents.

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