Posted on April 26th, 2011
When I mentioned to my friend Amanda that I was collecting interviews with first-time farmers and foragers for our New Agrarians series, she immediately knew that I had to talk to her cousin, Nick. Nick Zigelbaum, founder of the Bull Moose Hunting Society, is also a first-time farmer–and, as it turned out, a passionate champion of farming being a means of healing economic potholes, teaching you to be comfortable with failure, and, most importantly, giving you the chance to eat some really, really good eggs. This is the record of our conversation, which ranged from open-source farm machinery to the benefits of grass-fed animals and back again. Chickens may be farming’s gateway drug, but, Nick does an excellent job of making you believe that everyone should be taking hits off of the self-reliance pipe, and doing what they can to put the power of growing your own food back into the hands of as many people as possible.
FG: So, I understand that you guys are working on a farm, but, it’s not actually your farm?
NZ: That’s right.
FG: So, I would just love to hear how that happened—how did you guys end up working on the farm?
NZ: It’s my girlfriend’s cousin’s farm—it’s actually a few farms, really—it’s two neighboring farms, and they do a lot of stuff together. We rent land from one side. We have about 40 acres of land being worked right now. We raise about 500 pigs, every year—and that’s the major show. That eats up most of the acreage. But we also have ten sheep, ten ewes, with about 20 lambs right now, 250 laying hens, a handful of breeding does. We do all of our own breeding on the farm, so that everything breeds with its natural mate—a lot of farms do artificial insemination, and we don’t. We’re also animal welfare approved, so we get audited once a year by the animal welfare institute, and they make sure that everybody’s happy and healthy. We also have about an acre of crop under production each year, but, we really focus on the meat and eggs. We do 200 turkeys a year, and we do 80 ducks as well. We’re in the piedmont part of North Carolina, and we go to markets in Greensboro.
FG: So, the farm is owned by your girlfriend’s cousin, but, how did you guys come to be working on it?
NZ: Well, we both used to have office jobs in San Francisco—my girlfriend used to work for Facebook, and I worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and we both really liked our jobs. They were cushy, it was good—but, being in an office, there’s only so much that you can take. We decided to drop out of the high-expense, high-income lifestyle, and to travel for a little bit. We house-sat for my Aunt in southern France for three months, and she had ten chickens. And they were pretty cool—we got to know chickens pretty well. With livestock, people kind of start with chickens–
FG: Yeah, I’ve heard that chickens are the gateway drug of farming.
NZ: Exactly, totally. It’s the first animal that I’ve ever had that’s done so much for me. They take away my waste scraps and turn them into delicious food, they give me these great eggs all the time—they’re awesome. I keep them fed and watered, and give them a place to live. So, that was our gateway drug. And Kate had a cousin that she knew in North Carolina, who had a farm, and she’d heard a lot about it through her family, and we called her up and asked if we could come and work for her. And she said well, you can come and hang out for a week and see if you like it. And it was the best—we just had such an amazing time. It was almost exactly a year ago. It’s such a beautiful time to be in North Carolina—it’s not too hot, it rains quite a bit, so everything is just dark green, and lush and beautiful. So we fell in love, and thought okay, we’re gonna do this. And mostly, we just had so much fun—I’d always had a hard time working at something that I didn’t think was fun—and I think everyone can kind of relate to that. It’s hard to work on things that aren’t fun. So, finding this, and doing it for a week, and just having a really good time—we decided that we wanted to keep doing it for as long as we could. So, we talked to the owner and she agreed to let us come back.
FG: So, a year into it, would you still categorize it as fun? Or has the fun been tempered by the work of actually working on a farm?
NZ: Well, it’s funny. It’s gone from being something that I really enjoyed doing, to something that I feel that I just need to do. Some people get kind of addicted to running, and I get addicted to this. I work on days that I’m supposed to take off, and random times of the day and night, just because I’ll think ‘oh, you know what I really wanna do? Is go fix that fence. I have this really good idea for how to fix it.’ Things like that just really get me psyched about it. Or, things like the sheep being on really bad pasture for two weeks, I need to go fix up this other fence line, and move them to that other spot, they’re gonna be so psyched—it’s like I’m hooking up my sheep buddies. Things like that have really maintained the fun notion, and the enjoyment, because it’s continuously challenging, which is also really nice. But, it’s also just what I want to do, for the first time. I don’t know that I need to get paid. As a matter of fact, as I’m talking with you, I’m standing in my backyard—we live on the farm, and we have just around our house, about 1 acre of pasture that’s been carved out of larger cow pasture by two fences. So we just have this little no-man’s land in the middle, and we have a cow on it. And fifteen chickens. And a beehive. And they all hang out together, and I just haltered my cow, and I’m trying to get her to go for a walk with me.
FG: Like the world’s largest dog that gives you milk.
NZ: Exactly, exactly. (laughter) She’s just amazing. She keeps the whole lawn cut down really nicely.
FG: So, in terms of just being really satisfied by the work that you’re doing—how would you say that the satisfaction that you’re feeling now is different than satisfaction that you’ve felt in other jobs? Even other jobs that were challenging, or interesting.
NZ: Sure. I think all of my jobs have been challenging, initially, and some of them continued to be challenging too, and they managed to maintain my interest in them. But the major difference is definitely in the satisfaction that I feel from the challenge. With farming, you always get to see the results. You always get to see how it turned out, as long as you stick around. There’s nowhere to hide—there’s nothing to obscure anything else. You planted that plant. You decided to breed these animals. You see how everything ends up, or turns out, in this little confined system—and you can’t always get it right, but you can try to understand a little bit better, what’s going on. And how to effect change in a positive way. And everywhere else that I’ve worked, from a job where I was just doing labor in the form of a repetitive task, or design work, things that were more challenging mentally, I never really knew what I had done. I knew that I had submitted a paper, or plan or something like that—I did work in construction too, where the results were tangible, but, the results were just so big, and not just mine—that it was just harder to see what my impact was. And with advocacy, it’s even harder, of course. And I asked my old boss, one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, how could he tell, if he was being successful, with what he was doing– and he’s been doing this for about 30 years, and he got a McArthur award for some of his work, and he’s a really great guy, and he’s really well-respected. And he said ‘I don’t know!’. (general laughter)
FG: You just kind of hope that it’s happening!
NZ: Yeah! And I think about that a lot, and I think you just really don’t know. You just can’t tell. But, at the farm, you know if your fence works, because the pigs stay in.
FG: Right! Do you think that’s part of why people seem to be so fascinated with farming? And why so many more young people are interested in doing craftsman-like work? It seems like so much of what we do, and so much of what people of our generation produce, is intangible.
NZ: I definitely think that that is a quality. You just said it—so much of our world is intangible, and it’s really nice to have something that’s concrete, that you get to see the ins and outs of. I think failure is something that people avoid a lot, to great lengths. People do a lot of school and work to avoid being caught, maybe, or exposed as not knowing something—and it’s fine to fail, as long as you can own that, and you can fix it, or change it. And on a farm, you really get exposed to your failures. You can’t get away from them. As long as there’s not someone walking behind you, fixing them all—which is not the case, because farmer’s don’t like to do other people’s work. And you just get to see the fruition of whatever you’re working on, and if it works, or it doesn’t work. And that’s even ambiguous—you get to thinking about what is a positive movement on a farm, and it’s probably making money—but, the quality of life of all of the creatures, and the people, and the staff and the owners, everyone has to come away feeling better, rather than worse. I think that’s how you really measure that. But, that’s a different level of difficult in judging whether or not it’s been a successful day on the farm. I feel good when I set out to do a project, and it challenges me a little bit, where I have to actually figure it out—and then get to finish it, and be proud of it. That’s the best.
FG: I was actually going to ask you about differences in the ways that you learned things in the past, at past jobs, vs. learning things on the farm. Friends of mine and I were talking about recently about the time when we just didn’t know things—when you didn’t have the internet in your pocket. If you didn’t know who was in that movie, you’d just go on not knowing for a while. Was it difficult to learn things a different way (in a different system)? What changed?
NZ: That’s a really good question—it’s very different, the learning curve, and the learning process. And it’s different to manage people in this environment too. Because if you constantly tell somebody how to do something—it’s kind of like giving someone driving directions. If you’re with someone, and you tell them how to get to that house, or that store, every time, they never really learn how to get there. They just rely on you to say ‘take a left’, ‘take a right’–but if you just say ‘get to that store, good luck, see ya!’ and let them go, it might take them an hour the first time, or two hours, and they might break something, or get lost, but once they find their way there, they will be able to find their way back there every time. And it will be ultimately easier for everybody. And it’s definitely like that here—I’ve broken my fair share of stuff, and I’m fortunate that both boss figures here are really patient. And they’ll let me break something, and expect me to fix it, and so you get that little punishment that really sinks it in—but then you also know how to fix it when the next guy breaks it too. And that’s a totally different learning process. But I really enjoy it—I like knowing when I’ve done something wrong—I like getting that kind of feedback. And it’s great getting it from animals too, because they’re very honest. (laughter)
FG: They’ll let you know right away if you’ve effed something up.
NZ: They don’t walk around being thirsty and not want to bother you.
FG: So, is this something that you see yourself doing for a long time? Are you interested in owning your own land someday?
NZ: Yeah, if I could. It’s expensive. But that is the dream—I just imagine that I’ll always be looking after animals, and hopefully raising vegetables at the same time—I’ll always be feeding. That’s kind of what farming is all about (to me). I’ll always be feeding, and trying to do the most with what I’ve got—like my little acre of no-man’s land, and hopefully, I’ll have enough that that’s what I can do all the time, and that that makes me enough money so that I don’t need to do anything else. We’ll see. So far, I can work on a big farm, while tending a tiny farm, and that works out well.
FG: The two-farm system! Do you think that could sort of be a gateway for people who want to get into farming, but don’t have experience, to start farming? Working on a farm for someone else?
NZ: Absolutely. I think the best thing that anybody can do, is to work on a farm. The nice thing about farming is that anybody can farm, as long as you have access to a tiny bit of outdoor space. If you’re living in the middle of the city, it’s hard, but you can pot plants on your roof. And I did—I raised lettuce in a baby bathtub that I bought at this antique flea market in San Francisco—it was awesome, it was this tiny little clawfoot tub, and I potted lettuce in it. And it was very elegant (laughter) and I ate salads out of that bathtub for three weeks, it was great!
FG: (laughs) It’s how you can bring the Dwell magazine crowd into farming. Opening up an entirely new avenue for farming accessories.
NZ: (laughs) Exactly. Everybody can do that—everybody can raise things up. If you want to know how to farm in order to support yourself, I think you need to work at a farm. It doesn’t have to be a big farm—work at your cousin’s ten acre farm. Work there for a summer. See how he does it. And you’ll learn so many things—there’s just so much. The other thing that I really love about farming is that it really can be anything to anyone—if you get really into business, you can be more on the business side of things, and do marketing and sales, outreach, and facebook, and blog. If you’re into animals, or the outdoors, you can spend your whole day doing that, if you’re into medicine, there’s a lot of need for that, if you’re into nutrition, you can think about how to make the most nutritious food—there’s all sorts of different avenues for people to get involved. And they’re all needed—there are a lot of people who want to farm, that have no experience, and there are a lot of farms needing people with experience, so, it’s kind of a tough time for farms out there. I feel really fortunate to have a place where I can work and make somewhat of a living.
FG: Along those lines, when you think about the future of food in America—what would you envision as being a sort of ideal situation? Because lots of people talk about how it would be impossible for everyone to have a small farm, and there’s no way that we could feed everyone just doing that, and I personally think that that’s kind of a myth—that there’s no way that we could all feed ourselves. But, I’m curious to hear, as someone actually doing it, what you think that would or could look like.
NZ: Ha, I just posted an article on my blog about this! I didn’t post anything for about two months, and then finally, I was home sick one day, laying in bed, and I thought I’m gonna do this article. So, I think you can absolutely feed the world with small farms. And in fact, I’m not the only one, because the United Nations agrees with me—or, at least the Human Rights Council. The guy who’s the reporter on food, the one that they send out to find out what’s going on in the world with food production, he believes, or, he has researched, that we produce 17 % more food than the world consumes. So right now, we have a production surplus of about 17%. But there are people that are starving and dying, that don’t have access to good nutrition—and the thing is that it’s access, and distribution, and economic inequalities and disparities that allow people to starve, not the lack of food. So we’re making more food than we need right now, and in addition to that, you might think well maybe making so much food is a great thing, because we have this awesome industrial food system. And that’s why we’re making so much food, so we should continue doing that. But the fact is, that food efficiency is really low right now, that the amount of grain that we feed to our animals to grow them—this idea occurred to me a while ago. I was watching the goats eat, and they eat all sorts of different stuff. Leaves, and barky stuff, and wood, and they have a really diverse, weird palate–
FG: A goat ate my shirt once.
NZ: Exactly. And what the hell did that goat really want that compelled it to eat a shirt? But, anyway, at this point they’ve become so perfected that they can eat all of these random things and thrive on it. And that’s how they achieve maximum health, and grow the fastest, and look the best, and are just really really healthy. And if you feed a goat grain, it will grow really fast too, but, is inherently less healthy [than if it were eating its natural diet] and I believe that the quality of meat is lowered as well. Which is what the grain fed beef vs- grass fed beef debate is all about—which translates to goats too. And it probably translates to everything—so, we lose so much energy, so much solar energy, by feeding grain to animals. Because we have to go through this big extra step of collecting the grain, growing the grain, cleaning it, and then driving it to this place where we give it to the animals, and at that point, the grain has already lost a lot of its nutritional value. And it was grown really quickly in the first place, so it wasn’t from really good, hearty plants to begin with—and then an animal eats it, and they pass a lot of it, and they absorb some of it, and a lot of that energy, throughout that whole process, is wasted, just to produce a little bit of beef. So if you wanted to feed people, we need to shortcut that system—and that was another UN statistic, that if we stopped feeding cereals to livestock, we could feed three and a half billion people with the surplus of calories that we would get from re-routing that grain directly to the people and not to animals. So, the big food system produces a lot of food, absolutely, but it wastes a ton of food as well. And we don’t need to be wasting food, if we have starving people in the world—who, by the way, are mostly farmers. So, (chuckling) in closing, buy food from farmers!
FG: Right! Well, I imagine it’s difficult, especially in America, if you have a larger industrial farm, and you’re not being paid to grow food crops, you’re being paid to grow soybeans and corn. Something that’s not even going to go back into the food system, it’s going to go into someone’s car.
NZ: Exactly. You can’t eat your crops anymore. And if you raise meat animals, you can’t eat them either—some people raising meat animals don’t own the animals, they just own the facility. And they get paid by the corporation to raise those animals and slaughter them. They don’t own any of it. They can’t even eat all of those chickens or cows either. They’re in a really tight spot. And you really don’t make any money farming.
FG: Yeah, that’s something that, since I started doing these interviews, that I hear again and again from farmers, is that you have to go into it sort of understanding that you’re not going to make any money. That the ideal, what you can hope for, is becoming self-sufficient, and be able to feed yourself, and feed your community, but you’re not going to grow rich farming.
NZ: Right—there’s another statistic that I can’t recall exactly, so, I probably shouldn’t use it, but, something like 90% of farms that gross over 200,000 dollars—a 15-20 acre farm and up—over half of their income comes from off the farm income. Most of those farms, almost all of them, don’t make enough from farming to survive. To even pay half of their expenses. It’s really staggering.
FG: It’s interesting, because one of the other farmers that I talked to, Kurt Timmermeister, was saying that what a lot of people don’t realize is that the cost isn’t even in farming itself necessarily, or even owning the land, it’s in being able to pay the mortgage on the house that sits on the land, having to pay your own health insurance, and every time something breaks, which it’s going to do, paying for that as well.
NZ: Right. It’s all of those. I have a philosophy about this, that I think will help me, but, I don’t know that I’m the first person to think this–(chuckling) but, I think that you can be really low-input, really self-sustaining, very much like homesteading, as efficient as you can be, and survive on a very small amount of money. We make very little money right now, but, we survive on it fine—and what’s surprising is that we don’t really have to pay very much in taxes, because we really don’t make any money. And if we lived in Massachusetts, which we’re considering doing, to be closer to family, you get free health care in some places—if we could get free health care everywhere, that would be awesome. That would be one humongous expense that you wouldn’t have to worry about. Finding ways to really cut costs—and there are so many ways to be more efficient, is something we really need to do. Having chickens, first, is something that everybody should do—we have eggs every day, and they’re so good—and we need to get our cholesterol checked, sure, but, I don’t think it’s going to be high, because I think these chickens are super.
FG: Like Sally Fallon’s book, that says that everything that we’ve learned about nutrition is wrong, and that we should definitely eat cultured butter, and eat eggs, and not worry about it, as long as we don’t eat processed crap and tons of sugar and refined foods.
NZ: Yes, I definitely believe that. I feel like if I can create that food, it’s probably healthy.
FG: Well, and it’s not like you’re sitting on your butt all day either.
NZ: Right, that’s true. I lost a lot of weight actually, farming–
FG: Farming for health!
NZ: Yeah, if you’re overweight, start farming!
FG: I love the idea of people producing more of their own food, and what you were saying earlier about faming being able to be all things to all people—in terms of people wanting to become more self-sufficient, and growing and producing more of their own food, in our vision of the new farming America, where do you see social media fitting in with that? Is it possible to be a farmer, and still have an iPad?
NZ: Well, I have an iphone—I’m talking to you on it.
FG: (laughs) Do you think those two worlds can have things in common with each other, or is it always going to have to be one or the other? Because I feel like you get a lot of people who are all about the farming, and then there are the people who would say well, I’d only do farming if we had wireless internet.
NZ: Well, we have that, but, we only have internet, we don’t have tv, which I think a lot of people our age are into too—there’s a lot of things about this. Farming is in so much need of education right now—there are some really good resources for getting more educated about farming, but, when I went through school, I wasn’t really exposed to any of them. It was never suggested that I check out the Future Farmers of America, or anything like that. So I think what social networking and social media can really do for farming is spread information in a way that we like. Because I think our generation likes that way—as a free, open, everybody has access to it source of information—and you really have to be a little bit critical, because you get everything, which is nice, because instead of getting just one perspective, you get all perspectives—but, that could be the way that it [better education] happens. It already is kind of happening—things like eHow, and other websites like that, that have things like ‘how to candle an egg’–that was helpful for me, to be able to go online and find that, and to see pictures, and to think okay, cool, I see how to do this. And I know people that I can ask too, but, it was ten o’clock at night and I had to candle these eggs, so it was nice to be able to go online and find it, and to not have to bother anybody. So, in that regard, there’s so much opportunity for education, and there’s a lot missing too—there’s a lot of old farmer wisdom that we need to kind of continue to cross over, and a thing that a lot of old people have in common is that they’re not that interested in computers—so, we need to get a lot of people recording that. And I think the best way is to learn it, and then disseminate it. So that’s one huge way [that social media can contribute to farming]. And then another thing that social media can do is that people send each other pictures of their babies, all the time, and pictures of the cute thing they did, or a video, and I take pictures of my animals doing cute stuff, and I send that around. And I feel like I can trump people with the cool uniqueness of my cuteness (general laughter) and so, if everybody that I knew had chickens and baby piglets, we’d all be sending each other pictures of all of that, and it would be hilarious.
FG: The social one-upsmanship of the internet, applied to farming.
NZ: Right, and good information too!
FG: Sort of like open-source farming.
NZ: Exactly, exactly. And there are people doing that, actually—there’s a group in New York state, I can’t remember their name—Earth Machines, or Earth Tractor, maybe—but they’re developing farm equipment, heavy equipment, that is open-source, so that anybody can work on it, and fix it, and it’s all really obvious [how it works]. And it all runs off of the same power source, so if you have one piece of equipment, and then you want to buy another one, you don’t have to buy another entire engine, you can just buy the shell of the piece that you need, and you can swap the engine easily.
FG: What do you think the next wave of farm improvements will look like? Because a lot of the stuff that came along during the first wave, during the industrial revolution, that changed the way we farm in America, is stuff that a lot of people see as being bad, now—things that sort of naturally evolved, like selecting seeds for certain characteristics, that used to be done organically, are now being done in a bad way, in terms of GMOs, for instance. So, what would you like the next wave of innovation to look like?
NZ: Hm. I think that we’ve been moving in the right direction for a long time—and you’re talking about what you think about certain things being bad, and you’re right for Portland, Oregon, but, in North Carolina, it’s not quite the same. And there are a lot of people that defend a lot of conventional practice, and it’s very different, being amongst farmers that are working in that world—and a lot of them feel trapped by it, and a lot of them feel like there’s no other way to do it—a lot of them are too afraid, probably, to try to change, because what’s on the line is their whole lives. And they’ve made mistakes in the past, and they’ve finally found a way that at least seems to keep their head above water. So they stick with it, because it works. But it won’t work forever. That’s the thing. It works, but every year, it works a little less well, and it just kind of gets people drowning, slowly, rather than doing well. And in that world, when you talk to farmers who have made transitions, they seem to be so psyched—but, the transitions seem to happen with people who have a lot of money, who can afford the risk. And that’s pretty difficult to overcome, I think. There was a big program in North Carolina for a long time, where they gave people money to transition out of tobacco farming, because the tobacco market was just collapsing, so, the farmers get grant money to transition to something else. Which is awesome, because it goes right into the pockets of the people that should get it. And they need to do more things like that, I think.
FG: So, sort of like a re-working of the farm subsidy system, where money is being used to support better ways of farming, instead of being used to prop up other industries.
NZ: Exactly. Better ways—it’s going to take a long time for people to understand what ‘better’ means.
FG: Right, because it’s going to mean different things to different people in different places.
NZ: Right. And I really think that it’s a quality of life thing—we really need to start thinking about quality, and not quantity. That it’s not how many gallons of milk your cow produces, but, how rich that milk is, how happy that cow is, how happy your employee is that’s milking that cow—it’s everybody’s quality of life together. And everything that comes through a farm should be improved by it—and there are a lot of ways that we don’t know how to do all of that. For instance: rabbits. Rabbits will tunnel out of anything. So, if you put them on the grass, they tunnel out. You can’t put these poor rabbits who love grass, on the grass, because they’ll just tunnel away, and you’ll never see your rabbits again. So people have to raise rabbits in cages, and it’s how people raise meat rabbits, and it’s not that bad, the rabbits look okay, they seem pretty happy—but, it just kind of sucks that they can’t be out and running around in the grass the way they want to do. So there’s a problem that has no solution right now, that I know of. There’s probably a way to do it, where the rabbit can be happy, but, I don’t know [it]. And that’s a small problem, to be sure, but, an example of larger ones. We need thinkers, and people who want to be challenged, to figure out new things, and tackle these problems—because we do a lot of things wrong, and we do a lot of things right, but, there are a lot of things that we can improve.
FG: So, do you think farming, in terms of being a means of other people employing themselves, people who want to find solutions to problems like that—that that might appeal to someone who’s working as a mechanical engineer right now, who might never dream of saying ‘wow, I could work on a farm!’–do you think it could be a way to heal the economy? Or parts of it? I know that it’s been said that part of the reason why we’re facing such a difficult time right now, economically, is that so much of what we do in America is just buying things—we have a consumer economy, and we don’t have an economy of people who actually make things.
NZ: Yeah, totally. Yes. It’s the one thing, you know, that you can’t really outsource—I mean, you can outsource farming, you can get China to grow corn or soy, and they’ll do it, but, if you have a farm, you can’t outsource any part of it, really. You’re doing it, your employees are going to be local people, you’re going to be producing things. And if you’re not in the whole commodity farming business, you’re going to be selling things to consumers in your area. So you’re going to be generating all of this economy—you’re going to need your tractors worked on, and your barns built, and you’re going to need all sorts of things. It’s a local business. And it can be anywhere—everywhere can be farmed, to some degree. So, I think it could revitalize a lot of the economy—I don’t know if it’s going to save the country (chuckles) , but, it’s definitely a good thing. And, how I was saying, that farmers are some of the poorest people in the world—putting money in their pockets is the way to do it [heal the economy]. And one of the best ways to get money into their pockets is to buy stuff from them. And the way that you can do that, is if they’re local, and you can get to them. Farmer’s markets—go to farmer’s markets.
FG: (We continued to chat about farmer’s markets for a bit, which brought us to wondering why people who seem to be doing things the hardest way possible seem to get the most credit for doing something authentically, meaning that it is inherently better, somehow)
NZ: I think there are a lot of easier solutions to be found in farming. You know, we have an entire generation of people who are really good problem solvers—they’re kind of bred with it, now, and they can really apply a lot of that information to these kinds of systems.
FG: It’s kind of interesting that the future of farming could be saved by people from our generation who, in some ways, have been bred to be lazy.
NZ: Well, I think they’re really going to enjoy the way that it feels, to not be lazy.
FG: Right—but also that we could come up with solutions to make things easier, at the same time, where you don’t have to do it the hardest way—you could do it a different way.
NZ: (laughing) Yes, that is absolutely true. We visited this dairy recently, and we talked to the dairyman for a while, it was an organic dairy—and they switched over in 2006. And he said that before they switched, he was just ragged all the time, working so hard, he was falling apart—and now he feels like it’s fun again, because the one thing that he did, was that he basically stopped doing all of the work. He started getting the animals to do their jobs, and get out of the way for them. And it ended up being the easier way. But you have to be critical enough in your thought process, to see far enough ahead, to understand that it’s going to be easier—it’s not going to be easier right now, it’s going to be really hard right now.
FG: I imagine that for a lot of people, that’s where thinking about farming, or transitioning into homesteading becomes kind of difficult to envision, because we’re definitely acclimated to an instant gratification culture, where everything happens right now. It’s hard to get people to see that it’s building towards something that might not happen right now, but, it will happen eventually.
NZ: Yeah, farming is exactly that way. Though, I don’t know—I have friends and family who are super tech people, and I kind of am too, and my transition—I mean, I’ve always been into the outdoors, so maybe that’s kind of allowed me to slow down my expectations to some degree, but, I definitely enjoy this pace of life a lot more. I think most people, if they spend some time on a farm, would come around to that—that slowness. Because it’s nice. You’re not stressed, you’re not running from thing to thing, all anxious—you don’t have to remember a hundred things. If you have a hard time remembering something, you just write it down. (laughing) And then you’re good. You just sort of figure problems out like that, one at a time, and it’s a very nice pace. Animals and vegetables go at their pace, they’re not going to change. You can’t really speed it up, even if you wanted to. You don’t make any money, but, you do eat really well. I am poor, but, I am not starving, because of the kind of farm that we have. We have the highest quality beef, pork, lamb, and goat, and veggies in the summer—it’s really quite a treat.
FG: This brings me to another question that I wanted to ask—about your sense of place, and your sense of connection to where you’re from, how your own sense of geography has changed in working the land—when you’re working the land that you’re living on, does it make you feel differently about saying where you’re from?
NZ: That’s kind of interesting—I’m from Boston, and I feel very much from there, but I also kind of feel like I’m from San Francisco a little bit, I lived there for four years, and I don’t think that really counts, some people live there for far longer and don’t feel like they’re from there, but, I definitely have a piece of that place with me. I don’t feel like I’m from North Carolina—and I don’t feel like I’m really from this farm, but I would come outside my door with a shotgun, in my boots and nothing else if someone was trying to invade this property. It’s the most defensive I’ve ever felt, of any space. I really care about this property, more than anything else that I’ve ever lived on, or in. My old apartments could’ve burned down, and I just would’ve thought ‘Well, shit, time to get a new place’. But here, I would be devastated—there’s so much here, all of these animals, and all of these things we’ve built, we’re so invested in this land, in this space—but, it didn’t make me. Well—I take that back, it definitely made me, in some degree—it probably made me a lot. Okay, I’m from here. (laughing)
FG: Well, I was going to say do you think that would change a little bit, with land that you owned? Is not owning it part of feeling like you’re not from there?
NZ: Yes, yes absolutely. Owning land is like the greatest thing in the world, as far as I can tell—but it’s also one of the biggest headaches, financially, ever. So there are a lot of people who just want to be tenant farmers, and work on other people’s farms, or perhaps rent land and farm it while they’re there—and that’s a really good near-term, get your experience solution, before investing in a piece of land.
After a brief discussion concerning the relative affordability of land prices in the Pacific Northwest, Nick and I conclude that one of the pieces of the puzzle of the future of food and farming in America could be, one day, a Farmer General Foundation–dedicated to providing its attendees with valuable farm-based education, an appreciation for the fruits of one’s manual labor, an arena where it’s okay to break things and learn to fix them again, and a new society of fermiers généraux, ready to be stewards of the art of self-reliance, as much as their forbears were patrons of the arts. I may have promised him a job. I trust that it would be in excellent hands.