“But if a person studies philosophy and farms at the same time, I would not offer any other way of life to him; nor would I advocate another occupation” (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.3)
The odds are in on successfully starting a business and I’ve got some bad news.
Starting any type of business is extremely difficult. Knowing that I had the bright idea to start something with an even higher chance of failure, I wanted to start a farm. I fell in love with the idea that I could have a business that positively interacted with the environment, produced the best food in the world and gave me an income I could live on. It seemed like the best way I could make a positive impact in the world, in my community and in my life.
Consequently, earning one’s living from farming is noble, blessed, and god-favored, as is paying attention to nobility of character. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.4
I went on a long quest to find profitable farming models that would fit within that framework. I found out about vegetable growing operations and when the time was right I sprang into action. In the fall of 2015 I started my own market garden.
With farming, you must deal with pests, weather, government regulations, and market fluctuations but I also had the added challenges of having no experience, little money, destructive habits, and I was still working a full-time job. I was on a slippery slope with a mountain of work in front of me.
How are you going to react when your world starts to fall apart around you? The answer for me has been Stoicism. My adventure into learning about farming and about Stoicism followed a similar timeline and sequence. At first, I was fresh and naïve on both, as I read and learned more I started to see results and now, even though I still feel new to both, I’m at a point where I can start to share my experiences and give back to others.
I found out about small-scale farms and had done a design course, some workshops and read a lot of books but I was stuck in a dead-end job working with my dad at his kitchen cabinet shop. I wasn’t going to abandon him and had repeatedly asked him for an exit strategy but, like a lot of conversations between father and son, my requests fell on deaf ears. Over the years it had morphed from a business into a lousy job and I felt trapped in a situation I couldn’t get out of. Everything was showing signs of age from hose lines splitting, to saws and drills, the company vehicles and even our relationship, everything was deteriorating. Feeling trapped and without autonomy I was making bad choices in life. I was fostering unhealthy relationships, drinking too much, and spending money on useless things, like a nice truck, that I thought would bring me happiness.
In the summer of 2015, after a particularly bad week of things breaking, we were on coffee break when my dad said to me, “We are shutting the shop down in two months.” My heart sank, I thought I would be given at least 6 months to 1-year notice but two months?! This was not an ideal situation but if this was how it was going to end I was going to do what I could.
CHOOSE YOUR TEACHERS
We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Anytime I brought up wanting to start a farm my dad drilled into my head that farms don’t make money. It sent me on a long journey to find a profitable model that I could emulate on my property. By the time my dad said we had 2 months left at the shop my best lead was something called SPIN Farming. SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farming was a vegetable production system that focused on direct marketing high profit crops farmed intensively with hand tools on a small land base.
Since I had no experience farming I decided that I would look for the best SPIN farmer within a weekends drive of me and try to line up a consultation to see how all this might work. I was very lucky and had subscribed to a podcast where I found out about this SPIN farmer named Curtis who lived only 2 1/2 hours drive away from me. I emailed him and we set up a consultation a month later. He told me to come prepared, that he had some videos on YouTube, and had a series on the podcast I had listened to where they did a week by week account of what was happening on his farm.
HARD WINTER TRAINING
We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared. – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.32
I still had 7 weeks left at the cabinet shop with my dad so my days consisted of going to work, coming home and trying to learn everything I could about SPIN farming and listening to the podcast. Within a few weeks my dream had started to seem very tangible. On the podcasts Curtis mentioned a course he was starting, I was intrigued so I searched for it and found out about his new online course: Profitable Urban Farming.
It was incredible timing and exactly what I needed to go all in on my idea. It was a 10-week, self directed online course. I still had 2 weeks before I was going to see him, this was going to be a hard two weeks but I knew what I had to do. Even though I was still working a full-time job with my dad I signed up for the course and did most of the 10-week course in 2, after work and on the weekends. By the time I was going to see him I had already torn up the lawn around my house and I had decided to do a small local Kickstarter to raise some money and market my farm.
The meeting went well because of the work I had done. After the job with my dad ended I went and got a full-time job at an architectural mill working company and did all my farming/learning after work and on weekends. Within 3 months of coming home from seeing Curtis I had sales at restaurants, within 5 months I had successfully ran my Kickstarter where I raised $5600 to help fund my farm.
I kept working hard from the summer of 2015, straight through fall and well into the winter, trying to put myself in the best possible position for my first season in Spring 2016.
CLARITY OF PURPOSE
In small-scale farming labor is your biggest cost so having an efficient farm is the only way to make any money. The Kickstarter helped me out but I was going to need around $20,000 to get all the tools that I would need to be super efficient on my farm. The only problem was I didn’t have $20,000 but I did have a $20,000 truck.
The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole. – Seneca, Letter 71.2
I had bought the truck because I thought it would make me happy. I can’t pinpoint exactly how I thought it would make me happy, maybe I thought it would earn me status and respect, but it did not. I was still the same person just with a nice truck that I couldn’t really afford.
When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind. – Seneca Letter 71.3
I knew where I wanted to end up: I wanted to have a successful farm. Having a farm was so much more important to me than having that truck it was an easy decision to make. One funny thing that I did not expect to happen was other people became very sad for me, they were disappointed I ‘had’ to sell my truck. I didn’t ‘have’ to sell it, I wanted to start my farm. I weighed the pros and cons and at the end of 2015 I sold my truck and bought a cheap car.
COURAGE TO SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE
In 6 months, my life had been through a whirlwind of change but some old habits die hard. I had been drinking less but I was still drinking a lot.
“Show how base it is to pour down more liquor than one can carry, and not to know the capacity of one’s own stomach; show how often the drunkard does things which make him blush when he is sober; state that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed. Prolong the drunkard’s condition to several days; will you have any doubt about his madness? Even as it is, the madness is no less; it merely lasts a shorter time.” – Seneca, Letter 83.18
If that quote is true, I was a madman. I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, I drank to get drunk. I didn’t want to feel my feelings, living in reality and dealing with life is tough and I wanted to be numb to my problems. The easy choice is often the wrong choice and the easy choice of going for a bottle was easier than dealing with everything I had to deal with. It started off innocent at first, I’d have a drink with a friend or pour myself a drink before bed. I started having extreme anxiety at night because I felt guilty about the choices I was making. Instead of facing my problems I let it escalate. The hangovers were bad but the moral hangovers were worse. I couldn’t sleep because of the anxiety and I would feel terrible the next day which would make me go for a drink earlier and earlier. Soon having an afternoon drink didn’t seem that unreasonable. Instead of doing my work I’d hang out with shallow friends and waste the entire day. A wasted day would turn into a wasted weekend and eventually it was way out of control. I’d wake up late still slightly drunk from the night before knowing that a wicked hangover was on its way so I’d have a drink well before lunchtime.
It takes a lot of courage to live in reality. When you see things as they are, not as you want them to be you must face some hard truths. One morning I had to face the truth: I had a problem.
One morning I went to the fridge and poured myself a stiff drink. I stood in front of my sink with the bottle on the counter and a glass in my hand and thought of the Stoic virtue of courage. Did I have the courage to see things as they were or was I going to keep on pretending everything was fine? Will you make the easy choice or the hard choice? I told myself it would be fine to have this one last drink then I will quit tomorrow, or maybe next week, or maybe I could just take a break for a couple days. I was trying to justify things instead of being courageous, it was a tough pill to swallow. I ended up pouring that drink down the sink followed by the rest of the bottle. I’ve still had some stumbles with alcohol after that but they were minor and I’m proud to say I now live a sober lifestyle.
THE DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL
For the 2016 growing season I had chosen 2 different revenue streams to sell at, I was going to do restaurant sales and sell at a farmer’s market. I had gone down to working 4 days a week at my new job so I could have 1 day to deliver to restaurants and the farmer’s market was on a Saturday. It was going to be a lot of work, especially for the summer months, but it’s what I had to do to start my business. I had gone to the farmers market at the end of 2015 and had spoken with the manager about selling there in 2016, I was told it wouldn’t be an issue.
The applications came out in the spring and I quickly sent mine in with all my information attached. I was doing sales calls at restaurants as well as finishing building all my farm infrastructure. It was a very stressful time because I had a lot of work to do and it was my first time doing any of it. The weeks crept closer to the start of the farm market season and my crops were doing well, everything was going to be ready just in time. I still hadn’t gotten confirmation of my status at the market so I called the manager and he told me not to worry, I hadn’t been approved yet but it wasn’t going to be an issue. I had my doubts but I had too many other things to do to worry about this specific problem.
Men are not disturbed by things which happen, but by the opinions about the things. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5.1
2 weeks before the start of the farm market season I received this e-mail in response to an email I had sent weeks before:
“Yes, finally at a meeting last night. I now know what their hesitation was about. We are not going to be able to offer you a space in the market. The selection committee feels that we are at capacity right now with the line of products that you are offering. They are concerned that if we add more of the same, it will just water down the result for everyone.
I wanted to colour my experience with negativity and take it personally. “HOW COULD THEY DO THIS TO ME? DON’T THEY REALIZE HOW HARD I’VE BEEN WORKING? THEY LIED TO ME.” But I didn’t, I stared at the e-mail in slight disbelief. I thought to myself, “This isn’t bad, it’s different. Do something.” With Stoicism, you need to default on action, it is not a passivist philosophy, it’s supposed to lead you to the correct action. I needed to take some sort of action, I couldn’t stall in this moment. I had been telling people I was going to this farmers market, they were going to be in a panic when I told them I didn’t get in and if I didn’t have an answer for my next move their reaction would make me panic. It was too late to get into a different farmer’s market that would work with my schedule. I sat at my computer for a couple minutes and thought through my options. I went on my website and made a new page for a “buying club” idea that I had. I would do restaurants and the buying club. Fire put out, crises adverted.
THE OBSTACLE BECOMES THE WAY
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius, 5.20
In the end, the buying club idea ended up being a big failure but I’m happy I did something in that moment. A few weeks later I was contacted by another brand new local farmers market that was closer to my house. It seemed like a great opportunity but it also ended up being a bust. Nearly through my first season I had some restaurant sales and no other sales outlets. I had overproduction on all my crops and I was burning out badly between my day job and my farm. One of my mentors had recently started selling his lettuce to grocery stores and, even though it was my first season, I had beautiful lettuce. I took samples to local grocery stores to inquire if they were interested in my products for next season. To my surprise all the stores I approached said yes. If I had been accepted into the farmers market I never would have had the time or a reason to approach the grocery stores.
Going into the start of my second season I was nervous. I had already been burned the year before by believing I had an outlet for my products and here I was doing the exact same thing. I was planning on selling to grocery stores but all I had was handshake agreements. A promise of a sale does not equal a sale, a sale equals a sale.
There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. – Seneca, Letter 13.4
I needed to spend some more money to upgrade my infrastructure so my products and packaging would be nice enough for the stores but I could do all that work and then have something happen at the end where the stores didn’t want my products. I couldn’t get the image of being rejected last minute again out of my mind, it was causing me a lot of stress. I have a great imagination and I could feel the pain of future rejection as a real experience already coming true, I could feel the shame of being a failure with a failed farm. I knew the odds of success, why did I think that I could do this? Why had I even started? All my past failure and wrongdoings bubbled to the surface. Everyone who rejected me in my life was right, I am a loser. Those people that doubted me were right, I am crazy. This was one of those moments again where I didn’t want to feel my feelings. It would be much easier to ignore everything and numb the pain. I wanted to take another trip to the bottom of a bottle.
How was I going to deal with this new challenge?
The Stoic concept of ‘negative visualization’ or ‘decatastrophication’ was a very useful tool for me in this situation.
I ran through my mind my most catastrophic worst-case scenario:
I pull into the parking lot. I grab my samples and I walk into the store and ask to talk with the manager. We shake hands, he’s happy to see me but the store is going a different direction. They don’t want my products. Thanks for coming in kid. I walk out of the store with my samples still in my hands. I have a field full of lettuce that I can’t sell and no other outlets to go to. What’s my next move? What was I going to do? Where was my farm at?
Well, since I had sold my truck to pay for everything I was out money but I wasn’t in debt for my farm so having a field of lettuce ready to sell wasn’t the worst thing. I might have to throw it in the compost but even that was just labor and if I didn’t have to harvest, wash and pack orders I would have time to do it. I still had a full-time job so I wasn’t relying on that income to pay my mortgage or my grocery bill. Maybe I could find another farmers market to go into, I had more time this year since I got a new job at a golf course. Maybe I could try some other ideas I had…
Suddenly after going through the exercise I didn’t feel quite as bad. It didn’t take away all my nervous energy but it allowed me to take the nervous energy I did have and turn it into something productive instead of something destructive. I would have to do this exercise every time the doubts became overwhelming.
You can put yourself in the best position for success to happen but you can’t place your happiness in expecting it to happen. One of the hardest lessons in life to learn is that you can do everything right and still have a negative outcome. Fortune doesn’t always smile on us, although, sometimes it does. My fears were not realized and I started selling to two local grocers where my products have been well received by the customers.
Indeed, don’t let anyone say farming gets in the way of learning or teaching essential things. This is unlikely to happen as long as the student can be with the teacher and interact in the manner described above for as long as possible. Under these circumstances, farming seems to be the ideal occupation for a philosopher. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.6
In farming, and in life, the question you start asking yourself isn’t, “is something going to go wrong?” but rather, “what’s going to go happen next?” You need to have an answer for how you’re going to deal with it all, for me, that answer has been Stoicism. Fate permitting it looks like things are in line for me to have a profitable business but we will see what Fortune has in store for my future.
Scott Hebert is the host of the Stoic Mettle podcast where he uses stories from his own life to bring Stoic quotes to life. He also interviews contemporary Stoics in the hope of learning more about Stoicism. He is the owner/operator of Flavourful Farms in Chilliwack, BC.