When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.
Life as a farmer isn't easy. There's the financial risk, the unforgiving schedule, the sheer volume of physical labor it demands.
Those were the kind of things on Carmen Black's mind one summer a couple of years ago. She was picking melons on her neighbor's farm in Iowa, where she'd been working as a farmhand for a few years.
Carmen says her neighbor told her, "I just want to let you know that I'm going to retire in like less than two years, and I know you said you're not ready to farm and you're not sure how you're going to make it happen, so I'm just letting you know I'm retiring."
Carmen's reaction: "Oh no!"
Eventually her neighbor won her over. Carmen took over the farm last year — and the risk that comes along with owning it. She says she spends a lot of time thinking about threats like an extreme weather event that devastates her crops or a dog attack that kills her sheep — "things that could just wipe me out in an instant."
Don Bustos has experience dealing with problems like these. He's been farming for nearly four decades and still runs Santa Cruz Farm in northern New Mexico.
One year, he tells Carmen, he even had to sell his tractor. "I got to the spring and I didn't have enough money to buy seeds or to pay my laborers," he says.
So he got his fields ready with the tractor and then sold it. He says it took him five years to save enough to buy another one.
Don says those challenges are what make the work fulfilling. "I went through these struggles, and look, I'm still successful," he says.
Lessons from Don Bustos
On coping with the financial risk
The people that I come from left Europe and Spain during the Inquisition. So there's this whole thing about escaping and coming to a new land and struggling to survive. But to do that, you have to have a certain faith. And my dad told me, when he told me to sell my truck, and I go, "Well, what am I gonna do," and he goes, "Tenga fe. Have a little faith." Have a little faith, and then having good friends and family, and then the other part was, work hard.
On balancing farming and family
I would get up with one of those head lamps, and I would go pick sweet corn at 1 o'clock in the morning, so that I would have fresh sweet corn at 6 for the farmer's market. And I'm not the only one that's done insane things like that. But then, at some time, you gotta say "No, I gotta give that up, man. That ain't gonna work. No, I gotta figure out a better lifestyle and a balance."
On his hopes for the future
One thing I really look forward to is having people take over. So now that I'm getting older I'm thinking about my son and my nephew and my daughter and my nieces. And, when I pass away, I'm hoping that that's like one of the last things I think about is that, man, I'm leaving something that other people want to do and they're gonna follow through with — something that's healthy, something that's beautiful. Because it's meaningful when you grow food and you see that beautiful cabbage turning green from the water you gave it, and those tomatoes taste better because you sweated right on that tomato plant to make it that much sweeter. Those are the types of rewards that I look forward to.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Being a farmer is not easy. It's financially risky. The schedule is not good, and it's just a lot of work. Those were the things Carmen Black was thinking one summer a couple years ago. She was picking melons on her neighbor's farm in Iowa where she'd been working as a farmhand for a few years. And her neighbor said this...
CARMEN BLACK: Carmen, I just want to let you know that I'm going to retire in, like, less than two years. And I know you said you're not ready to farm and you're not sure how you're going to make it happen, so I'm just letting you know I'm retiring (laughter). And I was like, oh, no.
MCEVERS: Carmen did take over the farm last year, and she took on the risk that came along with owning it.
BLACK: Three things that I think about a lot are sort of devastating misapplication of pesticides that could just kill everything I have in the ground or an extreme weather event that could just destroy everything, a dog attack that kills all of my sheep - things that could just, like, wipe me out in an instant.
DON BUSTOS: So I have experience in that. And I don't want to minimalize anything, but a lot of the things you mentioned is part of life experience.
MCEVERS: That other voice is Don Bustos. He runs a farm in New Mexico, and he sat down with Carmen for our series Been There. He shared some of the stuff he's dealt with over nearly 40 years of good times and not-so-good times.
BUSTOS: One year, I had to sell my tractor. I got - I went through a winter - we were doing good and some financial things came up. And I got to the spring, and I didn't have enough money to buy seeds or to pay my laborers. But I got my fields ready, and I sold the tractor and I bought the seeds and paid the workers. And then it took me about five years later to purchase another tractor. But I think that's part of the success story at the end. I went through these struggles and, look, I'm still successful.
BLACK: I feel like your story sort of shows how farming is really difficult, and that is one of the things I think I love about it is at the end of the day being sore and tired. And I always sleep so good (laughter). But it's also really scary. And so I'm wondering how you've managed that. Like, when you had to sell your tractor, how did you sort of get through that and remind yourself it was going to be OK, I guess?
BUSTOS: So the people that I come from left Europe and Spain during the Inquisition. So there's this whole thing about escaping and coming to a new land of - and struggling to survive. But to do that, you had to have a certain faith. And my dad told me - when he told me to sell my truck, and I go, what am I going to do? And he goes, (speaking Spanish) - have a little faith. Have a little faith and then having good friends and family. Then the other part was work hard.
BLACK: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me, but I'm curious just, yeah, about your experience raising a family on your farm, how you can kind of balance all of the things because, you know, we work really hard and there's so much happening all the time.
BUSTOS: I didn't get married until I was a little bit older, a little bit more mature in life. And I always was thinking, well, you know, maybe I'm going to live alone or farming takes so much time and stuff. But I found the right person. And then, you know, balancing your life is - I have the story of I would get up with one of those headlamps, and I would go pick sweet corn at 1 o'clock in the morning so that I would have fresh sweet corn at 6 for the farmer's market.
BUSTOS: And I'm not the only one that's done insane things like that. But then sometime you got to say, no, I got to give that up, man. That's - that ain't going to work. No, I got to figure out a better lifestyle and a balance.
BLACK: When I think about meeting someone or starting a family or something, it just sometimes sounds exhausting because I'm just thinking about the farm all the time. And I don't grow sweet corn right now, but last summer, I did have a bit of a deer problem. I had some deer eat over a hundred cabbages in one night. And so I wasn't going to let them eat the rest of my cabbages, so I slept in my field for several nights with my dogs (laughter).
BUSTOS: That's so beautiful.
BLACK: That's the kind of thing that it's hard to imagine, you know, bringing someone else into. Like, sorry, I have to sleep in this field for a few nights because I'm worried about these deer.
BUSTOS: (Laughter) And if you love me, you'll join me.
BUSTOS: I've done that. I've done that. You know, that's the way it is (laughter).
BLACK: I'm curious about if you have any sort of, like, hopes and dreams for your own farm and your family for the future or just for farming in general.
BUSTOS: Oh, yeah. One thing I really look forward to is having people take over. So now that I'm getting older, I'm thinking about my son and my nephew and my daughter and my nieces. And when I pass away, I'm hoping that - that's, like, one of the last things I think about is that, man, I'm leaving something that other people want to do, and they're going to follow through with, something that's healthy, something that is beautiful because it's meaningful when you grow food. And you see that beautiful cabbage turning green from the water you gave it, and those tomatoes taste better because you sweated right on that tomato plant to make it that much sweeter. Those are the types of rewards that I look forward to.
MCEVERS: That was Don Bustos, who runs the Santa Cruz Farm in New Mexico, talking to Carmen Black, who took over Sundog Farm in Iowa last year. They talked to each other for our series Been There. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.