I’ve gone through different phases of experimenting with growing food over the past few years, and looking back, I realize most of them were done in public on other peoples’ properties. Each situation had its peculiar charms:
- community gardening with kids and adults on properties considered blighted by the city government, growing free U-pick fruits and vegetables in urban food deserts
- volunteering at a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, helping on their farm which specializes in cut flowers and herbal healing products
- teaching permaculture principles and raising chickens at a land-based middle school in a renovated historic home
- working on a historic farm that grows for a field-to-plate restaurant and provides tours to overnight guests, day-trippers and local schoolchildren
When I look back at the trials and errors I experienced at each one, I realize a commonality was that I was never alone. Far from the idea of a lonely, isolated country farmer, I was in the midst of interns, clients, students, community members, vacationers and, of course, my supervisors. In some cases, we worked shoulder to shoulder in the garden beds through the heat of the summer. In other cases, a stranger would stroll by and comment on the robust squash, wondering how we managed to avoid devastation by Japanese beetles.
These collaborative and welcoming spaces have their downside—everyone sees what you do. My naive attempts at farming were completely exposed. Luckily, the best I could call the work I’ve done is hobby, not quite subsistence, farming.
I wonder how serious farmers handle being observed and how comfortable they are with the critical eye of the guest, who may see the aisles full of weeds before they notice the peas blooming their perky hello. Never quite sure what these short-lived friendships will be based on, opening up your growing space to observers requires a certain level of comfort with vulnerability.
Here are a few points of wisdom that I’ve gleaned from my various, non-private gardening forays.
1. Understand Your Values
If you’re farming for self-reliance and you don’t mind showing others the way, then figure out where your strengths are and let that be what you offer. You don’t have to be good at everything, but it helps if you are really good at something that you love.
If you are farming for financial profit and agritourism brings you a healthy income, then find ways to really set your farm apart and market the unique experience you offer. Make sure it’s sustainable, and check in with yourself frequently to make sure it is what you really want to be doing.
If you are farming for environmental stewardship and future generations, collaborate with organizations, schools and agencies that desperately need good role models. Become well-versed in grants and funding possibilities and continually network with other farmers to share your valuable insights.
2. Choose Labels Carefully
Define certain terms and what they mean to you.
Are you hosting or entertaining?
Hosting might imply that you meet all your guests’ needs: bring them an ice-cold herbal tea, have a flush toilet available, offer glamping on your property. Entertaining could mean that you have a baby calf close enough for petting or give your guests a ride on the tractor or provide outdoor concert space. Decide what level of involvement you wish to have and how far you’ll go out of your way to make it an interesting visit.
Are you teaching or mentoring?
Teaching might mean that your students don’t necessarily pick up the skill or information in a timely manner. So be it—maybe they’ll go on to find another teacher. Mentoring means you could be there all day and into the night to make sure your mentee is gaining the skills they will need to follow in your footsteps. Think of mentoring as a long-term investment with an individual, while teaching is a broader action you may take with every customer, client or visitor you interact with.
3. Give Everyone A Job
We are all new to something, and yet we all have something to offer. If you want to really make sure your visitors have a good experience, let them get their hands dirty. Give specific instructions to specific people. If you have a group of volunteers, make sure they understand when their job is done. Is it when every row is mulched with leaves? Is it when a plot of carrots has been dug up? Giving participants a goal to work toward and a sense of completion makes their gardening experience a rewarding one.
4. Know Your Limitations
How comfortable are you with making mistakes in public? What would be the worst thing a visitor to your farm could witness? What’s the worst thing they might say to you? When you farm in public view, you must become skilled at turning problems into solutions. You may need to explain why irregularities in your animals or plants are not a concern or how they are being addressed. Decide whether you’d deflect attention away from these things or delve into an explanation that could become a teaching moment for all. Last but not least, make sure your liability insurance covers your farm-based tourism activities properly.
Mentally work through the worst-case scenarios. It might seem depressing, but it will prepare you, and then most likely nothing that bad will ever happen. At least not while anyone is watching.