A Farmer’s Story

01_ElPasoGardenA few flowers on the windowsill planter changed Alex Browning’s life. What began as a few plants outside her apartment window in El Paso grew into leaving her life behind for the unknown.

Like so many, Alex had no idea what she wanted to do upon college graduation. She saw two choices: move to New York City and try her hand at being a miserable and lonely journalist or she could move with her boyfriend to El Paso, where he was going to be serving in the Army.

She chose having a support system and moved back to her native state of Texas. El Paso, she found, was very different from her hometown of Dallas.

Alex ended up with a full-time job as a law firm secretary. The people were great. The environment was great.  Alex was not great.

“I had this life that felt like it was on hold,” she said.

Alex was unhappy and wanted to do something else. She just didn’t know what. So began the process of figuring out what she wanted to be when she grew up. She listed out potential jobs – art therapist, court translator – nothing quite fit.

So instead, Alex began listing what she knew she wanted out of a career: meaningful work, to be her own boss, to be able to one day be a mom and work at the same time.

“I didn’t know what that looked like,” she said. “But there had to be something.”

While Alex was soul searching, she was tending to the hodge podge garden that had grown from the windowsill flowers to a 15_Sunflowerstrellis with vines, pots and hanging planters filled with green or overflowing with small purple flowers. Alex also tried her hand, somewhat unsuccessfully, at growing food.

“If there was ever any success, it was tiny, small tomatoes,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing and lived in the totally wrong place for it.”

Her garden, abundant or not, became her safe place in El Paso. She spent hours among the green plants, able to pretend she wasn’t surrounded by desert. It was the garden with its sad cucumbers and squash that shriveled and died before producing anything edible that introduced her to a new job.

“I thought, ‘If I’m having so much fun tending to this little garden and I am willing to spend hours doing it, maybe I should think about a career in it.’”

A farmer. That’s right, those shriveled vegetables made Alex decide she wanted to be a farmer. She knew it was a crazy idea. She knew nothing about farming, but thought maybe if she learned how to do it right, it could work. A search for graduate programs in farming and agriculture disheartened her.

“How on earth was I going to learn to farm sitting in a lecture?” she said.

She found the hands-on experience she wanted in The Farm School, a small graduate program located in Massachusetts targeted to people looking for a career change that teaches all of the fundamentals of farming by immersing you into the farming culture.

When Alex brought the idea to Eric, she half expected to not have to worry about applying or moving their lives across the country because he would surely tell her the idea was insane. Eric didn’t.

She decided to apply for this rare opportunity to test drive a new career. If she got there and hated it, she knew she’d be back at square one, which wasn’t any worse than being stuck in a job and place she didn’t want.

More than a few people raised eyebrows at her new career path. “It wouldn’t have been what any of them guessed, but when I started talking about it, they were thrilled because I was so excited,” she said.

14_Graduation

Happy Graduation from Farm School

After a visit to The Farm School, Alex was accepted, and in September 2013 she and Eric packed up their lives for the miserable, U-Haul-in-tow drive from Texas to Massachusetts. (Alex strongly recommends purging most of your belongings before moving across the country.)

For the next 11 months, Alex lived the farm life among a small community of people and learned everything from botany to soil science and farm finance. Together, the small group learned to run the farm. Each day they did chores, tended to vegetables, cared for the animals and prepared meals for the group from the land.

The work was rarely easy, and the days were long. Alex learned that farmers are perhaps more of a servant to the weather than their own boss and that the short days of winter can be tough. She also learned what it means to acknowledge where your food comes from and the reality of raising animals for food.

“It really has blown my mind,” she said. “The amount of knowledge they passed on was amazing.”

Now, for the first time in her 25 years, Alex has an answer for that nagging interview and family holiday inquiry. Though she’s been asked since high school where she’d be in five or ten years, she never had a real answer. “I have made that shit up for my whole life,” she said.

In ten years, she and Eric want to own their own farm. Until then, she wants to spend time learning from others in the (literal) field. As the program was winding down, Alex took a job as a farm apprentice, which carried her to winter. Farming, she found out, is a seasonal industry, and Alex will take on a new apprenticeship at Green Meadow Farm starting in April.

Alex and her now fiancé, Eric, could have stayed in El Paso – Alex had a good job that helped to pay the bills – if they wanted to settle. Alex never wanted that.

“You’ve lived with this dream of not being stuck and then you wake up and realize that you are and maybe don’t know how you got there,” she said “I knew I wanted to be doing something that I was really excited about and that challenged me in the right ways.”

11_FarmersTan

Farmer’s tans are real.

A friend recently told her that you need three things to be truly satisfied in a career: comfort, challenge and feeling valued.

“You can convince yourself to stay for a while if any one or two of those are met, but over time you realize you’re not happy or being fulfilled,” she said. “This seemed like an opportunity to do work that seemed really fulfilling.”

Alex knows a few things contributed to her ability to take the leap into something new. Firstly, she had what she described as undying support from Eric. She also had a deadline. Eric’s Army contract had an end date, and they knew they wanted to do something else. It was the perfect excuse to find something new.

For anyone less than happy with their current position, Alex has a few pieces of advice. First, figure out what you’d like to try and approach each step logically.

In a binder labeled “Let’s Move to Massachusetts,” Alex planned for over a year every detail of their proposed move.

Alex also said that she knew she might not find greener pastures on the farm.

“It has to be okay that getting to point B might not be what you want,” she said.

02_ridgetoptourLike her first garden, Alex sometimes still doesn’t know what she’s doing, and that’s okay. “If I can do this every day for the rest of my life, at the end of it, I will know just enough,” she said. “But if you’re excited about it and passionate about it and comfortable accepting that, then you’re going to be successful in probably any field.”

Though it certainly wasn’t the one that she planned, Alex is grateful for her journey. Her future isn’t certain, but it is confident.

“To say did I make the right decision, is this something that makes sense? I would say yes,” she said.

To learn more about Alex’s journey, check out her blog, Brave New Adventures!

Author: Megan Ogar

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