If you told me three years ago that I’d be selling vegetables and blogging for a living, I would have asked if you could please lie down while I took your temperature. At that time I was on track to hit all of my career and financial goals. In 2003 I graduated from the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University with a degree in Human Resource Management. I’d been fortunate enough to quickly transition from an entry-level Receptionist position to filling the shoes of Human Resources Director for a small but rapidly growing company. In swift succession I did all the things a bright, young college graduate is supposed to do – raises, expanded work responsibility, professional development, mortgages, motherhood. My very autonomous job was everything I’d dreamed of and more. Most importantly, I worked with people I loved like family. Life went on like this for seven great years.
In 2011 something changed. Work had been stressful for several years already and my work time was stretching into fifty and sixty hours a week on a routine basis. I’ll admit – just between you and me – that I have some workaholic tendencies. (Don’t tell anyone, ok?) I cared deeply about my job and there was always more I could do. Someone always needed something, and I always wanted to help. Unfortunately for my family that meant lots of missed evenings and work from home on the weekends. Simultaneously, changes in the economy and key contracts at work lead to the horrible experience of presiding over the first layoff the company had experienced in more than 30 years of operation. Firing employees for poor performance is just part of the job. Firing good employees because the budget doesn’t work is gut-wrenching. Besides the emotional toll, the cuts also meant that my small but busy department would be cut back. Two rounds of layoffs later I had zero staff and had to find a way to do it all alone.
I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, but the hardships of layoffs had tipped the scale already unbalanced due to long work hours and lost family time. I was toast. My burned-out state was making me ineffective. Being ineffective in a situation where you have to do more with less is not really a recipe for success.
I was blessed that upper management became personally and professionally invested in helping me make the most of my stressful situation. While they continued to see value in me, all I could see were tasks slipping through my overworked fingers and the burning question: Was I willing to be utterly spent, for this? Almost overnight the job I loved had morphed into misery I had to drag myself to five days a week. I wanted, and needed, something more. During the darkest time of my work-life frustrations I found solace in several places. Family. Prayer. Food. And a fenced-in haven of five raised garden beds.
It was the first garden I’d grown – ever. The garden itself was birthed from this crazy idea my husband and I had that we should not only know where our food comes from, but we should know how to grow it ourselves. We had always been health-conscious and we wanted to know that what we were eating was truly good for us. Not only that, but the same down-turned economy that has caused so much stress for me at work had us concerned at home. How bad might it get? What would we do if one or both of us lost our jobs? What if something more systemic happened that limited our access to things we take for granted like toothpaste, laundry soap and food? We asked ourselves questions about how we’d provide for our family in these types of scenarios. And then it dawned on us that with or without some apocalyptic impediment to our lifestyle, providing for ourselves was a noble thing to do.
That summer I would come home, drop my bag at the house and walk out to my oasis, watering tomatoes in high heels and a suit. In that little green space, something amazing happened. I felt like I could breathe. Afterwards I returned to the house revitalized, bearing fresh produce to make a family dinner we could all enjoy together.
I loved the garden. And it loved me back. We gave away more tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini than I could count and still there was plenty for us! It felt good to be good at something again.
When fall came and I finally tucked the garden in for her winter nap, I was hooked. The experience had been so great that I started doing research about other ways we could provide for ourselves on our suburban acre. It was during this research that I stumbled onto the concept of a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. In summary, a CSA is a partnership between farmers and members who purchase a subscription (“share”) of produce at the beginning of the season in exchange for weekly fresh produce. I began to wonder if operating a CSA might be my ticket to providing for my family while doing something healthy, both for my community and for me.
It was shortly after Christmas in 2011 when I managed to work into a conversation with my husband that I was thinking about leaving my job to start a CSA. God bless my encouraging spouse who stuttered only slightly and promptly assured me that if I thought I could make it work, he’d support me all the way.
I did think it would work. I’d already been crunching numbers and building the skeleton of a business plan for weeks. Through the end of January we talked through ideas, created budgets and slowly I began to see flesh appearing on the skeleton of my dream to be an entrepreneur and farmer.
I resigned that January and in early May left my corporate job behind to begin managing Arcadia Farms here in Portage. Operating a CSA has been an enriching journey. The experience has taught me a great deal about gardening and provided a unique opportunity to connect with small-scale farmers throughout southwest Michigan. Along the way some unexpected things happened. The website originally designed simply to market our CSA blossomed into a blog about healthy living with regular followers. The knowledge I’ve rapidly absorbed about gardening has evolved into classes aimed to pass that info on to others. Relationships with other growers developed into an expanding brokerage business helping other backyard growers connect with customers.
After two years of operating a CSA, I did another unthinkable thing. I stopped. Turns out that scale is a really big deal in the CSA world and our solitary acre (along with my solitary source of labor) makes for an operation with very narrow margins. These other areas of farm life – training, blogging and brokering – have turned out to be a much better fit.
So now I spend my days thinking about how I can help our family live more sustainably. And then I brainstorm about how to share that journey with you – to empower you to do the same… and occasionally because my missteps can only be redeemed as fodder for someone else’s entertainment.
Farming is all about seasons. Life is that way too, although seasons stretch beyond the confines of months and weather patterns. Some are short. Some are long. All of them, eventually, end. I am so grateful that I took the leap of faith to follow my farming dream. During most of my eight-year HR career, I loved my work and the work-family I served. I thought for sure that I would feel torn and nostalgic after leaving. In reality, I’ve not had even one day of looking back longingly. No one is more surprised than me.
When I look back on that season of my life, I feel lots of things, but regret is never one of them. Life, like food, is best in season. And in this season, right here is where I’m meant to be.
About Katie Shank
Katie is a Lee Honors College Graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Human Resource Management from Western Michigan University. She put those student loan dollars to good use for eight years as Human Resources Director at a waste processing company in Plainwell, Michigan. She’s a lover of many disparate things (like any good tomboy should be): Writing, cooking, baking, running, discussing deep social and political topics, reading (especially fantasy books such as the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, of which she is a self-proclaimed-quasi-expert), wearing high heels, digging in dirt, enjoying nature and worshiping Jesus. Katie is daughter to the Creator of the Universe, wife to husband Ryan, mom to grade-school-aged Owen, foster-mom to children unnamed and ‘alpha dog’ to Daisy the diva Jack Russell Terrier and Marley the lovable mutt.