Weekend reads: Back to the Land
Escaping the rat race with farmer, essayist and cookbook author Shannon Hayes
The sun is shining in Toronto, after a long and dark winter, and I have just returned from a week in Mississippi. The woods were lush and green and filled with birdsong, the air was clear, and the property we were on had been homestead in the 1800s.
Drinking my morning coffee on the back porch, I was reminded of an author who I first made contact with many years back. A woman who rejected careerism, individualism, and neoliberal economics in favour of a life rooted in family, community, and the land — and who sparked an entire movement in the process. (And inspired me to make a radio documentary about it.)
Given that I have been on the road a lot lately, particularly in smaller towns in the American South, I am realizing anew how many different ways there are to live.
Shannon Hayes is a wonderful example of this. Working a family farm and living on a shoestring budget is not my chosen path, but I love that such alternatives exist. It shows that the alienation and social isolation and consumerism of cities is not the sole model of our time. That people across North America still live in ways that affirm other, more sustaining values, like collectivism, connection, and the prudent stewardship of resources.
I had the chance to speak with Hayes again during the pandemic, for her latest book. Here is part of that edited and condensed interview, originally published in The Globe and Mail.
American writer Shannon Hayes found fame more than a decade ago with Radical Homemakers. The book chronicled a movement of women (and some men) burned out from juggling the rat race with family, who gave corporate striving the middle finger and carved out a simpler life, adopting frugality by relearning old skills like scratch-cooking, vegetable gardening and sewing — and inspiring scores of people in the process.
The moment is ripe now for another hit book from Hayes, with a recent survey finding that 48 per cent of Americans are rethinking the work they do. The essayist and cookbook author spoke to The Globe from her home on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in rural New York about her new outing, Redefining Rich: Achieving True Wealth with Small Business, Side Hustles & Smart Living.
Take me back to the day you decided to opt out. You had just earned a PhD from Cornell. What made you walk away from academia to run a struggling family farm?
I overheard a conversation on the other side of my desk between two female grad students. They were having a gossipy conversation about a faculty member who was not making the cut and saying nasty things about her. Now this faculty member, she was recently divorced. She had two children under the age of four. I sat there listening, and I pulled out a piece of paper and made a list of all the things I had been hoping for as a grad student. I was hoping to get a job as a college professor, I was hoping to get tenure. I was already engaged, so I was hoping to succeed in that marriage and have children. I then made a list of all the female professors I had had in a 10-year career in higher education and realized that not one of them was able to check all those boxes. It was the writing on the wall.
Redefining Rich is about how to build a life outside the mainstream economy. You write, “after twenty years of marriage, I can count the years we’ve netted more than twenty grand on my left hand.” Walk me through your definition of wealth.
As I grew into my family’s business more, and I became the CEO, I kept thinking it was a burden, asking, “When do I take the pay?” I realized the pay is going swimming, the pay is hanging out in the woods, the pay is taking off and having a picnic and drinking cocktails in the forest. This is my pay — this is my wealth. And so is the good food on my plate and the happy family life. That realization shifted the economics of everything we do. I became so much happier in our business. And our business grew — that’s the crazy thing.
You write about “sustainable economic renewal.” Give me an example of that.
There was a period of time where, in two years, my parents went through five major surgeries. We were trying to figure out how to get more hired labour on the farm. The classic farm way to get more income is to expand your land base and grow more product and market that. I was getting a headache just trying to think about it. The other issue was that out-of-town money easily buys up our farmland.
In our town, there was this building that had been on and off the market for the better part of a decade. It was the site of our former firehouse and our local post office. It was an eyesore, but solid. For a fraction of the price of farmland, we could acquire that building. So, we decided to invest more deeply into the community. We converted that firehouse into a café that we run only one day a week — because quality of life is what it’s all about. We gave everybody a funnel to come into the same place, so they were all seeing each other. We took one of the empty apartments upstairs and converted it to an Airbnb, which has brought a lot of people to the community to go to the other little businesses. And, of course, we use that café to sell our meats and to do farm-to-table cooking.
How would this approach work if someone didn’t have land or capital, and lived in a city?
The heartbeat of the book is the chapter on income. I talk about four different income streams, and say you need to have three of those four for your household. It starts with identifying your quality of life. Then you look at those four income streams, one of which is conventional employment, assuming it is meaningful and they are kind to you. The second one is self-employment, which actually makes conventional employment more affordable; I explain that in the book. The third one, which is a big part of my income, is non-monetary income. These are things that you don’t have to pay someone to do, that you can do yourself, whether it’s home-cooking or mending. And the fourth one is passive income. No matter where someone lives, these things are available.
The thing is, as you noted, most years I live on twenty thousand dollars a year. If you are in touch with what true wealth is, you would be surprised with what you don’t need. Most of us want to enjoy a good conversation, and we want to feel loved. We want to linger over a meal rather than shoving it down our mouths as fast as possible. We want to be able to sleep in now and then, and walk in the park. There are many deep pleasures available to us in life. But the conventional trappings of success are not necessarily going to get us there.
You stress in the book that you want to be motivated by love rather than fear. The pandemic has been the ultimate test of that philosophy. Did it stand up under pressure?
One hundred percent. My life got shaken up and I just got used to, as a business owner, the roll of the dice every week. We were disrupted constantly. What I noticed was that my husband and I still went out for coffee in the woods every single morning. My kids worked with me in the business. I was in a pod with my parents; we had Sunday dinner with them every week. There were weeks when I thought it was all tanking and we would face financial ruin, and then there were weeks when the fact that Sap Bush Hollow Farm had meat and toilet paper was very valuable. You start to realize that there are all these things going on in the outside world and the economy. But this is solid — this love. We love where we are. We love the land that we walk on, and we care about each other. That’s all solid. So, all this other stuff sort of happens in the background. It’s dinner conversation, but it doesn’t keep you up at night.
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