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Stronger than Dirt: A Recommended Book [Part Two]

Posted on Jul 10, 2007 by

In early August, in spite of obstacles, Chris Losee and Kim Schaye harvest at their flower farm for the first time. They cut zinnias and cosmos along with a scattering of wildflowers from the roadside, and they drive down to the city in a van loaded with five-gallon buckets of cut flowers and zucchini. They’re headed for a market in Greenwich Village where they’ve reserved a space. They’re optimistic. They don’t think they’ve harvested quite enough to make the one thousand dollars they’d hoped for from a first market, but they figure they’re probably carrying eight hundred dollars worth of produce, give or take. They arrive in Greenwich Village at the greenmarket, set up a card table, put out their sign and they begin making and selling bouquets of flowers. And people buy them. Things seem to be moving. They’re a little thrilled—understandably. Then, at the end of the day they count their money. 160 dollars. That’s their gross take. They subtract the day’s expenses—the market fee and gas and the money they paid a friend to help out—and their net take is zero.

Zero. Their expectations have been confounded. Which provides yet another plot point in their story, and is yet one more reason why I like this book.

Chris’s stated vision all along has been “to create a situation in which the land could support us.” They’d borrowed from Kim’s retirement fund to make a downpayment on the farm. They’d grown those three thousand tomato and pepper plants in their bedroom. They’d invested two years of their lives, and a fair chunk of their savings. And the net take on their first market day: zero. Kim admits, in the book, to some panic after this first market. Perhaps Chris was panicking too, inwardly. But what he also does is to make another meticulous notebook entry. In this entry, “First Greenmarket,” which he includes as in illustration in their book, he lists the date of the market, the location, the contents of the buckets, the market conditions, the gross take, the expenses—in other words, the data of the first market. Then, at the very bottom of the entry, beneath the data, he writes a terse reflection: “Conclusion: Bring more good flowers.”

At the next market they take in three hundred and twenty dollars. By September a few cherry tomatoes have managed to ripen, and a variety of wildflowers had come into bloom around their cultivated crops. One Saturday in September they manage to take in six hundred. At the end of the season, after the first frost, Chris makes a final tally: a total gross for the first year of 4435 dollars. Before expenses. Chris’s first response? “. . . you can’t support a family of hamsters for a year on that sum of money.” His second response? He begins figuring out a plan for the next season.

This is what I like about this book—the way they keep reflecting on their data—and revising their plan—and the way they’re able to make this process so transparent in their book.

They build a greenhouse so they can start crops earlier. They choose flowers and vegetables that they know now will grow well and sell well. They become more skilled at cutting and arranging flowers. The second year they take in a net of 7000 dollars—a significant improvement but still not enough to support a family. And there’s a new wrinkle. Kim is trying to become pregnant and she’s come to suspect that the stress of her job at the newspaper might be contributing to her infertility. She’s seriously considering quitting. And with only seven thousand dollars in annual income from the farm in its second season, and with expenses cut to the bone, Chris writes of having to take a hard look at the dream he’d had for the farm. His initial vision had been that they would support themselves—and possibly children—entirely from the land. But four years from the time he’d first conceived the notion of the farm, and with two arduous growing seasons behind them, he realizes he’s going to have to amend their original vision: “I had to face the possibility that the farm alone could not support us.”

And so they continue. They revise their vision a bit. And they keep going. If I continue writing now I’m going to end up telling you the rest of the book. So I won’t do that. I’ll simply say that they keep going—-