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Michelle Johnson Howell Shares Wisdom Holding Space for Community

Michelle Johnson Howell of Need More Acres Farm and the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green generously allowed Savoring Kentucky to reprint her post celebrating her family's first full year of full-time farming on two acres. Michelle also made the photos.

Michelle, her family, and a brilliant bunch of innovators in the Bowling Green area work on the principle of local food for everybody. They are showing all of us a way forward.

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Holding Space for Community {a year of full-time farming}

by Michelle Johnson Howell

This marks the 52nd week of full time farming for our family.  It's hard to believe that an entire year has gone by since we took a leap of faith and stepped into something new.  We've been asked several times over the past year why we made the decision to give up our careers in order to spend long days in the field, countless hours in meetings to discuss food system development-and if we're honest, a lot of restless nights hoping for the best.

Nathan and I come from very different backgrounds and have varying viewpoints, but together we come to the same core beliefs about food and community.  First, there is no limit to how many farmers can find success growing their small-scale farm businesses.  We all eat three meals a day and when you consider how much food that adds up to, we must believe that we need more farmers growing sustainably grown, local food.  We must not see one another as the competition, but save that role for large corporations that in the past have formed policy around their needs—adding to their success and the fall of the small farmer. 

Together we can create a collaborative voice that makes huge differences for the future of local food.  We need to believe in ourselves and one another.  And second, anyone who is given the financial means, education, support and encouragement will buy local food.  We need to believe in moms with young children, busy professionals, refugee and immigrant families, kids in the lunch line, restaurant owners, college students—everyone.  We need to have meaningful conversations about what the real barriers are and how we can work together to make real changes.

 

From the beginning in our family we made a decision to take only "enough".  Because isn't that really the problem?  Too many people taking more than their share.  We worked hard for several years to become debt free, became better stewards of our resources and learned to live on less.  Learned to fight the good fight on our family farm and were realistic that the hard work and challenges had just begun.  We determined what our family needed to support ourselves financially and added a little extra to offer a little pay to our friends for their physical and mental support of our farm.  We want to be filled with hope and promise for our own future so that we can lift others up, support them and believe that they will succeed. 

We provide food for 35 families.  These families make a huge commitment to our farm and farm partners every week.  Most of them have increased their local food consumption by 40-60%.  Next, we determined how we could put the rest of our profits directly back into the local food system—to the farming friends that we love at Community Farmers Market. One year in, we have been able to put a little over $100,000 back into the pockets of local farmers growing, raising or preparing milk, cheese, fruits, bread, canned goods, eggs and meat.  Several of them have been able to use the confidence of a more steady income to take their own next steps.  This is the kind of community farming we want to be a part of.

Our business model may not make sense on paper and there is absolutely room for financial growth, but this is where our passion for community comes in.  If we allowed ourselves to continue taking more customers, growing our business till the seams were bursting, then we would be left with little space in our own lives to help others.  When our farming friends' crop is suffering, the community garden needs irrigation, policy needs changed, people are hungry, our voice needs to be heard or a market needs a new building—we wouldn't have the time to stop what we are doing and pitch in.  We'd miss the blessings that come only through hard work, negotiation and watching your prayers get answered (most of the time in ways you weren't expecting).

We'd miss the opportunity to invest in our children a work ethic that includes doing things when you don't feel like it, hard discussions on effective collaboration and negotiation and experiences that take them out of their comfort zone and remind them that the world doesn't revolve around them.  Moments that show them why small-scale farming is so important.  Reminders that our food system is far from where it needs to be and that the taste of a vine ripe tomato can remind anyone of what we are really meant to be eating. 

Nathan is able to put all of that hard work he grew up doing into good use as he feeds the 35 families that we serve and he assists other farmers to make this farming thing work.  I am able to take the experiences of my past to serve others who are hungry.  I can only hope that my kids will know that we are all equal no matter what we look like, where we live or what we eat.  And that farming doesn't always look like farming.


Holding space for community allows us to stay grounded in the truth that eating good food is not meant to be a luxury and absolutely does not mean that you are doing this life better than anyone else.  It's a blessing that my family is thankful for each and every day.  It's something that everyone deserves access to.  Holding space for everyone in our community, spending time talking to folks so we know their needs, only taking our share so that other farmers can take theirs and leaving enough space for whatever comes next—these are the only ways we know how to do this thing called farming full time.

And it's only made possible by those who have believed in us when we weren't really meant to be the ones who did this kind of work.  The friends, neighbors and family who came around us as we lost Nathan's mother just as we took our leap of faith.  The customers who forgave us as we made mistakes, learned and did our best week after week.  The leaders in our community and across the state who listened to our concerns and helped us find our voice. 

When we think about what communities looked like in the past—it was probably much like this.  Everyone doing their part so that everyone will survive the winter (the future).  We look forward to what's next for us here at Need More Acres farm and are anxiously awaiting what we've been holding space for.

Thank you, Michelle Johnson Howell, for sharing this with Savoring Kentucky readers. And thank you for taking the beautiful photos as well.

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