Humans of Agriculture- David’s Story
“Fresh out of college, I accepted my first job based on the fear that nothing else would come along. Despite the opinion that I hold of myself being an unstoppable badass, we were in a recession and jobs were hard to find. I was living in Wisconsin, and while I loved the work and the people I worked with, at month 11 I began to take stock. While cracking open the second case of wine for that particular month, I began to wonder if the snow would ever melt, if I would ever develop friendships beyond the small group of people I worked with, and if the homesickness would ever go away.
You see, my family is pretty rad, making them pretty easy to miss. My dad is a tough cowboy who has always fought hard and worked harder than anyone else around him. My mom, while also tough, is the tenderer of the two and is one of the sweetest and loving people on planet earth. My sister has one of the biggest hearts ever created, a fact she desperately tries to keep hidden from me (her favorite greeting is the middle finger). I’m so lucky to have all of them, and there is not one major life decision I’ve ever made where I didn’t consider them.
So a year and a few months after graduating college—and after realizing the snow might never melt—I made the bold decision to leave my marketing and writing jobs to join the family farm back in sunny California. And it was glorious. I got to see my favorite people every day, there weren’t mountains of e-mails to sort through each morning, and I got to spend my days hanging out with cows. I even got a side-kick to ride with me all day long, an Australian Shepherd named Bourbon who is still my ride or die. He’s quite literally the best roommate I’ve ever had, a fact which says more about me than my past roommates.
Slowly over five years, the newness and novelty of managing a farm with family wore off to reveal the dream I was chasing didn’t have my name inscribed on it. Despite the fact I was transitioning into a very impatient asshole, I made the decision that my personal happiness was not important. I stoically tamped down my feelings almost every night with the contents of a pint glass and resolved that family above all else was the only path. A commitment to being part of the business had been made, and exiting was not an option. I was tougher than the problem, and as such would just have to figure out how to live in the situation I had created.
My weight ballooned. I was battling with a hefty dose of undiagnosed depression, but I stayed because the love for my family, and the crippling pressure to succeed was stronger than my mental illness. My family had given me a wonderful opportunity, how could I leave? It would have been a slap in the face. Ungrateful even.
This is why family businesses can be tricky. If you aren’t careful the family and the business cease to operate as separate entities. They become so intertwined that removing yourself from the business side and trying to detangle all the knots means that some strings will probably have to be cut, people will be hurt. For so long (even before college), my identity had been linked strongly to this family, and the fact I was a farmer. I had forgotten how to function outside of those roles.
Eventually, my mom sat me down one morning and told me that if I needed to leave, things would be OK. They would be OK. I can never thank her enough for giving me the permission slip to even consider the idea of leaving. My brain had been rewired to eliminate that option altogether. Even after that conversation, the decision was not an easy one. I knew if I left, my life was about to get much harder before it got easier. I knew things would have to break to heal. It’s always easier to live with the discomfort we know, rather than jump into the unknown.
It has been two years since I sat across the kitchen table from my parents and told them I couldn’t remain part of the family business.
Carefully separating the strands between business and family has been tough, and there are still ties that link me very strongly to both. I am still part of the business (mostly consultative today, and I own a handful of cows), and I am most definitely still part of this family, which was the only thing I wanted in the process of detangling.
As I reflect on that period of my life, I recall the one thought that solidified leaving was the right choice: the farm, the complete lack of separation from it, the fact that it was the biggest thing in my life and the fact that I was coming home to an empty house every evening, meant that staying at the farm was at the same time too much and not enough. It was the biggest and only thing my life had room for. It was like eating steak and only steak for every meal. At first it’s awesome, but eventually you need to eat a plate of brussels sprouts or a green salad or you will literally explode.
PSA: Seriously guys, eat broccoli every once in a while, if only for your colon.
I am not always great at reiterating to my family how much I love them and how much they mean to me, especially to their faces. In these uncertain and tumultuous times, there are a lot of things we don’t agree on, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. This year for my 31st birthday, I got a tattoo on my forearm of our family cattle brand, because saying how much I love them with words sounds way more uncomfortable than being stabbed by a needle a couple thousand times.
Family businesses work for a lot of people. And can be so life-enriching. It just wasn’t something that worked for me. There is nothing I wanted more than to want to stay. At the lowest times, I still couldn’t bring myself to ask for help. It took a long time for me to realize that no one is less than for needing help working through the shit sandwich life has placed in front of you. We don’t talk about mental health enough in this industry, at least not positively, and quite frankly we’ve had enough of this stiff upper lip bullshit. It is time to shift the conversation to a place where working on our holistic health, MIND and BODY, is a normal part of our overall well-being. Let’s be more empathetic to folks struggling, let’s show more compassion, and for God’s sake let’s stop placing shame and pressure on those who are struggling or are actively seeking therapy. Shame is not helpful and it makes you the asshole. Just a reminder that agriculture is linked to the fourth highest occupational suicide rate in this country, and that is not a statistic we should embrace or accept. Therapy isn’t a dirty word. It is time for us to abandon the idea that seeking help makes us less than, or inferior in some way. Most people I’ve heard talk about therapy being bullshit have never sat across the table from a therapist themselves (or their therapist wasn’t the right fit – mine took several tries to get right). As I started being more open about my therapy, I found out some of the strongest, most successful, well-balanced and fulfilled people in my life also deem therapy to be an important component in keeping it all together. Most of my mentors, successful peers, and high achieving badass friends have had to focus on their mental health and needed a helping hand at some point. IT. IS. NORMAL.
Let us remember: no piece of equipment on a farm operates at optimal performance without a well-structured preventative maintenance plan. Your mind can unfortunately work in the same way. If you wait too long, the repair can be so much more complicated, and the down time may be more drastic. We trust in experts to help us make sound business decisions. Let’s apply this same logic to hiring expert consultants for our mental health.
I’m thankful for my family and my friends, and for my ability to afford and access great therapy. Without those three things, it’s very uncertain where my life would be today. You can always reach out to me via Instagram @winesandbovines, but if you are feeling hopeless and in over your head, maybe start with some of the resources below. I can’t think of anything worse than feeling trapped in a life that you discovered you don’t want. I’ve lived it. I’m here to tell you that most people around you want nothing more than for you to find your happiness, and despite the fact that there are unknown challenges ahead, jumping in with both feet has given me a new lease on life. “
National Suicide Hotline- 800-273-TALK
Follow David on Instagram; @winesandbovines