Lots of urban dwellers dream of a simpler life in the country, living off the land. Here’s what it’s actually like.
When Jenni and Paul Callahan got married, they lived in Alexandria, Virginia, a satellite city of Washington, D.C. Paul commuted to his job as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, and after they had kids, Jenni ran an at-home daycare. On the Hill, Paul focused on his district’s agricultural issues and frequently traveled to rural areas on behalf of his member of Congress. What began as a work requirement turned into a personal fascination—with farming.
Like many urbanites who haunt the local farmers’ market or order their produce through a CSA, the Callahans dreamed of escaping the rat race and setting up as small farmers. “We had already started to feel like it was time to get out of the D.C. area,” Jenni says. “In spite of the many conveniences of public transportation and access to museums, we wanted a slower-paced life. We already had a family support system in South Carolina, where we had both grown up, so it seemed like a natural choice.”
Unlike most farmers’ market regulars, the Callahans actually upped sticks. After eight years in metropolitan D.C., Paul and Jenni made the move back to South Carolina. Two years later, they purchased a three-acre farm, moving in when Jenni was eight months pregnant with their fourth child. They taught themselves how to grow food and raise chickens and goats by reading books and blogs, watching YouTube videos, and seeking advice from other local farmers.
In 2016, following a gradual, three-year transition from outside employment, they became full-time farmers at Harp & Shamrock Croft outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Despite the rise of the local food movement, the outlook for farmers isn’t rosy. Farm incomes are down, and jobs are projected to decline due to increased agricultural productivity. The Callahans believe in what they’re doing but know that it holds significant risk. To fund their dream, they depleted their savings. Since their farm is still young, all the money they earn has to be reinvested in the land. Spending is reserved for necessities until they have more financial security.
Farming is an all-consuming job. Each day brings duties that must be carried out for the farm to remain functional, let alone successful. There are no days off. The Callahans don’t take vacations right now, but if they could afford to, it would mean entrusting their livelihood to a farm sitter. That means extra costs and finding someone skilled and dependable. And any time away means lost work time and less income.
The family keeps a tightly organized schedule, following a routine tailored to each season. This is a typical day in winter, the leanest time of the year.
6:30 A.M.: Jenni and Paul are up an hour before the sun, making coffee, attacking the laundry pile, posting marketing updates on social media, bookkeeping, and responding to emails from potential CSA customers and wholesale outlets.
January is the farm’s slow month, so this counts as a leisurely morning. “When we have crops in the ground, it is sunup to sundown,” Jenni says. “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it, but it is backbreaking work for little pay. This is why there aren’t more farmers.”
7:00 A.M.: Barn chores include feeding and watering the five dozen chickens and two goats, as well as cleaning the barn and coop, milking the goats, and gathering eggs from the chickens. The couple also tends to the crops growing in the greenhouse, kale and lettuce, which supplement their income in the leaner months. They sell the greens in weekly baskets, along with root vegetables, eggs, and goat’s milk soaps.
In better weather, during South Carolina’s long growing season, the Callahans also grow tomatoes, peppers, beets, peas, okra, squash, zucchini, arugula, eggplant, winter squash, onions, carrots, and herbs.
8:00 A.M.: Breakfast with the entire family includes a discussion about the day’s goals, both school- and work-wise.
9:00 A.M.: Paul and Jenni plot out the growing areas for crops, inventory their available seeds, and make plans for an upcoming seed order.
10:00 A.M.: Paul mucks out the goat stalls, starts seeds in trays, and turns the dirt with the tractor. Jenni works with the children on their schoolwork. Homeschooling allows the Callahans to make farm life an educational opportunity. They incorporate chores into lessons—making soap serves as a chemistry lesson, for example.
12:00 P.M.: Family lunch.
1:00 P.M.: As the children work independently on school assignments, Jenni washes the eggs to package for sale and harvests the lettuce and other greens from the greenhouse.
2:00 P.M.: Customers stop by to pick up their purchases during this set window of time. In between customers, Jenni and Paul research new strategies for their farming as well as running the business.
Jenni is already thinking ahead to the busier days. “In February, we’ll take on the task of starting seeds for our state-certified nursery. We sell plants directly to customers and to several retail establishments.”
5:00 P.M.: The goats and chickens must be fed again, and hay is replenished. If it’s particularly chilly, the animals will be herded inside and boarded for the night.
5:30 P.M.: Family dinner, usually with local meat as well as vegetables that the Callahans canned during the summer months.
8:00 P.M.: The children go to bed and their parents are not far behind.
“We wanted to teach our kids basic life skills. We wanted the fresh air and dirt. We wanted to build something,” Jenni says of their decision. Farm life is exhausting, but they don’t regret it. “When I set up my table at market in the summertime, I’m amazed that we grew all of that. And to think that people are taking our produce home and nourishing their children and families with it—it’s just the highest honor I can think of.”