Danny: I’m interested in finding out what’s going on now at Abundant Acres, David and Jen’s entrepreneurial enterprise.
David: It’s a multi-layered thing. The outer, most obvious, layer is just creating an economically viable farm business that supports us. So we’ve been growing the business pretty rapidly. I think in the first three or four years of the business we grew 100% a year. We just kept doubling what we were doing for several years. And then we kind of hit this point where we could tell that we were big enough to have enough economies of scale to be viable, and then it was a question of fine-tuning everything and getting everything set up well at that scale that we had always envisioned.
Danny: “A farm business that supports us” – I want to focus on that for a minute. That statement could not have represented your total goal at any point, because just that goal could have been achieved very quickly in a much smaller operation, to give you what you need to exist.
David: Well, there are broader objectives that I will discuss at length. But we did start off really small, just as I was turning forty. We started with 3/4 of an acre of production where I was thinking: maybe we can make 60 or 70 thousand dollars of gross sales, keep half of it, have no staff, be very focused on just wholesale greens – very simple – and just have a modest, dependable income, very little running around and marketing, just a very compact, simple little market garden. I thought: well, I could do this and just labor away – just me and Jen. It would be not a lot of risk of not making any money and not a lot of potential to make more than just barely enough. I’d be doing all the labor myself. It would be very repetitive, but nice. There’s something very nice about just getting up in the morning and working. I find it very comforting; I enjoy the work, I like being outside, I like being with Jen, I don’t feel lonely when it’s just the two of us, I actually really like days alone where I just work and eat lunch with Jen and go back out and do it again.
Danny: So what happened?
David: Part of it is that I like buying toys, also known as “building new farm systems and trying new things”, and I think we both have a passion for working with young people who want to learn. Also, looking ahead ten or twenty years, I thought I’m going to still want income as I get older, and once I hit 50s, 60s or 70s, it would be a lot better to have a larger, more productive farm where we could still realize income over operating expenses because so much of the cost of running a small scale farm is fixed, like insurance and car payments and things like wells breaking and dams to irrigation ponds bursting, whether you’re using them or not, or the driveway washes out, or the roof leaks. Actually a very large part of our budget is just keeping everything going. I figured we could push our production to the top of the capacity that we have with our infrastructure, so that the maintenance, taxes, insurance – all those marginal costs would be amortized better. Part of it was just a very logical business decision. Part of it was a lifestyle decision. Right now, I’m sitting inside visiting with my parents and there are eight people working away in the hot sun, while I’m sitting in my comfortable living room doing this interview. If it was a one-man show, I wouldn’t be seeing you much this visit, except at night when I’d be totally exhausted. Instead, I occasionally have the liberty to do things that I want all day. We balanced that against the obvious downside of having lots of employees and lots of sales, when it is much more likely that you can lose money. It’s much more likely that you’re going to have problems with employees, there are so many more things that can break, and you have to be able to sell the stuff. So we chose more latitude, more creativity, more community, more working with people, along with a lot more headaches and risk. So far, I don’t regret it.
That’s just the first outer layer of our decision-making process and our vision. Another layer is that I’m really interested in the situation in our culture. It seems like there’s such a lack of opportunity to engage in things that are juicy, that are connected to reality, that are not overly institutionalized and just dry; a lack of places where people can have autonomy and express themselves, push themselves and have responsibility, all those qualities that are so enlivening and healing and bring out the best in people. So more and more we’ve seen the farm as a vehicle to promote those values. That’s really fun, and it’s turning out to be really good business too.
Danny: Tell me more about those values.
David: Problem-solving is one. If you’re operating in a narrowly prescribed environment such as an institution of higher learning, a job in a large corporation, or a government, something where the rules of the game are very clearly laid out, fairly static, oftentimes arbitrary and capricious, and the same game is repeated over and over and over again, that doesn’t reflect the living experience of being a human being. It doesn’t reflect everything people are capable of and everything we want to express. I think real life randomness is part of what attracts people to farming in general, because farming is based on running around outside and putting seeds in the ground and watching them sprout and then hoping people want to buy that food and eat it – you’re working with biology and psychology and the free market and the weather, things that have a lot of patterns within chaos. When you grow a bunch of beets and you show up at a farmers’ market and you put it on a table and people are just walking by, it’s so hard to know how many people are actually going to want those beets. There’s a lot of chaos in that. You don’t even know how many people are going to show up at a farmers’ market at all, you don’t know how much money they’re going to be able to spend, you don’t know what other things they’re going to spend money on, and you just don’t know how what you bring is going to appeal to the majority of your customers. So there’s a lot of interplay there. It’s so dynamic.
When I’m about to put beet seeds in the ground, I don’t know if a mouse is going to eat that beet, or a fungus is going to rot that beet, or if it’s going to rain or if I’m going to run out of water, or if my machinery is going to work. All those different factors interplay. The point I’m getting at is that farming is very chaotic and dynamic as well as ordered and patterned. It’s not chaotic in the way it is when you’re working for a social service agency and the government changes and now you’ve lost your funding. You didn’t see it coming and now suddenly you’re out of money and you’re unemployed. That’s a capricious form of chaos.
Farming is more the orderly chaos of having every summer different, which reflects human experience in a way that’s enlivening. I think that’s why people get attracted to farming. The only problem is that farming attracts a lot of people who really like to control things. So you get people who see the farm as an extension of their personal expression. In our culture I don’t think a lot of people are equipped mentally to create a space for other people to express themselves if that expression doesn’t harmonize with what they themselves want. For some reason, Jen and I are able to gain in expressing ourselves from watching other people express themselves. I don’t mind watching people take risks and make mistakes in the field where they’re doing things differently than I would. Oftentimes they do it better than I would, but just differently. Sometimes they prioritize things differently. They just do things their own way. Usually it works out a lot better, because I’m pulled in a million directions, and this one person has all their time, all their focus, on this one field that they’re managing. Maybe I wouldn’t have started weeding in the morning when it’s cool and I would have spent time moving the irrigation around instead, so by starting later they’re going to evaporate more water. But they’re really tired, and maybe they were a little heat struck from the day before and they got the hardest weeding job done while it was cool in the morning and then they wasted some water in the afternoon. We have plenty of water. If I was expressing more of a need for control, I would have said: don’t weed yet, get the irrigation going. But I might not know that they’re actually feeling a little nauseous from working in the sizzling heat the day before and really want to get that weeding done in the cool of the morning.
So by letting people manage themselves, I think overall economically our farm does better, and they have a way better time, and I don’t have to run around the farm micro-managing everyone all day. I can do things that I like and then the work just kind of happens. I do manage some but way less than most people.
Danny: David, given your background it’s not hard to understand the roots of that approach. It is interesting that you connected with somebody else who’s comfortable with that, because it’s not a common approach. How do you account for Jen’s interaction with this in such a positive and smooth way?
David: It’s interesting. My brother and sister and I sometimes refer to growing up at Sudbury Valley as “the brainwash”. And growing up in the brainwash, I thought that these values would be quite foreign to normal civilians who went to a normal school. But I found that all kinds of people love this way of being managed or taking part in it or managing. Not everyone is caught up in a need for control and uniformity and all that stuff. Every single employee we have this year grew up going to traditional school, and mostly they all have college degrees. Yet generally, people take to the way we manage the farm to fish to water.
Danny: Just a word about the brainwashing before you go any further. From our vantage point freedom and trust is the natural human way that human beings are born to operate. The problem is that when they get into management and ownership positions, they don’t allow that to happen. That’s because of the way the culture instructs them to behave in institutional settings. It doesn’t surprise me that you can find a lot of people whose native desire to be self-actualized has not been killed. But when people who have gone through the standard training the culture offers become managers, it is rare for them to feel that they can afford to allow that to the people who work for them.
David: Jen is a very special person. We wanted to flatten the management pyramid and we tried a few different things that didn’t work. It was only a few years ago that we came up with the particular structure of giving everyone their own field, and it has just evolved year by year. I’m usually the one out in the field directly interacting with the crew, while Jen watches from a distance and is very astute and knows if things are going well or not, based on what she sees, based on our revenue, and based on what I complain or don’t complain about. She’s scientifically oriented in the real sense of the word, so if something shows evidence that it’s working in smiles, in player retention, in profit at the end of the year, in relaxation and lack of complaint from husband, if all those parameters are working in the right direction, then she’s happy. She’s not an ideologue. She’s very neutral in that respect. I think if I was running the farm super tight and giving everyone work order tickets and had everything charted out – if I was running the farm like some people do where every single detail is standardized, and it was working, and I was happy, she’d be behind that too. I’m the one who has this drive, probably largely from my childhood; it’s sort of a combination of Sudbury Valley ideology and also my nature, because I don’t like doing the same thing over and over and over again or being standardized and routine in my work. I like having freedom. It’s not just something I’m giving them, it’s something I want too. That’s the whole thing – the prison keeper is just as chained as the prisoners. So it bothers me if my walkie-talkie and my phone are going off all the time, because it means no one can think for themselves, and has to ask me what to do next. Then I can’t run around and be free and do what I want. So this delegation of responsibility is a way for me to get what I want without needing to do all the work. Part of it is actually very self-centered, and part of it is deeply altruistic.
I love agriculture. I love the act of growing the food and being out on the land. And I love its social impact. I see it as a positive force in society, as a place where people can go and have a good experience. And it makes the landscape beautiful; I love an agrarian landscape. I like driving through farming neighborhoods. And of course, I love the fabulous food, and I love having extra food to share with people in need. There’s just so many parts of the sort of family-scaled agrarianism that attracts me. I love teaching, and hopefully inspiring other people to take part in this life.
David: I enjoy trying to be a good communicator, and I enjoy being funny in front of crowds just because I have part of me that’s a bit of a standup comedian. I love public speaking. I also like writing. I like thinking about things . . .
Danny: You might like these things, but how do you generate opportunities for them?
David: Another facet of the farm is education. So I write articles in magazines, I give talks at conferences, I do workshops. You start getting known as someone who will actually answer their phone if people have questions. I’ll do a workshop on something like irrigation and say: oh, by the way, if you have any questions, just email me, or here’s my phone number. And sure enough people email and call, because most people don’t make themselves available that way, unless you’re paying them a hundred bucks an hour. So I find myself in this community of farmers, and especially beginning farmers, as something of a mentor. And I like that: it gives the farm a somewhat broader place in the scene. It’s not just a place that grows vegetables and hires people; it also feels like a hotbed of experimenting and new ideas and sharing, a fertile place.
I think it also makes the crew care and enjoy the farm because they kind of know that if they come up with a cool refinement, then it will spread, and that’s neat. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’ve been very privileged to have help getting into farming from my parents and from Jen’s parents and all sorts of different ways. I’ve had a very privileged path into farming, and it’s helped me be able to take a lot of risks that other people wouldn’t take, and learn things and push envelopes. We’ve gotten grants to do farming research that let us play with new hoop house designs, and machinery, and all kinds of different things. I appreciate all those opportunities, and I do feel some sort of inner sense of obligation to the next generation, especially to people who don’t have those opportunities. So when some new farmer comes along who’s just bootstrapping along and doesn’t have any family support, doesn’t have anyone in their family who has land, or anything like that, I like helping them. It just feels good, it feels like a proper response to all the gifts and benefits I’ve had in my life.
So we do a lot of that, and I’d like to do more, which relates to the overarching trajectory of the farm: I do a lot of helping people where I just take a phone call and explain something. That’s nice, but it’s somewhat intrusive to getting my own work done. What I’ve come to realize is that what I’m doing a lot of is actually after-sales customer support. Someone buys irrigation from some company, then they call me to figure out how to assemble everything. Or someone has a machine and is having trouble figuring out how to maintain it and the dealer that they bought it from isn’t answering the phone, so they call me – or a greenhouse, or whatever it is. So something we’ve done some of, that I might like to get into more, is buying certain kinds of farm supply in bulk and then reselling them –
Danny: How did the word get out as widely as it did about this role?
David: One thing that happened is that we got funding to do research on temporary field tunnel greenhouses. These are long, low, metal, arched greenhouses that you can move around in a field. We had significant funding from a private patron to do research for a year on these. We bought different pieces of metal and put them up and they blew down and we put them up again and got them working well. Then I presented it at a farming conference, and a greenhouse manufacturer really liked what I was putting up and started manufacturing these field tunnels. It was kind of funny: he actually gave out my phone number and email address to his customers and didn’t pay me for this, he just thanked me for helping design it, and then people would Google me and email me. Also all kinds of people in Nova Scotia who knew me as another farmer kind of knew that I was involved with these hoop houses. So suddenly my phone is ringing off the hook because everyone’s buying these greenhouses and they’re kind of tricky to set up. If you don’t set them up right, they blow down in the wind. So everyone’s calling me up telling me: oh, my hoop house blew down, what happened? I’m like: well, did you do this, did you do that, did you do that? Finally it got so bad Jen took a video of me putting it up, and then people would call and I’d say: well, have you watched the YouTube video yet? And they’d say: no, what video? And I’d say: well, go to my YouTube channel and watch the video. And so then I had this YouTube video out that people would find.
A lot of it starts by giving talks at farming conferences. Now I’m kind of known and so I just get referred to by people. So one idea I have is to bring in agricultural supplies by the container load direct from China and India and places like that. This would be things like biodegradable weed-blocking mat, netting that keeps bugs out, harvest containers, irrigation equipment, floating row cover that goes over crops to keep them warmer in the spring. Bring a whole bunch of stuff over, sell it at a profit, but at a pretty deep discount because we don’t have all the overhead that a normal agricultural supply company has – like, we’re not having business-hour phone manning. We have a barn; we can put a lot of stuff in our barn, it’s half empty. We’d do all just cash and carry. It would just be a regional thing. Maybe we would have like a spring sale where we’ll ship for two weeks in March or something when I’m not so busy on the farm. I’d just say: for the first two weeks in March, place an order anywhere in Canada and we’ll ship. And we’ll just do it for two weeks. But mostly it would be for people in the area who would come, cash and carry. High minimum order – $500 minimum sale, that kind of thing. That would be a way to put myself in the new farmer community where I am helping gather that toolkit of what people need without putting myself in a position where just tons of my time is bleeding out with no financial return. Because I’m already doing after-sale customer support, just other people’s sales, so this way it would be like: if you want to talk about landscape cover with me, at least you bought it from me. I’ve already been selling landscape cover for years and seem to have more and more customers who want it every year even though I don’t do anything to tell people I do it. In fact, usually people start calling me, asking me for landscape cover and then I go buy some and resell it to them.
Danny: What other kinds of things are you currently engaged in?
David: The warehouse market is another thing we’re doing. Here’s how it came about. Year after year we had a farm-share program called “community supported agriculture”. People pay for a year of produce and they get some produce every week. Since it’s a season-long commitment we can give them a better deal than we would give to farmers’ market customers. So it’s somewhere in between retail and wholesale pricing, and for us it’s really nice because it’s a guaranteed sale. That’s probably the number two way that produce from small farms in North America is sold, number one being farmers’ markets. It’s probably almost tied with farmers’ markets. It’s a big thing.
For five years we were setting up tents in a city park on a very busy corner in downtown Halifax. This was our distribution point for the pre-sold farm-share baskets of produce. We were kind of bending the rules. We had turned it into a farmers’ market, even though we were told we couldn’t have a farmers’ market. Then customers just started coming along on the street and of course we would sell to them. We knew it was a little bit of a gray zone or maybe we shouldn’t be doing it. And then suddenly a bylaw enforcement officer came, took video of us selling. The next week we got a call: you’re done. So we suddenly found ourselves without a home for our main produce marketing day.
We had a friend who has a sustainable fisheries company, and she was just in the process of renting space in this industrial garage space where she has an office upstairs and there’s this big, open room with a big garage door, big concrete floor, in a sort of up and coming trendy neighborhood, but on a quiet, residential street with almost no walk-by traffic. The rent was really affordable and there’s lots of quiet residential streets with lots of parking. We thought: okay, let’s go for this. So we moved our operation to there and we got a pastured meat producer to join us, and we started buying in all sorts of other products, like bread and eggs and flowers. We basically took our produce selling and combined it with the fish and the meat and other products. The fish people wanted to do it, the meat person wanted to do it, so we all cooperate. So now we’ve turned it into a three-day-a-week market. The space already had walk-in coolers so it’s well-suited to selling produce and other things. It’s almost like a farmers’ market.
Really we were just looking for someplace to sell our produce. It wasn’t even our intention to turn it into a full scale market. But the fish person invited us, and then the person who owns the building was already talking to the meat person, so we were just looped in to this idea of splitting paying the rent for this space with other producers. Now we have kind of fallen into the role. We do by far the largest volume in sales, and we pay more of the rent and more of the labor than other people because we do more of the business and we use more of the space. So it somewhat centers around our farm. The other people contribute and it’s also their space. It’s been really successful, and people love it. It’s fun and different. There’s nothing else like it in town. It’s great.
Danny: Is there something special about it that you like?
David: We were talking about the dryness and rigidity of most work environments and this is a perfect reflection of the values I was discussing because the warehouse is clearly a unique event. The people in the community love it. It has this timeless, just cool factor because it’s obviously all these independent people working together to do something that just is very alive and always changing. We’re always bringing in new things and trying new things and rearranging the space. The space isn’t particularly nice. There’s all these big walk-in freezers full of fish that are really loud, so there are whirring compressors, it’s kind of hot because the freezers and the coolers are giving off all this heat. It’s not particularly clean. It’s not particularly pretty. It’s just a concrete block building with a dirty concrete floor in a sort of nondescript residential, slightly industrial neighborhood. We’re right behind the back side of this giant brick beer brewery building so you have smells like hops and mash all the time in the neighborhood. The parking lot is really lumpy and bumpy and people are tripping over these big crevices in the parking lot all the time. It’s just real, it’s not polished, it’s not trying to look like anything that it isn’t – it’s authentic. And people respond to it. Then we have this wonderful man from Italy who makes great espressos and cappuccinos and he set up a little booth in the same building, so there’s this café that’s a booming success. There are usually a few people hanging out in the parking lot on tables and chairs drinking cappuccinos and talking. The whole thing is just totally cool. And then there’s dollies with four-foot long halibuts on huge beds of ice, winging in and out of these coolers. It’s very chaotic, it’s very alive, and it’s not like anything else around.
We started just doing Thursday and then we did Friday and Saturday starting last September, and it’s been good. It’s been a bit of a struggle to get a crowd in on Friday and Saturday, but it’s really building now. We’re entering our second year, and it has really becoming much more worth it to be open three days a week. The winter was hard. The winter was really quiet. It will be interesting to see what the next winter will be.
Danny: Any other parts to this operation of yours?
David: I guess there’s sort of the outer level: for me personally farming has been integral to my sense of restoration and mental health and getting me through really hard times. That’s another really deep potential I see in farming. The agrarian way of life always has been a foundational bedrock part of society at its best. There are so many people who want to take part in this lifestyle, but there’s only so many people who want to buy nice, fresh, high-end produce, so there’s this disconnect between, on the one hand, all these idealistic, lovely, high-capacity people who want to trade in all the opportunity they have in the city to move out to the country and work really hard for a minimal amount of money because they just love it, and on the other hand of people who are willing to pay a bit extra and be inconvenienced to eat food that’s somewhat more delicious than the food they get in the supermarket. So you get this large generation of people who want to do something that is enlivening and meaningful and gives them exercise and the chance to be outside, and then there’s this small little subset of our culture that values the output of that lifestyle.
There is a crying need for healing and restoration and sanity in a world that I think is going bonkers. So, for instance, you have things like eating disorders and drug addiction and depression and criminal behavior and marriages falling apart and all sorts of things that to me are an indication of very anxious, lost people, and I’ve seen so much healing, and people coming back to themselves – without doing anything special. It’s not even like you have to pop the hood psychologically. We don’t need to have talking circles or therapy times or anything – just coming here, going to bed early, waking up even earlier, eating great food, having camaraderie and just doing meaningful work is an amazing prescription. I think about that a lot and I’m not sure what that’s going to look like. But I think that as the financial and educational and technical things get worked out on the farm, as Jen and I get older and more experienced and hopefully wiser as all those different things come to a mature place, I think at some point it will be obvious for us to move forward with more of that sort of initiative.
Danny: Do you think that’s something that can only be done with some form of either public or institutional support?
David: That’s actually a really good question. I hope not. Part of the secret sauce of the farm and why it’s so healing is because when you come here, you’re not defined by being screwed up. We’ve had people come to the farm who are in really bad shape, mentally. But it’s not that they’re here to be helped, they’re here to help. So it’s like: “I don’t care if you just came out of rehab for opiate drug use; what I really need is to get this stuff cleaned up and this stuff weeded and this stuff planted.” That’s the healing. If they were here because their parents were desperate and they were paying me a whole bunch of money for them to be here for a few weeks then this is just another somewhat “holistic” rehab center. Basically their suffering and their weakness has been monetized in society, and now you have an industry based on people being screwed up, one that is fundamentally dehumanizing and strips the very dignity that is the driver of actual change and healing. The cool thing about farming, and this is what I love about it myself, is that you get to run around outside, throw seeds in the ground and make a living. So I get to do something where I don’t have to play any games, I don’t have to over-promise and under-deliver. It’s all thoroughly – literally and figuratively – thoroughly grounded. There’s no BS. It’s like either the carrots taste good and there’s enough of them or they don’t. There’s no tricky quarterly report you can write to make it look good when it isn’t.
Danny: How can something like you’re talking about happen without institutional support?
David: Basically, throughout North America, the state of the kind of farming that I do is that it gets really popular in a region, people get really good at doing it, people move to that area because there’s a farm scene, and then the market gets saturated. So, for instance, in Vermont right now there’s no farmers’ market in Vermont that you can get into as a new farmer for the summer season. Every single farmers’ market has a year-long waitlist and there’s a dozen farms that are awesome, and just waiting to get into a farmers’ market. Every CSA farm is struggling to find customers. The product has saturated the market. The same is true in the Pacific Northwest. All kinds of areas have really strong farm scenes that are just full. Somewhere like Nova Scotia is a bit of a backwater, it’s slowly coming, but you can see it’s way harder to get CSA shares signed up now then it was five or ten years ago. You have to be way better at what you do. A lot of CSA farms that used to have waitlists are now struggling to find even half as many customers as they did five years ago.
I think it’s connected to that whole thing where people are attracted to this for a reason that they’re not fully conscious of. I think they’re actually attracted to it for that deep desire for meaningful, enlivened culture. And the delicious tomatoes are just an outer byproduct of that. It’s about the connection. There’s all these cliched things like, oh the people want to know their farmer, but I think people actually really want to know their farmer. We had a customer for years who just got a share from us and then his operations manager got a share and a few of the other employees in his business got a share. He owns a software development firm, and his firm has been doing really well, and he said: David, I want to offer $100 off a share to all my employees, and I want you to bring the shares right into the office building. That actually happened once we moved away from the downtown park because we were suddenly too far away from him. So now we’re bringing thirty shares a week right up into his office building.
Danny: That world is almost ready-made for this – the digital world.
David: They’re all like: young, progressive. Then I started peddling door-to-door to all these different software firms and marketing firms, trying to get other offices to sign up. So far I have one hot lead.
Danny: If your potential sales increased dramatically, not overnight, but increased dramatically by the accession of groups for whom this is not just eating better, fresher food, but it’s something that we together are doing because we feel this is a good thing to do for the world, for community, for ourselves, or whatever, then that would automatically make it possible for you to have more people here, undergoing healing.
David: I remember we had a person who was a really loyal customer for probably three or four years and she calls us up and she said her sixteen year old son had been heading for the Olympics in gymnastics. He’d been training since he was a very young boy and he was probably the best male gymnast in Nova Scotia and he was training at the highest levels of elite gymnastics. One day he dismounted from the parallel bars and slammed into a brick wall, and he was paralyzed for six months, and he had a lot of muscle problems in his back. He had been at that point where he’d be going to the Nationals before this happened, and competing for a spot in the Olympics and he was basically out of gymnastics for a year, which in that sport, means you’re done. He had just gotten over his paralysis, his body was beginning to move again, he was fine, but his whole world had been shattered. And he was just kind of stuck at home, it was summer, all his friends were gymnasts, and he has nothing. She brought him up to the farm for the better part of the summer. The parents would drop him and he would spend three or four days here and then they’d pick him up and he’d go home for the weekend.
This was several years ago. He was wonderful. Of course, to say he was strong and coordinated was a slight understatement – the guy was amazing. Even after a year of injury, he was just incredibly fast and strong and used to pushing his body to the limit and beyond. And his parents were pretty grateful to us. This woman owned a chain of hearing aid stores, and when one of our employees needed new hearing aids she brought him a $5,000 pair of hearing aids for free. Not only did we not charge to have her son come, he worked for free. And yet we were able to provide a societal service that was tremendous – like, who knows what could have happened to that kid if he didn’t have somewhere to go? And yet there is no interview, no intake process, no fees or measurable results, and there’s no psychologist. There was no big deal at all, it was just like: hey, man, let’s pick some beets; do you want to eat some good food? See you next week; thanks for you help. It was just normal.
I think we’ve lost that sense of just normalcy. Often when people come from other cultures and they see our Western society, they’re revolted and shocked and also admire it. I’ve talked to many people who tell me the story that when Africans come here, they say: in my country, babies cry because they’re hungry, but here fat babies cry and the children are all unhappy but they have food and clothing and medicine, I don’t get it. That’s the core of what I’m looking at here. We have everything and we’ve lost all the essentials. We have all the externals down pat. Yes, there is poverty, there is need here, but on a historical level, there’s never been so much wealth, there’s never been so much access to every good thing and yet as a society we’ve gone mad. So it’s just really exciting to offer an alternative to that. And when we start talking about things like healing and health care and mental health and addictions and all this stuff that’s going on, it’s such an avalanche of disordered mind and body that certainly the Canadian public health apparatus can’t deal with it. There’s no way that we could hire enough mental health professionals. You can’t deal with it, it’s an avalanche. All these people who are on the inside know it.
I think that we get a lot of traction with people who are kind of in the know, and they are interested in talking with me and helping me. I have friends who are health policy consultants, epidemiologists, doctors, psychologists, counselors: all those people are just like: do something, do something. I had one customer who is an occupational therapist on the eating disorders ward at the mental hospital so he works with juveniles who have anorexia and bulimia. And he says: we’re really good at stopping them from dying, we can take someone, we can put feeding tubes in them and we can stop them from dying. But once it’s time for them to leave, we don’t know how to actually heal them. He said that eating disorders have one of the highest rates of suicide and one of the lowest rates of successful treatment of any mental disorder. And I’m like: I know that those people could come out here, and we could just give them some space. Obviously, we’re not going to take someone who’s in a medical emergency, but if someone like that came out here and the food was beautiful, they’re eating, everyone is just in an atmosphere of being relaxed in their bodies. Just treating them as normal, there’s no person with a clipboard writing down everything.
So that’s something that interests me. We’re not there yet. Right now, we’re just still focusing on making the farm streamlined and robust and I’m still kind of just building a business that works and getting our feet on the ground. I can see a time where I’ll have more freedom, it’s coming. I have way more freedom now than I did last year or the year before, and I expect to get good enough at managing the farm and our infrastructure built up enough that we can think about other things more.
Danny: Anything else you want to add?
David: “Sudbury Valley goes to the farm”. It’s funny: aside from joking about growing up in the brainwash, it definitely took me a long time to value my education. I think I left school kind of maybe wishing I was a little more of a normal person and could spell and had handwriting that people could read – just more of a normal person. I don’t think I was ever really a normal person anyway, and I don’t think I would have been normal if I had gone to high school. I don’t think that would have cured me. I think I really learned a lot about Sudbury Valley by being with Jen, because Jen is a very well-educated person who got all kinds of prestigious scholarships and did a masters degree that was so good that her thesis supervisor wanted to give her a Ph.D. for it. She wrote a really interesting thesis that actually reads like a book because it’s so well written. She’s obviously someone who’s very, very well educated. And I can see her strengths. She’s just a different person than me. But she has really helped me see that I have something of value that I think I kind of had to come to from being out in the world. And that’s helped me sort of bring out the best of what I learned at Sudbury Valley and put it into practice. And now that we’re beginning to put it into practice, I think about the school a lot more. Because I’ve now become essentially an educator. For a lot of those years where I was just trying to kind of slog through a chaotic, scary world, in difficult relationships, and just struggling through early adulthood, I didn’t have a lot of perspective. But now that I’m a little older and more established and in a relationship that reflects a lot of my better qualities, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to have all those qualities that Sudbury Valley always claimed they would teach in people – like self-reflection, self-determination, self-organization, ability to take risks, ability to accept failure, all those things. And it’s serving me really well.
Danny: Thank you very much, Mr. Greenberg.
David: Thank you, Mr. Greenberg and Mrs. Greenberg.