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What To Expect When You're Expecting To Own A Farm

Carmen Black (left) took over a farm in Iowa last year. Don Bustos has been farming in New Mexico for decades.
Maja Black/Courtesy of Carmen Black; Courtesy of Don Bustos
Carmen Black (left) took over a farm in Iowa last year. Don Bustos has been farming in New Mexico for decades.

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Life as a farmer isn't easy. There's the financial risk, the unforgiving schedule, the sheer volume of physical labor it demands.

Those were the kind of things on Carmen Black's mind one summer a couple of years ago. She was picking melons on her neighbor's farm in Iowa, where she'd been working as a farmhand for a few years.

Carmen says her neighbor told her, "I just want to let you know that I'm going to retire in like less than two years, and I know you said you're not ready to farm and you're not sure how you're going to make it happen, so I'm just letting you know I'm retiring."

Carmen's reaction: "Oh no!"

Eventually her neighbor won her over. Carmen took over the farm last year — and the risk that comes along with owning it. She says she spends a lot of time thinking about threats like an extreme weather event that devastates her crops or a dog attack that kills her sheep — "things that could just wipe me out in an instant."

Don Bustos has experience dealing with problems like these. He's been farming for nearly four decades and still runs Santa Cruz Farm in northern New Mexico.

One year, he tells Carmen, he even had to sell his tractor. "I got to the spring and I didn't have enough money to buy seeds or to pay my laborers," he says.

So he got his fields ready with the tractor and then sold it. He says it took him five years to save enough to buy another one.

Don says those challenges are what make the work fulfilling. "I went through these struggles, and look, I'm still successful," he says.

Lessons from Don Bustos

On coping with the financial risk

The people that I come from left Europe and Spain during the Inquisition. So there's this whole thing about escaping and coming to a new land and struggling to survive. But to do that, you have to have a certain faith. And my dad told me, when he told me to sell my truck, and I go, "Well, what am I gonna do," and he goes, "Tenga fe. Have a little faith." Have a little faith, and then having good friends and family, and then the other part was, work hard.

On balancing farming and family

I would get up with one of those head lamps, and I would go pick sweet corn at 1 o'clock in the morning, so that I would have fresh sweet corn at 6 for the farmer's market. And I'm not the only one that's done insane things like that. But then, at some time, you gotta say "No, I gotta give that up, man. That ain't gonna work. No, I gotta figure out a better lifestyle and a balance."

On his hopes for the future

One thing I really look forward to is having people take over. So now that I'm getting older I'm thinking about my son and my nephew and my daughter and my nieces. And, when I pass away, I'm hoping that that's like one of the last things I think about is that, man, I'm leaving something that other people want to do and they're gonna follow through with — something that's healthy, something that's beautiful. Because it's meaningful when you grow food and you see that beautiful cabbage turning green from the water you gave it, and those tomatoes taste better because you sweated right on that tomato plant to make it that much sweeter. Those are the types of rewards that I look forward to.

Freelance producers Emily Forman (@emilylforman) and Julia Botero (@jbott661) contributed to this report.

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