I have found writing to be a fun challenge over the past few years.
When I first started the Confessions of a Reluctant Farmers Wife just over three years ago, I wanted to share the other side of farm life, the family side, the I didn't grow up around this side, the I'm not sure I really like all of this side. There is definitely some overlap between my account and the one of the farm, but it's usually more about the people behind the farm.
Throughout my desire to share the story, whether it's in images, short captions, longer posts, or even blogs, the pursuit to find just the right words is like a puzzle to me. I've never much thought of myself as a writer but have found the collecting and piecing together of the puzzle pieces to be something I've unexpectedly enjoyed. The process is also often therapeutic. Putting words to emotions or events is helpful in processing whatever it may be, and when I’m able to do that, there is a sense of ability to move onward.
That's why I'm here today. The past two months have been...interesting. I have wanted to share more but have had to get past some very strong emotions first. I've wanted to share more of our side of things, more of our reflection, more of the facts, more of our hopes and dreams in a helpful and healthy way but haven’t been able to sit and find the words. But here I am now. I think I’m ready.
Throughout the past 2 years, Brandon and I have discovered something new about ourselves and our business. Once renovation was completed on our upstairs guest suite, we listed it on AirBnb and over the past two years have welcomed many individuals and families out to our farm. Not quite a year ago we opened our space again, this time to a program called Harvest Host, and through this program we have welcomed countless individuals, couples and families who, either for a short period of time or full-time, call their camper, RV or schoolie home.
Brandon and I found great joy in hosting people to our home who were interested to learn about our farming practices, to experience a working farm (often for the first time), to get away from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the peace and calm, or really whatever the reason, we loved it, people loved it, and we started to think: how can we grow this part of our business? This was mere conversation and dreaming between Brandon and myself until we went to the South Carolina Agritourism Conference in January 2022. Farm stays was one of the presentations. After the presentation by a Harvest Host representative, conversations with others showed us that not all who had tried something like this in the past had enjoyed it. Opening their farms had created more stress and work for them. It was something they didn’t enjoy or weren’t as good at. We wondered, why is it this thing that brings us joy and energy, is more draining on others? On our way home, Brandon and I realized that we had found our niche. We were buzzing with excitement. We had found this intersection of who we are as people and as a family colliding with an opportunity and an offering that could be part of our farm that others were looking for.
Let the planning begin!!!
Through our research and conversations with county employees, after sharing what our idea was, we were told the process to apply for a zoning exemption for what is considered a "commercial campground". Now, when I hear that I think of a massive campground with 50 sites or something. Our plans were for a small campground with a maximum total spots of 16, 8 sites for campers and 8 sites for small cabins. We picked out a beautiful location, up on a hill that overlooks the pastures of our farm. The layout of cabins and camper spots allows for families (like mine) where some have campers and some don't, to come and enjoy the same space.
In my opinion, what we drew up was (and is) beautiful!
The application for this exemption is due a month prior to the meeting you're hoping to be considered at. We submitted in early April and were eagerly anticipating the meeting on May 3rd. This endeavor could change the projection for our family and our farm. It would allow us to work from the farm full time. We had, over the past two years, seen the interest in those wanting to come stay on the farm, and we knew adding this space would allow an even larger population of people the ability to come, stay, learn, experience, and enjoy.
Brandon and I heard of some rumblings of unhappiness regarding our plan the week prior to the meeting. The things we heard honestly made us laugh. They were so outlandish, but it was also all second hand. Only one person, a childhood friend of Brandon's, called either of us directly to ask any questions.
Honestly, we went into the meeting optimistic. We knew there might be people present who would speak against our proposal, but we figured their concerns would seem so ridiculous, that at least the board would ask us questions to clarify and we would be able to set the worry to rest. That Tuesday morning, Brandon wrote his closing statement. I asked him why and he said, he did not want to be swayed by what anyone would say that afternoon. He wanted to make sure he could focus on our hopes and the truth rather than be distracted by whatever doubt or lies others may say.
We walked into the room and it was full! There were people there we didn't expect to see. I didn't see a lot of people; I couldn't focus in any one place very long because, honestly, I was afraid to make eye contact with anyone. It was a strange mix of emotions between excitement for the potential of this new endeavor and confusion as to why people were so upset.
Our spot was the last of four items coming before the zoning board. It was presented to the board by the county staff member and then Brandon was invited forward to share the proposal. Once Brandon finished, those who were in favor are invited to speak and then once there is no one else, those who are in opposition are invited to speak. After each time of speaking, beginning with the county employee, there is a time for questioning from the board. At the end, Brandon is invited back up to speak and close.
The entire hearing is available on YouTube. I've listened to it twice since that day. Each time it brought up an anger and frustration in me that I have never felt before. Three relatives of Brandon’s got up and spoke in opposition, a second cousin, an aunt, and an uncle. The aunt also read a letter written by Brandon's cousin and had a lawyer present to speak. An individual whose family owns land all throughout the county spoke, as well as that family's lawyer.
There were times where it took every fiber of my being to not stand up and yell "I object". I mean they make it look so cool in the movies. I'm not even sure if people do that sort of thing in these hearings. Other things they said made me laugh, they seemed so preposterous. Did they even know us? Did they even know our farm or listen to what we had shared just 10 minutes prior? What they said and how they portrayed us, our farm, our business, and those who visit our farm was so hurtful. And through it all, the board asked very few questions. NONE of which were directed at the actual plans or addressing any of the ridiculous concerns that were lifted up. Those who spoke used lies and fear to incite enough doubt for the board that the final result was that our exemption was denied.
Brandon and I had agreed before we walked in, that regardless of the outcome, we would stand up at the end and walk out together. And that is what we did. Holding hands, we walked in silence to the car. We got in and all Brandon could say was, "I'm sorry." We drove for a few minutes, and he said it again. "People can just be so mean," was all I was able to get out. He was apologizing for his family, for this community that was part of raising him, for this group of people who said so many hurtful things. He was apologizing that I had to sit through it.
We went home, got something to eat, put the kids to bed, and then Brandon and I sat at the kitchen island. He again, was so apologetic. There wasn't much to say, and again I just told him, "People can just be so mean." I knew this was true but had never been on the receiving end of this sort of anger, animosity, and lies. We talked a little bit, we were even able to laugh at a few things, and then we headed to bed.
I couldn't sleep. As I laid in bed, I would just be overcome with emotion. I couldn't understand it. It's just a campground. Why in the world am I reacting this way? There are people out there that on that same day lost someone they loved, or couldn't pay a bill, or received a life altering diagnosis. I kept trying to put it in perspective to larger issues. Sarah, it’s ok, it’s not that big of a deal, what is wrong with you? Turns out I would spend the next two months processing my anger and grief from this night.
Once I realized Brandon had fallen asleep, I went to the living room. I turned on the TV, I tried to read a book, and then I wrote. Part of what I wrote was what we posted on Bowers Farm the next morning. Writing it down, putting words to my disappointment, was helpful. The next morning when he woke up and found me on the couch, he said we should post it. "I didn't write it for that necessarily. It just helped me sleep." Brandon changed a few things, but said again, "I think we should post that. We've always tried to tell our story authentically and transparently, and that includes the disappointments too."
I made the changes and hit "share". The response from people was immediate AND positive. Then I started to feel flooded with doubt and guilt. These people don't even know the full story. Our post was quite vague but shared our disappointment in the decision and those who spoke against us. I don't want people to falsely "be on our side" if they really didn't actually agree with us. I'm not interested in people saying things to protect my feelings. Brandon and I fully operate on a basis of honesty is the best policy. People then started texting and calling asking for more context. I would share with them what happened. I would remind them that I am only one perspective, but that they could find the hearing and make their own opinions. They found the video. They started sharing it. The comments, calls, and texts kept coming in. My tears of doubt and hurt turned into tears of gratitude. People asked why we didn't have more people there to speak in favor of the plan, "We didn't know we needed people there to speak on behalf of our character," I said. And it was true, we didn't.
When Brandon got home that evening from work, I told him he needed to sit and read the messages. He was overcome. Later, he shared with a friend, "We laid our head down Tuesday night thinking our community hated us, that everyone thought we were trash, and wondering if all we had ever worked for was some sort of mirage. And Wednesday night we laid our head down being reminded that that wasn’t true. Our morals and ethics that we have always kept in front of us are who we are. There's just this small number of people, who can’t or don't want to see it and probably never will.”
The rest of May was filled with conversations about what is next. How do we want to move forward? Appeal? Reapply with some changes? Just let it go? It was filled with doubt and anger and grief and frustration and disappointment. It was filled with trying to figure out why it hurt so much. It was filled with seeing a side of myself I didn't know existed: I didn't know I could be this mad at a person, at people. I never thought of myself as someone to hold a grudge. We filed a freedom of information act and were able to receive all the documents that were submitted to the board, including the petition to see who signed it, as well as the printed PowerPoint presentation with a title slide reading "Saving our Community" that was submitted by Brandon’s Aunt’s lawyer. May was so hard.
I looked at Brandon one day in May and said, “I know I’m taking it out of context, but the scripture says ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it’, but I can’t see the light.”
“Maybe you’ve got your back to it. You’re looking at them instead of at the light.”
We’ve reminded each other of this multiple times, to make sure we turn around to look towards the light. And June, June was full of light. We decided that with everything going on in June we would enjoy it, try to forget about everything else, and regroup at the end of the month. We turned around and focused on the light, and June was full of this beautiful clarity, this reminder of all that is most important to us and why we do what we do.
Farm Camp! We spent two weeks of June hosting 48 super cute free range farm kids between the ages of 3 and 7. The days were exhausting but also filling in such a special way. On the last day of farm camp, after all the kiddos had gone home, I got a video from a dad whose two sons attended Farm Camp. At the end of every day of camp we closed by reminding the kiddos that they each learned something new today (they are smart), they helped feed and care for creation (they are strong), they were kind to one another (they are caring), and they are each loved (they are loved), this culminated with 4 affirmations. I would yell, "I am smart!" and the kids would yell it back to me. We would do this for all 4: I am smart! I am strong! I am caring! I am loved! Then we would come together like a sports team, "Farm Camp on the 3! 1 - 2 - 3!" "FARM CAMP!" This video was of these two brothers showing this closing to their daddy. The older brother being the caller and the younger brother being the call back. I was in tears. This. This is why what they said and the outcome of the hearing hurt so bad.
I showed the video to Brandon. He didn't have any words.
With tears, I told Brandon "This is why what they said and did to stop our dream hurts so bad. Welcoming people here to this place is what God is calling us to. They aren't just standing in the way of a 'business endeavor', it isn’t JUST a campground, but rather where and who God is calling us to be!"
We want to expand the opportunities for children, individuals, families and groups to come out to the farm! We want to be able to host youth groups for care for creation retreats and church leaders for time of reflection and rejuvenation. We want to allow foster families to come for free vacations and we want families to come to learn how they can grow and raise their own food and be empowered to do so. We want children from farther away to be able to come to farm camp and hear every day that they are smart, strong, caring, and loved. We want to share this place that God has entrusted us to care for with others and to make sure that all who come here know they are loved and welcomed.
May was hard and full of doubt, questions, anger, frustration, resentment. June was filled with God-winks, encouraging words, and reminders of the bigger picture, the greater calling, the real purpose, the pursuit.
That Friday after Farm Camp, Brandon and I were able to go on a date night. We talked a lot about what's next. We talked about how we didn't feel like we were being the people we know ourselves to be out of anger and grief. We acknowledged that we had let others lead the interactions, and we have just been reactionary. That's not us. We aren't afraid of hard work. We aren't afraid of naysayers. But we never want those people to make us forget who we are and what we are really here for.
We are Bowers Farm. Our calling is to raise the best food possible for our own family and yours. To raise it in a way that cares for all of God's creation, from the soil up. We are called to be a place of education and radical hospitality. Yes, we've had an unexpected detour, but we aren't focusing on that, we've turned around and we have our sights set on where God is calling us, and that's where we'll keep heading.