Over my last two columns relating my experience as a cook at a tree planting camp to my life as a farmer, I explored two aspects of tree planting that seem to be an opposite ends of the balance beam: the immediacy of the task at hand and the need for rest.
Through my work as a cook in a tree planting camp in northern B.C. and Alberta over three summers I learned that I didn’t always need to love the job in the moment to be able to do a good job. When people were depending on me, I focused on the importance of the task rather than its difficulty. I also learned that when people were depending on me I needed to have the strength to not let them or myself down and that meant I needed to take time to rest and restore my mental and physical stamina.
These lessons have applied in many ways to my career as a farmer. They are also two self-focused lessons. The third lesson I want to share requires a solid foundation in the first two, but then sends the energy out from yourself towards others.
When I started cooking I was in over my head. It took several shifts of five days on and one day off before I felt a foundation of skills and preparedness firming beneath my feet. During those initial weeks my focus was on myself and my own tasks. In time, I gained the time and emotional stamina to notice others’ needs. That’s where Lesson 3 comes in: when you get your own feet under you, it’s time to pull others up.
A drowning person cannot save another drowning person, nor should they try. When I became more confident in my own abilities and improved my own work flow system to the point where I had leisure time during my day at tree planting camp, that’s when I started to realize I could use some of that confidence and time to help others.
Our camp was structured with four crews of six to 15 planters headed up by one foreman. Foremen made sure that planters had enough trees to work steadily all day, and during the spring season when seedling trees had to be kept cool before being planted, that meant that most days foremen would have to return to the main camp site and get more boxes of seedlings out of the refrigerated van where they were stored. Sometimes my downtime coincided with this return and I was able to help sling boxes from the reefer into their crew trucks. Later in the summer, trees were delivered every few days to the camp and everyone pitched in to unload the van. I always tried to help the planters and foremen with this job — as long as I wasn’t in the middle of preparing a meal.
It felt good to help out in this way, but it wouldn’t have made any sense for me to jump in and help another person with their tasks when I was still working 16 hours a day to finish mine. I needed to be sure that my responsibilities were being addressed properly before I was able to fully help others.
Sometimes we get distracted by others’ needs, thinking that we need to be all things to all people. Have you ever delegated a task to a trusted member of your team, only to find yourself fretting and double-checking their work? Let go. You probably have your own list of tasks that deserves your full attention. When your list is done, by all means, use the energy you still have to lend a hand. That’s what teams are for. When you’re standing on solid ground, you are that much better anchored to give another a hand up.
When the road beneath your feet feels firm, that’s the time to look after others trying to find their way. During my first five or six years back on the farm I was very honoured to be asked to join various farm boards by people more experienced in both farming and governance than myself. Having sat on one board for five years now, I feel confident nominating other people to these types of positions. I got to nominate and see elected another young female farmer to a local board I sit on last November. It’s her first time holding a position like that and she told me how she had been thinking it was time to start networking more in the agriculture community. How amazing to be part of that.
Give others a chance to give from their place of confidence, too. By this I mean be willing to accept help as well as give it. From time to time a tree planter would come into the kitchen as I was putting the finishing touches on breakfast or supper and they would offer to help. I never turned them down. If I couldn’t think of a job for them to do, I gave them the job I was doing.
Remember, above all, the hand you get may be bigger than the hand you give. Be grateful. I had two neighbours contribute valuable resources to my farm business this year, but wouldn’t take payment from us. We dropped off a turkey at each farm before Christmas. The thanks we gave felt small in comparison to their generosity, but doing nothing would have made me feel even smaller.
As I wrote last time, we only have one chance to make this crop or this supper the best it can be, so every opportunity counts. But take heart, even if you have a flop now and then, there will be another chance tomorrow or next year. And when one season of your life ends, a new one will rise up in its place. Try not to be weighed down by the mistakes or the hard times; instead, remember what made you better and apply those lessons every day going forward.