Farmer Burnout Is Real. Here’s How To Fix It.

farmer walking between rows of onion plants, carrying harvested onions

At the end of 2019 I felt it again: deep exhaustion.  

Not simply on a physical level, but a soul one.  As if even while sleeping I was pushing, running, trying to “get it all done.”  

The spring, summer, and fall were too busy to notice this.  During the rest of the year I could focus elsewhere — the officework, the farm marketing and sales, the business planning and field work, the attention of my son.  

And for most of the year, this kept me plowing ahead.  

For most of the year I could write down my to-do list each night and wake up to start ticking it off each morning.  Or at least attempt to.

For most of the year, I thought I was simply tired.  Just needed an extra bit of sleep and then I’d feel rejuvenated.

But winter came, and with it our annual break from Thanksgiving to New Years.  

We’ve consciously created time off where we don’t deliver food to the Farm Share or local restaurants, but instead, spend time together, rest, play, plan and dream.  In December 2019 I planned on writing a lot. On getting a book proposal started and finished — which meant research and sample chapters and working with an editor to polish it.  

But then the rush of Thanksgiving was over. 

And there it was: exhaustion.  

From what?  At this point, I wasn’t even sure.  

Over the past few years, this had become a regular feeling, but I thought I’d beat it this time.  After stepping back from some of my farmwork that summer, I thought I’d be rested enough, rejuvenated enough.

Why did I still feel so burnt-out?  

As December began I worked on my book outline.  I’d look at it, write a few paragraphs, make notes on what I needed to research.  At the same time, I was doing a 40-day meditation, and as the days went on I found myself craving more silence and breath.

The deeper I breathed, the more I relaxed.  It wasn’t until then I realized how clenched I kept my own dreams.  And one morning, as I sat in meditation, this fear clarified in my mind: What if I’m not enough.

There was that word: enough.

Enough for what?  Enough for who?  

For a month I meditated, journaled, let myself sleep until 6:30 or 7:00.  Let myself be without needing to work or create.  

I wanted to know: who am I when I’m not working?  

Who am I when I’m not composing a blog or email or instagram post?  

Am I enough simply as I am: here, making tea in the mornings, coloring with my son, skiing in the woods, reading a book.  

Am I enough when I’m visible only to those in front of me — no screens between us, no likes or hearts on a post — am I enough when I’m alone with myself?

Sometimes, we need to stop moving in order to deepen.  

We need to sit still in the discomfort of doubt in order to hear the still small voice within that answers Yes. 

Yes, you are enough.

Yes, you’re exactly where you need to be.  

This is how roots grow deeper into the earth.  

Keep breathing.

Now it’s nearly April, and I feel the rush of spring coming again.  

In the last few months, I’ve learned the difference between being the accomplished kind of tired from doing work that nourishes me and being burnt-out.  

Tired is a natural reaction to working hard.  I’m ready for sleep, but I’m also dreaming of how I’ll grow tomorrow.

I can be tired and still be fueled by the work, be it farming or writing.  I can be tired and still excited to wake up and do it again the next day.

This kind of tired comes when I’m connected to my goals and dreams, and when I balance my own needs with those of my family and community.

Burnt-out is daydreaming about how I could escape.  How maybe we could sell it all and just live out of a van and travel the country.  It’s a vision of no responsibility, no roots to hold me.

Burnt-out is reaction.  It shortens the chain between input and output and has me yelling or crying before I can think.  

Burnt-out is wanting a different life because I’m pushing so hard that I’m not seeing what’s working and growing right in front of me. 

Burnt-out comes when I forget my why and default into the unconscious pattern of putting everyone and everything except my own needs first.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from farming it’s this: if you want to grow a strong plant, you must first grow the soil.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that soil and soul are just one letter apart.  If I want to grow a life that nourishes others, I must first tend to my own soul.  

The truth is, I don’t want to be unrooted.  I do want responsibility — because it’s only when we take responsibility for our lives that we are able to grow the most beautiful and true version of ourselves.*  

There is no freedom without responsibility.  

When I’m burnt-out I daydream about being told what to do rather than having to figure it out on my own.  But that vision leaves no room for creativity or personal agency. It leaves no room for the accomplishment of having an idea and making it real.  And that’s where joy and awe and contentment come from.  

At our core, humans are makers.  To make something is to take responsibility for our actions, responsibility for our creativity.  And that is incredibly nourishing.  

How to set up for nourishment instead of burnout:

A couple of years ago I started using a daily planner called the Desire Map Planner.  The core of this planner is that you start with how you want to feel rather than the goals you want to accomplish.

It flips planning around and asks, if you accomplish your goal but feel utterly burnt out, stressed, exhausted, or worse — like you’re still not enough — did you really accomplish what you set out to do?

Asking myself, how do I want to feel today? radically changes my experience of the day.

Instead of reacting to external factors, this question roots me into the way I want to be and reminds me to do the things that will help me feel what I’m after. 

Here’s how I want to feel:

  • Generative
  • Nourished
  • Bright
  • Abundant
  • Ease

How do you want to feel?

Take some time to write this down. 

Your desired feelings may change from day to day or season to season, but you’ll find that there are a handful of constant ones — these are called core desired feelings.

If you want to learn more about this, check out The Desire Map book.

I define nourishment as the things that fill me up.  

The things that feed my body, soul, and mind.  Nourishment will look different for each person.  

Here’s what it looks like for me:

  • Quiet time in the morning with my journal and a cup of tea.
  • Walking in the woods with my dogs.
  • Planting and cultivating in the field.
  • Evening walks through the garden with my camera simply to slow down, look closely, and photograph the beauty.
  • Reading a novel.
  • Spending time with my friends.
  • Going to cafés alone to write, eat a croissant, and drink a chai latte.

What nourishes you?

I want you to make your own nourishment list.  

It’s important to know what fills you up.  In the midst of burn-out, you might forget the simple things that bring you back to yourself.  So I want you to take a moment and write a list of what fills you up. What calms you down. What roots you back to your own soul.

This list is your go-to in times of burn out.  

A few years ago I realized I missed my friends.  In all the time it took to grow and run the farm, I’d lost touch with friends I love.  

So I made a point to shift.  Instead of saying I didn’t have time to join the book club they’d started, I made the time.  I literally wrote it down in my schedule and planned ahead to protect that time.

And boom — friends and books in one!  It’s just once a month, but it’s become an anchor of nourishment that consistently refills me.  

Look at your nourishment list and ask yourself: what can I put in my calendar right now?

The key is to have both daily rituals, like morning tea and walks in the woods, along with weekly or monthly things you can look forward to (like my book club example).

Be sure to highlight actions that you can take in a burn-out emergency — you might call a friend, put on a song you love to dance to, take a bath, do 5 minutes of breathing meditation.  

Like the garden, which has both quick and slow growing crops, your nourishment list will be the most powerful when you have things you can reach for at any moment, along with those things that happen less frequently.

And that’s it.

  • Know how you want to feel.
  • Know what fills you up.
  • Put it in your calendar.
  • Review it and do it daily.

As I write this, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

We’re all feeling higher levels of stress and uncertainty.  And here in Vermont we’re heading into spring, when the earth wakes up again and shows us what it looks like to grow after a long winter.  

We can nourish ourselves even in times of stress.  

And in so doing, we can help nourish others, too.

So what do you say?  

Are you going to choose burnout or nourishment?  

What can you do right now to grow the most beautiful version of your life? 

Let me know in the comments, and I’ll send you some extra love to cheer you on.  Thank you so much for growing.

*The most beautiful and true version of your life — I got this language from Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed. I highly recommend the read.

Want a copy of my ebook, 7 Simple Ways To Grow A Life You Lovesign up below and I’ll send it to you, plus weekly notes to help you grow your garden, farm, and a creative life.

4 thoughts on “Farmer Burnout Is Real. Here’s How To Fix It.”

  1. You’re not only a gifted writer and farmer, Kate, but a wonderful soul – you don’t only provide healthy food for the tummies, but much needed wholesome food for the soul, with your writing! I can’t wait to read your book when it’s ready. You are truly an inspiration! I’ve shared this article with my husband and sons, as they’re such great tips for managing everyday stress as well.

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