When I’m asked to give talks to farmers about blogging and social networking as a form of marketing I always tell the attendees not to focus on the negative. “People don’t want to read about the bad stuff,” I tell them. Be positive. Talk about the good stuff. People want to read about your successes, not your failures.
And as a rule, I’ve always tried to follow that advice on this blog. But tonight I find myself longing to write the unvarnished truth. To show you all the other side of farming.
Like everyone else, my business has been damaged by the bad economy. People aren’t spending money the way they did two years ago or even in the first quarter of last year. It’s not surprising at all; yarn is a luxury product and luxuries are the first thing that goes in an economic downturn.
The farm was hit hard but not as hard as some people and I have been grateful to be able to carry on, grateful to be able to farm full-time and still make ends meet. But not an hour has gone by since I started this business that I didn’t worry about money. Probably not even a minute.
My farm was under-capitalized from the start, as most farms are, and even in the best of times I was carrying a large debt load, as most farms are. But several things happened in the last six months that made things even more precarious than usual. First, extricating myself from an unhealthy and unsustainable situation and the move that followed wiped out my savings. The move was absolutely necessary and I have never second-guessed the decision, but it was a big blow to my balance sheet.
Once we moved it took longer to get the shop back up and running than we anticipated. There were several mistakes made during the shipping of the Spring shares that cost me a small fortune. They were honest mistakes and I wasn’t angry with anyone, but it really hurt. The holidays weren’t as good as we expected but probably could have been worse. January is always a terrible for sales and this year was no exception.
I was living very close to the edge but there didn’t seem to be any alternative. Perseverance has always been my strong suit and I knew that if I could just hold on, just work harder and juggle my bills and watch every single penny, we’d be okay until things picked up. Unless something terrible happened.
For some reason, in my worst moments, I thought the something terrible would come in the form of my getting sick. I haven’t had health insurance since we moved and I just can’t afford it right now. So I worry that I’ll be diagnosed with some terrible illness that will wipe me out completely. In the past few weeks I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, my heart beating loud and hard, after dreaming my appendix burst or I found a lump in my breast.
So when the something terrible finally did happen today, it didn’t come as a huge surprise. I was checking my bank balance- as I do hourly these days- and saw a huge debit from the vet’s office where I took Lucy last week. My first thought was that they had made a billing mistake, charging me more than 5 times what I should have paid for an office visit plus a round of vaccinations. But it made me nervous enough to call the farm to make sure everything was okay.
When no one answered I called the vet’s office to ask about the charge. “Are you calling about Lucy?” the receptionist asked, “She was hit by a car.” The next few minutes were torture while I waited for a vet to come to the phone. Finally the receptionist came back on the line to tell me that the vet was unable to talk to me but that Paige and Erin had brought Lucy in. She was alive and needed specialized treatment, so they had stabilized her and sent the girls and Lucy to another animal hospital.
I hung up and called Erin’s phone. No answer. Same when I dialed Paige. I texted Erin asking her to call me immediately. The next twenty minutes were interminable. Finally, Erin called from the second vet’s office to tell me that Lucy was doing okay, but the x-rays had shown bruising on her lungs and she was having some difficulty breathing. The vet came on the phone and walked me through Lucy’s condition, said they wanted to keep her on oxygen for the next two to five days and transferred me to the front desk where the receptionist asked me for a credit card number. The vet’s best estimate put the charges between $4200 and $6000. Lucy had already wracked up nearly a thousand dollars in charges in the 20 minutes she’d been there. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think when the receptionist said the numbers. Finally I told her I’d have to call her back.
I spent the next few minutes doing the most horrible, hateful math I’ve ever done. Before I even knew she’s been hit, the vet bills incurred at the two offices had already cleaned out my bank account. I just flat out didn’t have the money. I called the vet back and asked her what my options were. And I have to say, she was just awful about it. “Can’t you put it on a credit car?” she asked. No, my credit cards are maxed out. In the end, she said that the next 24 hours will be critical. Erin and Paige were to watch Lucy and bring her back to the vet tomorrow for another check.
Lucy is home now. She doesn’t seem to be in much pain but her breathing is labored and we don’t know if she’s going to make it. The next couple of days will be very telling.
As far as my financial situation is concerned, the next few weeks will be very telling. All my cash reserves are gone. Unlike many farmers, I don’t have a spouse’s income or benefits to fall back on. I’m almost surely going to have to go back to work full-time until things turn around. It stinks, especially since I haven’t taken a salary in months, but I’m out of options.
Most days my blog is full of funny stories and pretty pictures of animals. I get a dozens of emails a week from readers who know all our animals by name and who tell me I’m living their dream. And, you know what? I’m living my dream, too. But this is the other side of farming. The scary, ugly reality that most farmers live with. Farmers live in a world were a bad crop, bad storm, bad break can mean financial ruin.
No one is entitled to the life they want. I know that. But I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last two years in my dream job. Building my flock, watching lambs come into the world, living and working with my dogs. All of those moments were precious gifts. And even if I lose it all tomorrow, I wouldn’t change one moment of it.
If you are the praying kind, please pray for our Sweet Lucy. I’ll keep you apprised of her condition.
LATEST NEWS ON LUCY’C CONDITION: Lucy made it through the night but her breathing is still labored. Erin is waiting for the vet’s office to open so she can get her back in to be seen by a vet.
EDITED TO ADD: Thank you to everyone who made a donation to help cover Lucy’s vet bills. You all have been so generous and we can now cover the cost of all the medical care the puppy will need.