Struggle, patience, peace

More snow fall on March 22 in Needham, second day of Spring

Early in March, Land of Plenty came and cleared the Norway Maples to make room for the food forest shrubs and trees.  Charlotte, Ruby and I spent a couple of days making permaculture piles of branches and duff.  The stickies on the scrum board were moving from the “Planned”, to the “Ongoing”, to the “DONE” column.   Things were happening!  It was so exciting!

Then, we had a big snowstorm.  A week later, another one.  And a week after that, one more (small one).  Everything is buried in snow.  There is nothing we can do outside (aside from shovel – with the appropriate technology, of course).   Today, nearly three weeks later, we have made no progress at all.  It has been absolutely maddening.  I have stomped my feet.    I have sworn never to spend another March in Boston ever again.  I have spent days obsessively checking the weather app on my phone, wanting to make the snow forecast disappear through over-exposure.   One day, I was so desperate, I took the wheelbarrow and tried to wheel it around in the snow, thinking this might work, we could put down wood chips.  But it doesn’t work.  The only thing that could be done was: practice patience.

It’s true that at the beginning of the month, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.   It seemed like the TODO list with all the things I am doing — Big Foot being just one of them — was getting longer and longer, and even daily routines like making the bed and playing some violin were getting lost in the fray.     With all the snow, I figured I had better just start going down that list.   Ruby helped, one day putting up shelves that I’d been meaning to get to for months.  I finalized the Big Foot business plan.  Got our taxes prepared.  Played the violin daily and got a little better at the Kreisler and Beethoven pieces I’m working on.   Spent some time with Josephine in a relaxed way.   Did some work for the Education Commission (my still-client from the career I am ending to go into food production).   Finished some Neighbor Spotlights for Green Needham;  made a cashflow sheet for Simply Circus to fulfill my treasurer duties. Until, quite by surprise, the other day, I realized I was no longer stressed.  The TODO list had been whittled down to a few items.  The weeks of not working outside had given me enough time to catch up.   Instead of struggling, I felt peace.  It was pretty nice.

Scrum board

The scrum board is a tool to help a team go through a project efficiently and effectively, with flexibility and while having fun.   Often, in projects, people make a huge project spreadsheet with rows of tasks, organized in order, and time, in weeks or days, going across the top. They fill in the week or days for each task, one following the other, so you get this nice cascade of going down your task list over time.  This is called a Gantt chart.  The problem is it never works out as planned.

I learned about the scrum board from my very own in-house project coach, Mark.   There are many ways to use Scrum, but I am going to tell you about our very own awesome approach.

First, you make the Story Board.  This is a list of all the tasks that will need to get done in your project.  Rather than by time, tasks are organized in chunks – the top level has very big themes called “epics”, within epics you have “stories”, and within stories you have the detailed tasks, “sub-stories”.  So I have an epic called “Get site prepared” and within that there are stories like “Be able to amend the soil”, and “Be able to plant trees, shrubs, herbs”. The epic and stories are about things you are going to be able to do, about achievements.   Finally, within the stories are the tasks (sub-stories) like “Dig samples of the soil”, “Send samples to UMass for soil testing”, and “Get the amendments recommended by UMass” all of which end up with me being “able to amend the soil”.   I worked out three epics, which will take me from February through May, one for each month.  Here they are:

  • February epic: Get site prepared
  • March epic: Make the groves
  • April epic: Build stuff
  • May epic: Catch up, build stuff, water

Now, to organize how you will finish those epics you put a scrum board on the wall.  Yes, right on the kitchen wall, or wherever, in a high-traffic area where you will be reminded of it!   Put your Story Board right up on the scrum board.   Make colored stickies for a bunch of the upcoming sub-stories (tasks, remember?) – I made yellow stickies for February and blue ones for March.   Those stickies are going to be moved around so that you always know what you’re working on and what is done.   I made three columns on the wall and on one of the kitchen doors where the broom hangs (which is a handy divider between two columns), and made headings with pieces of cardboard.   Looks pretty good, don’t you think?

Big Foot Scrum Board – beginning of first week.

At the start of each week, you sit down with your team and select a bunch of stickies which are going to go into Column 1: “Active this week” (this week the “team” was just me). The act of physically taking the little pieces of paper and moving them weirdly makes you feel like you have already gotten something done.  The tactile effect of the slight release when you pull the stickie off and then a second tactile effect as you smooth it onto the wall or door in a new spot sends a little release to the brain: you did something, yeah!    When you start to work on a task, you take that sticky note (you did something, yeah!) and put into Column 2: “Ongoing” and go do your task.  Finally, when it is done, you take that sticky note again and paste it into Column 3: “DONE” (now you really did something).   Ideally, on Monday, you start with a bunch of stickies in “Active” and at the end of the week, they are all in “DONE”.   The whole process is so transparent and fun.  And guess what: it worked!  Look at the board below — at the end of the week!

You can also use Story Board to keep track of how much time you thought each task would take and how much time it actually took, and have some space to jot down notes.  At the end of the week, the team sits down, and looks over what got done, and the time, and the notes, and reflect on how it went and if you can do anything better.   As I’m by myself this week my reflection is in the next blog post.

Scrum board end of the week: look at all that DONE stuff!

Making time and space

One thing about making a big change in your life is that there is still all this old stuff.  While I’d like to spend most of my time on my terrific new forest garden project, things get in the way.  There are house projects that I promised myself (and Mark, my spouse) to finish.  There is winding down my previous consulting business.  There are the usual household tasks, friends and kids to see, exercise to be had, and the violin to practice.  When I was planning the coming months out, it all fell neatly into place: November and December for painting the house, January for planning the garden, February for ordering plants …. hm.   In reality, things jumble up together; new tasks and plans come up; and everything takes longer than I thought it would.

I try not to get frustrated, to tell myself it is what it is, and to trust that a continuity of little steps will go somewhere.  After detours, I do keep coming back to the projects that I have set out to do.  It’s a bit like my hopscotch camino: there is something of a storyline, but it’s definitely not linear.  I’m not like the happiness guru Gretchen Rubin, who can make a list of things to do and do them.  In order!  (I read her book The Happiness Project a few years ago and found it quite fun, if impossible to mimic).

Sometimes though, serendipity happens.  On Sunday, Mark and his friend Chris were hosting a fancy dinner at our house for 11 Olin students as part of a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser.  They had paid a four-figure amount for this dinner so I felt some pressure to make things look clean and nice – oh dear, one of those unexpected tasks that takes the entire day!  Our living and dining rooms turned into clean-up jumbles.

Living room in a clean-up jumble

But, cleaning up led to identifying a number of things we could get rid, including a big TV screen that had been taking up the desk in the living room.  Once the screen was gone, voilà, there was a clean and wonderful new space we could dedicate to my design and planning work!  So, in the end, the unexpected task led to unexpected progress!

My new desk with the most recent Big Foot planning sketch.

Why I want to be a farmer

We all eat.  In fact, producing food is humanity’s largest endeavor. Every year, we produce almost ten trillion pounds of food  — vegetables, fruits grains, meat, fish, mushrooms, eggs…   It swamps other huge industries like cars and trucks, of which we produce a mere 400 billion pounds per year.  According to Toensmeier in The Carbon Farming Solution, about half of the greenhouse gases we produce come from growing, processing, and transporting food.    But there is a flipside: in the wonderful book, Drawdown, we find that changing what we eat, how we grow food and plants can help to restore the planet.  Really: we humans can be part of the solution!

But we don’t yet know how to get there.  Isn’t organic and local food way too expensive?  Doesn’t it take too much land?  Doesn’t everyone everywhere eat more meat as soon as they can afford it?  Who wants to be a farmer anyway?

There are thousands and thousands (millions?) of small and medium farmers all around the world who are working on these questions.  Families in Africa implementing a water collection system with swales.  A farmer in Quebec growing seaberries next to apples to supply nitrogen naturally.  Ranchers in Australia using rotational intensive grazing to sequester carbon in the soil. All of these things improve harvest and income and the planet at the same time.   I love this win-win situation.  I also love the feeling of this gigantic, simmering grassroots movement working on profound change.  I want to be a part of it.

I also love being outside, where life is, and interacting with life as well as the swirl of sky and clouds and weather.  I love projects.   I want to get out from behind my computer screen and do something with my hands.

Farming is supposed to be very, very hard work, but people say there are ways to make it easier.  So, I am going to try out a new way of farming, which is a permaculture orchard, a food forest, a self-sustaining edible ecosystem that mimics nature.  If you do this right, a lot of the typical farming work – planting, fertilizing, weeding – goes away, and you are left with management and harvesting.

We’re going to start with a little incubator orchard behind our house on 1/4 acre for the first two or three years.  In this blog, I want to document the process of how this farm grows — starting from scratch.  I hope you’ll find this entertaining and informative!