I live on a real-life 70-acre farm at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, a beautiful plot of land that has been in my family for four generations. But somehow I've been sucked into virtual farming, as an addict of Facebook's FarmVille game. It's a very basic application that allows me to plant anything, from bananas and blueberries to artichokes and squash, in complete disregard for real-life concerns like climate, soil type, or growing season. I can invite Facebook friends to farm alongside me, people who wouldn't put hoe to dirt on my real farm even if I paid them. Online, we often share gifts like fruit trees or ducks to help each other expand our farms. In FarmVille, there's never any bad weather, pesky bugs, or plant diseases, or any need to plan crop rotations. No, it's not very realistic. But as I compare what's on my computer screen with what I see through my window, I realize that FarmVille's simplicity is what makes it such a great escape. FarmVille is a fun way to reconnect with old friends, and make new ones, and although it's virtual, it's cool that farming is what's sparking people's interest and bringing us all together.
THE DETAILS: Since my grandfather, John "Potter" Zerbe, died when my dad was only 12, our land has always been leased by neighboring farmers, who gradually began to use more and more pesticides to grow mostly corn and soybean crops. During my college years, I learned more about organic agriculture, and the ways nature and farmers can work together for safer, chemical-free farming. I made a promise to return to the farm one day and work with area farmers who could cultivate the land without polluting the soil and our groundwater. And last November, after living in Philadelphia for several years, my husband and I decided to move back to the country and pool our money to begin this exciting, ambitious plan. The list of Things to Do continues to grow far beyond the initial set of tasks, and includes rehabbing the barn and the other dilapidated structures my grandfather built nearly a century ago—the chicken coop, pigpen, workshop, tractor shed, and tack room. There's even an old red outhouse here, but it's covered in thick grape vines. We'll save that project for later!
WHAT IT MEANS: Even with all this work to do outside, I spend plenty of time inside at my computer, whether it's writing stories or researching which heirloom chickens would thrive in this climate, just in case the chicken coop is finished anytime soon. But more and more often, I catch myself sneaking onto Facebook, not so much anymore to read about my friends' hilarious adventures in parenthood, but to make sure my virtual wheat and pumpkins aren't rotting in the FarmVille field. How could this have happened to me? Surely, there's no shortage of real work. In fact, from where I'm sitting right now, I can hear the screeches as the barn's current inhabitants—pigeons!—slip and slide on the rusty old barn roof. I don't even want to think about how many baby birds are inside. I scold myself for leaving the barn door open last fall and then not having the guts to kick the pigeons out. Then I turn back to my computer screen. Internet farming is certainly less stressful.
Since moving back here a few months ago, we've made some progress, and managed to start a small vegetable garden (I think it produced the world's largest organic heirloom cucumber!). And my husband has made considerable progress salvaging what can be saved of the chicken coop, and clearing out old buildings packed with interesting, rusty old farm equipment that dates back to the turn of the century. (We're restoring it.) But all that seems like a drop in the bucket when compared to the pages-long list of work that needs to be done. We quickly realized that line item one on the list, "Redo the barn," isn't going to happen overnight. Or even this year, for that matter. If living on the farm has taught us anything, it's this: The great fantasy farm facelift we envisioned while sipping coffee on our back porch in Philly is going to be a lifelong project broken up into many, gratifying mini-pieces.
But on days when it seems we're getting nowhere, or when we face an unexpected setback, I can sneak onto my computer, plow a few more rows to extend my flourishing field, help weed or scare crows away from my neighboring buddies' FarmVille farms, and feel just fine balancing work and play.
If anyone has any tips for my farming ventures—virtual or real—please send me a note below. Happy farming!