A Family Business

A Family Business

My wife Rachel and I work together, parent together, keep our home together. Sometimes, a few hours before our bedtime, I'll look over at her and say "Good morning." Maybe it's the first time we've really looked at each other all day.

It gets pretty busy.

Our family business is Wild Ridge Plants, LLC. We describe the business to each other as having three "legs" (the table metaphor): native plant nursery, ecological consulting, and education.

Starting Out

Rachel and I started the business together in 2012, when I quit my shitty non-profit job.

Our son Beren was a year old. I was pretty young and had fears we wouldn't be able to pay the rent and I would let down my son as a provider. I decided to take a part-time job, and Rachel and I worked two days a week each at conservation organizations to pay the bills as we started the business.

By our third year, we were on solid financial footing. In our fourth season (the year this is written) we quit our part-time gigs to focus wholly on the business. It felt good -- and was much needed.

Differentiating Roles

When we started the business, Rachel was concerned that this was too much my brainchild and she would be a bit player. I tend to be the brash, forward-thinking one. Rachel takes ideas and molds them slowly inside until they are gems -- pure, honest, solid, and luminous.

We had some struggles in the early years with equality, who does the glory work, who does the paperwork, etc. It's typical for women to end up behind the scenes organizing their husband's shit while he hustles.

I think we've each cultivated our roles now and the equality issues have faded. Once Rachel quit her part-time job (about six months after I quit mine), she took on fully the role of nursery manager. Rachel decides the fate of all the plants in there, does the retail sales, and does much of the physical labor of running the nursery. My primary role with the nursery is seed collecting, propagation, and building infrastructure.

I do all the botanical survey work and much of the ecological restoration consulting. I've put in a lot of dirt time, microscope time, and book time honing my botany skills. I'm also pretty comfortable with clients.

Rachel takes the lead on social networking and marketing and arranging the education work we do. We split fairly equally leading the hikes, presenting talks, teaching at conferences and so on. Rachel is also in charge of the financial record-keeping, but this year we've invested in software in an effort to have more of a shared platform we can both contribute to.

Differentiating our roles has helped reduce what we call "too much democracy" -- two smart headstrong people both trying to plan and implement a single project. Consensus-building (arguing) can take up way too much time. I think mutual respect and trust pretty much demand that we not always "help" (hah!) each other out.


So far, so good. But there's a third person in this dynamic. Our son Beren, now five, is fiery, active, inquisitive, and likes to be treated as an adult. We encourage sovereignty and his arriving at norms and behaviors through the ramifications of his own actions.

That hardly means he is left to his own devices, however. For the first four years or so, he demanded almost constant attention from at least one parent. And... how to say this? He deserved it. He's an awesome kid, a real shining light, and a huge part of my heart walks with him wherever he goes.

Since our family business is largely at home, on the farm, there's lots of opportunity for flexibility in the schedule. No boss (except the immortal to-do list) to call if someone's sick or if it's a sunny day and we want to take a hike or sunbathe in the field.

That means lots of dynamic farm immersion for Beren but very little escape from parenting for two busy adults. I could elaborate here but in the interest of brevity I'll summarize thus: I often feel torn between the guilt of ignoring my son or the stress of neglecting the business.

And because we parent as equals, I feel guilty if Rachel sets down her work to go play Legos or blocks or do an art project with Beren.

We get lots of family time together but sometimes it feels very fragmented.

It's only very recently that I've even begun considering my own needs and persona again, outside of the context of the business or parenting. I actually went to a concert in Philadelphia a few months ago one night. That was a big deal.

Luckily, Beren shines at farm work when there's something on his level or we have the patience to support his working on something that would probably be faster done by just an adult. Some jobs that he's really good at: he hauls firewood tirelessly, he'll immerse in any cleaning or organizing called for (brushing snow off the truck, sorting the suitcase-sized socket set, sweeping the kitchen), and he loves using clippers to trim or remove woody plants. There are a fair amount of tasks that actually go much faster because he's helping us.

Beren has also picked up a lot of field botany and can do things like identify box elder seedlings because the stem is glaucous and recognize fallen tuliptree branches on the ground despite the absence of leaves, buds, or bark (figure that one out!)

He recognizes and consumes numerous wild edible plants and can find medicine if need be also.


Rachel and I stress out differently. She will worry about "everyday" things that are out of conformity

-- things breaking, bills unpaid, responsibilities undone. I can be more Zen about those, but get hit episodically with really intense situation-based stress.

Mainly I mention this because, when you have a family business, those stresses don't go away when you come home from work. Very often, the person lying across from you in bed is also the person you're waiting on to fix the broken thing or find a solution for the unpaid bill. Romantic.

Between parenting together, working together, living together, and sleeping together... we put in a lot of time on each other's needs. We're starting to explore the idea that one person shouldn't be the sole provider of all needs for another. But in our atomized, fragmented modern social world... some major pieces of what traditionally would have constituted community (interdependence, proximity) are missing. So we have each other and we make the best of it, and luckily we're extremely well-matched or we'd have divorced long ago.

Business Ethics

We started our business because we're deeply connected to the plant world. We see it as our role to help restore the connection of people to plants through the many facets of what we do as teachers, growers, and practitioners. A good gig for us is one that furthers that mission, and we'll get more excited about that than about how much something pays.

Rachel and I have had many discussions about the scale of our business, and we repeatedly come back to the desire to limit our business to what we can manage with our own hands, backs, and minds.

That means the work we do has to pay a living wage. What do I mean? No underpaid subalterns or exploited interns. Our own sweat and blood goes into the work, and the work has to support our modest but real life.

I'll sometimes hire consulting botanists to work with me on field jobs. They generally get the same hourly wage I do, and never get lowballed.

We've avoided investors, loans, and credit from the start. We began the business with $2,000 and built it from there. The one caveat is our home and vehicle, which belong to us as people (not to the business) and are financed through conventional instruments.

Our products may cost more than those produced by an industrial-scale nursery with low-wage workers. As a trade-off to our customers, we are ironclad about the quality and health of our plants, and we grow our plants without synthetic chemicals. Personally I'd rather pay more for something that is going to live and thrive than for a plant that is dead on arrival.

We also specialize. We grow things too tough, too esoteric, or too unknown for other native plant nurseries in the area to mess with. My skills as a field botanist are integral to us finding, correctly identifying, and developing new species.

We're at the point where we could probably expand to employees, more land, buildings on credit, and so on. But for now, we're dedicated to the challenge of being a sustainable family business, in both the ecological and personal sense of the word.

Beren and I chewing on black birch sticks in the woods somewhere