When potential employers and job boards ask me how many years of customer service that I have, I'm afraid I'm going to look really old. This year, for instance, the count would be twenty-six years.
When I was thirteen, my mother opened a flower/vegetable/bedding plant/nursery business out of our home in Northwest Ohio. We had fifteen acres of property on the corner of Williams County Roads C and 20, and the name of the business was Nancy's Gardens, named after my mother. The hours, being home-based, were a bit on the funky side (open Tuesday and Friday afternoons, all day Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and closed on Sunday and Monday), and I was just beginning my teenage years. Other girls my age were getting on the phone at all hours and finding ways to experiment with clothes, makeup, and dating. I was doing my homework after dark, weeding, cleaning the cattails out of the water lily beds, and raising baby chicks. We took our family vacations in the fall, because summer was the busiest time for the farm, and family vacations never extended farther than where we could drive to in a day.
I honestly didn't mind it much, save one factor--we lived in a small and friendly community, and my mother had a hard time with boundaries. People who knew her hours came by anyway on Sunday and Monday because they insisted that "Nancy wouldn't mind," so there were never "normal" mealtimes or activities. But, with a farm you don't really have that much anyway--that's part of the beauty of agriculture. You have to give up free time to gain knowledge of how the world works.
You'd think that I would have been resentful, but I wasn't. (Okay, it took leaving for me to admit that, but still...) Agriculture taught me a lot about acceptance. It taught me even more about customer service. I learned to stay flexible, and ready. When my mother was sick with cancer in 2001, I had to be nice for her. I also had to be firm for her. We had closed the business, we had put up signs, but so many people knew that "Nancy surely didn't mean them" when she meant closed. I had to be understanding with these people, and firm. It was a challenge, but the experience was also trying to teach me a lesson about work/life balance.
Agriculture teaches you a lot about process. It teaches you to think on your feet. I loved that feeling to the point that a few years after moving to Missouri (about the time I went to school for my Bachelor's degree) I worked on a ranch part-time, for FUN. (This was in addition to going to school full-time and working full-time as a corporate trainer.) Neither one of my forays into agriculture have been for money; one I inherited, the other one was because I was missing the first experience. In Missouri, the time was spent on a beef cattle ranch, the dreaded task once a year in November was to vaccinate the cattle. I say "dreaded" because everyone else dreaded it--the guy who owned the farm LOVED it, and I LOVED it. We loved herding the cattle in, getting covered in mud, getting kicked, running from the bull--all of it. I think the owner had a John Wayne envy working there, but mine was feeling useful, serving the cattle, serving others, taking me back to knowledge I inherited and could use again. Everyone else who hated it hated what I loved about it, so I would try to do all the tasks so that everyone else would have a better experience. At the end of the day I was worn out, but I felt like I had contributed.
My first customer experience was with a farm, serving a community. When I came back to a ranch, that experience was with internal customer service, serving those who stood with me.
I think about both farms a lot these days as I make my way around the Bay Area on mass transit or in rental cars. There's a constant need to be kind and considerate to each other on mass transit, or in California traffic. What I find really amazing is how rare it is, and I often have to take the bull by the horns (pardon the pun), and be the one who is kind and considerate, even though it pays me nothing at all. That's how it all began--someone interrupting my dinner for water lilies, and now to someone asking for directions on BART. I feed off of my foundation.
More on my passion, my foundation, next week. Have a great workweek.