From Engineer to Farmer: My Search for Happiness and Meaningful Work

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Have you ever woken up to the fact that while not entirely unhappy with your life, you are also not content with the status quo? We all want our lives to feel amazing but often the day-to-day can feel more like a repetitive grind.


At the end of 2016 I was confronted with the realization that while on paper my life looked amazing, most days I didn’t feel fulfilled. After spending a decade earning my PhD, I had secured a good engineering job in a fun small Midwest city with great coworkers and an office that overlooked Lake Superior. While I had plenty of hobbies I enjoyed, I often felt stressed and unhappy with the amount of time I had available outside of work to fit in the rest of my life.


While I recognized how fortunate I was for the job (and life) I had, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that one or more important aspects of my existence were misaligned. It was easy to blame “work” for my problems but deep down I knew I had to take responsibility for the prioritization I was making in how I lived my life.


After reaching a low point in the fall of 2016, it took me almost four years to identify and then build a new life that aligns how I spend my time with my values and purpose. This meant leaving my secure engineering job (with good benefits and a steady paycheck) to become a first generation female farmer (without benefits or any guaranteed income) – all during a global pandemic.



My Search for Happiness


Without realizing it, we often sacrifice our long-term happiness in order to make our lives easier in the present. Change is hard and instant gratification feels good. As a natural planner, I have no problem with delayed gratification in order to achieve my goals. Unfortunately, it’s hard to plan for a better life when we don’t know what that looks like. Our inability to visualize something that we haven't yet experienced or don’t know exists is a big reason why change is so difficult. Even if we don’t like the status quo, we are at least are familiar with it.


To get a better idea of what a happier and more content life could look like, in 2017 I completed a year-long happiness project that focused on 12 areas of my life that I wanted to improve: Home, Marriage, Work, Finances, Homestead, Friends and Family, Traditions, Mindfulness, Health, Leisure, Gratitude, and Energy. I called this my Sustainably Happy Project because my goal was to improve my baseline happiness level.


I selected various resolutions and books related to each month's theme with the intent of breaking out of my habits and routines by introducing new ways of living and thinking about my life. I approached each month with a curious mindset to observe (without judgment) my feelings and energy. I wanted to reconnect with my intuition and gain insight into what sparked joy in my everyday life – something I knew I was overlooking thanks to the busyness mindset I had been cultivating for decades.


If you are interested in learning more about the specific practices and mindset I developed as a result of my happiness project, you can check out my ebook: The Unconventional Guide to Sustainable Happiness: 10 Everyday Practices for Creating a Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier Life.


It's been four years since I undertook my happiness project and I’ll be the first to admit that it can be hard to sustain all of these beneficial happiness practices. This is why I re-read my happiness book each winter to refresh myself on the insights and behavior changes that allowed me to so profoundly change my life.


I mention my happiness project for a couple reasons.


First, without dedicating a year to identifying my why (my life’s purpose), I’m not sure I would have had the confidence or awareness of the changes I needed to make. Many of these changes were small but they snowballed and brought about larger changes I couldn't have imagined when I first outlined my happiness project.


Second, the notion of farming as a career first crossed my mind while doing the Odyssey Planning exercise from Designing Your Life by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett. The goal of this exercise is to broaden your thinking and begin to outline three different life paths you could take, even if they may seem “a little out there”. At the time I wasn’t interested in being a farmer, but it was a convenient label I used for the life I thought I could have if I further pursued my gardening and beekeeping hobbies.



Retire to Something, Not From Something


Throughout 2017, thanks to my car-free living, I often walked the three miles to and from work each day. This gave me plenty of time to visualize what a happier life could look like. This daily meditation combined with what I was learning and experiencing from my happiness project allowed me to mull over different versions of my future life.


We are bound to be unhappy if we make changes out of a desire to escape our current reality. I knew I wouldn’t be happier just by quitting my engineering job without having a plan for what I wanted to do with my life. That’s because my unhappiness with my job was a symptom of a larger problem, not my actual problem.


When we are working at a job that occupies a lot of our time but is poorly aligned with our purpose, it is easy to believe that we would be happier with more free time and/or less stuff to do.


It also doesn’t help that we only seem to value the work that we get paid to do. We all do a lot of work, especially women who lead in the unpaid work department. As a result we have come to prioritize paid work while sacrificing our health and our relationships – the two most important determinants of how well we will enjoy our later years!


I personally am not interested in the conventional notion of retirement. I enjoy working and simply want a life that will allow me to naturally transition my work as I age. My goal was therefore to pursue work that I would do even if I wasn't paid to do it.


My views on work and retirement came into greater focus thanks in part to several insightful conversations with my grandma who has been retired for decades. Now in her mid-90s, her days stretch on with little structure or purpose unless she creates that structure and purpose. This reinforced my desire to pursue meaningful work that values all of the work that I do, not simply that in which I receive financial compensation.


Backyard gardening using hugelkultur raised bed gardens
A backyard transformation - my first garden that unknowingly introduced me to regenerative farming practices

Gradually through my daily walks, my happiness project, and my growing understanding of what added joy to my life, I began to realize that I would never be content working at a typical office job that required me to sit behind a computer, indoors, for hours on end. It wouldn't matter how great the job, the pay, the view, or the coworkers.


I craved a lifestyle that centered around using my body how it was designed to be moved outdoors doing diverse work that ideally ended with edible or other tangible results. However, I wasn't interested in doing mindless physical labor. I wanted to harness my labor to bring my ideas, plans, designs, and dreams to life in ways that challenged me both mentally and physically.


The more I paid attention to all the little things that added value and joy to my life, the more my thoughts turned to pursuing farming as more than a hobby I did when not “working”. But not just any type of farming would do. I was drawn to small-scale, regenerative farming that would allow me to combine my hard earned engineering knowledge with my long-term interests in sustainability and ecology.


I officially left my engineering job in July of 2020, which felt more like retiring to farming rather than retiring from engineering. It hasn't quite been a year since I became a full-time farmer, but most days I still feel a little giddy about my new life. That’s not to say that it has been easy or that every day is happy and joyful.


Farming is hard and there is a lot out of the farmer’s control. I still have much to learn as a new farmer, especially as we expand and diversify our farming operations, including adding livestock. The stakes feel higher when you are caring for live animals than when simply growing vegetables, but the rewards are also greater.


Free-range flock of brown egg layers exploring fresh snow
My new coworkers

One of the things I am most excited about after transitioning from engineer to farmer is sharing what I am learning and doing with others. I view our operation as a small-scale demonstration farm and hope to inspire others who want a greater connection with their food - whether they want to grow, forage, and/or raise it themselves or they simply want to connect with farmers who are passionate about producing healthy, local, and humane food.


If you ever find yourself in the Houghton area (in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) swing by to check out what we have going on here at Apple Acres Farm!