A man, disenchanted by the rigors of city living, leaves his old life behind to run a farm and rediscover a sense of purpose. That's the setup for Stardew Valley and just about every Harvest Moon game. But for Samuel, that premise isn't just a fiction. It's his real life.
Living on a farm had been one of Samuel's dreams since he was a child, but life has a way of sweeping aside our big ideas. Then last year, Samuel started playing Stardew Valley. Now, at 33 years old, Samuel has given up his city apartment in Illinois that he's lived in for years and bought a small farm out in the country.
"I've got a friend over right now and about two weeks ago and we were outside having a beer and he said, 'You are living in a Harvest Moon game. You know that, right?'" Samuel tells me over the phone while laughing. "The similarities, believe me, they don't escape me. A lot of people are telling me that I'm taking cosplay to the extreme."
But a dirty pair of overalls isn't just a costume Samuel wears for a bit when he feels like it. With 2.5 acres of land, a barn, shed, two dogs, and a real fixer-upper of a house, Samuel's got more responsibilities than he's had in a lifetime. And, despite having "a few more grey hairs" because of it, he tells me he would never go back.
"It's everything I wanted it to be."
Multiple times a night, trains would run by Samuel's window. It wasn't a comforting sound, just another way that the restlessness of the city invaded his life. For someone who grew up running through the vineyards of his aunt's farm, the chaos of the city just wasn't where Samuel felt he belonged. He might not have worked in a soulless Joja corporate office like in Stardew Valley's introduction, but his life was just as unsatisfying. And his "cramped" apartment wasn't helping.
"I love my job, don't get me wrong, but when you come home and all you have is four walls to stare at, it turns into tedium after a while," Samuel admits. "I can go outside, but as soon as I step out the door I'm in the middle of the city. I step out and its concrete, there's nothing I can do about it. What's there to do? You can go to the bar I guess. I can become an alcoholic or I can stand outside and stare at the ground."
I know that it's mostly a joke when he says this, but I also sense a kind of desperate truth to it.
Unsurprisingly, Samuel passed the time by playing videogames. As we talk about them, he makes a few lighthearted jabs at Mass Effect: Andromeda, mentions how much he loved Dust: An Elysian Tale, and confesses that he's been playing EVE Online for almost eight years. But Stardew Valley was different. "It had that little piece of charm, a piece of magic that people grab onto and you just don't find that everywhere," Samuel says. "It had so much heart and so much soul."
While he's always enjoyed the older Harvest Moon games, Stardew Valley took hold of him in a different way. As 2016 ticked by, he clocked over 120 hours cultivating his plot of virtual country heaven. For someone who grew up in the country, Stardew Valley had a powerful grasp on the beautiful nuances of that kind of life.
When the isolating freeze of a midwestern December began to creep into his apartment, so too did Samuel's restlessness. He needed to get out of the city. "I felt disillusioned with that kind of lifestyle," he says somberly. "I wanted to get my hands dirty and I wanted to go out and tear the soil up and see what I could grow. I think there's a disillusionment from modern society. People get tired of always looking down at their phones and eventually one day you look up and say, what am I doing with my life?"
"I realized I needed to grab my dream and run with it and take all the chances I can."
After New Year's, Samuel says he was sitting with some coworkers talking about their resolutions when he thought, to hell with it, and confessed his: "I'm going to buy a farm. I'm going to have chickens and two turkeys and I'm going to name them Christmas and Thanksgiving and I'm going to do this thing I've always wanted to do."
"Everybody said I was nuts," he laughs.
A new beginning
Samuel bought the first farm he visited. "It's ideal for me," he says. "It's 20 minutes from my job and 20 minutes from my parents' house, but slap in the middle of nowhere."
True to the premise of Stardew Valley, the 2.5-acre property had been neglected for years. Samuel says that, structurally, everything was in great shape, but there was a lot of preliminary work that would need to be done—trees to cut, weeds to pull, and stones to break up.
That's not to mention the work that needs to be done on the house. "It needs updating," Samuel laughs. "The green shag carpet is a bit much." He tells me that when pulling some of it up, he found hardwood floors underneath and immediately got excited. Then he pulled up more of the carpet and realized that what he thought was hardwood flooring was actually just half of the front porch. When the previous owners wanted to expand the inside, they simply cannibalized half of the porch.
Despite all the maintenance the property needs, that hasn't stopped Samuel from getting started on the actual farming. The field beyond his house is already tilled and planted. "I've got onions, okra, cucumber and I have a row of cabbages out there even though it's a little early for cabbages right now," Samuel says excitedly. "I plan on throwing in some lettuce and pole beans too. I also plan to grow a little bit of tobacco out in the field."
I ask him why he wants tobacco. "I've always wanted to try it because my grandpa used to grow tobacco," he says. "I remember being a little kid and you'd see these big, huge tobacco plants hanging up in this old beat up green shed he had. I don't know, I just thought it'd be fun to do."
That's just the beginning, though. After buying the property in January, Samuel's crops are already starting to resemble Stardew's. A friend gifted him two apple trees which he's already planted. There's a row of grape vines that he hopes to turn into sugar-free jam. "I also want to make wine and I want to get some hops and brew beer. I just want to be one of those crafty kinds of dudes. It sounds like fun and hey, if you can get drunk in the process, even better."
And then there's livestock. Samuel tells me that he plans to have around 15 chickens, including his two turkeys named Christmas and Thanksgiving. Though some people have tried to talk him out of it because of the effort, he's considering getting a pig or maybe a goat. "I know everyone says they're cute and all, but boy, they're yummy," he chuckles. A neighbor also gave him two Saint Bernard puppies that he's named Donny and Gordon. On top of all that, he plans to keep four hives of Carolina Honeybees. Like tobacco, beekeeping is another way Samuel can emulate his great grandfather.
It's certainly an ambitious plan, but Samuel is confident he can do it. Though his knowledge of farming is limited, it runs in his blood. "My great grandfather was a farmer in the area where I grew up," he says. "He immigrated from Germany and everything I know about farming or beekeeping I learned from my mother because she learned it from him. That's a wealth of information that I can tap at any time."
But as much as Samuel likes to joke that he's living a real-life Stardew Valley, he isn't. Sure, he gave up his apartment and moved out to the country, but he's skeptical he'll ever be able to sustain himself on his own land. Come summer, he won't be able to plant a few hundred blueberry bushes and drop them in a bin for someone to pick up in exchange for a few thousand dollars like he could in Stardew Valley. A living wage doesn't come that easily.
On top of everything Samuel has to take care of on the farm, he's also working night shifts full-time to make ends meet. "When I took possession of [the land] I thought it was going to be three or four hours of work a day. When I get off work and its seven in the morning it's a good time to work, so I work until noon and call it a day. But I've realized it'll probably take a couple of years, honestly, to get it where it needs to be."
And even once the farm is back in good shape, fields full of crops and a pen full of animals, it's unlikely that Samuel will ever be able to make a serious living off just the land alone. Agriculture just isn't what it used to be—especially for such a small farm.
I ask him if he ever doubts his decision. "Every day," he says without pausing. "Every single day I definitely have moments of self-reflection and doubt where I think, oh boy. I can work for six hours and it may not look like I've accomplished anything at all. I'm beat up and broken and covered in dirt and dust and I'm just like, did I even accomplish anything?"
Looking at it cynically, I can't help but worry if Samuel might've bitten off more than he could chew in pursuit of an idle fantasy. But then I ask him if, in spite of all the hard work, he's happier now than before. He pauses a moment and then tells me a story.
A few months back, Samuel finished up his night shift and drove out to the farm. The weather had worsened overnight and, upon arriving, he found a six-inch blanket of snow draped over everything. As he stepped out of his car and his boots crunched in the snow, he stood still and listened. He heard something he hadn't heard in the longest time: perfect silence. "I was just like, this is it. This is perfect. This is where I need to be, right here."
A wonderful life
Giving up life in the city to buy a house in the country was a gamble, but for Samuel it's paid off. "I was just outside drinking some coffee and everyone who drives by will give you a wave. In the city, everyone is so fixated on what they're doing they forget the community they live in. They don't know who their neighbors are. I lived in that apartment and I only met my neighbors who lived 20 feet away from me maybe twice, I couldn't even tell you their names. Now that I've moved here, I've got about 10 neighbors around me and I know every single one of them."
I wanted to know where he sees himself in a few years, and he begins to ramble excitedly about all of his plans for his new life. He even mentions having kids. He'll need to get married first, so I ask what his strategy is to woo the local bachelorettes. "I'm going to run up and hand them an egg and then leave," he laughs. "That's how you win the ladies over, right?"
Given how much his life is turning out to become Stardew Valley, nothing would surprise me.
But really, Samuel isn't too concerned about the future. He's just enjoying each day as it comes. "I've had a very negative attitude for a very long time. But you can't carry it with you or you'll have more grey hairs than you plan on. You can't constantly be negative, you can't constantly be worrying about everything going wrong in the world when what you really need to worry about is your two acres of land. The whole world is going to take care of itself, but at the end of the day you got to get outside and feed the chickens."
It's only been a few months, though, and it's quite possible the charms of country living might one day wear off. It's something that Samuel has accepted as an inevitability. But for him, it's not about the romanticized fantasy of simple country living. It's about working to achieve the things that matter most.
"It's really easy to go out and plant the garden and put that seed in the ground, but it's really hard to weed and tend to it for months on end," he tells me. "I hope I'm up to the task. But when it's your dream, you have to take the bad with the good. You have to take those hard times with all those good times, that's where the real charm is. It's not in sitting back and having a glass of tea, it's sitting back and having a glass of tea after you've worked for 12 hours. That's when it counts."