Reading Journal Week 20

Why Things Go Wrong or the Peter Principle Revisited by Lawrence J. Peter

I was recently promoted. I guess I should feel that this means my employer has confidence in my ability or that it offers positive feedback on something or other and stuff…but no. It has only amplified my uncertainty and insecurity. I’m clearly out of my depth but I’m in uncharted waters. People leave their comfort zone all the time. Sometimes it goes really badly. The rest of the time they manage to hide how badly it goes.

To help me laugh about this I am reading about The Peter Principle. The concept is simple. If you are good at a job you will soon be promoted away from that job. You will quickly move from something you are good at to something you are not good at…and never will be. That, I think, summarizes the concept well enough and it is something I have always been aware of, Dad read this book when I was very young. So I picked up Why Things Go Wrong for a penny on Amazon and have laughed at myself ever since.

But I’m not just laughing at myself. The book is short. It could be a pamphlet if it weren’t stuffed (padded?) with page after page of historical examples of people promoted into ruin. You say and do silly things when you are in this position.

The ad in the real estate section of a San Fernando Valley newspaper read, “Luxury Homes Everyone Can Afford. For Complete Details, Call Repossession Department.”

Early on he lays out what this means to humanity and how we should handle it. We should have a plan in place to get rid of incompetent employees….or incompetent presidents. He suggests when you have a competent person at the top who recognizes an error, but for whatever reason can’t demote or fire the employee there is an escape clause. Have you ever wondered why there are so many vice presidents in corporations? Demotion by way of promotion. He suggests when we realize our president is incompetent we should promote him away from real responsibility and, instead, let the him host dinners and parties and play golf and pose for pictures. Wait a minute…

So let’s cut to the quick. When should an employee stop accepting promotion? He gets to the point on page 12.

During my preceding twenty-eight years in education I had progressed from student-teacher to classroom teacher, to department head, to counselor, to psychologist, to administrator of mental health services, to university professor. In each position I had felt creative, confident and competent, but at this final level I felt fulfilled. The teaching was rewarding….I thought I had reached my level of optimal effectiveness in my chosen profession, where I was regularly experiencing the joy of accomplishment that comes from working on projects of intense personal interest.

All joking aside, I am taking my new role seriously. I am not afraid of it. I am having some fun and learning. The change in work load has proven more taxing than I ever imagined but we are making adjustments. But when will it go sour? Will I realize my limits before I exceed them? Dunno. This book indicates that we, as humans, never see it coming so I better learn to laugh about it now.


Taxation? Inflation? Tomato?

Speaking of things I can laugh about, let’s laugh about money. I have no control over the dollar. It’s just an abstract way to move energy from place to place and time to time. And time is the real issue with money. We need it now. Now! I could list off 50 things I need to buy right now and could present link after link of opinion on why I should for the sake of the economy…an economy that is dominated by consumption.

But let’s talk briefly about that. Consumers don’t make stuff. They consume stuff. The world is a better place when we all have what we need. But you can’t have something that was never made. Somebody has to make it. Then somebody has to make it cheaper, better and longer lasting. But improvements in technology and manufacturing require investment. You know those 50 things I need to buy right now? How much will you pay me if I loan you the money for those things? You have to pay me to do without…cause I need those things now.

If your offer is high enough, I may be willing to delay gratification. That’s how interest rates are set naturally. You have to perk my interest. Now, that’s all fantasy land talk because interest rates are not based on investor interest, they are set by a committee of our fellow citizens in our free society but …well, I digress. Just understand that the committee thinks we are all better off if we avoid capital investment and, instead, buy a bunch of electronic gadgets so we can watch movies on the go.

In fact, our little committee is not the only committee in the world to feel that way. Australia, apparently, is interested in taxing savings. I don’t know if this is a grab for cash or if it is an effort to incentivize spending and, thus, the velocity of money but it’s not good. But it’s also not the end of the world. There was a link to a Martin Armstrong article this week on ZeroHedge. Some portion of Martin’s material may be a good fit in the the Peter Principle book’s chapter on failed prognostications. But he’s also hysterical so let’s focus on that today.

Oh! My! Gosh! Governments are going to tax us when we earn, tax us when we spend, tax us when we die….and now tax us when we save?!?!?! Dogs and cats living together! Mass Hysteria!

I don’t know where to begin. Maybe this way. Don’t save in Australian dollars. There. I said it. Problem solved. Put that energy into cattle instead. Or buy foreign currency. Or metal. Or Bitcoin. Find a place to park that energy that is not in the bank. I mean, that’s the intent of the legislation. The Australian government is asking people to stop saving in banks. That’s it. No big deal. I guess they want to undercapitalize their banks. Maybe cause a new round of bank failure and lower asset values.

OK. No problem.

But why is direct taxation of savings any different than inflationary monetary policy? At least it is honest. And the guy who has no savings (most of us) doesn’t care if savings are taxed. He also doesn’t see when he loses buying power to inflation…until it’s too late.


So that’s what I’ve been reading lately. I’ll try to keep up with the blog a little more regularly but with the adjustment I’m making at work…well, it’s tempting to just come home every night and start drinking. Heavily. I hope to post some updates on changes Julie and I have made on the farm so the workload is more manageable and I’m more free to fall on the couch in the evening.

Thanks for taking time to read this today. I really appreciate it. If you don’t think management competence and interest rates are farming topics you’re in for a shock. I treated both of these topics lightly…and did so on purpose. I’ll have more books about management coming up because that’s where I’m at.

Click here to see all entries in my reading journal.

 

Picturing Home

The camera is a limited tool…and when I say “camera” I mean phone. It only captures a moment and it often captures that moment incorrectly…without context. There are no sounds, smells or emotions. Just a little slice of the morning.

Morning

But it looks pretty.

What was really happening that morning? What did the camera miss?

It was cold. The weather has been warm but that morning was chilly. The air smelled fresh. There was very little wind. Buffalo Gnats were beginning to hatch and bite. Julie has an oil that works great but those darned gnats are just awful. They are the reason we raise our broilers so early in the season then stop. Our first year the gnats were particularly thick and we lost a number of birds to them. They bit under feathers and choked up airways. Dad and I were standing in the driveway one evening wearing bee gear butchering birds as fast as we could as the gnats found their way through our armor. We don’t want to go through that again. Ever. So we start chicks on Valentine’s day…which has its own drawbacks. But we know the seasons of the bugs, the plants, the frost pockets, the routine on this farm.

So the picture above doesn’t capture the relief I feel knowing my chicken tractors are empty. My brooder is empty. My freezers are emptying. It’s a great feeling but hard to capture on film.

Mom and dad were gone to visit grandpa Jordan so I had extra chores that morning caring for their dogs and horses. The picture doesn’t capture how I feel about that…delighted. Dad lets our dog out if we are gone during the day. Dad checks livestock water even when we are home. Dad closes the chicken house for me sometimes. He has even offered to milk. I’m glad I can help them out…unless they need tech support.

The picture shows knee-high grass. The picture doesn’t show my anxiety about grass. The grass wasn’t growing fast enough for my level of patience. Cows were somewhere out there in one of dozen or so temporary paddocks I set up. Shortly after I took this picture we went through a dry spell so I increased the rotation time from 12-14 days to 20 days. Did I slow down too much? Did the cows start taking too much off of the pasture? The picture doesn’t know.

Julie was gone that day too. She had flown to a conference in Salt Lake City. The picture doesn’t know I was missing her. Because we are early risers, and because she had flown west, she was the first one awake at the resort. She and I chatted while she drank coffee and she commented that the sounds were all alien there. And the birds were radically different. For example, we don’t have magpies here. Somehow you don’t think of the specific species and sounds that surround you when you think of home. Here the spring peepers (Pseudacris Crucifer) make a loud chirp in the distance and cricket frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) trill away night and day. The birds make familiar noises. While Julie was surprised to see a porcupine in Utah, I’m not surprised at all when I scare up a rabbit or quail in the tall grass or see a skunk in the early morning. Those are familiar animals. The picture doesn’t capture the feeling of familiarity with the environment.

In my mind the picture above looks like home…but not just by sight. Oh, there are familiar things in the picture. Grandpa harvested walnut trees when he and grandma were married. There is still walnut lumber tucked away here and there. Further, grandpa had a bulldozer. Most of our walnut trees grew after that. I enjoy the burr oak behind the cemetery and the cemetery itself. The adults couldn’t hide Easter eggs in the yard because we could always just peek out of a window to see what was going on so they hid the eggs in the cemetery. Weird, I know, but that’s part of my childhood. And I see these things when I look at that picture…even though they aren’t visible. Heck, just down the hill from the burr oak (that large, spreading tree just behind the plastic fence) is a small grove of walnut with no lower limbs below 12 feet. Grandpa’s herd was in that pasture when I was 8 or 10. I didn’t know they were there but I was well trained to fear the bull, Leroy. I was walking down to play in the stream when I realized my mistake…I was surrounded by cows and too far from the house for anyone to hear me. I tried hiding behind a tree. The cows walked around to the other side of the tree and looked at me some more. Eventually the cows realized I didn’t have any food and decided to seek their entertainment elsewhere. I felt stupid, went back to the house, washed up and ate some frozen fruit salad during the October cemetery committee meeting/family reunion. Do you see that in the picture? Do you see the sledding I have done with my children on that hill? Cover the hill with snow. We gather just at the crest near the fence, pile onto a sled all together and try to avoid thorny saplings as we disappear out of sight. The camera has no idea what I am talking about.

The picture only knows about the sun rising over the trees in the distance, plastic fence around a cemetery, green grass, poultry netting and a chicken house built by three generations of Jordans on a hot day last summer. But so much more was happening that the camera missed. So much more happening every morning. And I just don’t have time to stop and write it all down.

So the camera does what it can to help me.

Three Minus One

Two calves were born Friday morning. I kind of think the bull calf ran out…and just kept running. What an energetic little guy.

BullCalf

The heifer calf from our dairy cow was a little slow getting up but she’s a happy, spirited little one too. And now we get to milk a cow again. Please note the enthusiasm in my writing voice.

IMG_20150507_104114

Another calf came on Sunday evening. This story ends differently.

Some of my blog posts are more real than others. Not more honest, just more…just…sometimes…sometimes farming is really hard and I try to address it. This is one of the hard posts.

I don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff…though I do hear it going on in a loop in my head. “Was it my fault?” “Could I have done more?”

I don’t know.

But I do remember my grandfather. So let’s go there instead.

I have strong memories of the farm when I was much younger. Grandpa had the herd in the feedlot across the road by the red barn. I guess it was spring and Sis and I were visiting for a weekend. Grandpa took me out to do chores then, later, to meet with a man about some equipment. One of the cows in the lot was pregnant and grandpa said she should calve soon. Grandpa needed to run and take care of a little business and it looked like the cow would wait. When we got back I was excited to see a calf peeking out of the back end of the cow! Grandpa was alarmed.

That cow couldn’t have that calf without help. Grandpa saw it, dropped me off at the house to get some milk and cookies then went to help the cow. I don’t think he even changed clothes. I assume they pulled the calf.

The calf didn’t make it. The next morning I saw it laying on the tailgate of grandpa’s truck. I remember its tongue was sticking out and its eyes were open.

I cried.

That one event has made a lasting impression on me. For example, I actively seek out bulls that throw calves with a low birth weight and cows that calve easily. But I have so many questions for my grandpa. Just questions about this one event! But I didn’t know or think to ask 30 years ago.

So I just have to put things together from what I know about Grandpa. I obviously admired the man. I found my grandpa to be loving and caring, though some found him to be harsh and hard. I don’t remember sitting on grandpa’s lap reading stories. I don’t remember him ever taking me fishing. That wasn’t his thing. But he took me with him to do chores…even if I had to wear bread sacks over my shoes and he took me to cattle auctions.

I can picture my grandpa smiling and laughing – maybe more of a chuckle than a loud laugh – but I don’t remember him ever telling a joke. I saw him kiss my grandma once. He was an intelligent man and a hard worker. He was honest. And he would let me prattle on and on about whatever stupid things children think to say. He was big and strong and steady and he didn’t need to talk much. When he spoke to me it often started with, “Now listen…”.

The only thing he said about the calf was, “Now listen, sometimes this happens.” Then we went out to do chores.

I lost a calf this morning. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.

It must have hurt grandpa that day.

But I guess sometimes this happens. I still have to do my chores.

Grandpa didn’t cry.

I can’t imagine my grandpa wondering to himself, “Am I a failure?” I can imagine grandpa evaluating the livestock involved, making appropriate management decisions that needed to be made and moving forward.

Sunday afternoon a calf was born. My nephew spent the night and was there to see the calf shortly after it was born. Then he went back to my house for a snack. The little heifer never stood up. At first I thought she just needed more time so I stepped away to give mom some alone time with her calf. I came back to check her and things were only worse. I massaged her spine, I tried to stand her up, I rubbed her legs, Dad and Steve and I fed her with a tube. No response. A little grunt, a little manure, no strength in her legs. She died early the next morning.

I came back to the house at 10pm, my arms and clothes covered in dried blood, manure and amniotic fluid. My nephew had gotten out of bed to go potty and saw me come in. He asked, “Whatch doin?”

How do I explain?

What do I say?

My nephew will not see a little dead calf laying on the tailgate of the truck in the morning. Maybe he will never know what happened. He didn’t see me cry. What did he see? What does he see when he looks at me? Do I read him stories or take him fishing? Or am I just busy?

My grandpa was a strong, loving, caring man. A better man than me by any measure. He would be working now, not typing. And he certainly wouldn’t be crying. He would not be questioning his decision to farm. He would not be wondering if he would ever do anything right.

He would make notes about the bull and the cow. He would dispose of the calf. Then he would get back to work.

I need to ditch the drama and get back to work…with this one, small tweak. My nephew needs to KNOW that I treasure him more than any cow. My children need to know that. My wife needs to know that. Grandpa worked hard and Grandpa loved us. And I knew it.

Grandpa still has a lot to teach me.

Let it Grow!

MrsWhite

I see Mrs. White in the morning light
Not a cow pie to be seen
A kingdom of grass and forbs
And Julie is the Queen!

Let it grow! Let it grow!
Can’t hold the cows back anymore!

I divided our farm into 10 temporary paddocks late in March and the cows graze 3 acres of fresh grass every day. The idea is to give them the very best of the very best of the pasture without putting pressure on the grass. Right now I want grass growth, not animal density. The more grass there is the more grass there will be because, if you watch, a 6″ blade of grass will double in size faster than a 1″ blade of grass. Bigger solar collector? Different maturity? Both? Dunno. Never finished reading Voisin. But it happens.

So we move the cows quickly to keep them from munching the grass down to the dirt. 9 days later the grass is ready to rock again.

MorningGrass

I hear your questions. “When do we move them?” “How do we know they are getting enough?” “Honey, where is my super suit?” I lack certainty concerning all three. Frozone built a case for his super suit behind the murphy bed. But the suit isn’t there. Did his wife put it somewhere else? Did Frozone simply forget to put it away? I have no idea. It’s one of the great unanswerable questions of life. The viewer is only left to assume he found it somewhere in the house and that his dinner will be served cold.

We move the cattle later in the day when sugar content in the grass is high. Usually the cows are so fat and full it’s hard to convince them to move to a new buffet. We open the fence. We call. We circle behind them and zig zag like a border collie to get them moving and hope for the best. I don’t worry about the cattle eating enough. They obviously eat enough. I worry about them leaving enough behind. I just want the cows to graze a little off of each plant, distribute manure and move on quickly.

But the time will come when I start to worry about them eating enough…eating enough of high-quality. I monitor grass regrowth during each rotation. When the starting point is ready to graze again the cows go back to the starting point. Heck with the rest of the farm. It will grow rank and dense and overly mature and will still be standing there waiting when we enter the late-summer drought. That reserve forage will buy us recovery time. The only thing is we have to reserve a different part of the farm each year. So we start in a different pasture each spring.

But there is even more involved than that oversimplified view. Right now the cows get lots of grass…cause there is lots of growth. Soon we’ll put on the brakes. Instead of covering the whole farm in 10 days we’ll cover the farm in 45 days. Or 90 days. Seasons change. In the early part of April I was worried that I had the cows out too soon and grass wasn’t growing. Now I have so much stinking grass I’m worried that I’ll never get through it all. But it won’t be long and the rain will stop. Then I’ll flip back the other way. We’ll slow the cows down. We will manage differently.

Kind of exciting. Well, I think it’s exciting anyway.

Did you know I have children? If you missed any of today’s pop culture references ask someone who has children.

All By Myself…With Lots of Help

Julie was out of town last week. She left me…for 4 days. 4 days. 4 long days. Lonely, sleepless nights waking up and wondering why she is not next to me…over and over every night. She is supposed to be next to me. She is always next to me.

But I was on my own.

All on my own.

By myself.

Just me.

If my mom and her mom hadn’t cooked us dinner we would have starved. Mom even served us steak and sweet potatoes on Wednesday!

Yup. Just me. All by myself.

Dad kept water in front of the chickens while I was at work.

Cause I was all alone last week. Farming by myself. Without any help at all…except for all of the people who did all of the work.

All kidding aside, it was pretty rough. It’s not just that Julie was missing, it’s that with Julie gone the kids couldn’t help around the house during the day…cause they went to Grandma’s. So we were behind on housework too.

I openly acknowledge that the farm hinges on Julie but WOW! Just wow! When she is gone everything changes from difficult but tolerable to hard nearing impossible. I would get home from work and start collecting eggs, moving cows, carrying feed, doing laundry, washing dishes…who has time to eat? Even if mom made tacos for dinner Friday…I just didn’t have the time.

And nobody cooked breakfast while I did chores in the morning.

And nobody packed my lunch while I was getting ready for work.

So I didn’t eat.

And I didn’t sleep.

And I missed her. A lot.

I didn’t want to eat or sleep. I just wanted her to come home. Today’s texting was fairly typical. Farm work, relationship work, more farm work…

Texting

I know there are single parents out there. I know there are even single parents with jobs. There may even be single parents with jobs and farms too. Single parents with jobs and farms who don’t live near family. And I tip my hat to them. I don’t know how they do it.

And while I certainly missed eating and sleeping, I just missed her. Our youngest cried on our bed with her face smashed into Julie’s pillow saying the pillow smelled like mommy. I know just how she felt. This isn’t about food or gathering eggs or housework. I missed my friend Julie.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s weird. Maybe I’m too clingy. But we are a team. We are united in a common vision. And when she’s gone…it’s like…it’s like I can’t see the vision clearly anymore. Or that the vision doesn’t matter when she is away.

But she’s home now. And I need to sleep.

tired

 

Reading Journal 2015 Week 17

Spring has sped up our lives. Reading has necessarily slowed down.

Julie was out of town this week at a doTERRA conventionmeetinggathering…thing….leaving me with the farm, my job, the kids, no food and even less time to read.

But I did do a little reading. Dad sent me a text on Thursday suggesting I read the new FOFOA. Now, before I give you a link let’s be clear. I’m not a gold bug. I’m also not a dollar bug. I might be a cow bug. I’m certainly a family bug. I mean, my kids are a pretty good basket to put all my eggs in. But I find FOFOA fascinating. His solution to all the world’s problems is gold. And maybe it is. But the thoughts he puts into each post is very interesting. He had a series over the last few years about learning to think like truly wealthy people. If you earned 100 million dollars every day…well, what would you do? It’s a difficult question for the house of Saud to deal with.

Anyway, fun stuff.

The post dad had me read this week was titled “Death and Taxes“. Now, I’m not interested in using my farm blog as a political platform and I’m fairly certain FOFOA feels the same. But there are important considerations. Let me give you an example that relates to FOFOA’s post.

The last time the 80 to the north sold grandpa bought it from his uncle for $10k. That was somewhere around 1950. 65 years later the same land sold for considerably more money. What happened to send land prices from $125 to current levels? What does it mean that the average land price in Illinois is listed at $7,520?

Is the land 60x more productive than it was in 1950? Can it raise 60x more cattle? No. It grows nearly 4x the corn though…at 4x the price. So that helps. But are we 60x more wealthy than my grandfather was in 1950?

ChismFamily

I’m going to say no.

Oh, there are lots of things around that improve our lives. I appreciate modern medicine and, obviously, the internet. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Are farmers wealthy or do they just have a lot of money? Or do they have any money at all? Is it all tied up in land at absurd valuations?

I don’t know.

But I do know the average productivity gains have not kept pace with average land valuations. So what gives? Is it simply that the dollar buys less land than it used to? Obviously. But what does that mean? Did land go up or did dollars go down? Or both?

I believe even FOFOA would concede that gold offers no real frame of reference because paper gold trading has thrown that market out of whack just as artifically low interest rates have thrown real estate investment out of whack. So what is real?

Are cattle prices real? Dunno. Let’s look at Aunt Marian’s tax records from 1950 shall we?

1950Ledger

They bought a cow in 1948 for $190. They sold it in 1950 for $200. I have to assume there was a calf or two along the way but let’s ignore that. I don’t know what kind of cow it was. Let’s imagine it’s a Hereford that weighs in around 1,100 pounds (cause they were smaller then). It would be nice to buy a cow for $0.18. Today (April 2015) that would be more along the lines of $1.51.

What gives? Well, lots of things. Drought out west has driven the brood cow numbers down. And dollars really don’t buy what they used to. That’s the intended consequence of inflationary monetary policy. I’m not saying it’s good or bad here, I’m saying we need to understand how the game is played so we can try to win.

Are cattle overpriced? Dunno.

Are dollars underpriced? Dunno.

Are $4 eggs cheap or expensive or priced just right?

That I do know the answer to. $4 eggs are cheap. Nobody bats an eye at that price. Nobody. A man once told me he raises his price enough each year to lose 20-30% of his customers. Wow! WOW! But that’s a price the market will dictate…even if he creates his own market.

But what is the market on land? What is the market on cattle? What is the market on dollars? Are these markets functioning correctly? Dunno.

What does any of this have to do with the FOFOA post?

Everything.

What do these prices mean? Am I rich because I have thorny trees in my pastures and holes in my perimeter fence? No. But I have land and, somewhat accidentally, suffer a higher net worth for reasons I don’t sufficiently understand. Right place at the right time maybe? Look in from the outside you might envy the value of our farmland today. But 50 years from now when the kids are picking  just the right spot on the next hill over to park a rock with my name on it what will land be worth? Will the envious be satisfied? Will land prices bottom out just as I pass showing a loss on the estate over time?

Dunno.

But I do know that between now and then I have an obligation. I have to build real, lasting wealth. I have to cut thorny, unwanted trees. I have to plant productive trees. I have to build ponds. I have to spread manure. I have to take what I have and make it better for my children. Because this is theirs. I have to nurture my relationships with my children. I have to grow emotionally, spiritually and …and… (what’s the word for making yourself more smarter?). That’s wealth that can’t be taxed away. And all of that…all of it…counts as what FOFOA was describing. It’s savings. I’m saving fertility for the future. I’m putting off gratification today in favor of a better future, never putting my faith in the paper value of my assets. Instead, we value and leverage for just what it is. A child. An apple tree. A cool evening walking through the pasture.

I plant seeds. I pray. I work to protect my harvest from bugs and decay. Some loss is inevitable but I do my best. That’s what farming is.

Julie read this post and had a few suggestions and thoughts. First of all, she pointed out that we have to pay $300 in property tax (same as rent) every month for the privilege of owning the land. Does the farm generate a return on that? Nope. I have a job in town. So why do people buy farms?

Well, I’m sure there are some farmers who actually own the land they farm but not the current majority…imo. Most “farmers” are renters. They rent land that is owned by someone else…someone who earned buying power elsewhere and needed to park that in a vehicle that is relatively illiquid and relatively safe. Farmland.

So with that in mind do current farm prices reflect current farm productivity and profits or do they reflect expected future valuations based on the hope of gains and the indication that dollar purchasing power will continue to decline?

I don’t know. I know that I am paying a high price to live a certain lifestyle. To give my children opportunities that statistically zero other children get. All while working the same ground my family has worked for nearly 200 years. And I know the tax man cometh.

Am I making sound business decisions?

Probably not. But we are eating well.

Live Like Common Farmers

My writing persona would lead the reader to believe I have been down lately. Maybe I have been but, if so, I think it was due to our recent illness. Among other things, that cold was an effective weight-loss strategy. Let’s count our blessings today beginning with an extreme contrast.

Look, I get it. It’s an expression of hopelessness and frustration and anger at a feeling of impotence and the lack of understanding by tourists who think they can pretend to belong. Let’s focus on the chorus.

You will never understand
What it means to live your life
With no meaning or control

When you’re laying in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all

You know, I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it means to live my life with no meaning or control. I am not a slave. And, honestly, there are any number of people, including my dad, I can count on for help.

And maybe that’s what saddens me most about the song. The singer is lonely. He claims to dance and drink and screw because there is nothing else to do…not because that’s a recipe for a fun Saturday night. And maybe there is nothing else to do. And maybe nobody cares. Maybe there are no jobs, no food and no escaping the trap…like the siege of Sarajevo. But mostly the song is about loneliness and envy and loss of community. And I think that’s sad.

I have spent a lot of time writing about my relationship with Julie and how that relationship rates in importance above the farm, above my job, above almost everything else. Even above the children. My relationship with Julie will last, potentially, another 50 years after my children move into homes of their own. Only my relationship with God will last longer.

PastureWalk

But I have to invest in other relationships as well. That word “invest” is carefully chosen. I don’t have any money. Whatever you think of me, whoever you think I am, whatever your perception of my lifestyle, I don’t have any money. None. I have a few cattle. I borrow my farm from the bank. Our one vehicle has 173,000 miles on it. But I am fantastically, amazingly rich because I have surrounded myself with people who genuinely care about me. And because I have a library card…and Amazon Prime…but let’s not focus on that right now.

Let’s start with my parents. I love my parents. I love my mother. Do you know what I hate more than anything? I hate fixing computers. I would rather go to the dentist. But I’ll work on my mom’s computer because I love her. And I know she loves me. My dad is quite probably my best friend…though I don’t quite have a peer relationship with him because that’s not how it works. But I can talk to my dad about anything. Whatever is going on he has always been there. He has always been supportive and solid and secure. Anything I need…anything at all. Dad is there. And my parents have continued to love me through some pretty rough stuff.

I am under the impression that not everyone maintains loving relationships with their family as was illustrated by the song above.

And it goes far beyond family. Julie and I have surrounded ourselves with a community that loves us. My goodness, friends came over Saturday to help us butcher chickens. Now that’s friendship! How can I ever repay the Carpenters? I don’t know. But that’s a problem worthy of my attention. One problem we are facing, as I related in a recent post, is our distance and isolation from many of our friends. We have to make time for others in our busy schedule. We have to make time to drive to town. Not only do I have to take Julie on dates from time to time, I have to make time to sit and play cards. Make time to visit. Make time to listen. We have to make time…this is not something I am good at. We have to put our phones down, stop doing chores and just be in the moment with our spouse, our family and with our community. It’s hard but it’s important.

Because I have friends and family I will never understand what it means to live my life with no meaning or control. I am reasonably confident that if I’m in need, if I have made a series of bad decisions or am simply down on my luck I can call someone for help.

And that’s how agriculture works. If you want to live like common farmers do, you help friends and family with their computer problems and you help butcher chickens and you hang drywall. You celebrate children’s birthdays. You invest in people. You plant seeds in people’s lives and harvest the reward…love. Sometimes love is expressed in the form of help getting the hay in the barn or the chicken in the freezer.

That’s how you live like a common farmer. That’s how you get through the hard work. You lean on your loved ones. You laugh together. You work together. You happily sacrifice your own wants in preference to their needs…knowing it will come back to you many times over.

I have to hope that the common person illustrated in the song – a suffering, lonely person drowning in a sea of suffering, lonely people – finds meaningful connections with others. Money won’t cure envy. Education won’t stop you from feeling like a victim.

If you want true wealth, plant seeds in other people’s lives. And cast a little bread upon the water.

Reading Journal 2015 Week 15

Res Rusticae.

I read the first book in this series this week. What a treasure. Before I dive in and begin quoting, I want to pause. I wish I could read Latin and Greek. This translation was enjoyable but I have to wonder what I’m missing. Let me give you an example. “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? He didn’t have the guts.” Now let’s imagine the punchline in translation. “Because he lacked the intestinal fortitude.” The joke falls flat.

I can’t imagine hearing Shakespeare in its original Klingon. Much ado about Nothing….or Noting. Play on words. Does that work in translation? Dunno. Am I missing anything by reading ancient books in translation? Dunno.

Drives me bananas.

With that out of the way, let’s start in the middle.

In the first place, agriculture is not only an art but an art which is as useful as it is important. It is furthermore a science, which teaches how every kind of land should be planted and cultivated, and how to know what kind of land will produce the largest crops for the longest time.

It’s fun to read the agricultural works of empires past. The Romans, just as the British, recognized the need for order but also made allowances for variation based on climate and conditions. Fences vary between regions in Italy. Look at the regional differences between hedge laying across England. Heck, Henderson drew a line from Somerset to York saying if you lived north and west of that line, raise livestock. If you live South and East, raise crops. Henderson’s words were probably not so cut and dry but that’s basically what he said. Even within that oversimplification of Henderson’s words there was some gray area but it’s a guideline for assistance in determining where you should buy land for the type of crops you want to grow.

Books bring the past to the present. Books are created by people with wealth and resources and sometimes even by people with knowledge. A key to enlightenment, I think, is being able to say, “I don’t know.” It appears that the current culture is afraid of variation. Afraid of regional differences and leaving out artistry and judgement. “Just put your cows out on grass and move them around each day” is terrible advice. “Add chickens to boost fertility. Dig swales, plant trees on contour.” But that’s how we do everything. Democrats and Republicans. Cardinals and Cubs. No middle ground. Nobody saying, “You know, tetanus vaccines make a lot of sense but maybe there’s room to question the efficacy of flu vaccines.” Nope. Now I’m anti-vax. Similarly, “Never, never, never use chemical herbicides. Those are 100% pure evil.”

Maybe they are evil. Maybe you could change the world putting pigs on pasture in November. You might change the world. You might. Maybe for the worse. Res Rusticae is written as a transcription of a group discussion of agriculture and a survey of prior literature on the topic. There are allowances made for regional differences. The writers are willing to say, “This may not work here.” And that’s OK. The writers were willing to discuss and think. I also think they were willing to be wrong and to cut their losses when they made a mistake.

The farm which is healthiest is the most valuable, for there the profit is certain. On the other hand, on an unhealthy farm, however fertile it may be, misfortune dogs the steps of the farmer. For where the struggle is against Death, there not only is the profit uncertain, but one’s very existence is constantly at risk: and so agriculture becomes a gamble in which the farmer hazards both his life and his fortune.

They go on later to write that if your land is unhealthy you should sell it and get out. If you can’t sell it, give it away.

I made an emotional decision when I bought my land. I was not rational. I made a mistake. That’s hard for me to admit. I’m too far from my customer base. My land is marginal at best. My slopes primarily face north and are far too steep to be useful. The second story windows on our house leak when it rains, the septic tank smells and it’s impossible to heat the house. I have too many buildings, all in disrepair and, as the book points out, those repairs come out of the profits. But it’s my family land. I just wanted it. That’s bad business. And, let me tell you, it affects morale.

A better business decision may have been to just stay in town and replace my burning bush with blueberries. Plant productive plants in place of ornamentals. Sell surplus produce from my yard. That would have been so much easier! And with faster internet!

“Is not Italy so covered with fruit trees that it seems one vast orchard?”

If only Illinois were so planted! But I wasn’t happy with a quarter of an acre. I wanted 60 acres. I can’t plant 60 acres. I spend my days working to pay for 60 acres. There just isn’t time to manage it too. Let’s listen to our author on this topic:

The Italian farmer looks chiefly for two things in consideration of a farm, whether it will yield a harvest proportioned to the capital and labour he must invest, and whether the location is healthy. Whoever neglects either of these considerations and despite them proposes to carry on a farm, is a fool and should be taken in charge by a committee of his relatives. For no sane man is willing to spend on an agricultural operation time and money which he knows he cannot recoup, nor even if he sees a likely profit, if it must be at the risk of losing all by an evil climate.

How’s that sitting? Illinois climate is good. But the business climate is questionable. I have a variable interest rate. Things could go south quickly. Is my family more healthy running over the hills, swimming in the ponds, working side by side? Absolutely. But are we stressed by the pressures and the distance from work and church and customers? Absolutely.

I should be taken in charge by a committee of my relatives.

They tried.

Again, I made an emotional decision. We ***WANTED*** a farm. Wanted. Didn’t need. When we lived in town I was able to save nearly half of every paycheck. I had free time galore. We could read, walk, visit, participate in activities around town. Now? Not at all. The money is all gone. The time is all gone. We are skinny and strong and tired…and maybe that’s good but, well, we’re tired.

The purposes of agriculture are profit and pleasure.

I think it’s safe to say we are having fun out here. I sound a little down in the paragraphs above. But doing my taxes this spring was a slap in the face…as it is every year. Some friends from church came over yesterday to help us butcher 100 broilers. That was a fun day. Really. I’m tired and sore but everybody had a chance to do every step along the way. We had some laughs. We had time to chat and visit. We got the work done and sent our friends home with a load of chickens for themselves. We profited by our association with them. I hope they profited by their association with us. I hope everybody came out ahead. But financially? If I had to butcher and market chickens every day? I don’t think so. Not at $3/pound.

And maybe that’s a good summary of my frustrations. Low interest rates have driven up asset values. Market intervention has driven down food prices. I have to pay too much for land and charge too little for produce. I’m goosed at both ends by a system I can’t control. And I live an hour from my primary customer base.

The current financial market has to be weighed along with other factors when choosing the right land for your profit and pleasure and health. Emotions are poor counselors.

Do you really want a farm? Or do you want productive land where you can be happy? Maybe the latter option is in your own back yard. Maybe you need to move to a healthier environment. But don’t let your emotions carry you away. Farmers in the ’80’s were driven by fear to buy more and more land at seemingly any price because, “They aren’t making any more of it”. What is driving you?

Update:

Julie and I were discussing and I’m worried that I sound regretful in this post. I am not regretful. I’m happy to have the farm. Given the choice, I would almost certainly do it again. Our farm income situation is largely a result of our laziness and lack of experience and marketing reach. My goal in this post was to reflect on my motivations and to measure to what extent I have achieved success toward our goals. It’s fun to read Romans talking about what defines a Roman…and to strive to adhere to Roman ideals. What defines a Jordan? Are we emotional or reasoning or prayerful? Are we regretful? Filled with self-doubt? Or are we confident and able to continue striving forward whatever the obstacle? Well, maybe I’m not the man I would like to be. Maybe I have doubts. Maybe that’s OK.

Reading Journal 2015 Week Whatever

OK. I finished Adventure Capitalist. In fact, I finished it this morning. I was laying awake in bed, thinking about all of my many failures and decided to read the book instead of continuing to wallow in self-pity.

Really, I am a very blessed person. But MAN! do I screw some stuff up! There are things I forget, things I neglect, things I just don’t get around to. Things I put off. Things I try to pretend don’t exist so they will someday just go away.

I write this blog thing sometimes. I post pictures of cows and green grass and chickens…but is any of it real? You want to know what’s going on behind the scenes? I look at my cows multiple times each day wondering if I’m not making a serious mistake. Am I grazing too early? Are they getting what they need? Then there are other things. How are we going to butcher all of those chickens next weekend? And what on Earth are we going to do with all of the eggs we are getting right now?

This book was particularly difficult because the author continually forces you to consider the efficiency with which you are utilizing your resources. Am I investing in productive assets here on the farm or am I pouring money in a bottomless pit?

And that’s where I transition away from my therapy session to talking about the book. As Jim Rogers travels from country to country he takes time to discuss where each government or dictator is misallocating capital. As he goes through Africa he comments multiple times about the strongly negative effects of foreign aid on countries and cultures. Deliveries of rice and wheat arrive in a small town in Africa. People pour in from the countryside…program looks like a success. Then everybody takes their allotment of food and sells it at the market for cash…at any price. Apparently the food didn’t meet the needs. But it’s easy for us to grow and ship food and to feel good about ourselves for doing so.

What Ethiopia lacks is the incentives to get food to the people who need it. Seeing leaking water towers all over the country, I was reminded that Indian economist Amartya Sen had won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that most famines are caused not by a lack of food but by government bungling.

What kind of bungling? Geez. How silly is our own agricultural world? The government has its hand in every step of the process from the interest rate when you borrow to the kinds of crops you are allowed to grow to the price you receive at market. But it could be worse. Another country could be dropping off free food here putting me entirely out of business.

Massive amounts of aid in the form of free food have been going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived. People from all over the countryside came into town on their donkeys – well, not into town, but near it. The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about three kilometers from town and walked the rest of the way. There were hundreds of donkeys around, waiting on the edge of town, and hundreds of people in the center of town waiting for the food trucks to arrive.

While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore. An entire generation of Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm. Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey, and collect grain. Some recipients, the day we were in Lalibela, carried their ration of wheat directly over to the town market and started selling it. And so, in addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer sell the fruits of their labor – there is no way to compete with free grain.

Africa could feed itself and export food again, but not when its farmers are up against subsidized Western agriculture and free lunches.

He then illustrates the same point with clothing drives. Feels great to give old shirts to charity. But then what happens? Charity ends right there. Then lots of clothing are auctioned and distributed to other markets in Africa. It’s hard for tailors to compete with clothing coming in at no cost. So there are few tailors anymore. Little textile activity at all. Maybe that’s good. Maybe we need less global competition. It appears that our churches and charities believe it is better to keep Africa poor and under our thumb than to allow them to develop.

So what do I do with this line of thought? I can list a hundred ways I’m strongly and negatively effected by varying policies and beliefs. But then what? I could light up my blog with fussing about our silly government. But then what? I still have to pay my taxes. The rain still falls. The sun still shines. As long as I understand the rules as they stand today I can continue to adapt to them.

And that’s what Rogers sees as he travels. He sees people adapting. Living. Not just surviving, but making the most with what they’ve got. The example above, of leaking Ethiopian water towers, applies to me too. Boy does it! I have a leaking water system right now. I’ve got to plug the leaks in all of my finances. But I also need to plug the leaks in our emotions. It’s emotionally draining to look at certain portions of the farm. The junk piles, the brush piles, the thorny saplings, the damaged fences. Brings me down and keeps me awake in the morning. That’s not a good use of my emotional capital. But it hasn’t been a big enough deal that I’ve bothered to do anything about it…just as Ethiopia hasn’t had to bother about their leaky water towers.

As the book came to a close I got the feeling that Jim was getting tired. His father had passed away while he traveled. Australia, NZ, South America and the US are really just blips on the radar as he passes through. I think the best part of the book was his trip through Africa, though traveling west through Russia was eye-opening in its own way.

I spent a month reading and digesting this book. Dad got through it in two sittings. I really enjoyed it. Dad did too. If you want my opinion, though, take the time to mull things over and argue with the author. His responses might offer an opportunity for real growth and self-discovery. And that’s why we read any book.

Next week I’m reading through Columella’s Res Rustica on dad’s suggestion. In this case, I’m not pausing for argument with the author, simply attempting to cover the material. I also have a hankering to read some more Wodehouse.

Spring Greening

We are still sick. All of us. My 14-year old 6’2″ eating machine seems to be faring the best of all of us…but I think he’s just late to the party. Whatever this cough thing is, it got the better of me. I rarely get sick. I don’t remember ever taking two sick days in a row before. Yesterday I went with Julie and the boy to help move the cows. I couldn’t keep up with them. They were walking too fast. Ultimately, I just lay down in the warm sunshine on a south-facing slope, feeling the tender, fresh, green grass around me. Still too cool for bugs but the sunshine was warm on my face. It was pretty comfy.

GoingToWork

Unrelated to the topic, there is about a ten degree difference year-round between the top of the hill and the little valley the boy is about to walk through. It’s pretty amazing. We try to walk up the valley on warm summer evenings because the rush of cool air flowing past us is great.

The chickens and cows are North of the hog building. We have the old flock of layers out there and running unfenced. I have mixed feelings about this but, really, I think the hens are doing very well and seem to be laying their eggs in the nest boxes.

FreeChickens

The cows grazed the area pictured above a little more than a week ago. We are just about ready to mash the accelerator pedal on our pasture. I had trouble getting my cattle to shed out their winter coats last spring. Mark Bader responded to an email and suggested the cows were low on energy and that I should speed up the rotation in the early spring. OK. We’ll give it a try. In a few days I’ll split the farm up into a 10-day rotation giving the cows 3-4 acres each day. They can be as selective as they want. But for now we are still bunching them up into half-acre daily moves so they knock down weed skeletons and remove surplus grass. We are moving slowly trying to allow the grass to grow three or four leaves. Most of the farm has three leaves right now. The moisture in the soil and highs near 80 degrees are rapidly accelerating growth.

OldHickory

The picture above shows today’s grazing area. The shagbark hickory tree decided to give up the ghost last night. Fortunately it didn’t land on a cow. You can also see the saplings that have come up recently in that pasture. I need to get busy.

As warm as it has been, we are not out of the woods yet. We can still get a snow or two. Or a heavy frost. In 2001 or 2002 (I’ll have to check my bee diary) we had a 4″ snow on April 20. In 2011 or 12 we had a hard frost on May 10…and the alfalfa took a lot of damage. So did our tomato plants.