Moving the Mob

I recently played with the logistics of an attempt to mob graze the entire state of Illinois and threw out big, meaningless numbers along the way. Let’s add a little meaning. These first two show some pretty big mobs. Watch the animals move. They just keep coming.

This one though…this one is ridiculous. I imagined grazing cattle through the state of Illinois. How about driving cattle from North Australia to South? Illinois is only 600 km long. These cattle went 1500 km.

And if you want more detail on moving 18,000 cows through Australia…well, here it is.

Someday…

OK. Once Again. Why?

Q: Why we doin’ this again?

A: Sigh.

OK. Well. OK. Let’s do it this way. Take chickens for example.

Most of the chickens of the world have been mutilated (beaks trimmed) and mistreated. They are crammed into cages or, if cage-free, crammed into houses. They don’t see the sun. They can’t run, hide or scratch for worms. They are not utilized…their design is not appreciated. They are simply fed and mined for 18 months. Mined for eggs. They are given just the right amount of feed to maintain high production, not high quality. Often this is an all-natural, vegetarian diet. What is natural about feeding a vegetarian diet to an omnivore?

Click image for source

I don’t think any of that is right. Any of it. Birds are a tremendous blessing to our farm. They eat bugs and worms and larvae, they put down manure, they spread cow patties to help limit repugnancy zones (livestock don’t want to graze up against their own poop…imagine that. The chickens spread a cow patty out so it decomposes more quickly (think surface to volume ratio)). We work hard to keep them on pasture when it is appropriate, to keep them near to and behind the cattle, to keep them safe from predators, to meet their varied dietary needs and honor their design. Boy golly, let them see the sun!

alarm clock chickens 2

 

But you know what? That’s expensive. If I built a confinement facility and crammed birds in by the thousands I would have to amortize the facility over time but chores would be easy. I wouldn’t have to walk sometimes miles each day to give my birds food and water and to collect eggs. I wouldn’t have to sit up at night hoping to catch whatever has been eating my birds. If the birds were indoors I could control light and temperature for optimum egg production. As it stands, my birds go to bed early and get up late because the sun goes down early and gets up late. So egg production has fallen off.

You want to know why our eggs are more expensive than the “cage-free organic” brown eggs at the store? Because it’s a lot of work to maintain a flock of safe chickens living outdoors with access to a wide variety of feed.

egg sale 3

But there is more to price than just cost. Customers don’t care what my costs are. Customers don’t care what it cost to raise the chick to point of lay. They don’t care how much I spend per egg box. They don’t care about the hours Julie and the kids and dad and I spend slaving away to make our chickens happy. They care that my eggs are fresh and tasty and that my birds are whole. They want to see pictures of fully-beaked birds running and flapping in the sunshine on green pastures. They know that costs a little more than eggs at the store and they are, apparently, glad to be a part of that story. In fact, I think that’s what initially attracts customers to us. They want to be a part of something. They want to know they are supporting respect. When a customer buys that first dozen eggs they usually ask me a million questions. They want to see pictures of the chickens on my phone and they want to know the story of the farm. There is no story at the grocery store. Well, there is a story at the grocery store but it’s not pretty so nobody talks about it.

But after they try that first dozen they come back again and again. At some point a customer has company for a weekend and runs out of eggs. So they go to the store and buy the most expensive, cage-free organic eggs and put them in the skillet next to mine. Then they make a strange noise…the sound of disappointment. This is usually followed by getting their phone out to take a picture of the eggs, side by side, in the skillet. They then text that picture to me saying, “I can’t believe the difference between your eggs and those from the store!” or they post the picture on instagram or Facebook.

I don't know who took this picture. No idea. I just know the orange eggs are mine.

I don’t know the people who posted this picture. A customer shared my eggs with them. I just know the orange eggs are mine and the picture was taken in July to be shared on FB. Hope they don’t mind me using it…

That difference you see? That orange yolk that makes your blueberry pancakes turn out green? That rich flavor that you comment on? Do you know what your are tasting? You are tasting what should be. You are tasting respect.

So to this point I have successfully avoided your question. You asked me why. I told you what.

Now the why.

First because Julie and I couldn’t buy the product we were looking for. We were going bananas doing handstand push-ups and pull-ups and climbing ropes and jumping on boxes but we couldn’t find the quality of food we wanted to fuel our health. So we got a handful of old hens and built a chicken tractor in our back yard. I think only one of those old hens was still laying but that sparked a fire. It was no longer enough to have a big garden. We needed eggs!

LayerHen

But it only takes a few birds to get all the eggs you can eat. Turns out, other people were looking for the same kind of food we were producing. In fact, we vastly underestimated demand. And price. So, economies of scale apply. We increased our production numbers without sacrificing quality. Really, with more birds to absorb our labor and infrastructure costs our quality went up…quality continues to go up each year. In fact, since eggs are only a small portion of our our overall farm revenue we can focus on quality rather than work to maximize egg production per acre. The cows, broilers and pigs help carry the financial load so the birds don’t have to shoulder the burden alone…all while making things better for all parties involved.

Julie and I wanted food of the highest quality to feed our family and yours. We wanted to see animals respected and honored for what they are. Terms like “Organic” and “Cage-Free” just didn’t seem to get the job done. We wanted more. So we just up and made it happen.

That’s why our beef cows don’t get corn. That’s why we try REALLY hard to keep pig noses in fresh greens…not just bare dirt. That’s why our eggs cost a little more than those in the store.

But that’s also why you are a part of our story.

Let’s see if I can give a more concise answer. Why do I farm the way I do? Because I like my animals.

 

Just a Dash of Prepper

Not that we are crazy. Well, we are. But not that we have school bus bunkers buried in the back 40. (Maybe that’s not so crazy…) But it seems to make sense that from time to time the power is going to go off. And there are things I could do to make that more manageable in the winter like having a wood-burning cook stove and something to eat…just in case.

And I have heard of people who go to work in the morning and come home that afternoon unemployed. Scary! So it seems to make sense to have a lump of cash laying around to help stretch us through lean times. And my resume up to date…just in case.

And sometimes, when you are minding your own business as you drive down the road, a tire on your car will express its mortality. So we maintain a spare tire in our car…just in case.

And when government falls, the dollar fails and we all stretch cow hides across our dune buggies and search the plains for petrol, I’m covered. I can make whiskey for barter in Bartertown. I just hope I have enough hair left to have a cool mohawk.

But did you see the recent pictures of Buffalo, NY? Windows pushed into houses by the weight of snow. Second story windows partially covered by snow.

What would I do? I mean, assuming I had advanced notice.

First things first. My parents would be trapped at their house for who knows how long. I would probably suggest that they come camp out here or at least bring a vehicle up here for easy access to the main road.

I would have the kids start bringing in firewood and lots of it. Not the cool fire, warm day stuff, the dense, hot oak or hedge. Just keep bringing it in. Power goes out we can still cook and we can melt snow for water. We also need to make sure all of the toilet buckets are clean and half-filled with fresh sawdust.

I need to make sure we have plenty of dog food for Reggie. We can manage without it for a few days but I would rather we didn’t have to. I’ll have to add that to a list or have an online retailer deliver it two days from now. Will the storm be here by then?

Otherwise we are ahead of the game here. There is plenty of meat in the freezer and canned goods in the cellar. Maybe a little short on wine…. The car is full of gas. We could just drive South to avoid the storm but we have livestock.

And that’s where I hit a brick wall.

Right now the chickens are in a hoop house. It would be no big deal to put a dozen bags of feed in there along with a barrel of water. Common sense, really. But the tricky part is not knowing how much snow it takes to collapse my hoop structure. What would 6 feet do? 6 feet of wet snow? 6 feet of wet snow and high winds? Will I hear it when the collapse kills my birds?

Same with the cattle. Six feet of snow is too much to graze through and it’s too much for my barn to hold up too. So now what?

SnowCows

Well, I guess I need to get the cows somewhere that is sheltered from the wind. Exposure will kill them faster than starvation. Do they need a roof over their heads or do they just need shelter from wind? I could line up a wall of bales on edge to protect them from wind AND give them feed at the same time And not have to worry that the collapsing barn will crush my cattle. So now I guess it’s just a matter of ensuring the cattle have plenty of bedding material and we can call it a day. Or maybe not. Let’s look at a few examples from around the world:

So now the good news. We don’t get snowfalls like that. A foot of snow is usually the upper limit in a 24 hour period. So this is just an exercise in thought. I really don’t know how we would handle it but I welcome your comments. It only gets worse after the snow gets here. Then it melts and floods the area. Tree limbs down, power outages, soupy ground, culverts washed out of roads and more cold coming. Cows washed away, pigs swimming downstream, dogs and cats living together, Mass Hysteria! Then think of all the babies born 9 months later…

It’s enough to make a guy want to be paranoid in town.

So. Anybody have any experience weathering livestock through a severe winter storm beyond what Pa did in the Little House books? Surely one of you Canadian readers…

’cause Ahm Too Skeered.

I have gotten a lot of things from my father. If memory serves, my first paid roofing job with dad was when I was 8. Like teaching a man to fish, roofing paid for my college education…well, the balance of the loan anyway. Look at the title of this post. Ask my dad to recite “Our Hired Girl” by James Whitcomb Riley. I have an appreciation for that poetry (in fact, any Hoosier colloquial writing I can find) because of my father. The only poem my kids are likely to learn from me is “You Can Call Me Al”. I can’t begin to list the number of ways I have benefited from knowing my father. But it didn’t get me a free tractor. Access to one maybe…

Why did dad buy the tractor? Was it because he knew I was paralyzed into inaction and needed the loader tractor just to get some stuff done around the farm including, but not limited to, moving round bales and bedding his horses? Yup. I’d say that about sums it up.

In fact, I can do better.

I wuz skeered. Bad skeered.

But dad said,

“Clear out o’ my way!
    They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!”

So I cleared out of his way. What if I screwed up? I mean, I don’t want to buy some used tractor just to have the clutch go out. But I don’t want the payments on a new $26k loader tractor and what if that one is a mistake? What if I buy that only to find out it’s too small? Before you know it we were staring down the barrel of a new 60 horse red one with a cab or a new 74 horse yellow one with a cab for around $45k. Sheesh! That happened fast!

$40k. 8 years of easy payments and a warranty. But what if I buy the wrong color tractor? What if something happens to me and Julie needs to sell the tractor? What is the resale value of the yellow tractor from Korea with a mechanical self-leveling bucket? I dunno. What if the tractor had green paint? I dunno.

I dunno.

So I went to work. I worked around the farm. I flew off to important meetings in important places. I wrote my ever-pretentious, self-aggrandizing blog. I leaked to my readers and friends that Julie and I were thinking about buying a loader tractor. The reply was universal. “Go forth and get thyself a loader tractor.” But it was like the seventh day or something. I rested.

I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

I looked. I lingered. I dithered. I made loud proclamations.

I did nothing.

So dad did.

Was it pity? Was it grief? I don’t think so. I think it was just something we needed on the farm. Right now I am accumulating cattle. I have a little equipment but not much. Dad has most of the equipment. All of the hay equipment. The big tractors. I have the machine sheds. I have the horse stalls. I would really prefer to think this is a multi-generational cooperative effort. And I hope to have another 30 years of working beside my father as I continue to puzzle him out.

But he seems to know me pretty well.

Now before we finish up today let’s consider one other possibility. One that seems so far-fetched it nearly escaped our notice. An idea brought to us by our friend Kari. Maybe…just maybe…maybe dad wanted a new tractor.

One Day, One Month of Work

It finally happened. After months of me sitting on the fence dad gave up on me and bought a loader tractor himself. Let’s not focus on the machine. Let’s talk about the first day of usage. We filled in a hole in my yard, hauled 8 loads of lime and manure out to the fields. Then we put a nice layer of bedding into the cattle barn so my moos would have a nice, comfy, clean bed for a few days of forecasted cold rain. All in about 5 hours.

LoaderTractor

I am telling you from experience, based on my availability, that’s about a month’s worth of work. Probably more than that as it encouraged us to do work I was simply not doing. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that other jobs came first on the list. After you fill a manure spreader three times in one day by hand it’s nice to just sit on your tookus for a minute. It’s hard to get into the back corners of the horse barn to clean out the manure but it was easier since the machine did the heavy lifting. Plus I work off-farm and that takes more than just my daylight hours, I come home tired…so it’s just hard to get it all done.

Let’s put a few numbers to this deal. It takes me the better part of an hour to load up a manure spreader. First I use the pitchfork and pry out a bit of material about 4 feet from the spreader and toss that in. Then I work in a line toward the spreader tossing in each little scoop. Like a typewriter, I work line by line backward and toward the spreader. This leaves lots of small, loose crumbles of compost behind that I alter scoop up with a flat shovel. Then I use a round point shovel to put an even layer of lime on top of all of that. Each shovel of lime weighs maybe 10 pounds. It takes a lot of shoveling to cover the spreader with a half inch of lime.

The loader tractor filled the spreader with four scoops of composted manure and one scoop of lime. It may have taken all of 5 minutes to load up the spreader. Happy days!

So we scraped up manure here, scooped out manure there. There were places we couldn’t get the tractor so we had to dig manure out by hand but we had been so lazy all day we had the energy remaining to get the work done. It was great! Dad drove the loader, warm in the cab. I spread the material (driving into the wind!). Then we filled in groundhog holes with lime, spread fresh bedding for horses and cattle, moved material that had been sitting for multiple years and called it a day. We still went home tired but we were tired after doing much more work than we could have accomplished previously.

So two things. I don’t know if bigger is necessarily better. A smaller tractor or a Bobcat could have gone places this tractor just can’t go but this tractor never even hesitated about scooping up lime. Second, the farm simply can’t afford a loader tractor at this time. Dad bought the tractor. But now that we have it around I have to agree that we can’t afford to be without it. On that line of thinking I got a series of notes from a friend some time ago encouraging me to buy a loader.

We did it, we bought a loader.  We just no longer can lift or move anything without getting hurt, and renting or borrowing a loader to clean out our deep bedding was too expensive.  We figure it’s an investment for our daughter. I don’t want her broken down like we are.  I got a leg up of sorts with my brothers used equipment, which we have slowly upgraded.  My husband is good about taking care of things, and he’s good with equipment so the tractor should last our farming life and as long as she wants to mess with it.  Too many things were left undone, now with forks and a loader we have been cleaning up like crazy.  Now if we can just get rid of the things we have gathered up that we don’t need we’ll be looking like a respectable farm.

and later…

BUY YOUR LOADER!!  You don’t want to end up broken down at 57 because you dug manure by hand and carried how many bags of chicken feed…

and later…

[Husband] is a heavy equipment operator, and skid steers are a [bear] to work with compared to a good loader.  Too low of ground clearance etc for deep bedding, he was stuck all the time, and subsequently we were stuck too, renting it from the neighbor or the rental business.  He only got stuck once with the tractor, and since he didn’t get stuck he didn’t tear up the ground like usual with the skid steer.  You know I think you should buy a tractor, maybe a used one?  I’ll stop now.  Because I am going to take a pallet of hay over to the corral for my heifers…with the tractor ;)

So there you go. Dad bought a used loader tractor big enough to replace his primary machine. I think I would have gone smaller but he bought a lightly used 60 horse tractor for the price of a new 40 horse. Plus it has a cab for a little dose of A/C when he’s putting up hay, wind protection and warmth when we are horsing around in the winter. Now all we need is a PTO-mounted post hole digger, some gates, a mountain of fencing, a new roof on the barn…

OK, November. How Much Grass Do You Need?

Well. It happened. November.

Shoot. Now what?

Oh, how I yearn for those warm summer days. Not the hot summer days. Not the dry summer days. The warm ones…topping out around 85 degrees. Those are nice but they are gone. Gone. They won’t return for another six months.

Six months.

Warm season grasses are gone. The clover has been killed back by frost. The soil is frozen an inch deep making it hard to move fence posts. Cool season grasses are still growing a little on warm days but the pasture won’t be ALIVE again for until May.

What am I going to do?

Well, here’s the plan. We want to continue grazing cattle for the duration. We want to keep the ground covered for the duration. That’s about it.

So here we are on November 20th. What is left to graze? Take a look at the map. I have shaded in areas that have been grazed since Oct. 1. Red shaded areas are where I grazed the alfalfa field down to the nubbins. The blue area was grazed lightly and may be grazed again. Everything else averages 18″ tall. The yellow border wraps the farm.

TheFarm

It looks like so much more area when you are on ground level. The cows are currently growing that red block at the south west corner and will finish up all of the alfalfa west of the pond by the first of December. If not sooner. I am also supplementing them with a round bale. I just unwrap and carry a layer each morning and give them a new strip of alfalfa to graze. Then we give a second strip of alfalfa around noon. Seems to do the trick.

AlfalfaGrazing

Strip grazing the alfalfa field is a little tricky. First I have to be concerned with my cattle for a number of reasons. Alfalfa can cause bloat…even if I am careful, there is very little shelter out there from weather so I have to be attentive to their needs and they are a long way from the water spigot making it hard on the farmers caring for the animals. There is nothing quite like a basement full of frozen hoses! Beyond the cattle I have to be concerned about the alfalfa stand itself. I don’t particularly want a pure alfalfa stand (cause it causes bloat) but I also don’t want to kill it with hooves on mud. I do want to remove the stems to limit next year’s alfalfa weevil population and I do want to add manure. And I need to utilize the foot or so of alfalfa that grew back since the last hay cutting. This forage would otherwise be wasted. Grazing it now saves more durable forages for later. So here we are. And right by the hard road too…where people can watch me screw up my alfalfa field.

Anywho. I have to race across the alfalfa because it just isn’t built to last. Snow will push it down to the dirt, knocking off the leaves and leaving behind the stems or the freeze thaw will …knock off the leaves and leave just the stems. The cows aren’t big fans of stems. But I’m a big fan of the cows spreading manure across my alfalfa field. It doesn’t make up for the four cuttings of hay we remove but it’s that much less manure I have to scrape up from somewhere else. So we’re trying to rock right on through the 17 acres of alfalfa before January 1.

SO. How much grass does November need? No more grass. But the alfalfa west of the pond and the rest of a round bale should do it. I hope.

Now, November. Tell me how much firewood you need.

What If They Move Away? Is It Worth It?

What if?

Do you consider the possibilities? Like, all of the possibilities? The unlikely ones like coronal mass ejection or alien abduction and the likely ones like ice storms and layoffs. How do you handle it all? What if the sky really is falling? What if my kids run screaming from the farm seeking freedom in the city?

I don’t know.

Let me summarize this post for you. I have no idea which, if any, of my children will want the farm in 20 years. I can’t even guarantee that I will want the farm in 20 years. But I promise you I love my children. I love my wife. I don’t want to be alone. So we adapt. We respond. We change. We seek unity.

We make the best choices we can given the information we have at the time. But we have to be careful about what choices we bother to wrestle. When I find myself dwelling on an issue there is one question that brings everything into focus for me.

What problem am I trying to solve?

FamilyVision2

The picture above is from the center of Julie’s vision board. What do you see in there that has anything to do with farming? (BTW, there is a lot of cool stuff on her vision board. Feel free to ask her to share the whole thing with you. I don’t feel like I should share the whole thing today.)

The question from our friend SailorsSmallFarm came in like this:

Will one or more of your kids take on the farm when it’s their turn? It’s the big question isn’t it…because if they don’t, who will? And is all this worth it if they don’t? Quite a gamble, but worthwhile, I believe.

So, OK. My bad. I really, REALLY dig the farming thing. Like, really really. Like if I had my druthers I would spend my days moving cows and checking brooder temps and hauling feed sacks and scratching pig ears. Even in cold weather. That is so in my wheelhouse. But it’s not everybody’s bag. I get that.

It may not be the ideal any of my children prescribe for their own lives. And that’s OK.

I have this job thing. It’s in town. It pays money. It takes me away from the farm but it enables me to farm. Fortunately, my town job does even better than that. It makes the farm payment with a little left over. What do we do with that remainder? We encourage family spiritual and intellectual development. How do we do that? We read books together and talk about them. We read the Bible and talk about it. We seek out opportunities to be giving in our community and invest in others. We go to the zoo and the art museum together and otherwise devote our surplus time to  #5 on the list, Providing and Maintaining a common family culture.

Culture

Common family culture

What is a “Jordan”? What does it take to make the team? Are we farmers? No. Roofers maybe. Mom’s people are farmers…or were. But what happens when the farmers leave the farm? Is something lost? The wealth was retained and spread among the heirs to fritter away or save but was some part of common family culture lost when mom’s generation left the farm?

I dunno. Maybe. There was something common binding mom’s side of the family together. Maybe it was grandma Chism more than the farm. The Matriarch. The farm is a place we all have sentimental attachment to. Grandma Chism was more. But was grandma the common tie or just the focal point? Grandma’s sister (Aunt Melba) was certainly part of the culture when she was alive. Did we lose something when she died? Her kids stopped coming so often. Everybody goes to grandma’s house. Grandmas stay home. My mom is a grandma. Most of her siblings are grandparents. Christmas parties got smaller when my grandma died. Did our family get smaller?

What gave us our identity? What gives us our identity now? Do you have to live on the farm to be a Jordan? No. Does your last name have to end in Jordan to be a Jordan? No. Do you have to live in Illinois to be a Jordan? No. Is it necessary to be an American to qualify as a Jordan? No. But experiences and foundational beliefs seem to be part of it.

Our family culture does not seem to be defined by the land we live on. Not defined. Our family culture is certainly shaped by the farm as we are always shaped, in part, by our interactions with the world around us. But farm or no, we are still a family. We still have purpose.

So, SailorsSmallFarm, I guess I disagree with your question. The big question is not “Will the kids take the farm?” The big question is can Julie and I help our children to find their purpose and can we align our family goals with each specific calling? Can we maintain a common culture over generations? Can we create a structure that, like a grandmother, brings everyone back together…uniting us in some intangible way?

I don’t have an answer to that question. I think we can but I don’t really know what it looks like. But I think the farm gives us an anchor. It’s home. It’s the place we go to for safety. We have a sentimental attachment here…if not the memories of the land then to the memories of family we buried here. But the house? The farm? The cows? Those things are not “Jordan”. They are not particularly “Chism” either. They are just things. And they only exist to help us fulfill our family mission:

We work together as a team to steward God’s resources, create a welcoming home, share with others, encourage one another, learn and explore new ideas and pursue our God given purpose.

So let’s move on to the next part of your question. If they move away will it all be worth it?

I am certain we are not wasting our time. There is no gamble here.

It felt like a gamble when we first arrived on the farm. Oh, the house we sold in the suburbs! It was perfect. Really. Two story, brick. New furnace and A/C. New roof. Dry basement. Fireplace. Two car attached garage. I installed hardwood floors throughout, built floor to ceiling bookshelves in three rooms. Two and a half bath. Four bedrooms. Excellent, quiet neighborhood, nice neighbors of a wide range of ages. Three doors down from a community pool in a nice little town just 25 minutes from St. Louis. The back yard was fenced waist-high allowing neighbors to chat and offer a drink while cutting the grass, raking the leaves or just watching the kids play. The kids had a swing in the big tree in the back yard. It couldn’t have been better. Further, we bought well and had our expenses so tightly controlled we were saving a huge percentage of our income.

Dad was shocked when we sold. Shocked! Surprised! Flabbergasted! Why would we leave paradise to go kill chickens. “Have you even killed a chicken? Do you think you can do it? They stink. The work is not fun. This is the nicest house any of us have ever lived in!”

The house sold very quickly and we moved into grandma’s house.

Talk about a contrast.

We made a mistake. A big mistake. Not the farm. The house. Wow. Wow! What a hole.

The kids cried. The older daughter missed her best friend from next door. The younger daughter missed our elderly neighbors. There were spiders and wasps and swarms of flies at the farm house. It was pretty icky. Grandma had rented the house to a work crew for a while and they, apparently, liked to drink beer, play poker and go fishing. Housework was not a priority. Julie cried.

There was a problem with the sewer system. The house smelled. Stink. Stank. Stunk.

Then we got the heating bill for the first winter. Oh! My! GOSH!

Ahem! Mr. Jordan, I believe you were attempting to persuade the reader that your farming endeavors were not in vain.

I just don’t want to sugarcoat it. It got pretty gritty. Raccoons had attempted to dig into the kitchen through the roof. Rain water flooded the kitchen. Chimney swifts flew into the chimney and out through the basement. I caught one during a birthday party once. Aunt Marian was impressed.

I would like to say “But, it all worked out. The house is now our home.” but that really doesn’t do it justice. The house still has problems. We are tackling them one by one.

However, in spite of the initial discomfort I feel certain that we made the right choice.

We live next to my parents. How cool is that? I want a close, ongoing relationship with my children. They aren’t a 20 year sentence. They are a lifelong blessing! Or I want them to be… And what better way than for me to model it with my own parents? My parents live next door…if next door is half a mile down the road. I talk to my dad daily. Do we always agree? LOL! No. No! But we don’t have to agree. I don’t expect my kids to always agree with me. I expect them to honor me as I honor my parents. I believe that our children will arise and call Julie blessed (her husband also and he praises her!). Could that happen in town? Yup. Do I want to move back? Nope. But someday I might.

Right now my kids can range through 60 acres, picking nuts and berries, going fishing, building forts, sledding, climbing trees…you name it. There is a barn full of life. Horses to ride, kittens to tame, barn swallows to marvel over. We are raising free-range children. 99% of children are locked down in confinement houses, packed tightly into small areas and given antibiotics. Ours are given a varied ration and a clean environment with fresh air and sunshine with every opportunity to express their distinctive human-ness. We even tailor each child’s education to match their interests. Compare that to the poor, suffering children you see raised in medicated confinement. Sigh.

But that stuff is right now. I have no idea what happens next. Will my children marry? Who will they marry? Will I be a grandfather in 10 years? Don’t know. Can’t know. But I can work to meet my children where they are. I can work to understand my children for who they are. I can help my children to understand who we are. We are our parent’s children. We look to them for wisdom. We continue to honor them. We work to continue learning, continue developing, continue growing. We care for the resources we have been trusted with…be that money, cattle, land, lives or just time.

Time

Will my children want to continue on the farm in 20 years? Will I want to continue on the farm in 20 years? Dunno. I’ll tell you when we get there. Maybe I’ll look back on this experiment as a failure, like the collarless button up shirts of the ’90’s. But I suspect this will be different. My children are being formed right here right now. The work we are doing right now could impact generations to come no matter where they live.

Farm? No Farm? Dunno.

Family? Worth it.

The Farm That Was..That May Be Again

I have often wondered what was really happening economically on our farm before 1950. Oh, I know they had beef and sheep and dairy and chickens and bees and an array of field crops. But how many? And in what numbers? This is important to me because it at that time my son is almost the same age my grandfather was when grandpa took over management of the farm. What would that look like today?

I don’t have those answers but I have a better idea of sales figures since dad found a Report of the account of C. Thomas Chism & Marian H. Chism, Executors of the estate of Charles A. Chism. I’m afraid I know very little of the people involved here but it appears the trust was set up to care for Granna Tim (my great grandma) and her handicapped son Billy. I have only seen a picture or two of my great uncle Billy.

Click image for source

He looked a lot like grandpa Tom but my uncle Jack sent me this picture of Uncle Billy in words:

He was a big man, about the size of my dad, but had dark hair and less pattern baldness. He liked walking around outdoors, and they always assigned him chores. (Gathering eggs; chopping wood.) He sang most of the time when he was outdoors–various songs he remembered from the radio; but his favorite seemed to be “Happy Birthday.”

He was the firstborn to a couple who had to wait until ages 42 and 35 to get married. After he came, they went ahead and had two more kids.  It was the job of the whole family to care for [Billy]. He occasionally had epileptic seizures, and it was younger brother Tom’s job to restrain him to keep him from hurting himself.

At 16 grandpa took over the farm when his father had a stroke. In 1948 grandpa would have been 27. Here he is at 29 or 30 just to lend a little context.

Click image for source

What you are about to see is an accounting of stewardship. Let’s skip to the end, looks like everything earned is being reinvested into the farm leaving $12.14 “held in trust by said Executors as Trustees under descendant’s Will for the benefit of the beneficiaries and purposes therein set forth.” But what they are earning is almost 5 times the average annual income…and they still had other work they did for themselves. Aunt Marian kept a job in town!

Pretty cool. SO what did they sell off of the old farm in 1948? Let me show you.

Trust

I found a few resources online to try to give this listing some meaning but, really, I was only able to guess what the numbers meant. Profit on Livestock Purchased & Resold could be anything. I see expenses on the other side of the page detailing how many dollars they spent in several categories of livestock but nothing to indicate what earned this specific sum. I just have to imagine it follows the formula that less than 1% of overall farm income came from sheep and 27% of farm income came from pigs as suggested by the brochure  Twenty Years of Prices and Incomes Received by Illinois Farmers. From what I understand they sold fluid milk and milked 14 cows by hand. If my guess at their milk check is correct they were selling around 12 gallons each day, leaving some milk on the farm for the household and for pigs. Based on a guess of wholesale egg prices and my understanding of layer reliability of the era they kept a flock of 60-80 chickens. But those are just guesses and, as such, are mostly useless.

So how can I make that spreadsheet useful? What can we really see in it? That my grandpa, who passed away 16 years ago, and his sister just took me to school. Look at that list! And that list doesn’t include other things grandpa did on his own including custom plowing. They even had to fix the barn (the barn their father built). I had to fix the barn too!

BarnDamage

But it’s what I don’t see that interests me most. Why is there so little income from grain? Probably for the same reason they spent $7,000 on livestock feed. Grain was grown to fatten livestock (not people). But the items listed above aren’t the things it takes to run a household and they aren’t the only things the farm produced, just what got sold. There was an orchard east of the yellow house. Somehow they had time to maintain that orchard and can up the produce. And keep a garden. And butcher for their own table. And care for an older brother.

Grandpa Charlie was at least four years older than I am now when he started having children. He was at least 20 years older than me when he had a stroke. Looking at this document I can only reflect on the success he had training his children to take over. They brought in a farm income of $15,000 at a time when the average household income was $3,600. I have a son who is 14. Could I step out of his way in two years, allowing him to run the farm? Should I? He is already larger than me…like grandpa was. I have a 12 year old daughter who is in many ways similar to my Aunt Marian. She works hard, volunteers frequently, gives selflessly, seems to enjoy working with her hands and she has a sharp wit. What will she do with the farm? Could the two of them generate $250,000 in farm sales each year (5x 2014 median income)? What about the other two children? One wants to be a preacher and open a taco restaurant, one wants to stay here and help us.

What will they do with the farm? Will they raise sheep and horses and mules and cattle and chickens and ducks? Will they maintain an orchard? Will they build fences and put up hay? Will they be able to tell me what a disc hayloader is? Will they convert it into a park they visit on weekends while busying themselves with work in town? Maybe the answer depends on me. I’ll come back to that.

I am also struck by what is listed and what I have never seen here.Why weren’t there sheep and ducks and chickens when I was a kid? Where were the dairy cows? I asked uncle Jack what he thought:

Sheep: My dad despised them for some reason. Goats: He got three nannies and kept them for awhile; then came out one morning and he had twelve: three sets of triplets. For some reason he decided he was tired of goats.

Can’t tell you anything about the cattle, except that when I was small around 1950, I do remember we still had a milk truck stopping each morning to pick up big milk cans in front of the house. The milking barn was over at the other place; but the current road south of the pond didn’t exist then—not until they built the pond. So the road by our house which went over past the windmill was the private lane of the home place. So my dad brought the milk cans out to the mouth of the road, next to your house. And this means that 2-3 years after the document you’re looking at, we still had a number of dairy cows. And I always assumed in those early years that there were beef cattle around—usually black ones at that time. Around 58-60 we got Herefords from Montana and raised those for awhile.

“The home place” is the yellow house…the barn Julie and I milk in. Grandpa and Aunt Marian were born at the yellow house. My folks lived there when I was born. But for most of my life it was the place grandpa housed his hired help. It is just storage now. Things change.

But some things don’t change. Just like my elders, I need to make the most of what I’ve got. To do that I need more livestock. I need more cows. I need to add sheep. I need more chickens. But I also need to prepare the next generation to take over. Great grandpa Charlie was, apparently, better at this than grandpa Tom but maybe only out of necessity. Great grandpa Charlie had a stroke but was still around to advise grandpa Tom. But grandpa Tom farmed into his 70’s. One son bought a farm of his own, the other children moved away. Mom and dad moved to another farm nearby when I was 16 but by that time most of my generation of cousins had grown up away from farming. Only one cousin was (is) still here. Maybe that’s why the sheep, chickens, ducks and dairy departed. It is a lot of work without youth to help. Involving the kids now is a big part of making the most of what I’ve got. I don’t need more land. I need additional responsible decision makers.

Henderson includes this quote near the end of The Farming Ladder:

…the pupils are the farmers of the future, and therefore the most valuable and important stock on the farm; for it is their youth and energy which have contributed so largely to [the success of the farm].

Every morning my body reminds me that I am no spring chicken. I need the youth and energy of my own children. We will need the youth and energy of their children. And their children. None of this can continue without a regular infusion of youth and energy. Fences have to be maintained. Barns have to be repaired. Livestock have to be managed. Trees have to be planted, pruned and picked. Firewood has to be cut. New ideas have to be tried out. Failures have to be recovered from. Grandpa and Aunt Marian brought youth and energy and innovation (tractors) to the farm. My parents and aunts and uncles brought covered dishes to the farm at Christmas. My grandma cried when I said I would like to buy the farm. She thought nobody wanted it. Will my children bring life and energy to the farm or will they bring covered dishes? Will an elderly, widowed Grandma Julie cry wondering if any of her children will want to continue here?

How can I encourage my children to take ownership…to protect it, to multiply it, to give it their very best? I have to make it theirs. I have to stop being so critical and step back into a supportive role. Mom and dad and Julie and I have to show them what is possible.

Grazing in the Late Fall

Cool autumn days and cold nights make this just about as easy as it gets grazing cattle here. The new heifers have settled in. The milk cows are only being milked by their calves. Everybody is in one big happy herd. Well, one big herd. Most of the pushing wars have ended though Julie and I watched a calf get pushed under the wire today. I said “most”.

So we have them bunched tight. Tight enough you can’t step in the pasture without hitting a land mine. Tight enough that they are eating everything down to a common height. We move them when they need to move giving them something that looks like this (well, they don’t all look like this)…

NewSpot

…leaving this behind…

OldSpot

I moved the cows to the spot above around 7:30 this morning. I moved them off again at noon. Moved them again at sunset. Tight bunches. Massive impact. Quick moves. Fat cows.

Flora

Well, fat most of the time. If I do my job. And we are trying to leave enough grass standing that it has a chance to recover slightly before it goes dormant. Further, we leave enough grass we can graze it again if we have to. Well, a man can have his ideals, can’t he? This fescue was grazed two weeks ago and I think it looks pretty good for November. You can clearly see old, grazed growth and fresh, green growth. You can also see how much other stuff is blanketing the soil. See how shiny fescue is?

Fescue

I plan my grazing out in my head well ahead of time complete with contingency plans and emergency backup plans and, of course, hay. If a bad storm kicks up we can take them to the barn. If feed runs low we can haul out some bales. But I prefer it if my cows have a nice, clean place to lie down each night, if they spread their own manure and if they at least get a bite of something green every day. But I have a lot to learn too.