Reading Journal 2015 Week 4

As usual, my eyes were bigger than my stomach this week. William Corbett got pushed off and I’ll add some details below. I am only 25 pages into Born-Again Dirt so that will happen next week. I’m afraid that means I didn’t complete any farm reading this week…you know…for my farm reading journal. This is due, primarily, to a lack of discipline on my part. I read Outliers Wednesday on a whim. I may have played a little Minecraft when I should have done a little reading. So next week…

Anyway.

Outliers

What is this book about?
I’ll let the author tell you. Here he his at his most succinct on page 267. I’ll edit it a bit to make it even shorter.

…success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. […] Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

How does one seize the opportunity? Get up early, dedicate yourself to your purpose and just get it done. The issue he raises is that not enough people are given that opportunity and we, as a society, need to focus on providing opportunity and recognizing the value of work.

Is it a classic?
This book has been covered everywhere and by everyone for the last 5 years. That indicates it may be a classic but it may prove to be a fad. I’m leaning toward classic.

Will you read it again?
Not right away. It’s a fast read though.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
I don’t think so. You can find it online for free, you can listen to the audiobook on YouTube or you can get it from the library. I see no need to own it. However, the audiobook could not keep my attention. I had to read the real book.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
Quite a few, actually. But we’ll stick with my favorite theme.

Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style “concerted cultivation.” It’s an attempt to actively “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills.” Poor parents tend to follow, by contrast, a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth.” They see as their responsibility to care for their own children but to let them grow and develop on their own.

and later…

“[Middle-class kids] acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. They appeared comfortable in those settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention…”

…skip ahead a bit…

By contrast, the working-class and poor children were characterized by “an emerging sense of distance, distrust and constraint.” They didn’t know how to get their way, or how to “customize” – using Lareau’s wonderful term – whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.

Skipping to the end and pulling out a few snippits…

When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. … Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.

Think back to Alex Williams, the nine-year-old whom Annette Lareau studied. His parents believe in concerted cultivation. He gets taken to museums and gets enrolled in special programs and goes to summer camp, where he takes classes. When he’s bored at home, there are plenty of books to read, and his parents see it as their responsibility to keep him actively engaged in the world around him. It’s not hard to see how Alex would get better at reading and math over the summer.

OK. That’s bananas. Julie and I exercise a decided lack of discipline when it comes to books. Books we buy, books we borrow from the library, books we borrow from friends. Come by our house unexpectedly and you’ll find piles of books on end tables, stacked on the floor or covering tables. We don’t send our kids to summer camp, we don’t drive to the museum regularly but we do work to engage our children…either in things we are interested in or we work to ferret out what they are interested in. We discuss topics at the dinner table together and talk about our plans, dreams and our limited budget. At the same time, though, they are expected to entertain themselves…find their own books or build something or go outside and try not to kill each other with swords. I guess that’s what you get when you bridge between the worlds described above. I suppose we are middle class…but we really don’t live like it. More like poor farmers with too many bookshelves, a leaky roof and one, old minivan.

Another part stuck out to me on a similar theme. A man named Terman found, followed and studied children with exceptionally high IQs throughout their lives. Ultimately, he divided them into three groups based on success. The most successful were group A.

In the end, only one thing mattered: family background.

The As overwhelmingly came from the middle and the upper class. Their homes were filled with books. Half the fathers of the A group had a college degree or beyond, and this at a time when a university education was a rarity. The Cs, on the other hand, were from the other side of the tracks. Almost a third of them had a parent who had dropped out of school before the eighth grade.

I’m going out on a limb here to suggest the books on the shelves weren’t a collection of trinkets. They were carefully chosen part of the family. The books were assimilated into and allowed to change and help define the family culture. But I’m way outside of the text here.

He had a lot to say about KIPP schools. I hadn’t heard of that before. The kids arrive at school around 7:15 and return home around 5. Homework keeps them busy until 10 or so. On Saturdays school is only until 9:30. The school is designed to immerse the kids in learning…to keep them busy, working, and moving forward. It has a high level of success in the worst neighborhoods…neighborhoods where the kids don’t receive educational support from home. They made it a point to say that test scores appear to diverge the most over summer vacations as children wealthier families tend to continue learning over the summer, children from poor families lose a little ground. The KIPP school seems to replace the family at some level…for 10 hours each day. Like Psi corps.

Who should read this book?
You should. You and anyone who has ever told me that “I’m only successful because I’m tall, blonde and male.”

Take home messages:

I have an October birthday and grew up believing I was exceptionally stupid, exceptionally clumsy, unattractive and short…but I was at least a year younger than anyone else in my class! What if I had started school later? Who would I be? Even Bastiat couldn’t say. But I don’t have any regrets and my parents shouldn’t either. I turned out OK.

Allow me to summarize the book. Opportunities abound. Work sucks. But those precious few who embrace opportunities and work hard can achieve extraordinary success. He puts a number to “work hard” saying it’s 10,000 hours of dedicated, correct practice (correct practice because if you practice incorrectly you can get really good at doing whatever badly.) But opportunities for hard work spring from family support, family culture and all kinds of things out of your control. And this is where I felt the book let me down. He seems to attempt to walk some line between simple hard work and dumb luck. Jewish immigrants became clothing manufacturers…not because there was an opening in that market and they were lucky to be prepared. They found that opening in the market because they were desperate. They could only do what they knew so that’s what they did. They identified a market opening and exploited it. It wasn’t timing, it wasn’t luck. They just did the best they could with what they had. Maybe they got a leg up by some incredible timing but…

…that’s kind of the point. His examples are extreme. The book focuses on 0.001% of people. The Outliers. Nevermind that there are lots of Millionaires Next Door who did nothing special, just worked hard, built a solid business and lived frugally after embracing whatever opportunity they happened to come across. That includes every owner of every business I have ever worked for. Well, Bill Canfield may be a truly extraordinary person.

I’m going to throw in one more quote from Outliers will reference it next week when we read Born Again Dirt.

The historian David Arkush once compared Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs, and the differences are striking. “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it” is a typical Russian proverb. That’s the kind of fatalism and pessimism typical of a repressive feudal system, where peasants have no reason to believe in the efficacy of their own work. On the other hand, Arkush writes, Chinese proverbs are striking in their belief that “hard work, shrewd planning and self-reliance or cooperation with a small group will in time bring recompense.”


Java for Kids

This is not Java for kids, it’s just intro to Java. I applaud the effort but I’m afraid there is nothing here to grab their attention and keep their attention as they work. Nothing at all. If you want to learn Java you are better off to begin at YouTube. There you can find someone who speaks your language…says things in an understandable manner. The book was OK. Not great in any way. It doesn’t belong on my shelf. It doesn’t belong on your shelf. It’s not a classic.

Let me be clear. My criticism is not with Java itself. Clearly Java is a useful solution for a variety of problems. It’s the examples in the book that I take issue with. Let’s write a little code in Java, shall we? I’m going to add 5 and 7. Ready? First we have to write our code. You can use notepad but I like Notepad++.

public class AdditionExample
{
public static void main(String[] args)
{
int firstNum = 5;
int secondNum = 7;
int sum = firstNum + secondNum;
System.out.println(sum);
}
}

Now that code has to be compiled. (If you are going to play the exciting copy of our home game you’ll need to install the JDK. Just Google it. Be sure to update your PATH environment variable too.) Save your script as AdditionExample.java and remember where you saved it. Open command prompt, navigate to that location and type “javac AdditionExample.java”. That compiles your code. Now, to execute it you simply type “java AdditionExample” as below:

D:\JavaForKids>javac AdditionExample.java

D:\JavaForKids>java AdditionExample
12

Isn’t that great kids? Look. All that to make the computer say 12!

That gibberish code above is not unique to Java but it’s completely unreadable. Public class? Public static void? String[] args? What is that stuff? He briefly covers that later in the book but it is still gibberish…not meaningful. But that’s kind of the way it is. Let’s write the same thing in VBScript as an example.

Dim firstNum
Dim secondNum
Dim sum

firstNum = 5
secondNum = 7
sum = firstNum + secondNum

wscript.echo sum

Now save that to AdditionExample.vbs and double-click on the file to execute it. What happens? We get a pop-up window telling us “12”. Isn’t that neat kids?

So maybe it’s not the book’s fault. Maybe programming is just boring. Maybe I am boring. Maybe so. But even still, this book is kind of lame. The premise is you can learn to program while making your own calculator. Calculator. A text-based calculator. If you plan to teach basic programming concepts to your children I don’t think this is the place to start. If you or your children already have a handle on the jargon and concepts and are ready to move into Java this book might be OK but, again, YouTube is probably better. Heck, most of what this book covers is covered in the Java howto on the Oracle website.

But I could be totally wrong. I have a real handicap in this topic. I have no memory of learning computerish stuff. I’m sure it didn’t come naturally but I don’t remember doing it other than “Load BC.exe,8,1“. So I don’t know how to teach it. For this reason I tend to leave my work at work and my kids have no idea what I do for a living…just that I work on a computer. I don’t know how to bridge the gap.

And that’s how I excuse including this book in my farm reading journal. I’m trying to bridge the gap. My kids can manage the farm today. If I break my leg some things will need to be cut back and they may need a little instruction but I’m sure the four of them can figure out what little I know. But there is no way my kids could take over my day job…the work that currently pays for the farm. There is a portion of my life that is partitioned away from my family and I think that is a mistake. My blog is a farm blog but it focuses on involving the kids. I want my kids involved in every aspect of my life. You’ll see more programming books in the near future. I hope you understand. In fact, next week I plan to begin working through JavaScript for Kids. The first code we write puts cats on the screen. Cool. That said, Julie showed an interest in learning and teaching Python as she was reading a Minecraft book Thursday morning so we may start with Python for Kids instead.

Should you read this? Is it a classic? Will I read it again? Does it belong on your bookshelf?
No.


Cottage Economy not revisited

I had planned to read the second half of Cottage Economy this week but I just didn’t want to. There is only so much preaching on bread and beer I can take in one dose. Julie and I were laughing at the extreme level of sexism displayed in the book. A man simply can’t love a woman who can’t bake bread. I want to believe he was considered a pig in his time. Further, it is more important to God’s kingdom that a father ensure his daughter can bake bread than that she can recite scripture.

I put it down. I’ll pick it up again if I feel the need to laugh. The opening statements concerning personal responsibility are gold. The rest of the first half? Not so much.


 Article of the Week

Should we go to Mars? How can we pay for it? I know, let’s set up an interplanetary internet using satellites in space…faster than anything we have now. From arstechnica.com:

Musk’s venture will be considerably more expensive, possibly costing as much at $10 billion. It could take more than five years to get operational. “But we see it as a long-term revenue source for SpaceX to be able to fund a city on Mars,” Musk said on Friday night. “It will be important for Mars to have a global communications network as well. I think this needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it.”

What does space have to do with farming? Variety is the spice of life. I wish you could alter time, speed up the harvest or teleport me off of this rock.

And I say we farm another rock. Diversify our risks as a species. But it’s hard. Mars is a long way away. Let’s look at the solar system if the moon is just one pixel. That means the nearest star is an almost incomprehensible distance away. Just something to think about while you scoop manure as scooping manure doesn’t require much brain power.

Also consider that low Earth orbit is out of any government’s jurisdiction…for now. There is no preventing the dissemination of information. And the promise is faster internet…anywhere on Earth…for everybody. And the proceeds go to Mars. Sign me up!


This Week in Spending Money

I maintain a big line in my budget for books and education. A big line. In years past I have forked over as much as $8,000 of my own money for two weeks of tech training…not counting the loss of vacation time. That’s just what you have to do to stay current in my line of business. Sometimes I get asked, “Chris, how did you learn all this computer stuff? Why can’t I do it?” You can. Just spend 10 or 20 years learning all about it. In 20 years you will be amazed how much you don’t know. I don’t know anything so I still spend money and time learning more. This week, in an effort to increase my own understanding and spark a fire in my children, we bought 5 more books.

Now you, dear reader, may say, “Gosh Chris, you sure spent a lot of money on books this week!” Yes I did. And if just one of those books sparks something in just one of my children (or even my wife! (or even myself)) then the return on investment will far outstrip anything else I could have put that money into. And why all this computer stuff? First, because it’s what I know and do. Second because it’s something that can be done anywhere. I can sit here at my desk and code for a customer in Alaska. No big. I read the book Ranching Full-time on Three Hours a Day some years ago and shortly after spoke to David Hall (who lives near Cody). David expressed a similar amount of time was needed by his cattle operation so he also had rental property, an insurance office and, until recently, an implement dealership. Put your time to work. There are other things we can do on the farm, even if it’s not farming.

But there is something more I want to share. Something that makes me a little bit sad. My wife and children have no idea what I do when I leave here. I come home at night and I’m greeted with a kiss from Julie and hugs from the younger children. Julie asks, “What did you do today?” I realize she’s not really asking but I need you to understand I can’t really tell her. My job is something I do by myself. In absolute isolation…even from my family. I drive there alone. I work alone. I drive home alone. I can’t find an intelligible way to communicate what I do. So I don’t talk about it.

And that hurts a little bit.

There is a part of me I can’t seem to share with my family. Half of my day. Every week day. So I just say, “Oh, the usual.” and we go on about our day.

What if I told them? What if I really said it? “Well, this morning my inbox was flooded with errors. Apparently the SharePoint database backup routine failed last night and the transaction logs grew too large. We didn’t run completely out of disk space but it was a near miss. Then Mike stopped by with a query that suddenly needed a little over a minute to run. I guess the database outgrew its design so we had to tweak it a little. I added an index and got it to a little over a second. Then we had a rush job to write an XML query for a load process. That got pretty rough, let me tell you. After that it was just helpdesk tickets all day long. Nothing too exciting.”

I lost Julie at SharePoint.

But today, as I was installing the newest version of Python 3 for a book I was planning to work through, Julie asked why I wasn’t installing Python 2. The Minecraft Mod book says we need Python 2. Julie has never been more attractive.


Please give me some feedback on this post. I read a lot. Like, a lot, lot. I like to share with my readers when I find a book that helps a farmer out. But I also like to be entertained so I include links to movies and music. Fun books too. Please let me know if there are questions I can answer for you or if you have any suggestions to help make this format more meaningful.

Also, let me know if you are doing any of the reading with me…even if you are running behind. Share your favorite quotes. Tell me if I missed the point.

Click here to see all entries in my reading journal.

Hatchet Job

I broke my hatchet handle last spring. Sigh.

The local hardware stores don’t seem to carry hatchet handles anymore. Axe? Yes. Sledge? Yes. Hatchet? No. Just buy a new one with a fiberglass handle.

But that’s not what I want.

I like my hatchet. I like my hatchet a lot.

SO I ordered a new hatchet handle from Amazon. It turned out about like you would expect.

Have you ever played baseball with a wooden bat? How do you hold the bat? You put the label up, right?

Why?

So the strength of the wood is oriented to apply pressure on the ball…and so the bat doesn’t break. You want to leverage the grain of the wood. If you hold the bat wrong the bat will flex and lessen the pressure on the ball or, worse, break.

And that’s the problem with my hatchet handle. I couldn’t dig through a bin at a store to find the one that has the right grain orientation. I just asked Amazon to send me one.

So here it is.

Hatchet1

Well, that’s nice. I can use it again. It won’t hold up but I can use it again. Here’s a close-up of the grain so you can see more clearly.

Hatchet2

This stinks. I use my hatchet for everything in the winter. I cut sprouts, trim limbs from trees, hammer fence posts and chop holes in ice. I keep my hatchet with me all the time. Usually it is sharpened and painted. Give me a little bit.

I don’t have high hopes for this handle. I don’t have high hopes for my handle supplier. I may have to start making my own.

So. There it is. Bat with the label up and pick your own tool handle.

Strolling Through The Pasture January 2015

Let’s go for a walk, shall we?

There’s lots of grass out there. Just under the cemetery hill the fescue recovered completely since the last grazing some time in September…er…October…er…Fall.

TallGrass

It’s still pretty green down in the bottom. But across the little stream…

Creek

…in the woods there is little grass. The squirrels have been busy taking hedge apples apart. There is not much grass standing in there.

HedgeApplesAcross the fence to the 40 things are a little different. This is north of the hog building in a messy field full of buried field fence, broken fence posts, tree limbs, stumps and thorny trees.

HogLot1I have quite a bit of work to do in this field this spring. We intend to start the chicken tractors at the east end of the field and run them slightly downhill across the field. Should be awesome. But that will force me to clean up the mess out there. And it’s a big mess…including the log that looks like a dead cow.

HogLot

Did I say it’s a mess? The remnants of fencing and watering supplies litter the area. I don’t even know what to do with this. I guess hook it back up and have a water supply…after I haul away the scrap.

HogLot2

Further east are the clover field to the north and the pasture where the cows are currently grazing to the south. I think we can safely say the cows are grazing the not-clover field. There was no clover out there last year. None. Not until dad and I cut hay and spread manure that is.

Clover

I didn’t graze the east field again after we cut hay. It’s a little hard to get to anyway so we just didn’t go there. I guess we had some seeds in our compost. No surprise, really, but it is a nice surprise to see evidence that clover once stood here. But not enough clover.

RemainingPasture

That’s all grass and weeds. I plan to overseed a mix of legumes to improve the pasture. That in addition to the seeds the cows deposit, the pasture should fill in with variety over time but I would rather speed things along. I like to see the mouse nests out in my fields. I’m glad to have something besides chicken for predators to hunt for…minks especially.

MouseHome

It is obvious where we cut hay on this field. I’m not sure what that little, scrubby gray weed is but cutting in July seemed to really set it back.

HayLine

It is interesting that the cows came across their first growth of what I believe is big bluestem and they left it alone. They either just missed it or it didn’t smell like fescue and orchard grass.

DontLookAtMe

Lots of brown grass and weed skeletons out there. The cows seem to relish it though. Much more than half of my farm remains ungrazed. More than half of my edible hay remains (more on that soon). We are sneaking up on February. I’m not saying we’re in the clear but I feel good about what’s happening. This walk wasn’t the entire farm as I have done in the past. This was just a straight line east from our house.

An Hour’s Worth of Sunday

I needed to fill the cow’s water tanks. I couldn’t do this early in the morning when I do my normal chores because (sigh) my hoses were frozen. It takes about 40 minutes to fill three tanks if I use different hydrants to fill two at once. What can I do with that time? Stare at the cows?

StaringAtCows

The cows are grazing in strips. I lay out a north-south strip roughly 40 paces wide and give them access to roughly 20 paces worth of pasture each day until we get through it. In addition to that, I maintain a corridor at the south fence line so the cows have access to mineral and water in a place that is fairly convenient to Julie and me as long as we keep the hoses well-drained on a slope. Which I didn’t do on Saturday. Anyway…

SlowFill1

So I have most of an hour to kill. Cows are going to need a new strip. That’s not Julie’s favorite job but I think it’s fun. I start at the north end of the property because I want my spool at the south end. That allows for the ever-growing corridor to water and mineral. I stepped 40 paces off of the current fence to find my starting position.

StartOfRow

I didn’t bring my fence remote with me so I can’t attach the fence at this time. But I don’t really need to yet.

StartOfRow2

Then I looked in the distance to try to find a target that looked roughly 40 paces from the other end of the current fence.

Trees

If you start at the thicket on the left and count over a few trees to the right you’ll come to a rounded cluster of sassafrass trees way over ther together. There’s a dark one in the center of the clump I’ll shoot for.

ThisTree

Let’s pause for a moment. I know a pace is not a standard unit of measure. It’s only marginally helpful to the reader for me to say that. I have a bakers dozen cows on pasture and I’m giving them an additional 60×120 each day. But the cows aren’t out there with a tape measure or a transit. The precision comes by watching the animals. Are they full? Are they clean? Are they calling out for dinner or are they grunting and burping? What are they leaving behind? Is the ground scalped or did they leave a protective blanket on the soil? That’s how you measure. It happens that I carry my feet with me so I use those to help guide me.

Burp

So I walked through hill and dale, leaving a string behind me. Always aiming for the tree in the distance…a tree I couldn’t always see.

NoTree

Once I arrived at the southern fence I stepped off the gap between old and new…45 paces. Not bad. I mean, horrible from a percentage perspective but cows don’t calculate percentages. Good enough is good enough.

ReelsApart

So I checked my water tank. A few minutes remaining.

NotFull

With 15 posts in hand I headed off to the north placing a post every 12th pace. Well, 12 or so. I wasn’t really placing the posts, I was just spearing them into the ground. I’ll come back later with a hammer to drive them into the frozen earth.

15Posts

15 got me halfway so I went back for more. While I was up there I moved the hose to the other trough.

SpearedIn

It’s important to fence the ditches to contain the cattle. I do want the cows to cross the ditches, pushing earth around so the ditch becomes wide and shallow, rather than steep and deep. I want the water to meander slowly on its way, not cut into the earth violently. I could do this with a bulldozer but the cows are here so…

CutInPasture

I’m a little particular about placing my insulators at ditches. I always want both forks of the insulator to touch the wire. That’s not possible in the dip but at the edges it’s no big whoop. I’m sorry if that is unclear. See how the insulators on each side of the creek face opposite directions? If they were turned the other way, on each side the wire would only be held by one hook. So any passing deer could easily knock my fence off of the insulator. After that the whole fence would short out as the wire rests against the metal post. This one small change ensures that the insulator will hang on to the wire as the deer bends the post, stretches the fence wire then releases somewhat magically as the string tension launches the insulator through the air to be found some time in the spring.

Insulators

I stepped off the remaining pasture. If the weather holds we’ll finish up that pasture in mid-February. Then I’ll take the cows north of the hog building. There’s not a lot of pasture back there but I really want to clean that field up and I need the cows to help me find saplings, stumps and odd bits of junk.

HogLot

Anyway, for now we are going from over there to over here.

RemainingPasture

By this time all of my tanks were full. I disconnected my hoses and left the posts speared in the ground until later in the afternoon. I like the cows to go to bed with full water tanks so I came back around 4:00 with the kids to top things off and drive the posts.

WaterHelpers

The kids needed to go outside and play. Barn cats are valid playmates.

Zippy

We left mom at home though. After about 20 minutes the hoses were drained again, the chickens were watered, the eggs collected, the fence completed, the cows had hay and we made monster shadows.

MonsterShadows

The cows stayed on the hill.

DisapprovingCows

We crossed the old bridge and ran up the hill.

OldBridge

I mean we ran. The kids were pretending to be in Minecraft and imagined that the darkening skies would soon allow skeletons and zombies and giant spiders to spawn. It helps to play through our day.

2015 January Thaw

Each year we get a thaw in January. That’s just how it is. We will surely have another bitter cold spell followed by a few big snows but we get a breather almost every January. We can get snow all the way up to May, frost as late as May 10. This week is just a breather.

Click image for source.

Click image for source.

After that we have snow in the forecast. In fact, yesterday they were suggesting 5-8″ of snow on Thursday. But things change.

Things do change.

The cows are back on pasture and they are happy about it. The ground is frozen and it’s hard to drive posts so Julie has been building each day’s fence around noon when things have thawed out a little. So far so good. Please don’t think I’m kidding when I say Julie runs the farm.

Julie runs the farm. I just work here.

I did build the next strip on the 18th and I’ll have a post about that soon.

This is also a good time to check on my bees. I don’t write much about bees. I’m more of a bee owner than a bee keeper.

Reading Journal 2015 Week 3

This was an odd week. I have included a book by Wodehouse I have been reading here and there in my free time for the last three weeks. I know that doesn’t meet the book-in-a-week theme but I include it for sake of completion.

Once again, I did some reading about gaming. Why would I include this on a family farm blog? I’m glad you asked.

I wrote about this recently but in short, I have these kid…things. Children. Small adults…just add water. They share my house. They eat my food. They help kill chickens. They beg Julie to play Minecraft on a daily basis. Now, it’s a fun game. Let’s not misunderstand. But why do I make it a point to play WITH my kids? Because I want to meet my children where they are. That’s why we play board games. That’s why we watch Star Wars and Shaun the Sheep together. Some of this is building common culture in our family but mostly it’s making an effort to be with my kids with the hope that my investment in them will be repaid. If I play Minecraft this week, maybe I can make a connection that will make a difference in morale on a long, hard day. I hope that makes sense.

One final note before I begin, I’m not having a hard time reading a single book in a week. That’s no big deal…as long as I’m somewhat selective about the book (nothing by Dumas!). The trouble I’m having is that I tend to do all of my reading on Friday and Saturday. I tend to procrastinate…then I have to force-feed myself some of these books in short order. It’s like being in college again. I didn’t like college. In fact, I didn’t learn to enjoy reading until after college. I’m worried I’m returning to some bad habits here. If you choose to do this, try to spread your reading out over several days. Doing it this way makes my head hurt on Sundays.


Cottage Economy

Cottage Economy has proven to be more than a match for me. I am shocked. Mr. Cobbett enumerates his paragraphs and thank God. I read paragraph 5 and stopped to read it aloud to Julie. Then we discussed. Then I read paragraph 6 and stopped again. Rinse and repeat. I could be justified in writing whole blog posts on just paragraphs in this book…though maybe not on this blog…

Anyway, I’ll review what I have muddled through and pick up the rest next week.

What is the book about?
Let’s let him say it. This is most of paragraph 16.

I propose to treat of brewing Beer, making Bread, keeping Cows and Pigs, rearing Poultry, and of other matters; and to show, that, while, from a very small piece of ground a large part of the food of a considerable family may be raised, the very act of raising it will be the best possible foundation of education of the children of the labourer; that it will teach them a great number of useful things, add greatly to their value when they go forth from their father’s home, make them start in life with all possible advantages, and give them the best chance of leading happy lives. And is it not much more rational for parents to […to do this stufff…] than to leave them to prowl about the lanes and commons, or to mope at the heels of some crafty, sleekheaded pretend saint, who while he extracts the last penny from their pockets, bids them be contented with their misery, and promises them, in exchange for their pence, everlasting glory in the world to come? It is upon the hungry and the wretched that the fanatic works. The dejected and forlorn are his pray. As an ailing carcass engenders vermin, a pauperized community engenders teachers of fanaticism, the very foundation of whose doctrines is, that we are to care nothing about this world, and all our labours and exertions are in vain.

Is it a classic?
Yes. No doubt.

Will you read it again?
Yes. Portions of it anyway. 10% of the book is given to the detail on brewing beer. I tend to think more modern writers have done a better job of presenting this information with current materials, weights and measures.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
Yeah, I think so.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
In the introduction there was a paragraph I found myself returning to again and again. This is, I think, in line with the quote I read in the Bob Kleberg book about the definition of social justice: “the process of giving everyone an equal opportunity to become unequal.” There is inequality. That’s how it is. I can’t go surfing this morning. Not fair. But feeling sorry for yourself because the other person has more is bad for all of society.

Let it be understood, however, that by poverty, I mean real want, a real insufficiency of food and raiment and lodging necessary to health and decency; and not that imaginary poverty, of which some persons complain. The man who, by his own and his family’s labour, can provide a sufficiency of food and raiment, and a comfortable dwelling place, is not a poor man. There must be different ranks and degrees in every civil society, and, indeed, so it is even amongst the savage tribes. There must be different degrees of wealth; some must have more than others; and the richest must be a great deal richer than the least rich. But it is necessary to the very existence of a people, that nine out of ten should live wholly by the sweat of their brow; and, is it not degrading to human nature, that all the nine-tenths should be called poor; and, what is still worse, call themselves poor and be contented in that degraded state?

But why stop there? Later he is talking about education. He has already established that 9 out of 10 have to live by the sweat of their brow so children should be given a thorough education in how to work. Education should not stop there but it also shouldn’t start with books. I’ll let him tell you from paragraph 12. I’ll just write the whole thing out. I am tempted to add emphasis but I think you’ll get it.

Understand me clearly here, however, for it is the duty of parents to give, if they are able, book-learning to their children, having first taken care to make them capable of earning their living by bodily labour. When that object has been secured, the other may, if the ability remain, be attended to. But I am wholly against children wasting their time in the idleness of what is called education; and particularly in schools over which the parents have no control, and where nothing is taught but the rudiments of servility, pauperism and slavery.

Ho. Ly. Cow. From 1821 no less!

Who should read this book?
The first part of the book should be required reading.

The last 10 or 15 years have been a good time to pick up home brewing as a hobby. If that’s your bag, the second chapter of this book is for you. I skimmed. We have made our own hard cider but I don’t see brewing beer on my horizon any time soon.

Take home messages:
How about this? Tea has no useful strength. Men who want to be strong, vigorous and vibrant – the sort of men needed by Britain to maintain the empire – should drink beer. Tea will only keep you awake at night. It is of no use, being corrosive, gnawing and poisonous. Working folk should breakfast upon Bread, Bacon and Beer! Besides, who can afford for their wife to spend two hours each day making tea when you could just drink a beer?

Little children, that do not work, should not have beer.

I should say not. I encourage the reader to read Ben Franklin’s autobiography to see what he had to say about the drinking of beer some decades earlier in Britain. (Just search the link for the first instance of “beer” and read on.) Cobbett is encouraging economy but Franklin shows how it’s done, saying the beer brewers provide beer to workers on credit, workers buy beer desiring strength but really it’s just a drain on their finances. Franklin is (by his own account) stronger and wealthier than all because he eats bread and drinks water. That’s right. And, though Cobbett condemns Americans for drinking liver-burning and palsy-producing spirits…well, who wears the empire pants now?

Maybe that’s not a take-home message. Let’s do this one next week when I finish the book. Just wait till you read what he thinks about the evil potato!


Blandings Castle

What is the book about?
Mayhem. The aristocracy. Show pumpkins. Show pigs. Love interests.

Is it a classic?
Heck yeah! Everything Wodehouse. Even the books about cricket (And I can’t begin to understand cricket).

Will you read it again?
Yes but not right away. Too much other Wodehouse to read.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
Wodehouse gets his own bookshelf.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
This is tricky. Wodehouse weaves jokes through his writing. Since this book is all short stories I am really having a hard time pulling one specific passage out. It just loses too much context. My favorite story is Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey. Let me summarize the beginning. Lord Emsworth’s pig keeper goes to jail just prior to the pig show. Empress (the sow) stops eating and Emsworth is very concerned. At the same time his niece (Angela) breaks her engagement with one man and picks up with another. Multiple characters come to Emsworth to discuss the problems with the female pronoun (her, the girl, etc.) Emsworth always assumes the conversation concerns the pig rather than his niece. The jilted fiancee appeals to Lord Emsworth.

‘I say, I’ve just ridden over to see if there was anything I could do about this fearful business.’

‘Uncommonly kind and thoughtful of you, my dear fellow,’ said Lord Emsworth, touched. ‘I fear things look very black.’

It’s an absolute mystery to me.’

‘To me, too.’

‘I mean to say, she was all right last week.’

‘She was all right as late as the day before yesterday.’

‘Seemed quite cheery and chirpy and all that.’

‘Entirely so.’

‘And then this happens – out of a blue sky, as you might say.’

‘Exactly. It is insoluble. We have done everything possible to tempt her appetite.’

‘Her appetite? Is Angela ill?’

You see where this is going. Emsworth’s character fits this role perfectly…being consistently absent-minded in each book. His first concern is his garden but after that he worries about the pig. Interpersonal problems seem to resolve themselves so…

Who should read this book?
Anybody with a little free time, a sense of humor and a desire for an increased vocabulary.

Take home messages:
I don’t know. Wodehouse’s characters are often not the most intelligent but they are generally caring and honest. Maybe that’s the most important thing. Harvest comes in due season…you reap what you sow.


Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game that Changed Everything

What is the book about?
The birth and rise of Minecraft…written as a biography of Marcus Perrson.

Is it a classic?
No. I don’t think so. Portions were very interesting though. I spent a surprising amount of time discussing it with Julie on our way to a family outing this weekend.

Will you read it again?
Probably not. The kids won’t read it either. Too many things I don’t want to explain.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
No.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
This is from Chapter 8. It’s not breaking new ground here but this triggered some thought:

The conclusion was obvious: game players have different brains than others. The question then becomes: What causes what? No one knows if gaming makes the striatum grow or if a congenitally larger striatum makes one more inclined to play. It’s clear that certain personality traits seem to be more common among those who play a lot. They seek immediate rewards for their efforts and make decisions more quickly than others. If it could be proved that games make the brain’s enjoyment center grow then it’s logical that these characteristics are strengthened by a lot of gaming. If that’s the case, then gaming may make us more active and give us quicker reactions, but it might also lead us to tend to choose short-term rewards rather than working long-term toward something greater.

Well, maybe. I have been playing video games my whole life. My kids want to know why I am so good at Super Mario games. Well, I’ve been playing Super Mario for 30 years in one form or another. Am I a gamer? Yes. But I can still work toward long-term goals. As can the gamer who created Minecraft…the subject of the book. I mean, I don’t think the author has thought about what he is saying. But it still gave me something to chew on.

In chapter 9:

Jakob and Markus found themselves at the same crossroads that most people with entrepreneurial dreams encounter at some point in their lives. On the one hand: a secure work life, with a permanent job and a monthly salary. On the other hand: a rare opportunity to realize a dream.

There was also detail about Jeb’s initial inclusion in Minecraft development. The product belonged to Markus. Nobody worked on it but Markus. Not that it was protected, that’s just how it was. Jeb took a look at some code and spent a Christmas vacation adding a feature so players could dye sheep’s wool…even while still on the sheep. It was a little risky but Markus embraced it and promoted the programmer. I think it is cool that Markus poured his life into a project but still was free and open enough to embrace a contribution honored the spirit of the game.

Who should read this book?

Last week I read another book about Minecraft. This one got a little further into the details Markus Perrson’s personal life, his family and his motivations. Each book has its strong points. Though this book was written prior to the other one I feel this is the book that should be read…if one were inclined to read a book about Minecraft.

Take home messages:
You know that thing you think you should do? That book you should write? That blog you should start? That spreadsheet you have been meaning to design? That car you need to fix? That thing you haven’t done because everybody says it’s stupid? That thing you haven’t done because you don’t think it really matters? 

It matters.

Don’t quit your job though. Make time in your day to do whatever your thing is. I know you don’t have time. That’s why I said “MAKE” time.  There will come a time when you succeed out of your job. You won’t have an alternative. That’s your goal. Today is the day. Get started.


Favorite Blog Post of the Week

This week Matron wrote part two of a series about capturing and utilizing winter livestock bedding. I think both parts of this series are great. Just great. I look forward to a third.

In short, how much time does she spend on bedding? How much bedding does she use? What does she do with it all? Find the answers in the cleverly-named Peeing Forward Part II.


Favorite Podcast of the Week

I don’t know if podcasts will be a regular feature of my weekly (ahem…) reading journal or not but to round off my media consumption for the week, The Survival Podcast had a great episode on Thursday. Let me caution you that this is not an episode I will listen to with my children. He drops every word but F.

So let me give you the gist. The American dream is not a house. The American dream is a productive home. An asset, not a liability. A place that increases our wealth and well-being, not just a place to store our stuff. He also hits on an important idea, that we can strengthen our relationships by enduring hardship together…a concept we believe in strongly.


Just to open the window into our library, the following books arrived Friday:

Why these books? My kids are into Minecraft so I’m into Minecraft. As far as they want to go. They picked up the ball…now we run together. At some point they will move on. So will I. Believe me when I say we are doing more than playing a game here. Much more. I’ll give you an example. To build a dome with blocks you have to have a base diameter that is an odd number. What is a diameter? Why does it have to be odd?

I plan to read and work through the Java programming book this week. If you want to make it in tech you have to constantly learn new stuff. That’s just how it is. Otherwise the industry will leave you behind. There is nothing new about Java but it is new to me. I’m adding to my skill set…in large part to help my kids as they work through the same book on their way to making Minecraft mods.

I’m sure I’ll flip through the other books as well.

I am also working through so TSQL puzzles from this site as I work to train a co-worker. The most interesting part is the HUGE number of valid ways you can solve any problem. What do I do for a living? How do I pay for the farm? I tell my children I solve Sudoku puzzles all day…not far from the truth as I have no idea what kinds of issues I’ll have to solve each day…many of which are quite puzzling. But anybody else who asks gets told, “I work on a computer like a UPS guy works on a truck. I can’t fix your home PC.” I hate fixing people’s home computers. Hate. Like lasers-Shooting-Out-Of-My-Eyes-just-before-my-head-explodes hatred. “No, I don’t want to update your anti-virus. Oh, you have both Norton AND McAfee. Wow. It appears an unknown gremlin has used your browser to visit a number of sites which indicate said gremlin has certain tastes…that I’m not judging and really don’t want to know about…but I suspect those sites have a lot to do with the problems we are seeing. The gremlin also managed to install seven different toolbars in Internet Explorer. Couldn’t you just save your budget spreadsheet to Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox and sync your cat pictures to one of any of the online photo whatsits? Then we could just wipe and start fresh every third week.”

Anyway, this week I plan to read something related to farming besides finishing Cottage Economy. I haven’t decided what yet but I’ll keep you up to date. I’m leaning toward Native and Adapted Cattle by Kelley, though I appear to have the only copy.


Please give me some feedback on this post. I read a lot. Like, a lot, lot. I like to share with my readers when I find a book that helps a farmer out. But I also like to be entertained so I include links to movies and music. Fun books too. Please let me know if there are questions I can answer for you or if you have any suggestions to help make this format more meaningful.

Also, let me know if you are doing any of the reading with me. Would it be better if I published some sort of schedule or is it OK that I shoot from the hip?

Click here to see all entries in my reading journal.

The Seventh Generation

  1. William Chism
  2. John Marion Chism
  3. William Chism
  4. Charles Chism
  5. Thomas Chism
  6. Rosemary Chism Jordan
  7. Chris Jordan

I am the seventh. Mom pointed that out to me as we were chatting recently. I am the seventh generation on this farm. We often hear discussion about Seven Generation Sustainability and we should think about how we will impact people 140 years into the future. But we can’t begin to imagine the world ten years from now, let alone 140 years from now.

From mom’s blog, “William was born in Virginia on Dec.12, in either 1798 or 1800.” In my case 140 years only goes back 5 generations to when great grandpa Charlie was born. (Charlie is second from the right in the back next to his brother Tom who, in that picture, looks EXACTLY like my grandpa Tom. Maybe less shoulder than grandpa.)

Think about what this all means. That mink I caught in my chicken house a few years back? William, John, William or Charlie’s chickens may have terrorized by that mink’s ancestor.

That hedge tree I hate and plan to cut? It’s ancestor may have been purposefully planted here by William.

Charlie built the white barn 100 years ago. Did he expect it to last this long? Dick built my house. Grandpa built ponds, corrals, loading chutes, more barns. What will I leave?

Patria.

The Fatherland.

Do you know anyone who has as strong of a connection to the land as me? Not even the King ranch! Not only did they own it, most of my mother’s fathers are buried here. We have carved rocks to prove it.

Patria. Patriot. Patriotic. My 60 acres, ’tis of thee.

Will we still be here on the fatherland in seven generations?

I don’t know.

I can’t know.

I’m not even sure it’s important.

But I’ll tell you this – and I say this from the perspective of someone who is almost as deeply rooted as any American can be – I don’t think William bought a farm to fix his descendants in one place for all of time. In fact, though we modern folk read Laura Ingalls Wilder and swoon, I don’t think William saw the farm as anything other than a means to an end.

Let’s revisit Illinois in 1834. Illinois is a state but there is more land available on the continent than there are people to settle it. Europe is pouring itself into the US. Jefferson wrote quite a bit about the lack of opportunity for private land ownership in France and those who could were leaving their father’s rocks and hopping on a boat. So, while owning the means of production is important – and it is – the specific land we are currently parked on is less so. For some reason William, born in Virginia, moved to Kentucky then on to Illinois. My understanding is they were frozen out the first winter, returned to Kentucky and came back again. So they had some mobility and some tenacity.

Somewhere along the line prior to William the Chism family left Scotland and changed the spelling of their name. I met a man from Scotland recently and he joked with mom and dad that the Chism clan are midland Scots…I think he meant that to be a somewhat derogatory joke but it went over my head. And it doesn’t matter because I’m not Scottish. Nor am I German. Or Irish. Or whatever. But the point is my ancestors left their PATRIA! And why? Why did they abandon the rocks that marked the graves of their fathers? Because their prospects looked better elsewhere. What dead father wants to make his children suffer in proximity of said rocks?

So what is this farm? If we assume, and I think we can, that this farm represented a measure of hope, a feeling of place and the means of production for a family relocating from Kentucky…then what were William’s thoughts about me? …about the farm?I have no idea. William died long before I was born and I am not aware of his journals but I have to believe his thinking was not dissimilar to my own.

I have an attachment to my farm. I live in my grandma’s house. We put our dishes in cabinets she built. Our wood stove is in an addition built by a cousin of my grandpa’s. The house was built by a great-great uncle. We watch TV in a room built by my father. Most of the family is buried 200 yards from my back door. As a child I rode grandpa’s three-wheeler all over the farm. My cousin Kate and I ran down the hill and played in the creek (downstream from the hog floor…in retrospect, yuk). I remember the one time she touched the electric fence well. I have been in this house every Christmas of my life but one. I have an emotional attachment to my farm. I owe the bank a bunch of money for my farm…so I have a legal attachment too.

But what about my children?

This hasn’t been a post about chickens or cows or pigs or manure. This is a post about purpose!

My farm is a place, not a purpose. The chickens, cows, pigs and manure are just the means. Land forces us to work hard and save money but the children are our wealth. The children are the ends…even when covered in silly string.

SillyString

If William Chism had time to wonder about the seventh generation, I have to believe his thoughts were less about farmland and more about family. Would there be a seventh generation? Not just generations formed by boys and girls doing what boys and girls do but intentional families. Julie and I are intentional about family. Our parents are intentional about family. My grandma and grandpa Chism were intentional about family. Aunt Marian was intentional about her family…even if we weren’t her kids. Mom has memories of her intentional grandmother. My dad’s grandmother lived with us for a while when I was a kid (hilarious!). The culture of our family is not an accident and while it is true that there wouldn’t be Christmas memories in this house if Uncle Dick or a grandma Chism or grandpa’s cousin or my dad hadn’t built it, the house is the least important part of that list.

In some recent writing I have focused more on my kids and less on my business and that is entirely on purpose. I have an amazing and challenging job in town…a job that I don’t plan to leave any time soon. In fact, I like my job so much that I do it on my vacation time. The Chris Jordan you see on this blog is hardly Chris Jordan at all…but then again it is. The real Chris Jordan is absolutely fascinated by farming, that’s true. So much so that he journals what he is learning on an almost daily basis.

But the real Chris Jordan is even more fascinated by his wife and children. And as he lists his hopes for 140 years from now the well-being of his family rank far above his hopes for the well-being of the farmland he lives on.

My ancestors once moved out of Scotland. My children or grandchildren may move away from the farm…or even the US. That’s how it is.

We may not have the farm in another 140 years. But will there still be a family? Will our family culture persist? Or will there just be children?

William Chism succeeded.

Will I?

Gonna Get Busy

Spring is here. I know it doesn’t look like it but it is. Really. No, really. Not on a calendar but on a to-do list.

SummerMorning

Let’s take a quick look at the year, shall we? Julie and I have been meaning to do this but…you know…it’s hard to find the time. This list is incomplete but not inaccurate. Again, it’s less of a calendar and more of us being aware of what’s coming next.

Today (Monday, Jan 12)

  • Ordered layer feed (cause we need it this week)
  • Ordered pig feed (cause we’ll need it soon)
  • Ordered chick starter (cause it won’t be long).
  • Ordered broilers and turkey poults for the coming year
  • Called my pig guy. May get a few gilts for breeding. I always threaten that. Maybe this time…
  • Called my trencher guy to have him put a hydrant next to the brooder and save Julie’s back. Maybe even put it in the brooder.

Between now and Feb

  • Cut wood for next winter
  • Cut sprouts
  • Cut Japanese bush honeysuckle (Thanks SSF)
  • Cut the trees in the yellow house barn lot, especially the sumac trees growing against the barns.
  • Read
  • Try to put on a layer of fat. Long days are coming. Lunch at breakfast, supper at bedtime.
  • Order more sawdust
  • Rent a chipper or have a big, big fire. Several big, big fires.
  • Haul scrap iron (I’m dreaming here)
  • Sell the pigs I’ll get in February.
  • Sell 75% of broilers we will get in February.
  • Overseed pastures with clover mix. Probably mix in some cool-season plants too.

Jan. 31 or Feb. 1

  • Start planting greenhouse. Yeah. Potatoes even.
  • Pigs arrive. Vacation ends.

Feb 6

  • Build new chicken house. We plan to build one similar to the new house from last summer…except shaped like a train caboose…because why not?

Feb 14

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Put bedding in brooder, turn on heat lamps to get things warmed up.
  • Tap maple trees

Feb. 18

  • Chicks arrive. Prayers begin in earnest. Vacation really ends.

March

  • Goslings arrive (need to get these ordered ASAP!).
  • Pullets arrive (need to get these ordered ASAP!).
  • Hatch a few duck eggs.
  • Fill chicken tractors (7th or 14th? Depends on weather).
  • Order more chick starter.
  • Plant potatoes outside.

April

  • Grass starts growing
  • Calving starts. There are no more vacations.
  • Butchering chickens begins. Please let it be warm. Please let the buffalo gnats be gone.
  • Get serious about outdoor gardens. Cole and root crops mostly.
  • Repair post rot in south side of bar while the barn is mostly empty.

May

  • Broadcast cowpea, sorghum and sunflower on the pasture. Maybe crimson clover too.
  • Pullets go into chicken tractors as broilers leave
  • First cutting hay to the barn
  • Flora will freshen. So much for vacation time.
  • Plant post-frost garden.
  • Scrape up every drop of manure I can find into heaps to be spread next month.
  • Pigs leave the farm.

June

  • Wash and pack a metric ton of eggs…somehow.
  • Sell a metric ton of eggs…somehow.
  • Cut hay.
  • Spread manure where hay was cut.
  • Buy 200 bales of straw.
  • New pigs arrive! I love pigs. I can’t wait. I really can’t. They are just the best. Little piggies!

Piglet

July

  • Turkey poults arrive. They should be raised with broilers. May have to drive to Iowa to get the chicks and poults because I don’t trust the postal service in July.
  • Cut hay.
  • Bull arrives. Need to use a different bull this year. Maybe get a roan shorthorn? I kinda like the red ones as they seem to slick out better. I’ve been thinking about devon…
  • Order more sawdust
  • Order a load of firewood from the sawmill. That stuff is surprisingly awesome.

August

  • Pray for rain.
  • Chicken tractors filled with broilers and turkey poults. The goal is to have turkeys that dress out at 20 pounds and at least 50 broilers that dress out above 8 pounds. Oh yeah.
  • Butcher geese. Maybe.
  • Cut hay.
  • Keep the cows cool. I may change things up and start bringing the cows back to the barn around 11am to loaf during the day, putting them back on pasture in the evening. We’ll see.

September

  • Cut hay?
  • Sell the majority of the broilers that will be butchered in October. Hopefully cooling weather will get people thinking about cooking again.
  • Keep the cows cool.

October

  • Butcher broilers early in the month. Trying to beat the first frost.
  • Butcher turkeys ’cause if I don’t we’ll have to cut them in half to fit them in the oven.
  • Pigs leave the farm. Good riddance! 300 pound nuisances…all of them.

November

  • Stop milking the cow. Thank God. Swear it off forever. Just buy the dang milk from Steve.
  • Sprint the cows across the alfalfa field. Well, stretch, not sprint. Get it used up before frost knocks the leaves to the ground. Just make it happen.

December

  • Eat.
  • Sleep
  • Read books
  • Hang with the fam.
  • Keep grazing pasture.

There are all kinds of details missing from that but at least I got started. Do you have anything like this? It’s a little like a grazing chart. If you really fill out a full grazing chart you make room for weddings and vacations as you plan toward your goals. Might be something to think about including.

Meet Them Where They Are

Kari has been asking for a post about marketing. I have to do this two ways and both are more conceptual than concrete. (I may offer more concrete examples another time but I think that subject is already saturated.) First we’ll discuss Marketing for Business then Marketing for Sustainability. You’ll see how those two ideas differ as we go but there is one thing in common: You have to meet your customers where they are.

Marketing for Business

Customers won’t come find you. They won’t magically appear at your farm gate and they won’t make immediate and radical changes to their buying habits. It seems easier to convince someone to change religions than to convince them to change diets. You have to find them where they are. Offer them something that looks like their concept of food but is superior in every way.

But sometimes…just sometimes…someone will go through some sort of crisis. They may join a gym or read a book about Paleo or something and suddenly they have stopped buying donuts. With all that disposable income and the encouragement of their newfound literature and peer support groups they will begin to ask, “Where can I buy a whole chicken and what do I do with it? What is a deep freezer? How do I cook with an oven?” They will ask friends at they gym, friends at work, friends at church. Somebody knows somebody. That somebody may know you. And that’s the best way…word of mouth. But you have to start somewhere. I have gotten years of business from customers and, later, their friends by initially giving away a single dozen eggs. There are times when we are swamped with eggs and we don’t know what to do with them all. So we give eggs away. At this point we throw a free dozen into a customer’s order if they will promise to pass a second free dozen to a friend. That normally results in a new customer…if you have dotted your i’s.

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

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

How do you dot the i in an egg? People don’t talk about ordinary products. Ordinary products are just too ordinary. You have to bring the WOW! to get word of mouth. Soon you’ll see pictures of your food on FB or Instagram. Customers will text you pictures of your eggs frying next to “Free-Range, Organic Brown eggs from the store” and will express wonder at how pale the competitor’s egg is. But the truth is that store egg is not your competition. In fact you don’t have competition. If those are eggs then you produce something else. Same with chicken. Same with pork. Same with beef. That product you have is so superior to what people are used to…it’s like you are producing something else. Not a commodity, real food. Real quality. And people will talk about it.

Three years ago our van was stolen (and 5 dozen eggs in a nice small cooler!). I searched for its replacement on CraigsList. We took the whole family on the test drive with the owner. As I merged on to Lindbergh he said, “So…what do you do?”

“I am a computer guy. But we have a farm and raise chickens, turkeys, goats and pigs on pasture.”

Fast forward a few minutes.

“Chris, that was the most interesting test drive I have ever been on. I’m sold. How can I buy your product?”

Turns out he is a foodie.

Three years later he is still buying from us. He has given eggs to friends, neighbors and co-workers. He buys and smokes chickens and turkeys. He makes soup with our spent layers. He buys pigs and splits them with neighbors. He builds my customer base every time he changes jobs. We can count on him to spread the word. In a way, he is a partner in our growing business and has become a friend. And he’s not the only enthusiastic customer we have.

Several times he has pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I bought a chicken from X or from Y but they aren’t the same.” Heck, he continues to buy our eggs even though he belongs to a CSA that includes eggs. He says ours are better.

So, it’s all about the quality.

But if it’s all about quality it is also all about the price. Keep in mind there are alternatives on the market and remember cost has nothing to do with price. Cost is important to you, the producer. Prices are set by the market. Customers have price expectations. They expect to pay more for quality but you can’t be too far out of line. Consumers are price sensitive and allowing for that puts you in position to meet them where they are…to at least get within waving distance.

That said, there is a theory that if you’re having trouble moving product you should raise your prices. If nothing else the higher price gives your product a psychological advantage. Also, I can tell you from experience, customers are thankful when you lower prices and hateful when you raise them. Try to start at the high end of what the market will bear. We started too low (cause we didn’t add up our costs and allow a margin).

We make quality products and charge what customers indicate are reasonable prices. We rely on word of mouth and give out free samples in times of surplus. If you can do that while operating efficiently your business will grow. That’s all there is to it. Give away a few eggs to get the door open. Then sell a chicken to get your foot in the door. Then, before you know it, you are in the kitchen and, later, selling beef, pork, lamb and chicken to the whole neighborhood.

As long as you can keep up with the workload.

Marketing for Sustainability

What will happen to the farm when I’m gone? My labor? My dreams? My herds and flocks, the trees I planted…who will care for them? Who will continue the work here? I fear the vision is becoming hazy. Where I used to feel invincible I am often intimidated by the staggering amount of work ahead of me. Our dream (a dream I have in common with my ancestors) needs an injection of fresh blood. Youth. Energy! I am a steward, not an owner. I await the next steward.

Stacking

We will never be sustainable unless new generations stand up and take the reins at regular intervals. That takes serious marketing success or they will all move away. The farm will be sold and, worse, spent. I need my children to buy into the dream, to share our vision and to move things forward. So let’s share some vision.

You know what I want? I want to spread manure on the pastures to build up future fertility so we have more nutritious, more drought-resistant forages, healthier cows that breed back every year and a beautiful place to spend our lives together. I want birds and ponds and fish and frogs and snakes and ducks. I want blueberries and gooseberries and raspberries and dewberries and strawberries. I want hazelnuts and walnuts and hickory nuts. I want cows and pigs and chickens and foxes and raccoons…well, maybe not raccoons. I want painted buildings in good repair full of feed and bedding. I want a beautiful, welcoming farm that family and friends can visit to feel refreshed. I want an efficient, smaller home with an open floor plan that is easy to heat, easy to cool, easy to clean and comfortable to entertain in and I want the house filled with our children and their children and laughter and games and food and lots and lots and lots of books.

How do I get there?

I go where my customers are now. I meet their needs where they are. Right now.

My kids are playing Minecraft right now. Even if they aren’t actually playing the game I promise at least two of them are sitting with graph paper and designing the castles they will build next time they can play. The others are reading library books either on the couch near the fire or on the couch in the front room near the electric heater. What books? I don’t know. They read so fast it’s almost impossible for me to even keep track…but I still try. My two older kids usually read at least a book each day (the library limits us to 70 books at a time…per card, BTW).

So that’s where my sustainability customers are.

Now, I could leave my kids there. They would be entertained, I could get some work done…or do some reading…or take a nap. But did Julie and I have kids so we could keep the computer busy all day? They aren’t an accidental by-product of recreational activity! No. We had kids because WE WANTED KIDS!

We wanted to be asked “Why?” questions and we wanted to clean up messes and we wanted to spend decades growing with and learning about them. What are they like? Who are they on the inside? What do they like to eat? What are they interested in doing?

You know what they are interested in doing? Right now they are interested in a specific game. So I am also interested in that game.

Why?

Because that’s how marketing works. If your customers want to play golf you play golf. If they want dinner, you go to dinner. If they want to build floating castles in the sky out of emeralds you go to your crafting table and make a pickaxe.

I need to build real connections with my customer base. This is more than just appreciation for the quality food at a reasonable price. This is me inspiring my children to achieve more than I can.

I’m taking the first step. I’m giving. Reaching out. I can’t wait for them to come to me…they might out of a sense of obligation but obligation doesn’t inspire vision.

But let’s say none of my children want anything to do with the farm as adults. OK. Let’s say that. It hurts me but we can pretend. Then what? Then I go to plan B: Grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It worked for my grandma. But what if I had no siblings and no children of my own? Then what? Then it’s incumbent on me to go out and find a protege. To mentor someone. To pass on our vision and continue the dream.

BaleWalking

I have to go to them. I have to give away the best eggs in the world. I have to be generous with my time. I have to go short on sleep to go long on parenting. I have to read what they are reading and play what they are playing and continuously build connections over the decades. I have to make time to serve the people who matter the most and wash their feet. (I don’t know that I’ve every heard Jesus used as a sales example but it applies. The idea is that He came to us.)

I have to meet them where they are.

Worn but Still Worn

Saturday my 10 year old son was wearing jeans with holes in the knees…under which he was wearing long johns with holes in the knees. “Dude, your knees have to be cold. Go change and bring me those pants.”

He said, “Old clothes are just more comfortable.” He changed but returned wearing jeans with a smaller hole. I asked Julie to get some iron-on patches while she was out.

20 years ago I raised open gilts on the hog lot for a nearby producer. He also kept a vasectomized boar with them so they could AI more easily later. My job was to call when the feeders ran low, give a shot if needed and scrape the floors clean. I did all that but I also played with the piggies. One warm winter day I had my coat unzipped as I scraped the floor. One of the girls gave an affectionate tug to the sleeve of my coat…so affectionate she pulled it right off me. Good thing I had it unzipped or I would have gone down. Off she ran, dragging my winter work coat through the manure. Thanks piggy.

So I bought a new Carhartt coat. 20 years ago. For years it would stand in the corner by itself. They take forever to break in. This time I bought a quilted coat instead of a blanket-lined one. I’m still not sure I like the lining. But I can tell you this, it’s warm and comfortable. Even with holes in the wrists, along the bottom edge and all along the zipper.

coat2

 

I don’t think there is any magic to Carhartt. Their zippers seem to hold up but I suspect a real farmer can’t make a coat last for 20 years. Just a computer guy who wears his coat for about an hour or two each day in the winter. Julie bought one around 1996 and finally had to swap it out two years ago.

But I want my wife and children to look nice. We don’t have all the money in the world but surely we can wear long johns that don’t have holes worn in the knees. But my coat? I don’t know. It is comfortable.