Now Presenting…The Future!

Some of this post is just snippets of discussions that happen around the dinner table…or around the chicken evisceration table. Some of this post is stuff we have formally written out. Most of it hasn’t been spoken of outside of our immediate family. All of it has been prayed over…and hard. Just as I focused on budgeting a few months ago as we prepared to buy the rest of the farm, I am focusing on multi-generational farming now as I’m realizing how big my kids have gotten. If this isn’t your bag I hope you enjoy the pictures. You’ll probably get more posts like this now that Fields of Farmers has arrived in the mail.

Our 11 year old daughter asked me, “Dad, in 50 years when I have lots and lots of children…will you still come out here to help us process chickens?”

Well, I hope I will still be useful when I’m 87…and you are still helping with chickens when you are 61…but I suspect you will hand it to the next generation before then. But, yes, I would like to be out there with my great-grandchildren telling the same stupid jokes.

That’s not what she meant to say. She meant to ask if I would still be out there when I was 50. Bear with her, she was cutting feet and oil glands off of chickens at a rapid pace.


Oh. Well. 13 years from now is much more visible than 50 years from now. Still uncertain but much closer. Yeah. I expect I’ll still be butchering chickens when I’m 50. Will she still be here when she’s 24? What will she be doing? Will she be married? Kids? Will she choose to make her home here? Will she work here?

How can I express my vision of a preferred future without imposing my will on her life? It’s tricky. If you’ll allow, I’ll tell you what we see through the fog and try to do so in a way that doesn’t enslave our children. I have no idea what is really ahead of us but I do have direction. Let’s look that direction together.

5,000 cows.

I know, right? That number has been with me for a long time. I read Julius Ruechel’s book years ago and he suggested that cattle don’t really act like a “mob” until you have 500 head in one group. Then I read about Ian Mitchel-Innes having 6,000 cows in one group, introducing 400 bulls each summer!

How do I get there? It starts where I am. Then it grows. Ultimately I would need to lease around 5,000 acres of good ground. I also need to breed a nativized or adapted herd of cattle that are fertile, can produce with few inputs and, really, don’t ask for much from me. But you know from my posts about budgeting that cattle alone won’t pay the bills. They are a great way to cycle nutrients through the farm but I’ll need an employee (or child or grandchild) for each 1,000 head of cattle. We’ll eat well but will we be profitable? Selling 10 steers/year is doable. Selling 2,500 steers/year as direct retail freezer beef? At some point (I’ll suggest around 150 cows) we transition to commodity production or depend on selling wholesale. It may require a dedicated salesperson. (Do I have enough children?)

But that’s just the beginning. We’re taking the long-term view here. 5,000 cows requires 5,000 acres in Illinois…more elsewhere. That’s a big area on a map. Not as big as some of the ranches in Texas and Oklahoma but big in Illinois terms. I am necessarily counting on a fall in land prices and lease prices (brought on by an increase in interest rates, crushing and cleansing the economy) to make land available for low-cost producers (like me). Can you imagine converting corn ground that sits tilled, empty and idle for 7 months each year into a year-round carbon-sequestering, sunlight-catching, cow-fattening meadow filled with songbirds, bugs and spiders? Rather than produce a mere 200 bushels of corn we could produce 30 tons of hay…but we won’t cut hay. We’ll just let the cow do the work. Grass with roots 15′ deep. Rows of trees planted on contour. Ponds snuggled into every valley…every hollow hydrating the landscape, preventing flooding downstream, Trees, grass and swales working to prevent agricultural runoff…can you imagine enough farmers getting this idea for the the muddy Mississippi to run clear? I can.


But we haven’t started yet! I mean, if we’re talking about 5,000 acres and if each of my 4 kids has 4 kids of their own…we’re going to need more than just beef cattle to keep us all busy and fed. What about dairy? A grass-based dairy herd has to have time to eat each day. You really can’t grow a dairy above 200 head because every step the cow takes to the milking parlor is time the cow is not grazing forage or laying on the hill chewing its cud. Could you grow bigger by building a milking parlor every 200-300 acres so we can milk larger numbers of animals at each milking…rotating through the larger farm over time? Could the farm’s beef cattle prepare better pastures over time for a dairy herd? Could the dairy herd lead the way through the pastures allowing the beef herd to follow and clean up what is left over? Or should I build a herd of thrifty dual-purpose cows? Maybe move South and buy a herd of criollo cows and select for milk production.

But what about pigs? What about chickens? What about lumber? What about a machine shop? What about a hotel? What about an interstellar launch pad? What about ideas my children will generate that I can’t even imagine yet! I don’t know. Each of the things we currently do are small-scale. I can see that any of them will grow beyond what I can handle alone. As these things grow I’ll need my kids to step up and take on a larger portion of it…to continue to grow the operation. The 5,000 cow herd example above is a good illustration of that. Starting with 10 cows today I would be (according to my spreadsheet) 63 before we hit 5,000 cows (bringing in a gross income of something close to $1 million at today’s prices). Moving cows between pastures is not full time work, sorting and working 5,000 cows is more than one man can handle alone. Anyone involved in the farm is going to have to wear multiple hats to be busy full-time. There just have to be enough hats.

But that’s all micro. Let’s go macro.

Does Illinois even want me to be here? Is it in my best interest to ONLY have cattle in one place where one tornado can wipe it all out? …or one new state tax policy (in a state where the pension is only 49% funded (if you are really optimistic about future returns))!

So what do we do? I work in Florida a lot. Can I lease ground in Florida? Yup. That plants our flag in another state. But should we diversify internationally? Wow. I could see a real argument for that. Can I still learn Spanish?

Julie has a long, written story of waking up early one morning with her granddaughter patting her on the face. Three of our children and their families are at home in Chesterfield helping us to wrap up our seasonal work at this farm as we leave it in the farm manager’s hands and the rest of us join the fourth child at the ranch in Chile. Our parents, our kids, their kids all go with us. She wrote this as part of a business class the is taking through a coach. In short, the exercise was to imagine where you hope to be in the near future. Believe it or not, that 60 acre farm with 50 or so cows is attainable even if you are of modest means (as we are). The exercise forced her to imagine, not the trip from A to B, but the trip from A to C. If you’re going to C, you’ll pass B along the way…and keep going. Our immediate goal is to grow our farm to the point that it provides our family’s primary income with my parents in partnership. To stretch that, we hope our kids can earn their income here. To stretch that we may look for multiple locations. To stretch that, we may say goodbye to winters by living in the Southern Hemisphere half of the year. But it all starts here. Feet on the ground…covered in manure…building fence at night…wearing a head lamp in the cold rain.

Tomorrow may be out of reach today…but I’m reaching for it anyway. What are you reaching for?

If it helps, Julie and I sit down together at the first of each year and write down specific and measurable goals. We keep that list in front of us every day to help us stay focused. A new year starts in just under two months. You might start working on your list.

Grazing the Whole Hill

It is important to us that we do things that cause our neighbors to crane their necks as they drive slowly past. Yes, the cows are in the yard. As the world works today, If people don’t think we are weird then we are doing something wrong. I don’t want to be normal in a world of chemical agriculture and chemical lawn maintenance.

MowingInNovemberI had to give a very large area to the cows because the grass was short. The girls are also doing a good job of smoothing out some rough places left over from some trenching that we had done in the spring.

TheWholeHillWe have grazed the slope in three sections from bottom to top. I prefer to start at the bottom so rain doesn’t wash manure onto upcoming forage. We just follow the keylines around the farm as much as possible. The fence pictured above does not follow the keyline so we just have to work with what we’ve got.

The fun part was when I lit the fire this morning in the back room. I heard a weird noise…like a burp or something…and looked to my right. Ms. White was looking in the window at me. Kinda funny. Ever have a cow looking in your window? Maybe you had to be there.

Today’s Wood Pile

I emptied the cemetery hill of dead standing trees and snags this year bringing down an elm, a couple of oaks, a walnut or two and a juniper tree. Ah, juniper. I limbed out the juniper and carried the pole home on my shoulder…didn’t cut it until today. Oh the smell!

JuniperIt splits well, burns quick and clean but doesn’t really get hot. Perfect for a mild fall day…when I’m feeling lazy…and just want to take a nap by the fire. There is not a lot of juniper on the farm. One tree is big enough to saw, the others are small and are routinely shredded by deer and cattle. This one is a treat. Isn’t it pretty?