Sailor’s Small Farm left a quick comment on a recent post.
Very good plan, teaching your kids to find the awesome. I’ve had mixed success with it, and looking back can see where I’d change quite a few things I did or didn’t do. They are helpful and proficient around here – I mean, I left 250 chickens in three stages of development and 2 pigs in their capable hands for two days and left the country. They were happy to be entrusted with the whole shebang. But neither of them wants that kind of work for the long term. They want the awesome without the grunt. Eat ethically raised meat? Absolutely. Move broiler shelters every day for 4 weeks? Not so much. Home grown veg? Love it! Dig six rows of potatoes? Later.
Let’s look at things from a child’s perspective. After all, it was a mere (hmmmfannmum) years ago that I myself was a child. I have some memory of it. At 10 I wanted to build airplanes and spaceships with Lego. I was also exercising and training daily to help Mario save the Princess and to lead Link to his destiny with Ganon. I was paid to cut the grass for dad, I shoveled snow from as many driveways as I could to make extra cash and spent whole summers at the city pool. My dad did a little carpentry work here and there around the house and I would help…ish. He would mechanic on our vehicles and I would be underfoot.
Let’s overlay that onto my 10 year old son. He wants to build Lego airplanes and spaceships. Link and Mario have been replaced with other characters but if he could, he would train daily. He cuts a little grass and looks for odd jobs. Given his choice he would go fishing at the pond every minute of every day. I do a little work around the farm and he…well…helps. Sometimes he’s underfoot but I’m always glad to have him around.
But when it’s time to kill chickens he’s on the swing set. I think killing chickens is at least as cool as racing Bowser. Maybe even cooler. Doesn’t he know that?
It appears that I’m operating from the wrong perspective again. Let’s change my child’s point of view. Dad has a lot of jobs. What does dad do and why?
- Dad works on the farm. Works. Lift heavy bags, shovel smelly things, drive dangerous tractors, felling big, thorny trees and cows kick when you milk and dad is rewarded by maybe making the farm payment and delicious cream for his morning coffee.
- Dad works in the city. Sits at a desk and gets paid enough money to buy our family the things we need plus Legos…plus pays for the farm.
- Dad works in Florida. Stands in front of a classroom and makes enough money to pay for a modest family vacation.
- Dad does extra work on the side at his computer…whatever it is that he does he can, apparently, do it on the internet.
Any reasonable person would look at their needs and decide how best to meet their needs. My kids need legos, books and a warm house.
Q: What is the best way for me to provide these things?
A: Go to the city and sit at a desk.
That’s why the farm isn’t awesome.
It won’t be long and the farm will be free of thorny things. The perimeter fence will be in good repair. Our marketing reach will be well established. Our cattle herd will thrive on grass alone. The farm will generate sufficient revenue to support our modest needs. It won’t be long.
But while our children are young and impressionable it’s all work all the time…plus driving lessons.
But while they are young the only thing they think they need me to do is to pay for a house and buy legos.
So what, exactly is the problem I’m trying to solve?
One goal here is to establish in my children’s minds that riches have a high utility but wealth is the real goal…if we continue with our definition of riches as money and wealth as time. We certainly want to be wealthy enough to pursue our own productive interests. We certainly want to reinforce that money can be useful but more money is not, in itself, a worthy goal. But at the same time we acknowledge that a little more money would sure be handy.
I’m still not getting there. Why the farm? We see the farm as the future source of our family wealth. My job is our present income, the farm is the future security. The future home. The place we recline in the grass reading a book with the cows cropping nearby. We explore. We climb. We run. We build fires and roast hot dogs. The place we hide when the world has turned against us. The place we return to celebrate, to recover, to rest. Working with percentages, nobody else has this anything like this. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. We hope to help our kids to recognize the problem and encourage them to support our proposed solution. Or, heck, maybe they will show us the error in our thinking.
My jobs in town generate the cash required to just keep our heads above water. But only just. We don’t want our heads just above water. We want a cushion of security. We want to produce…to create…provide…we have this crazy idea that we can make the world a little better and eat well at the same time. By choosing not to spray our apples we don’t have to eat apple sprays. We also preserve the vast majority of insects that are not interested in apples but are affected by insect sprays. Those insects prey on our garden pests and help to feed our bird population. The more bugs we have the more manure we put down. The more health we build into our landscape. The less topsoil I send down the river. The more resilience and productive capacity we retain here on the farm and all because we didn’t spray an apple tree.
A series of small choices, made over a number of years, cascade into big results. That morning doughnut multiplied by 10 years adds up on your belly. I could buy that Lego set, that video game or that soda but what else could we do with that money? What if we saved up and bought a heifer instead?
We have to walk out to our imaginary heifer’s pasture twice daily to make sure she has everything she needs and is where we expect her to be. Our investment in cattle is also an investment in our health. If things go as planned, that heifer will give us a calf next spring. We could either sell the bull calf and recoup a portion of our original investment or retain a heifer calf and continue our compounding efforts. Let’s pretend it’s a heifer. Now we are managing two animals for every walk out to the pasture. More bang for the walk. The next spring there will be three animals. The year after that, 5. Then, possibly, 8.
Assuming we have thrown heifers all along or that we have sold our steers to buy additional heifers, our original investment has grown from one heifer to eight animals in five years or a 160% annual return on our investment. Beyond the increase, we have been outside building fence, walking, enjoying the fresh air. We have probably handled hay in some way or otherwise lifted heavy things. And at the end of it all there is a large cut of beef, entirely grass raised with a delicious rind of fat on one edge. Food that nourishes us as we entertain guests with tales of investments and adventures in the pasture, celebrating the animal we knew well.
Certainly I have to expense the land we used to graze the animals but at this point, here in Illinois, I could get by with the above 8 cows on 10 acres. I may have to buy a little hay but we’re talking a ridiculous maximum of $100,000 for land when the median home value in the US is $175k. Heck, you could buy 10 acres in Shropshire for £55k. You may have to live in a tent or remodel a drafty old farm house but, you know, it might be fun.
Compare that to a video game.
No really. Let’s compare it. I’m something of an authority on this topic. The video game won’t reproduce. The video game won’t get sick or get into the road and cause a car accident. A video game won’t poop in your neighbor’s front yard. It also goes down in value almost exponentially after purchase. We could play the video game with our guests and regale them with wild tales of high scores as we sit on our ample seats, draped in pale, plump, soft skin untouched by the sun or wind but we would have to order in pizza.
So without making my children into boring workaholics (like me) I need to show them the awesome of the farm. I need to show them that we can heal the landscape, eat well, produce a surplus for the benefit of our community and stay trim and healthy by making boring choices early on. We could buy fun things now. Or we could look forward to the day when, suddenly and without warning, we wake up to realize we no longer have to work our city jobs. Our farm production more than meets our obligations. We now have more time to manage things here. We now have more time to read and play tag. We now have true wealth.
Time is the key ingredient. Keeping cattle is anything but boring but building a herd, as with any investment, takes time, especially if you don’t have any money to begin with. That’s where we are. That’s why I work in town. We know where we are going. We know how to get there. We want you in the picture.
Will the kids go there with us or will they just run from the work when the opportunity arises? In large part, that depends on me.