A Failure of Reduction

Remember the movie Better Off Dead? That movie is a family Christmas tradition for us. Lane Meyer has to ski a dangerous mountain to prove himself to Beth. He seeks advice and receives the most boiled-down help imaginable.

While entirely accurate, it is incorrect and Lane barely escapes injury.

I was talking to our children recently about the search for that special someone and I, too, fell prey to the temptation to reduce. Not wanting to embarrass my child on the internet I’ll begin this way, one of my children was found to be holding hands with someone…but they were way, way in the back of the group trying to express their affections without being “caught”.

Allow me to reduce the other mother’s response: shock.

From my perspective it’s no big deal. Immature. Silly. But no big deal. But it gave me an opportunity to boil relationships down to the minimum: Whatever else happens, don’t anger the mother. You will lose. Make her your ally…pursue real friendship with her. And if you find you don’t like the mother you will find you no longer need to pursue the child because, if things go according to plan, you will have to spend every Christmas with her for the rest of her life. And that may not be what you want.

Whatever you think of my guidance above, it is hardly adequate. But I do this with everything.

How to take a shower? Get wet all over and put specific emphasis on cleaning places where the skin folds.

How to drive a car? The pedal on the right goes, one on the left stops. The wheel keeps you from running things over. Let’s do this.

The majority of server issues boil down to capacity management or connectivity.

So I have this pattern I fall into of attempting to boil it down to the essence. What is trying to be done here?

That practice, in summary, fails when people are involved.

Let me give you another one and then I’ll give you a few more.

I tend to manage people by setting expectations and turning them loose. I don’t micro-manage. I expect my employees to learn the basics and grow from there by teaching others. Let me know if something comes up.

But that’s not enough because these are people we are dealing with!

I have successfully described the work that needs to be accomplished but nobody comes to work to do the work and get money. We come to work to be with people.

People who care about us. People we enjoy being with. People we can trust.

So there’s another reduction. I would suggest my job accomplishes several things all at once. My work is meaningful, it pays the bills and allows me to enjoy interacting with others.

There is a kernel of truth there but it misses so much subtle detail.

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the subtle detail.

I’ll typically arrive at work in the morning after most of my team has arrived. I’ll walk in and speak some song lyrics or something like, “You know, I don’t need dolla bills to have fun tonight…as long as I can feel the beat.” Two of them will look at me like they have no earthly idea what I just said. Another will laugh because I’m such a dork…but everybody loosens up a little we greet each other and then tie into work.

But I have already reduced the workey part. Let’s pretend I have a new employee named Larry. “Larry, each of your co-workers assume primary responsibility for a platform. They have created documentation so anybody else can do the work when they are on vacation. I need you to learn A, B and C in and out. But you won’t be primary on any of those. You are going to take on a new project. You are going be primary support, create the documentation about it and teach everybody else. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ma go over here and work on the things.

“Oh, and on Wednesdays we get together as a team to update project status and do some team training. In your free time I need you to learn all about technology X and teach it to us next month. I know you don’t know anything about it at all. In fact, I’m well aware that you have never even heard of this. My goal is not to make you look stupid in front of your peers, it is to expose our team to something new and help us to find better ways of doing our jobs. I can’t sift through all of the options on my own so we learn things together and discuss. I need you to be a part of that.

“Oh, and one more thing. If I catch you working evenings we’ll have to have a serious talk.”

I REALLY like that freedom. I have had at least three managers who worked that way. They gave me a lot of room to run, expecting me to just get my stuff done because I’m a grown-up. And, for the most part, I do. But it’s not for everybody. Some people need much more structure. So I interview for that. I honestly and completely lay out the culture, the environment and the expectations in the interview. We have fun, we learn how much we don’t know, we teach each other. We own our projects. And if their eyes pop out of their head I scratch them off the list.

My style is not for everybody. Sometimes people need each day planned out. They need to be told each step along the way.

I failed to discover this when I interviewed Julie and the kids.

I tend to give vague instructions like, “Please move the cows before noon.”

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What I really mean is, “How are you feeling today? Look, I have to go to St. Louis today. I know it’s a bother but I need help with the cows. They cows are by the hog building. They are watering in the creek down the hill. Please set up a new grazing strip about 20′ wide to the East beginning at the hog building and going down to the bottom. Julie should carry the reel, oldest boy should set posts. As you are walking back, shift 40′ to the West and Julie should reel up the previous day’s rear fence while the boy collects the posts. Then leave any extra posts and reels in the SE corner of the grazing area. This should take you 15 minutes but give yourself 30 just in case. I really appreciate your help in this. The cattle are important to me but you are more important. This farm is important to me but we can put it aside if needed. I hope it is important to us. Maybe I can bring dinner home to make it up to you. I love you.”

It is not safe for me to assume they understand what my expectations are. Nor that they realize the most efficient way of getting it done. Nor that they won’t need discussion time to offer feedback. I just say, “Make the magic happen” and expect it to happen.

I had a boss named Rosie. She was a great boss. She was not technical so she relied on us to know how to fulfill the vision she gave. But she gave clear vision and she encouraged feedback. She didn’t say, “Go fast and turn”. She said, “Here’s the plan. Here’s where you fit. What do you think? Let’s go.”

Ugh. If only I could be more like that.

But I don’t even make time to talk to myself about why and how.

With the events of last year we were unable to raise replacement pullets. So right now, I have 100+ birds laying as many as 6 eggs/day. I know what needs to be done. There is no discussion. Nobody cares about feelings. Those birds have to die. We are already out of the egg business. That’s a fact.

But there is more. There are no replacements. There may never be. I have shown the kids the viability of the business model…when appropriately scaled and in partnership with other enterprises on the same resource base. And if they want to do it, they can. But if I am to put my resources to their highest and best use, I have to spend my time elsewhere. I can’t stay up all night hunting a skunk that is killing my birds and still answer tech calls at 2am and still show up at my desk ready to rock at 8. I am not 25 anymore.

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There are more factors involved. I can no longer reduce it to “I want chickens so I have chickens.”

Reductionism only goes so far.

So I guess I should spell out what I’m trying to say. I do a fine job of reducing tasks to their essential points. But I should not be reducing people…because people are more complex than tasks. And I need to encourage feedback rather than just act like it’s all obvious.

So…what do you think?

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Blackberry Time!

Blackberries are ready.

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The blackberries have been bright red for what feels like forever. They grow in the fence line which I climb over on my way to the barn so every morning the bright red berries stand out on the green leaves, saying, “Not yet, not yet”. But finally some of the red have turned dark and they are sweet to eat.

We did not plant these berries. We have not watered them. We have not done much for them. It is like free food. Until you start picking them and you are reminded that NOTHING is free. These plants don’t give up their fruit so easily, they bite as I pluck the sweet berries. They have thorns which seem to snag and sink into the skin and hang on.

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But thorns or no thorns, we pick berries, usually as a family. The kids start out with great enthusiasm. But after the first few buckets it starts to get hot, fingers and arms get a little scratched (remember these are biting berry bushes), and there may be a pesky deer fly or two. But Chris and I cheer them on, “We only have to fill our containers, then we can go home.” The younger two might not make it. They often disappear to explore the nearby pond or go sit in the shade of the truck.

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Finally our buckets are full. A drink of cold water, a shower and thoughts of blackberry cobbler with ice cream fill our heads as we pile into the farm truck.

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The cobbler recipe I use comes from The Pioneer Woman. I love her site!

Pioneer Woman’s Blackberry Cobbler #1:

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1-1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups blackberries (frozen or fresh, even better if you had to pick them yourself)

Preparation:

Melt butter in a microwavable dish. (We do not have a microwave, so we just melted the butter in a sauce pan on the stove top). Pour 1 cup of sugar and flour into a mixing bowl, whisking in milk. Mix well. Then, pour in melted butter and whisk it all well together. Butter a baking dish.

Now rinse and pat dry the blackberries. Pour the batter into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle blackberries over the top of the batter: distributing evenly. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the top.

Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 8

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What is your favorite thing to do with blackberries?

 

Working With the Kids

The question usually comes in as some form of this: “So, Chris, how do you get your kids to work and how can I get my kids to work like yours do?”

What a hilarious question. Don’t get me wrong, my kids work. But if you think it is easy you have been fooled.

Let’s take this off the farm for a little bit. Everybody makes dirty dishes. Everybody makes dirty laundry. Everybody can share in the work load. This is just part of living with others cooperatively. So we divide up the work. These are not paid jobs, these are just things we do. I’ll summarize the children’s chore list without going into detail.

  • Week 1: Wash dishes
  • Week 2: Walk the dog, clean bathroom sink
  • Week 3: Fold towels, set the table
  • Week 4: Put away dishes, take out trash

There is more on each list but that is the core of the rotation. Week by week, each kid specializes in a different set of simple tasks in rotation. We do not rotate in order of age, we split things up so we alternate between older and younger kids. We do this because the younger two are not reliable about washing the dishes and I don’t want to face two straight weeks at the sink.

The younger two are not reliable. They are currently 10 and 11. They may wash plates or cups. They may wash bowls and spoons. But they won’t wash pots and pans. The older two can be relied on to wash until the counter is clean. But not the younger two. And that is OK because they are children.

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Look, I’m not making excuses, I’m setting realistic expectations. Washing dishes is not fun. The other 12 waking hours of the day the pair of them are parked at a table playing with Legos together or reading the same books (currently Warriors series). They don’t want to wash dishes. And I don’t want to force the issue.

To borrow a page from the book The Thomas Jefferson Education, I want to inspire, not require, my children to participate in our home. Be sure to click that link for clarification.

Now look, there are things you just hafta do. We seek to inspire but we still set expectations. You shower every week even if you don’t need to. You change your underwear at least once a month. You brush your teeth between meals. These are personal hygiene issues. But making your bed? Why? You are just going to unmake it again in 14 hours. What is the point?

The point is you live here too. Act like it. Make yourself at home. Use the vacuum cleaner. We want a nice, comfortable place of our own. Us. Ours. Nice. Put Goethe to the test. If everybody sweeps their own room and the whole house will be clean. But I have only met disaster when I take a hard line on this with the kids because they are kids and have an incomplete concept of “fair”.

So we seek to inspire them. I will admit, however, that I could be a better example. I have a pile of paperwork I need to file, or maybe just habits I need to change. Maybe I don’t need to file away that physical copy of the electricity bill for the next 7 years. Maybe it is trash. But I should do something with it and right now it is piled on the desk along with the lovely artwork our kids have created that I don’t know how to store.

I guess I could be more inspiring.

Everything so far applies to life in town. Let’s take it to the farm.

Walking the pasture.

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My 10 year old will not gather eggs by herself. My 11 year old will not gather eggs by himself. My 13 year old will not gather eggs by herself. All three are intimidated by the roosters. My 15 year old can run the entire farm by himself with one exception: he is intimidated by the cattle. But the cattle, the roosters and the children all know I am not intimidated by them. At all. I am careful. I am watchful. But I am not afraid of them.

But let’s set fear or other excuses aside for the moment. I need help gathering eggs and watering animals. When we first started out, all six of us would go together to do chores. The kids would play and sword fight with weed stems and look for frogs in the creek but they learned the routine. They learned about watering and feeding and offering oyster shell. This period of training is very important to everything we do.They understand that chickens cannot get their own water when I am at work or we are at the hospital. So all these years later I ask the kids, “Can two of you go get eggs, check feed and fill water at the red layers? I’ll take care of the dishes while you are out.” Off they go.

Breakfast time. #farmphotography #farmchores

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Dishes done, the kids come back with a basket full of eggs.

Me: “Hey, did you remember to check the water?”

Kids: “Oh. Ummmm….did you ask us to water the chickens?”

Me: “Sigh. You know, chickens can’t get their own water.”

They know. They really do know. They have heard us say that literally thousands of times. Chickens can’t get their own water! It’s not that they don’t know. And it’s not fair to say they don’t care. It’s simply that they don’t share our vision.

Our kids don’t own the farm. They don’t own the chickens. They didn’t work and sweat and burn away years of their lives, believing the dream that someday, if they got good grades and worked hard, they, too, could be successful (whatever “success” means). They haven’t been sitting in a cubicle, looking outside at the lawn care guy and thinking, “What a life he’s got!” and wondering about the meaning of it all. Does it mean anything? “I have debt so I can have a car so I can drive to work so I can service my debt.” There is a difference between working toward a dream and having a dream imposed on you by your parents.

See the difference? What are you working for? I am working to fulfill a vision. A common vision Julie and I share. A dream. A goal. Not division. Vision. But the kids? They may be acting out of obligation out of respect for us. And that respect is how I convinced my 15 year old to spend 6 hours Memorial Day morning shoveling manure with me.

But let’s go back to that issue of intimidation. My eldest son is larger and taller than I am. Soon he will be stronger too. But he is intimidated by the cattle. The other three children are intimidated by the roosters. But the roosters and the cattle and the children all know that I am in control. I am not to be feared but I am to be obeyed. And now. (I have to tell you, Julie finds her comparative lack of control over the children frustrating.)

I am in control but I am not controlling.

I’ll come back around to kids in a minute but I have to talk about Julie here. I do not want to control my wife. I don’t want to bend her to my will. I don’t want to change her. I want Julie to be Julie and being “Julie” is a moving target. Julie is different than Chris…and in very good ways. And I love her. I love her much more than I love my job or my farm or even my children. My kids will move out in the next 10 or 15 years but Julie and I will remain. But the Julie that will be 10 years from now will be different than the Julie that is today. And if I don’t roll with those changes now I’ll be in for a shock. Empty nest syndrome.

No thanks.

I have to take time now to stay close to Julie each day. I need to know what motivates her. What excites her? What is she into right now? I have to know for this marriage to continue.

And, even though they will probably move out in 10 years, it’s the same with the kids. Talk about moving targets! I have to know what motivates the kids today! All four of them are different from each other and are different from me in ways that are difficult to quantify. I have to know all about each child and show them that I am interested in them as people, not just as extra hands, and I have to keep up with the radical daily changes in their personalities, interests, preferences and alliances! Not easy.

My helper this morning. It was hard work out in the heat.

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Butchering day is a good example of this. The only requirement was that the kids either worked with us, worked inside with grandma or, at a minimum, played near us as we worked. For years my oldest daughter would not participate with the chickens. She stayed inside with grandma baking pies. You know what? That’s totally cool. My daughter didn’t want to do hot, smelly, gross work. I get it. But she missed out on a lot of fun too. We listen to music while we work. We talk. We help each other. When we finish the last bird we all sing and do the chicken dance. And when the birds are all bagged and in the freezer the kids who helped get paid. One day our daughter asked if she could cut the feet off of the birds. I didn’t threaten. I didn’t scream. I didn’t berate her into helping. She wanted to have fun and make money too. So now she cuts the feet off of the chickens and does the chicken dance and listens to music with us and we eat fewer pies.

Kids

You know what she wants? What she really, really wants? She wants to bake pies and have fun. And on butcher day she chooses fun over pies in spite of gross dead chickens because she wants to be with us. And we want to be with her.

But she also likes to hold babies at church. And she loves to read P.G. Wodehouse. She loves Doctor Who and she hopes to become Groucho Marx when she grows up. And she bakes really, really good scones. And last night she was reading part 2 of a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I know because I talk to her like she is a person. I don’t speak to her like she is a child. She is not a nuisance. She is not an annoyance. She is not to be sent away in the evenings for karate, dance, soccer and gymnastics. I want to hang out with my daughter. She is a bright spot in my day.

She is also a reliable dish washer. But that’s the least important thing.

Farm or no, there is work to do. I confess, I am annoyed when they take a laundry basket to their room but fail to put away the laundry. I admit my patience is tested when I come home and the sink is full of dirty dishes. But if I lose my cool they will either fear or resent me. I do not want my children to be afraid of me. I want them to be confident that I love them in spite of their occasional failings.

How do I get my kids to work on the farm? I love them. They are learning to reciprocate.

I had written that last sentence to close the post but then I found this picture:

Skinner

We have some close friends with seven children of their own. They raise their own pigs and we like to help on butcher day. Last fall two of their seven children were on the scene to help. This one helped skin the pig. The other kids were busy elsewhere. They were still helping, just not with skinning a pig. And that was OK. Everybody was busy. Everybody was involved and still, somehow, having fun. But skinning the pig isn’t for everybody.

With a Little Help

I stopped writing about a month ago for several reasons. The main reason is simple: We are busy. But there is more than just that. Some of it was just the way I felt. The way I feel.

I have written a series of weepy-feely posts and worry that I have been a little too open. Some of that was us dealing with anxiety and a feeling of loss.

I don’t know. But mostly it’s an issue of time.

Yesterday I spent nearly 5 hours shoveling manure. It was a lot of manure. A lot. Why did I spend 5 hours shoveling manure? For the same reason I haven’t blogged in over a month. I haven’t had time to do it.

Two years ago I began remodeling the bathroom for Julie. Merry Christmas 2013! A bathtub. A real bathtub. The kind you can take a bath in. A bath! When grandma built the addition and they installed a bathroom in the house, grandma just put in a shower basin. The kind you can’t take a bath in. Julie wanted to take a bath. So she got a bath tub. But that was 2013. It is now 2015. The bathtub is great, yes, but the rest of the bathroom…well, less so. Needs to be updated. To be brought out of 1967 and into the world of today. Goodbye wood paneling, hello drywall. Goodbye weird ’60’s copper hanging lamp thing, hello recessed LED lights.

But there is no time.

So the bathroom project sat. And waited. And life happened all around us.

I couldn’t get it done. So I asked for help.

We found a guy to finish the remodeling job. And thank God! I come home from work every day and the bathroom is a little closer to being finished.

I wasn’t shoveling manure yesterday all alone. My kids were there. My dad was there. The work was hard and took a lot of time but, with a little help, we got through it all.

KidsHelping

And that’s where we are with our little Friendy. We get a lot of help. Help comes out of the woodwork. It’s amazing. From people we know and love to people we have just met. Sometimes is it hard to say “Yes”. Humbling.

And in that same sense of humility we seek out chances to lend a helping hand wherever we are. Right now I have little to offer but maybe I can make a difference to another parent in the hospital just by listening. Or by saying “Hello”.

I don’t know.

But I know this. Moses couldn’t hold his arms up without help. The widow needed friendly neighbors from whom she could borrow jars. Simon carried the cross for Jesus.

We participate in the mundane part of any miracle. The mundane part for us is chemotherapy…something of a miracle in and of itself. But it’s just us borrowing jars to fill with oil. Once we have the jars, God brings the awesome.

The short list of things I am thankful for – things I consider miraculous – certainly include that we caught the tumor before it spread, that my little girl is doing so well and that we have some of the best doctors in the world available to us within an hour of home. But there is more.

I am thankful that so many people have loaned us their jars, held our arms up and helped us carry our burden.

August Farm Photos

Hello everyone! This is Julie. I love to take pictures and I am going to start sharing some of them here on Chris’ blog. I hope you enjoy! You can also follow me on Instagram.0726150755~2~2

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Chris taking over…You know I can’t let a post go up with so few words. Comments in order of pictures:

  1. Somebody photoshop me into the Abbey Road cover. And remind me to stand up straight.
  2. Reserve your turkey now. Now.
  3. How did he turn 11? What happened?
  4. Swallows have about a week left before they go away for the winter. Dragonflies are coming through now. Hawks will start soon. Less than a month until we light the wood stove. That picture is a reminder of how little time we have.

Reading Journal Week 24

This about sums it up for me:

Oh, Despair! Woe is me!

There is no end of weeds in my garden! I noticed them as I was picking the umpteenth gallon of strawberries. I’m so sick living with all this abundance! Poor me!

That’s not a bad impression the “me” I hear inside my head. What a whiner.

You know what man? Every day is the same. I go to a great job working with highly intelligent, highly skilled people I genuinely care about working on products that QUITE LITERALLY SAVE PEOPLE’S LIVES! Then I come home to a loving wife and healthy, happy children to find that my dad and my oldest son have already put up the hay. All I have to do is move the cows and close up the chickens. Maybe play some video games after I pull a few weeds while drinking something cold. Then I kiss my beautiful wife and drift off to sleep in, as our FitBit reports, under three minutes.

Woe is me indeed.

I love the movie Groundhog Day. I went through a spell of watching it every day. In the movie, every day was the same. The same. Same kid falling out of a tree. Same groundhog. Same prediction. Same episodes of television game shows. Nothing ever changed.

Until he did.

The main character changed. Punxsutawney didn’t change. Just Phil.

I’ll come back to Groundhog Day in a minute.

This week I am reading The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. I am reading it. Present tense. I read a page, exclaim, “WOW!” then go read that page to Julie. Then I sit and think for a little while. I’m not going to share quotes. I just want to make a record that I’m reading this now. The book makes a study of management transitions and how to set your team up for success.

I’m in my first 90 days of a new assignment. While I seem to be fine with sharing my farming and fathering insecurities, I have real reservations about sharing my professional insecurities. But I have them. One thing I will say is that I currently have a level of anxiety I have never faced before. Not even once. I am afraid. I’m not afraid I will get fired, though. That’s something of a concern but it doesn’t keep me awake. My co-workers and customers are patient with me. They seem to understand that I have accepted a difficult assignment. I think I’m just afraid that I will let my team down…somehow.

So that’s enough about work. The Chris that goes to work is not the Chris that writes this blog. Different guy with different interests. But sometimes it is so completely taxing to pretend to be him all day that I have nothing left to give at home. And to get back to the Groundhog Day analogy, we’re talking every day. Every day.

Monday dad cut hay. The New Chris (the one with anxiety issues) sat and worried and watched the weather forecast and hoped the rain would go around us. It did. All week long. It poured rain just across the river. Not a drop here. Friday the sun was shining and dad was baling. The boy was out helping him. They had two wagons loaded when I got home from work…just as we were surrounded by showers.

We live on the plains. You can see rain coming in from a long way out. I went to get a fourth hay wagon and looked to the west. Sigh.

Rain

The good news is we had the hay baled. The bad news? All four wagons and the baler were getting a shower. Dad and I hustled to get things pushed under roof as fast as possible but something was boiling up in me. Something, in fact, boiled out.

The last hay wagon needed to go in the barn and, wouldn’t you know it, the sidewall of the tire blew out. Hilarious. Standing in the rain. Can’t push a loaded wagon with a flat tire. Just happens to be the best hay from the field too.

Dad was trying to back the wagon in with the tractor but that tire is a drag. I ask the oldest boy to make sure we didn’t hit a pole. I guess he started daydreaming about whatever it is 14 year old boys daydream about and I snapped.

I rarely lose my cool like that. But when I do it tends to be with people I care about the most.

The hay wasn’t that wet. The day wasn’t a bad day. Flat tires happen. But on top of a week’s worth of tension from my job it was all too much for me.

When I snapped it made it all about him. Listing his failures, his constant, endless, limitless shortcomings. That really doesn’t make the situation better for anybody.

I caught myself mid-explosion and just stood in the rain watching my enormous 6’2″ child shrink before me.

My father never did this to me.

Not even once.

Even at this moment, he stood back and let me work it out for myself.

I wish it was Groundhog Day. I wish I could do that over. I can never un-say words I said to my son.

Somehow I manage to avoid these situations in my professional life. Somehow I keep my cool under pressure. I had a situation recently where a server went offline on a Monday morning. I had never heard of this server before and had no idea how to fix it. Worse, I slept through the notification call. When I realized the situation I only had one course of action. I had to get that server online ASAP. That’s it. I couldn’t fix it remotely so I drove on in to work hoping and praying that the solution would be clear. The whole drive I cried out for help from the Lord. “Great is the Lord and Greatly to be praised!” “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” I stood on God’s strength because, while I know I promised not to share my professional insecurities with you, I am not really a computer genius. I’m just persistent.

Within 5 minutes of getting to work I had the server back online. Whew!

But the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy. That was the beginning of the worst week of my entire career. Everything went wrong.

But I never lost my cool. Even when under personal attack.

So why did I lose it with my son?

I hope we never have a flat tire on a loaded hay wagon in the rain again. But, really, every day here is the same. The chickens need us every day. The cow needs milked every day. The garden sprouts new weeds every day. There are always dishes to wash. There is always laundry to put away. It seems they are always the same dishes and the same laundry. It’s Groundhog Day.

Every day is the same. And nothing I can do matters.

That’s not true.

There are things I can do. Things that matter. Things that lessen the burden on those around me rather than multiply them. My son has 14 year old insecurities. He doesn’t need me to list his faults. He, like me, is acutely aware of his own limitations.

Every day he needs me to show him how much I love and appreciate and cherish him. How grateful I am that he is my son. How proud I am of the man he is becoming.

In Groundhog Day, the day finally changed when Phil changed.

Goofy movie. Sure. But I think I can change our day for the better.

Try to Take Over the World!

Gee, Julie! What do you want to do in 2015?

Bruce King beat me to the punch on this post and good for him. I don’t always make time for Bruce but I suspect I should. Bruce is a pragmatic farmer. He’s not afraid of the numbers. And he’s not afraid of work.

But I feel like his 2015 post is missing something. Can I say that without criticizing Bruce? Because I don’t mean to criticize Bruce in any way. I just like a little more heart sprinkled into my writing. I need more than just “What”. I need to know why. Why does Bruce want to go from 20 cows to 30? Is it really just a numbers issue? A cashflow problem? Does it satisfy some yearning within him…some intangible desire to own 30 cows…the innate need to farm? Does it answer some insecurity he is wrestling with? Does it solve a portion of his farm’s fertility issues or utilize a resource that is otherwise wasted? Has he increased his farm’s cow capacity by 50%? I don’t know. He just wants to go from 20 to 30. Well, good, but how can I personally apply this? What does it mean to me that Bruce wants more cows? I ask because I’m reading to learn.

I have a small herd of cows and maintain a maximum of 200 layers. We run batches of up to 6 feeder pigs through at any given time. Those numbers are dictated by a number of factors including our ability, our marketing reach, our farm fertility and our time. It would be AWESOME to have a flock of 3,000 layers (our legal limit) but what would I do with all the eggs? How could I handle the feed? Where would I put them? The money would be great but…I just can’t. I can’t. Not yet anyway.

I think it’s cool that Bruce can outline his goals in such a clear and concise manner. I’m afraid I fail at that task. Julie and I take our annual goals seriously…if we don’t know where we are going we won’t know when we get there. I’m not willing to share our personal goals on the blog but we do have farm and business goals. Now how to articulate them?

Let’s start with what I want. I’ll write this with more Bones and less Spock…more feeling and less math.

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I want to make a bunch of money while also making as many people as possible happy and healthy. I want to live in a beautiful place, surrounded by abundance. I want to share that with others. If that means cows, then cows it is. Pigs? Chickens? Go get ’em. In fact, I feel my days are better when I have a variety of livestock around…less so right now without pigs. But on another scale entirely are my kids. I’m so happy to have children. I hope they are happy to have me. I hope I can provide them with a safe place surrounded by health and learning…the kind of place they will want to share with their own children.

So that’s what I want.

What can I do in 2015 to help me get there? I’ll try to keep this focused on farm-related goals.

Let’s skip the farm for a second. I know. I said I wouldn’t but just play along. I need to be a better farmer. That’s more than just muck and muscle. It’s a lot of muck and muscle but it’s more than just muck and muscle. I need to spend some time expanding my education. This will help me be a better husband and father, not just a better farmer. So in 2015 I intend to read a book each week. I suspect I currently read more than a book per week but I don’t journal it anywhere. So I’m going to read at least a book each week. Maybe I’ll add that as a blog feature. Dunno. If you want to play along, the youngest two got me Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch: A Worldwide Sea of Grass for Christmas. I’ll try to finish that up before the new year. After that? Could be anything. I’ll try to come up with some sort of plan and I’m open to suggestions.

Beyond that I could list a large number of specific things Julie and I want to accomplish this year but I find that by doing so I’m not setting goals for 2015. I’m writing a year-long chore list and that’s not what we want. Today I want the big picture. Once I see that clearly I’ll know what to do next.

From a big-picture level…what is it I want in 2015? Health. Family. Friends. Money. Liberty.

What am I going to do to accomplish that on the farm in 2015?

  • I am going to increase my farm’s stocking rate. Until my farm is stocked my business suffers at every level. So does my family, my wallet and, in some way, my health. How many cows? What about sheep? Should we start to farrow? Dunno. We’ll do our best. Stay tuned.
  • I am going to read like it’s going out of style because I’m afraid it is going out of style. There is just too much I don’t know. Too much I haven’t seen. Too many ideas I haven’t weighed. What one non-surgical thing can a person do to make themselves more attractive? Read. Not only books, I want to find 5 more farm blogs to patronize starting with Bruce.
  • The farm has a number of infrastructure needs. However much I don’t want to write a chore list, I have to include chores in my list. Without being specific here, I need to list the work that needs my attention, prioritize it and start knocking it out.
  • I plan to pursue better stewardship of our farm and family finances. I played terrific offense this year but our defense was a little weak. We need to step it up. You can read about budget and finance elsewhere. I just need to do better. Really, this includes manure and compost management, not just money.
  • To be more personal for a moment, Julie and I hit some rough spots in 2014. Nothing that endangered our marriage but certainly caused us real stress. She can’t move a chicken tractor. She can’t carry feed sacks. Milking is not her favorite activity. We need to focus this year on what she enjoys about the farm and find ways leverage those interests. Similarly, the kids. A previous bullet point discussed farm infrastructure needs. My kids are the farm’s infrastructure. I need to keep them in good repair. I need to make sure they are a part of the farm, not merely involved in the farm. I need to make sure my family has been inspired to pursue a common vision.

ReachingOut

And that vision starts here.

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.

In 2015 I will be a better husband, father, scholar and steward. I don’t have numbers for most of those metrics but that’s the direction to go.

Please comment below to offer suggestions on worthwhile reading, both books and blogs.

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.

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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.

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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.

How’s this for Glamour?

“Oh! To live as you do….on the farm, chickens, cows, a few apple trees! How wonderful for your children to eat all that fresh food!”

Awesome? Yes. Easy? No. Glamorous? LOL!

Remember, behind every beautiful cow is a tail covered in manure…smacking you on the back of the head as you milk.

MilkingFlora

There is a lot going on in that picture, many small tweaks that come from experience and even a few from a recent read of Farmer’s Progress. I’m holding the bucket between my knees to keep it up and clean and not stepped in. My left knee keeps the cow from kicking. My head presses into her side, looking toward the cow’s head. The only problem here (aside from the manure on the tail hitting the back of my head) is the small handles. She has thimbles!  I have to milk her with my thumb and two fingers. Ugh…takes For. Ever. This kind of milking will teach patience. Fortunately Julie does most of the milking! I think it’s time to break out the milker. …and to tie up the tail during milking.

So, yeah man. Move on out to the farm. Spend the day with the fragrance of eau de Bos. Vous serez tres chic! (You may even remember your high school French!)