Rite of Passage

Nine and a half? Here are the keys.

Driving

May seem crazy to give a kid control of a 3/4 ton go-kart but that’s how it works out here. Everybody needs to be trained from a young age to act responsibly and pitch in where needed. Sometimes an extra driver is just what the doctor ordered. He can’t pick up a bale of hay but he can learn to navigate the hay field so I can do a little less walking.

He thought it was a pretty big deal.

We did too.

Just stay in the barnyard. You can’t go on the road for 7 more years.

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The Purpose Trumps the Plan

Years ago we established a family mission statement. A number of books we have read emphasized the need for this but The Thomas Jefferson Education got us to actually do it.

The Jordan 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.

That should be seen as a work in progress. In fact, it is still in draft form and is revisited regularly. But what is included? Cows? Pigs? Money? Only as “God’s resources”. Money, that great bug-a-boo, is a means not an end. The end is learning and personal development. Enlightenment. We use money to buy books and to heat our home so we can read in comfort. It’s just a tool. The cows are a way of caring for the land and generating a little money (so we can be warm and can buy books). Cows are just a tool. A means not an end.

feb cows

We don’t bother to name tools in the mission statement. We don’t specify plans either. The mission statement is the what, not the how.

I have this vision of what could be. A preferred future. I have written about it before so I’ll just go on. I have a plan to get there. 11 cows today. 5,000 cows tomorrow. Simple as that. Oh, along the way I’ll have to learn about sales, I’ll have to accumulate more land, time will pass, money will be lost, money will be made. Then I get old, they bury me in the family cemetery and succeeding generations continue to succeed. The Jordan family grows to eclipse the Rockefellers.

No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy
-Helmuth von Moltke

The cold, hard reality of the world can’t be planned for. My detailed, step-by-step agenda could include my great-grandchildren building long-range ships to ranch all of Mars. Will it happen? Is that important to the objective? Cows on Mars is not the objective. Honoring God, welcoming people and seeking personal growth is the objective. 

So if the plan goes awry…well, we’ll survive. If we fail as farmers we are still a family. If we fail as a family the farm won’t be needed. What is important here?

What is important is that each of us see the big picture.

Plans are useless but planning is indispensable
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Since we have a farm we should try to do something with it. So we make plans. These plans don’t make or break our family. Julie plans to get rid of clutter on a weekly basis. Is that time wasted if the house burns to the ground or is carried away by a tornado? I don’t think so. The weekly exercise has forced her to change her thinking about our possessions. It has helped her to focus on the objective and certainly helps make a welcoming home. But the weekly exercise is not the goal. The welcoming home is the goal. By planning to clean a little more each week we inch closer toward our objective.

The focus is not on the plan. The focus is on the purpose.

The cows are part of the plan. The cows are not the purpose.

Cleaning the house is part of the plan. A clean house is not a purpose.

Money is part of the plan. Money is not the purpose.

Johnny Cash’s music is part of our family cultural heritage. Johnny Cash’s music is not our family purpose. (lol)

It is not always so easy to distinguish plans from objectives…especially when emotions come into play. But I think we are off to a flying start.

Now what?

Now we pray/hope/teach our kids to recognize the objective. We make a few plans. We turn the next generation loose and get out of the way. The most important thing I can do is to give control to the next generation as soon as possible. I am beginning to notice that I am not as fearless as I have been in the past. Maybe it’s time to move myself to an administrative position in our organization. I am reaching the point where I am no longer fit to lead the troops on the front lines. I have raised a generation of creative, intelligent, hard working children. Their intelligence and creativity exceeds my own (thank God). Our objective is personal development. The farm is the incubator for that development. It’s almost time for them to fly.

If I retain control the farm will stagnate. We’ll have cows. We’ll have chickens. We’ll have pigs. I’ll blog. I’ll write books. But what won’t I do? We will continue moving toward our purpose but the toolset will be limited. The kids may continue the livestock but add in Android applications, cookbooks, automated cattle fencing and a series of rental cabins on the farm. I can’t even imagine what they will come up with…and I’m excited to see it.

feb dot

So rather than close them out, rather than force them to move on and seek funding for their own ideas, I would rather move into an advisory role. To offer them counsel and financial enhancement (but not dependence!). College? Sure, if you want. Seminary? Sure, if you want. Recording studio for a podcast? Sure, if you want. Come up with a plan. Show me how it fits into the overall purpose. Even if the plan fails, the purpose remains.

And my children know our purpose. We defined it together.

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.

Kids, I’m here for you. I love the work we do together. I hope we can always work together. And I’m excited to see where you take it next. Whenever you are ready. We’ll fulfill our purpose together. And as soon as possible, pass it on to your children.

Beyond The Thomas Jefferson Education, the following books have been valuable in directing our family purpose:

You might think it’s funny for po’ folk like us to read books with lofty titles like those. It’s not funny. It’s inspiring.

Also, portions of this post were influenced by this series. Hats off to Project Managers everywhere.

Christmas at Grandma’s

As a kid I thought it was odd but now…I don’t know…I think it’s kind of sweet. My grandparents were married on Christmas. If my dates are correct, today would be their 67th anniversary. (I originally posted that grandma and grandpa were married on Christmas eve. That will teach me to trust my memory. It took two weeks for anyone to correct me though…)

I have misplaced the newspaper clipping announcing their 50th anniversary. Here they are in the early 50’s. My grandpa in this picture is younger than I am now. That’s my mom in my grandma’s arms.

ChismFamilyManhood was thrust on my grandfather at an early age and he wore it well. Look at him. I don’ t measure up. I miss my grandparents.

I think everybody arrived earlier and earlier each year – in part for the fellowship, in part because there was some competition between an aunt and an uncle for favorite tender morsels. There was always mistletoe hanging in the house and Grandma loved to kiss us. The whole family would set up tables and squeeze into the back room for Christmas dinner. Dad would carve the meat, the buffet would be set out. Basically the same food every year. I got a slice or two of ham, at least two crescent rolls my aunt made, some frozen fruit salad my grandma always made and a slice of the squash pie my great aunt Marion still makes with a dob of cool whip.

I sat at the “kids table” in the SE corner of the room. Each year several of us conspired to unroll the youngest cousin’s crescent roll at dinner. Then we would race to pick our favorite spot in the living room and wait to open presents. A favorite cousin and I would sit by the fake fireplace, waiting with increasing impatience while somebody cleaned tables, washed dishes and otherwise added to our frustration.

Grandma and Grandpa would take their places in their recliners. The rest of the family would squeeze into the living room. Somebody would pass out presents and…well, manners were forgotten. Paper went flying. One older cousin would gather the paper as it flew his direction and stuff it behind the green couch. I mean, what else are we going to do with it? Every year was the same. Pajamas, bathrobe and socks.

Christmas

This must be around 1994 or 1995. My sister made me that Animaniacs/Marvin the Martian blanket I’m holding. My kids still use it.

Then all the grandkids would put on their jammies and stand in front of the Christmas tree for pictures. If not jammies, the girls got Christmas dresses. Maybe we would pose in the back room. Whatever the case, family pictures were a must. After that it’s all a blur. Toys, Grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, hugs all around. Aunts and uncles and cousins leaving if the weather allowed. We usually stayed the night at grandma’s. Sister would sleep on the green couch, I would sleep on the vinyl couch with several blankets topped by a thin red quilt (Wow. I haven’t thought about that quilt in 20 years). The clock on the mantle would tick away the minutes until I fell asleep. I woke up when grandma would wind the clock in the morning.

Jammies

I must have been unhappy that grandma made me a clown doll. Or just tired. Who knows.

That was basically every Christmas of my life. There were small changes over time. Cousins started bringing friends, then dates…later spouses…then great-grandchildren in numbers beyond counting. I was no longer allowed to sit at the kids table. Somehow the house still fit us all. Somehow grandma made enough cookies. Somehow the septic tank couldn’t manage.

Family

The unwritten rule of Christmas is that you go to your grandmother’s house. Now my mother is grandma. My aunt is grandma. The next generation of first cousins play together at their respective grandma’s. I can only hope somebody brings crescent rolls. Julie makes my grandma’s cookies and has found a way to make them even better by adding peppermint oil. Out. Of. This. World!

Grandma wrote this recipe but she didn’t use a recipe. I have added notes for the way we bake these so they turn out more like hers. These were always in her freezer in quart bags. Get yourself a glass of milk and a whole bag of cookies and find a quiet place. Julie adds a few drops of (Vendor name censored by the FDA) peppermint oil as a final step.

OatmealCookies

The house has changed though. It’s not my grandma’s house anymore. I’m sorry to say it has lost some of that…that…feeling. Grandma’s furnishings and decorations are properly disbursed among the family. Her paintings, her painted saw blades, the buffet in the dining room, the mantle clock . It’s still grandma’s house but with my stuff in it. It’s not the same somehow…like our stuff doesn’t fit the house because it’s not grandma’s. We’ll figure it out. And like my grandparents we have four children. I look forward to seeing my grandchildren unrolling each other’s crescent rolls and hiding wrapping paper behind the couch and posing for pictures in their new jammies.

Dresses

So many things have changed. So many people are gone now. But my grandparents gave us a family culture, a set of our own traditions and love. My mom is helping deliver Christmas dresses to the great-granddaughters today. I don’t know if this sounds corny or if it sounds boring. I hope it sounds consistent. Consistency is what I got from my grandparents. Every time I saw them. Every visit to their house. Always the same. Always loved. No matter what.

No matter what.

(Updated to add a few extra pictures I found at mom’s house.)

The White Calf and the Pasture

I think the white calf is OK. She’s not as runny today as she was yesterday. Still a mess though. She is kind of a downer calf anyway and is always lagging behind the group or squeezing under the fence. I don’t hold out much hope for her genetic future but we’ll see.

WhiteCalfThe wide jersey pointing her rear our way was runny last week. I have to wonder if I’m not pushing them too hard…trying to stretch pasture too far. Maybe some of the cows are getting insufficient nutrition. Or just an imbalanced diet. Julie and I put out a bale of alfalfa and a bale of grass hay this morning. 7 of the cows got to work on the grass while the other three started on the alfalfa. The white calf ate grass hay from one pile, then ate grass hay from another then ate a little alfalfa. We try to let them medicate themselves. I just have to make what they need available to them. The next section of the field we will strip graze has a good mix of grasses and legumes. Should be better for the moos.

NextStrip

I took the day off Thursday to do some hunting and catch up on some chores. I haven’t been hunting yet. Oh well. I’m a lousy hunter anyway. I am also trying to teach my right hand man to back up a trailer. We’ll need a few more sessions. Power steering would help.

BackinUpOtherwise, cold day. The heavy snows went south…for now. Good day to do some housework!

Envisioning 5,000 Cows

My recent post about our vision has sparked some interesting discussions with friends and family. Among them is just the pure logistics involved in managing a herd of that size. It has been a fun discussion but we have come up with few answers. Just guesses. Estimations. You should play the exciting copy of our home game! All the fun of farming in the comfort of your dining room…no manure required!

Let’s say we have 5,000 cows. Wouldn’t that be nice? We would need between 250 and 400 bulls to keep things moving but we would only need those bulls for 2 months. I guess the rest of the year they are being pastured off-site. Or maybe we keep the bulls in with the cows over the winter and separate them at spring greenup, selling pregnant cows that don’t calve by a certain date. Maybe we AI a selected group of cows and heifers but the bulls are still out there for cleanup.

HerdInNovember

5,000 cows would require 5,000-ish acres where we live. Nearly 1,700 acres would be stockpiled in rotation each year. Each day I would open up a 20-50 acre pasture for grazing, even if a little at a time to increase herd pressure and movement. There would be no housing. No shelter. If the soil gets wet we’ll just have to move them faster and deal with the pugging.

Each summer we would cull 10% of our cows because they were open or bred late in the season. That would leave us with 4,500 calves. Now we have 2,250 steers to fatten over two years and 2,250 heifers to raise for two years. Let’s go back to the steers. We would have 2,250 bull calves to castrate. That sounds like a long day of working cattle. And it’s a mere 24 semi-loads of calves if we sell the calves or raise them on another farm.

And we might want to raise the heifers on another farm. Or raise them on another farm with the steers. Good heavens! Another farm! Maybe we should back off on our cow numbers and raise everything together in one mob. But for sake of discussion, stick with me on the idea of 5,000 cows.

All of that indicates I need to reserve a portion of my 5,000 acre cow/calf land for handling facilities.

Back to the heifers. I need to reserve 500 heifers as replacements each year as well as…what? 50? bull calves? So that lowers my sale numbers…except those are replacements. I’ll have 50 bulls to sell, most of which would still be viable bulls, just not as good as the replacements I raised. Oh, sure, some will be lame, injured or sterile but over time I should be selecting increasingly hardy animals. So. 5,000 cows. 5,000 calves. 500 heifers. 50 bull calves. That’s a lot of beef.

I know a lot of operations work at this scale but the numbers involved are far beyond my own comprehension. When we talk I can see the wheels turning in dad’s mind. 5,000 cows. What would it look like? It’s fun to talk about but I want to see it. I mean, if this is a mere 1,000 cows…

Now, let’s really have some fun with this. Jim Elizondo says you should have equal weights of sheep and cows…meaning 4-6 sheep per cow. So that would back us off to 2,500 cows and include 10,000+ hair sheep (cause we ain’t shearing!). Good golly the fencing we would need for that! And the dogs!

Then we want to clean up after the cows with a flock of birds. A flock of birds that can cover 20-50 acres. What is that? 10,000 chickens? 20,000 chickens? How much feed would I go through each day? How would I deliver it? How would I sell that many eggs? Could I even get a license to keep that many birds? Who is going to collect all those eggs?!?!?

gathering eggs

I have no idea.

I also can’t tell you what I would do with 20,000 -40,000 lambs each year. And I can’t tell you how I would sell that many cows.

Those are problems we would have to grow into. Thank goodness I can’t just go out and buy the land and livestock tomorrow. It is too big of a problem for me to solve at once. This is a problem for generations of us to solve together over the span of several decades.

The Hardest Part is Thinking

Riding a bicycle is easy once you overcome the learning stage. Same with writing a blog. There is nothing to it. It’s not even hard to find something to write about. After a little practice you can put pen to paper with the best of them. Now, I do make a distinction between writing documentation and exposing vulnerability and creativity but, for the purposes of this discussion, the simple act of putting words on a page is a matter of determination and practice. To make it better, do a little reading and increase your vocabulary. Then, not only can you write, you can write big, impressive words. Put enough big, impressive words together in a string and you might be invited to teach at a university or write a speech for a politician!

That stuff is easy. The hard part is thinking. It appears to me that political speech writers don’t do much thinking. Heck, anybody can write without thinking. Just look at my blog! But it is the thinking that gets us where we want to go.

Click image for source

Today I’m working to wrap up my little series on our home school philosophy. As with everything on the blog, this is more “how-we” than “how-to”. I could be totally wrong about what I’m doing….and so what if I am? My children will be negatively impacted…as will my own future as my children are my future. If you read this baloney and take it as gospel, well…you’re on your own. I offer no warranty. Does anything work? Does anything have meaning? Is there a RIGHT way to do anything? Yes. Certainly. But where the rubber meets the road the only thing I have is Faith. And faith, according to the Bible, is itself evidence of the existence of God. Outside of that? We build on success and learn from the mistakes of the past. That requires thinking. Really, you’re on your own here.

With that in mind, the ultimate lesson for my home schooled children is this: nobody has all the answers. In fact, it is quite possible that nobody knows anything, least of all me. If you want to really know something you have to do more than read about it, write about it and listen to stories about it. As focused as we are on experiencing things, experience isn’t enough. You have to think. You can’t outsource thinking. It is something you have to do on your own. You can leverage your reading and experience to help you think more fully on a subject but you are unlikely to find any real answers from books. Just more possibilities……more opinions…more problems. There is no 10-step program for all the answers the the problems the world can present you with. You just have to think (and pray) your way through each obstacle.

This is certainly true on the farm. How much fence should I build today? I dunno. Build enough fence that the cows get plenty to eat and they put enough pressure to push nutrients and seeds into the soil….but not too much…and not too little. And it changes by season. And by year. And by weather pattern. And by solar aspect. And by slope. And by forage species. And by fertility. The saying goes, “They eye of the master fattens the calf” but, obviously, it’s the master’s ability to think more than his ability to see that makes the difference. How many chickens will we sell this coming year? How many layers? How many hogs? What breed of hogs? On and on…questions with no right answers. We just think our way through and do the best we can.

To help along the way, we study from others who have asked these questions before us. “The Classics” are classics because they are still relevant. We read them, in part, because people still read them. The unending flood of published books shows that writing is easier than thinking but books that endure through time are those that encourage the reader to think…to consider…to change…to grow. Why does Homer beg the muse to sing of the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles? Because he brought COUNTLESS ills upon the Achaeans! And for what? Because he couldn’t keep a girl he stole while fighting a war he didn’t want to fight. There are still elements of that story we can relate to and learn from…things we can think about today…things that may impact us tomorrow. That said, if history tells us anything it is that nobody learns from history…because we just read for entertainment. We don’t think. Go ahead. Ask the muse to sing of the desire of Victoria’s grandson Freddy to support his empire by building a navy and brought countless ills upon the Europeans. I know that’s not quite right…but it’s as close to a real reason for WWI as I have ever seen.

Click image for source

As with other subjects, I spend a lot of time reading the classics of agriculture (from John Taylor of Caroline and Miss Coulton to Allan Savory and Joel Salatin) and study what others have done. I try ideas out. I think on the results. I make a revised plan and try it again. Each year I work to improve, never finding THE ANSWER. There is no one answer to farming but I know your answers will be better than mine. Your kids will build on the knowledge you share and will do better still. We build on the work of the past…never really arriving, always moving along. There is no farming destination…just a forked path. The journey is the destination…and a thoughtless journey is a miserable place to be.

Keep this in mind as you raise your own children. Give them time to think…to question…to wonder. So many kids are so busy with school and homework that they aren’t allowed to think. Go back and read that again. Then they spend the evening with scouts or karate or just in front of the TV. Just let your kids get bored. Boredom is a problem kids can solve on their own…sometimes with disastrous consequences. But, like I said earlier, I offer no guarantees. Maybe the best thing for kids is just to keep them busy and out of trouble. But I fear for a society that discovers the convenience of this as they will soon apply the same philosophy to the adult population.

Whatever path you choose, I can’t tell you which way to go. I strongly suggest you read, study and discuss things with others. Rely on young minds for crazy new ideas. Rely on experienced minds for stability. But at the end of the day, the most important work you can do is to think. And it is hard work. That is why so few attempt it.

Getting Out Of The Way

I wrote about our home schooling philosophy a bit last week here, here and here. I want to wrap it up today. Well, mostly. I have a few other thoughts for extra-credit that I may publish soon.

The most important thing is the most important thing. Right? So what is it? What is the most important thing we can do in preparing the next generation?

Get out of the way.

driving the tractor

Look how easy it is.

But it’s not that easy. Getting out of the way means releasing control. Shutting your mouth. Allowing mistakes to happen. Being supportive but not controlling. Drying a lot of tears when mistakes happen. And mistakes will happen along the way to success.

Let’s look at two possible futures together. The base assumptions are that I have a herd of cattle generating a positive cash flow for the farm and a child who is interested in taking over.

kids planting

Child (boy or girl): “Dad, I’m anxious to find my place on the farm. The part that interests me most are the cattle. In fact, I have a few ideas in mind that could really push the ecology, the genetics and the profit margins forward. Is there room for me to explore these ideas?”

There are two paths before me. I could get out of the way or I could be an obstruction to my child’s progress. Let’s be an obstruction:

Me: “You know, I’m glad you want to find a place on the farm. Your mother and I have prayed for a long time that we would be able to make room for you here BUT…I have spent X years building that herd! We are finally to a point where I can say our shorthorns are relatively uniform and well-adapted to our environment. My gosh! those cows cost us a fortune! And you want to just step in after all the work I’ve done and expect me to start some new business to support myself? Further, you are going to change what I have worked all these years for in favor of your crazy new ideas?”

chickens are cool

Obviously we want our kids to make their home near to us…here on the farm if possible. That’s going to require some planning between all of us and a measure of sacrifice. I’m going to have to release control, reserve judgement and allow things to go new directions. If I won’t do that…well, why would my kids stick around? And why would they want to buy me out and argue with me about control of the farm when it would be simpler and less emotional to just go buy a farm of their own?

So I have to get out of the way. I have to plan for this and plant the seeds now. At some point, sooner than I would like, my children and I will have this conversation. They will be ready to manage the farm, turning to me for advice but making decisions on their own. I’ll be the janitor.

To wrap up the home school theme of this series, the same thing has to happen with our children’s education. At some point, sooner than I would like, the kids will direct their own learning. We work through several phases of learning with our children. At first we work to show them love and give them a frame of reference for the world they are discovering. Simple concepts, lots of time: You are loved. There is right and wrong. There is truth. You were created and were created for a purpose. Work is valued as is your contribution. The world is an interesting place. While teaching these things we spend large quantities of time playing games, reading aloud and exploring the world together. This progresses through learning a broad array of information and skills largely at the student’s pace…everything from algebra to housework to positive interactions with others until they are fully-trained young adults. Around ages 13-15 we let go of the reins and allow each student to sort of major in a topic. Note the part about letting go of the reins. Our 13 or 14 year old child has a strong foundation of education and necessary life skills and is able to pursue their educational passions. We let go early so college, if attended, won’t be an overwhelming experience…away from home, away from loving guidance. They learn to do it on their own…to discover their own passions. Then, if they choose to go to college, they will have both direction and independence…purpose.

picking berries

Like the cow thing, the time is coming when I will have to stand aside on education. I’m still around, I’m still able to advise but the direction is chosen by the student. I just have to get out of the way…standing back to watch them stretch their wings…however hard it is for me to do that.

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.

Girls

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.

Grazing

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.

Putting Compost to Work

We spread our compost on the winter stockpiled pasture a few weeks ago (Sep. 9th). The compost pile was the end result of offal from 1,200 chickens, 3 pigs and a goat along with a year’s worth of humanure and kitchen and garden waste. That pile was built over the course of a year then aged for another year. At the end of that time my eldest son and I shoveled it into the manure spreader sifting out bits of trash (string, bag tops, wire and one pig skull) then I spread it on the fall stockpiled pasture. We spread the compost to help boost fall fescue growth as well as to help innoculate the soil.

Isn’t it interesting that the first step toward building healthy soil is to increase the soil bacteria? Kinda makes one rethink using anti-bacterial soap. Compost The compost spread in a thin layer across a couple of acres. If things go as planned, I’ll get the pigs moved and I’ll spread another layer from that cow/pig bedding on the field as well. Not only will it give the stockpile an extra kick of growth, it will help the stockpile tolerate the cold weather. This practice was emphasized in several books including Salatin’s $alad Bar Beef but also by Stacey last year on her blog. Thanks for the reminder Stacey!

Planting Seeds in Children’s Minds

This is the third in a series about how we are home schooling and preparing our children for their futures…the future of the farm. Sustainability is the real issue. If you are just joining us, go back and read parts one and two. I have worked to condense this post down to bare bones but I could go on and on. Forgive me if some of my transitions are …less than smooth.

We, as parents, plant seeds on a daily basis. Some of it is intentional, some of it just scatters about. Genuine comments like “Wow! that’s a great drawing!” or “I really appreciate your help” mean a lot to us as humans and, if you were uncertain, children are humans. Those comments are nurturing but they aren’t seeds. The gift of paper and pencil are the seeds. The opportunity to pitch in where needed is a seed. Comments help that seed to grow or cause it to wither.

Strawberries

Have you ever heard that little voice in your head attempting to defeat you? Let me open up briefly and tell you what I hear on my worst days. I am a worthless, ignorant, arrogant, selfish and generally bad man…hardly a man at all. I talk too much. People don’t really like me, they tolerate me. I just get in the way. All of my ideas are ridiculous. I’m too skinny, too weak, too tall, too short, too ugly, too hairy. Julie made a mistake marrying me. I’m a lousy father. I’m terrible at my job and I’m just faking my way through my career. Somebody is going to find out…and soon. This (whatever crazy idea) will never work. My cows are not getting what they need because I lack the skill to manage grazing correctly. The list goes on but that’s enough.

Is any of that true? I don’t know…probably some of it to some degree. But those thoughts and others like them are on a near-constant loop in my head on rainy days. I’m not seeking a therapy session. I’m seeking real-life examples. Those are weed seeds. And I am not alone in having a mind littered with weed seeds trying to take root. You hear the voices too. My children hear the voices too.

I have to fight that. I can’t let the weed seeds take root in my children’s minds. I have to reinforce to my children that they are good enough. …that they are not an accident. …that their mother and I love them, cherish them and do not regret having them. …that they can make a difference. My children have purpose. They can work to fulfill that purpose and positively impact the world around them…and for generations to come.

To have this opportunity we, as parents, have to work to build personal, intimate, ongoing relationships with our children. With that foundation in place, we can begin to scatter seeds of our own…nurturing those seeds and working to out-compete the weeds.

HayWagon

But there is a tendency to plant weeds of our own. To scatter seeds that work against our children. Have you ever heard or said any of these gems?

“You should go to college because you are too smart to be a farmer.”

“There’s no future here. You’ll never make any money.”

“If you don’t go to college you will never succeed in life.”

“You can’t do that because it would take a lot of money (and you’ll never have any money (cause we don’t have any money (and my ego can’t stand the thought of you succeeding where I have failed))).”

“This country is going to Hell and there’s nothing we can do about it! It’s all the blue team’s fault (or the red team…both the same really). THOSE people have taken away your whole future! We are helpless.”

Don’t send your kids away. Don’t tell them there is no hope. Don’t teach them to be victims. Don’t seed discouragement.

This isn’t a post telling you to boost your child’s self-esteem. That’s a false god. A whole generation of kids who have accomplished nothing believing they can do anything! That lasts until reality strikes. Then they turn to Pfizer for help.

There is a school of thought that we should fill our homes with tools, not toys. Give our children opportunities not entertainment. Those opportunities are the seeds we are looking for. It’s not enough to believe you can. You have to do it. Book learnin’ and believin’ won’t cut it. You have to do it. Kids have to do it. What are your kids interested in? What do they want to do? What chances have they had to really try something? …to really fail at something? …to learn that failure is a beginning? We have tools, stacks of lumber, musical instruments, paper, pencils, crayons, markers, scissors, glue, computers, books on beginning programming, books, books and more books! Pallets for club houses, old tarps for roof tops, messes everywhere! Adventure everywhere! There are rabbits to raise, chicks to play with, chickens to dress, fencing to build, hay to stack, hay to play on, veggies to plant, weed and pick, cows to move and water…all of these are jobs the kids can help with. Look at the opportunities!

We scatter these opportunities in front of our kids hoping they will pick something up. When something sparks their interest we, the parents, have to be attentive and ready to run. An interested learner will consume massive amounts of information in a short period of time. As a mentor you’ll have your hands full trying to keep up…stay ahead…anticipate which direction the learner will go next. That anticipation requires an intimate understanding between learner and mentor.

Crafts

There are certainly phases of learning where we are just dumping information in front of the children. Phases where nobody is particularly motivated to chase down a specific curiosity. At those times we read aloud, play together or just hang out. I am always surprised how things work out. In a recent rut I borrowed a video game from a friend. That led to pages and pages of artwork and stories about favorite characters by our youngest two. You never know what will allow the opportunity for encouragement and growth.

And those opportunities can grow. Each of the kids has a preferred set of chores. Daughter #1 has her own chickens. She just muscled in and pushed me out of the way. Now she takes care of them. That’s GREAT! That’s what we are after! And each of the kids know that there is a place for them here. That they can succeed here. That I’m laying a simple foundation for all of us to build on. “You can expand the pig operation, you can expand the cattle. You can grow and sell cut flowers. You can supply nurseries with stock. I’ll clean the toilets!” All of these businesses help each other, build on each other and share and expand the customer base. We are planting those seeds now! There is no reason to wait until the kids are 18 to say, “you know…you and your husband could just live right here with us.” By that time our kids will have defined themselves. It may never have occurred to them that we want them here. We say it now. Maybe my oldest will grow up to be an astronaut…or the manager at a Starbucks…or, worse, the president. He may not want to live here. We all have to make our own choices in life. But I’m giving him the opportunity…and I’m giving it now. We will nurture that seed as it grows…even if it doesn’t sprout for 50 years.

That’s how we believe we can achieve sustainability. To get there we have to separate cheap comments like “Good job, Billy” from nurturing comments like “Billy, you did your very best and I’m impressed. I think you have a real talent for …” Nurturing comments are like a ray of sunshine or a cool drink of water. But you can only nurture seeds…seeds you have to plant. We also have to be careful and purposeful about what seeds we plant. What seeds are you planting in your children’s minds?

Next time I’ll share how we attempt to get out of the way of our children’s successes.