21 Years. What’s the Point?

Please understand, I am telling you what we think the point is, not asking if there is a point.

So what’s the point?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t.

This isn’t some sort of contest to be the last couple on the dance floor. We aren’t married for the sake of being married.

I would suggest that we are married, in part, because we make daily decisions to deal with our problems. And we have problems. Boy do we have problems. The Communication Guys podcast recently featured a divorce attorney who talked about the need to deal with problems while they are still small. Julie and I deal with a lot of small problems. Some big problems too but the ones that needle at our relationship tend to be rather insignificant when you pause to take a deep breath.

But that may answer how we have stayed married. I didn’t ask that question. I asked “What’s the point?”

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Celebrating 21 years today. I love this man.

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I have shared with you before why I married her. The most succinct answer I can give is I married her so nobody else could. I won. So there. But that doesn’t sustain a marriage. And marriage is hard. Why bother sustaining it?

What’s the point?

I guess I’m going to have to stop evading that question and take a stab at it. Keep in mind, I make this stuff up as I go along. I get the feeling that she does the same (but she makes it look easy). Also, I have to offer the disclaimer that this stuff may only work for Chris and Julie and it may only be good for 21 years of marriage. It isn’t over until it’s over. We haven’t hit 22 years yet. I’m not here to brag. Just to celebrate.

But what about this is worth celebrating? What’s the point?

Shoot. I did it again.

Is it possible that I stay married to Julie without justification?

Is it possible that this is just some meaningless drive to a trophy that will never be awarded?

Are we simply sustained by emotions we felt as children and fear of embarrassment or social pressure to keep this thing going for the sake of the children? Gosh, I hope not.

So what is it then?

Obviously I’m having trouble putting this into words. And I can only speak for Chris. You should know by now that, though he has known her since 1993, Chris has no idea what Julie is thinking…I mean, I know she is mad, I just don’t know why.

So I would have to say that Chris is married to Julie because Julie…

Look, this is kind of embarrassing.

Marriage isn’t the end goal. Marriage isn’t the point. But it also isn’t the means to an end. It’s like…it’s like …it’s like being married to Julie gives everything else purpose. I enjoy my job. I enjoy my kids, my farm and my dog. But I treasure sharing those experiences with Julie.

My kids will grow up and move out. Hopefully, they will live next door or, at least, very close. The dog won’t last forever. But I work every day to ensure that Julie comes to me for friendship, acceptance and affirmation. Heck, she can even come to me for food, shelter and safety if she wants. But those physical needs are easier to attain than love.

I love her. And I want to love her because I want her to love me.

And I think that’s the point. I love her because I want to love her. And I want her to love me because I love her.

I recognize that the above is circular.

And maybe that’s why it was hard to answer the question to begin with.

The point is that I want to. Even though sometimes I want to less than other times.

20 Years. Twenty.

Twenty years ago on July 5th I had no idea what I was doing. Julie checked all the right boxes that I thought a mate needed…

  • Female? Check.
  • Warm? Check.
  • Intelligent? Check.
  • Pretty? (Really, really pretty?) Check. (Bonus points applied).
  • Similar family cultures? Check.
  • So…what the heck? Let’s do this.

That is as much consideration as my tiny 20 year old brain could offer toward the subject of marriage.

We were both full-time college students when we got married. There were arguments. We shared illness. We were broke. Like broke-broke. Like legit broke (like random people in our community would bring us food kind of broke). Things were worse.

But we resolved our issues. We got healthier. We even had a few nickels to rub together from time to time and things got better.

Then we invented new issues, found new and creative ways to get sick, spent all of our savings and went back to worse.

Then back again. Over and over, again and again.

Today’s drama (July 4, 2017) is due to the current surplus of eggs (which Julie reminds me has been worse in the past).

Last week’s drama was due to the pillaging armies of raccoons and their tiny offspring eating our chickens. We celebrated each victory against the bandits but today I am frustrated that I have so many birds.

Does it have to be this way? Up and down?

I wish it was not so. This is, in some ways, a measure of me as a man. I was re-reading Marcus Aurelius last week and came across this:

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction;

Be always the same. If only I could.

I don’t know why there is an ebb and flow to my feelings toward her. There are days when I can’t stand a moment without her. There are also times when I feel differently. And I know she deals with that too.

We share a journal that gets more frequent updates than the blog does these days. When Julie and Wendy left for camp in Montana I had a rough time and made several journal entries expressing frustration and loneliness…after she had only been gone for three days. Most of the frustration was that I couldn’t share how I was feeling with her because I didn’t want to distract her from having fun with Wendy. But I needed to tell her what I was feeling so I entered it in the journal.

But as the time passed I found myself staring at the picture above and counting down the hours until she returned. Can you tell I was excited?


My entries changed from dwelling on my loneliness to my excitement about their return home. Everything changed…even though nothing had changed. No matter how I felt, she was due at the airport at noon on the 30th. No matter how I felt the 30th was always Friday. But my distance from Friday radically altered my mood.

My distance from Julie radically altered my mood.

And that applies even when we are not physically separated because the distance between us really has very little to do with the distance between us.

We drift apart. I busy myself with work or chores or fail to invest in quality time with Julie and she starts to feel lonely. She starts to make journal entries about her feelings.

We make adjustments and corrections and grow closer together. For a while.

Right now we are very close.

I don’t know what kind of an entry on my checklist can account for this behavior. I needed someone with whom I could survive the change of seasons.

Julie is that.

Not only is she kind, caring, warm, intelligent, unbelievably beautiful and has seen all Star Wars movies, she and I can weather the storm.

Richer or poorer. Better or worse. Sickness and health. I had no idea how good of a deal I was getting 20 years ago.

I love you Julie.


An additional thought about Julie not directly related to the theme of this post:

But why Julie? If census data is correct, there were 10 million other women in Julie’s age group in 1997. Even if Julie was one in a million, there were 9 others just like her. What is it about Julie that is special? I have wrestled with this idea for quite a while now. There are other women in the US. There are other nice women. There are other caring, compassionate women who watched Star Wars at least once. But Julie is special to me.


I really can’t put my finger on it. The book Start with Why talks about our limbic brain having no speech center but being responsible for our gut feelings (Chapter 4, This is not Opinion, It’s Biology).

The part of our brain that controls our feelings has no capacity for language. It is this disconnection that makes putting our feelings into words so hard. We have trouble, for example, explaining why we married the person we married. We struggle to put into words the real reasons why we love them, so we talk around it or rationalize it. “She’s funny, she’s smart,” we start. But there are lots of funny and smart people in the world, but we don’t love them and we don’t want to marry them. There is obviously more to falling in love than just personality and competence.

There is obviously more to my feelings toward Julie than just the checklist above. There is also appreciation that she loves me back. Or I love her back. I don’t know who started it. But I know through each of the low points in our relationship, one or the other of us has had to make a decision. Either we are going to end this or we are going to treat each other better. So when things look bleak I try to say something nice. And she reciprocates. Or the other way around.

It’s like my marriage is both the result of a feeling I can neither express nor define and the fruit of deliberate action taken day after stinking day.

I asked one of my major professors, Dr. Singh, how arranged marriages work. He replied, “The same as any other marriage. You wake up each morning and decide to love that person next to you.”

Looking Back on Surgery

A year ago today (December 18) we were in surgery with our daughter to make the cancer go poof. I am delivering you an unedited video of Julie and I and a whole lot of anxiety in the waiting room at the hospital.

This is how we dealt with the strain. We drew close together. We laughed. We talked.

So here it is.

I hope it helps you in some small way.

If nothing else, pay attention to how tired and confused both of us are about various surgeries, dates and locations in the hospital. This was the halfway point of Wendy’s treatment and it was all a blur.

Last year was hard.

Re-Learning Things I Already Learned Again

I try to carry a theme of humility and ignorance on my blog. Another theme of my blog posts is I tend to start at the end.

I learned something recently. I have to be able to understand your issues without internalizing them. Additionally, I really treasure time with my wife.

So why is this important? And how does this relate to the farm? And why am I writing this in a public blog instead of just leaving a notebook for my kids to read later on? Because I say it is, because I believe it does and because my handwriting is terrible.

So with that out of the way, let’s start over. 14 months ago my youngest was diagnosed with cancer. For eight months my wife and daughter lived at the hospital for a minimum of 10 days each month. In addition there were trips to the ER, surgeries, blood work, checkups and infusions of poison…each with its own co-pay.


But I don’t want to talk about poisons and finances today. I want to talk about Julie.

I love Julie.

But I lived without her for so long I lost a level of intimacy with her.

Not just physical intimacy…which was obviously lacking when she was away. Real, personal interdependence. Need.


Julie is my best friend. I say that because you look worried.


Click link for image source

But that wasn’t the case for much of the summer. Julie was more like my roommate. Friends with benefits.

We identified this problem some time ago and sought out professional help. I guess it helped. I have gotten ahead of myself again. Let’s go back.

14 months ago I learned about pediatric oncology. Those two words do not belong together. It’s not like I was unaware of childhood cancer, it’s that I was insulated from it…either because I am shallow or because I am lucky. Please let me believe I am lucky.


On August 31 my life was normal. On September 1 the whole  world was upside-down. Or downside-up. Or topsy-turvy. Skip it.

We found our way to the pediatric cancer floor of Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. A whole floor of sick kids. One girl we remember was in isolation for months. She was 11 and had leukemia. The bad kind of leukemia. Without treatment she would die. But treatment was killing her. So she lived in isolation. Every few weeks the nurses would allow her to move to a different room so she could see fresh scenery.

She died between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I have a 14 year old girl. Believe me, I can imagine.

In fact, for a long time I could do more than imagine it. I could feel the pain of the other families on the floor.

But something began to happen. Slowly. I learned how to care without internalizing the pain of others.

To some of you that seems entirely obvious. But it was not easy for me. I would go to the hospital every day. I would ride the elevator with the other parents and I would take time to talk with them. One child was 7 months old, was born with a heart defect and was not eligible for a heart transplant. One child was 7 days old and could not draw breath on his own. One child was in an accident and had fractured his skull. Heavy stuff. And it all weighed on me. My own daughter, losing weight, feeling sick, throwing up, sleeping all of the time, fighting and crying to avoid the next painful round of breathing treatments, obviously depressed and extremely self-conscious about her little bald head…and then all of the weight of other sick kids in the hospital…the struggling families we were meeting.


Like Bruce. Bruce was a truck driver. His son was in prison. The son had 7 grandchildren all in foster care. Bruce had custody of his youngest grandson…the one with leukemia. Bruce and his wife just lived at the hospital with the boy…the 2 year old boy. The 2 year old boy who was on his second round of treatments. The boy died at Christmas.

How do the nurses and doctors deal with this pain?

How can Julie and I deal with it?

You know what? We don’t have to deal with it.

We have to support our daughter’s needs. Not that little boy.

One thing our daughter needs is a stable home.

Bruce also needs us. But Bruce doesn’t need us to take his grandson’s pain away. Bruce needs us to listen. To listen. Not to feel. To listen. To understand. To understand without internalizing.

But we did internalize. And it was killing us.

It caused each of us pain, individually. The weight of that burden, in addition to our daughter’s illness, was almost more than our relationship could stand.

So we sought help.

Rest assured, we sought professional help. From a real, licensed professional.

But I had a particularly difficult moment at work, cornered an executive, shut the door and, among other words, quit my job.

Now I didn’t lose my job at this time. I say that because you look worried.


Click link for image source.

I’ll summarize my list of complaints about myself. Everything I touch breaks, I’m tired, I’m not the right person for the job and I think I would be happier making sandwiches at Subway. I think that about covers it.

He corrected me that all of the technology I am responsible for at work is in better shape now than it was when it was handed to me. However, he thinks I probably am tired because I am still fixing problems. “There will always be problems, Chris. That’s why we need managers. You are a manager. You should not be fixing problems anymore. You should be managing them.” Thanks, Jim.

At the same time I was reading A Failure of Nerve by Friedman. Friedman says roughly the same thing. There are problems. Real problems. Some of these problems don’t have solutions. They have to simply be managed to mitigate the damage.

Living with crises is a major part of leaders’ lives. The crises come in two major varieties: (1) those that are not of their own making but are imposed on them from outside or within the system; and (2) those that are actually triggered by the leaders through doing precisely what they should be doing.

My daughter’s cancer was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop. We just had to manage it for the duration.

And when that battle ended we had a new fight on our hands. The emotional distance separating Julie from me was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop immediately. It took time. And patience. And change.

And here I sit talking of it in past tense. But that is inaccurate. This is our present battle. Every. Stinking. Day. is a fight for my marriage.

And it is more than just acknowledging that a marriage is more than sharing a house and a bed. This is an every day effort to meet her needs. And, beyond that, to help her to heal as well.

I had a hard time learning not to internalize the pain of others. In fact, we still struggle with it.

We met a boy recently who had a similar type of bone cancer to our daughter’s. He, too, had his fibula removed but his was transplanted to replace his left humerus. We met them at a fundraiser and shortly after he began to struggle with the combined weight of chemo and recovery from surgery. It was hard not to cry with the family. But that is not our battle. That is not our calling. That is not our purpose.

Certainly we reach out to that family and seek ways to support them. But their struggles are not our struggles.

I woke up one morning and realized Julie and I were next to each other but far, far apart.

That is our struggle.


How did this happen? I love Julie. She is my best friend. Or she should be…

I have given this subject some thought. I believe I prioritized the wrong problems. I fought the wrong battles. I empathized with the wrong people.

I avoided doing what I needed to do because it was hard. It is easy to sympathize with a family on 9. It is hard to deal with Julie honestly and openly. Especially when neither of us were in the wrong…we were just apart. That’s a tough problem to solve! And it requires more than just time. More than just trips away together. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive in this post because your marriage is not my marriage. I’ll just say I had to find ways to discover who Julie is today… 20 years and 4 children and 1 cancer after I met her. She is not the same person she was even 14 months ago. I am not either.

Marriage is hard but I think Julie and I are both fighting the right battle now. We were both distracted and our efforts were misguided. We suffered. But I think we are back on track.

The Jordan Side of Me

My mom is a Chism. I am surrounded by Chism…or descendants of Chism. Being related to the whole county made dating difficult as a teen.


But dad came from another state.

In some ways I identify more with my grandpa Chism than with my grandpa Jordan. Maybe because of proximity. I spent a lot of time on this farm as a small child, not so much in Indianapolis. Maybe because my grandpa Chism had tractors. I don’t know. I am not writing a comparison, I am hurting a little and thinking of both.

I am who I am, in part, because they were who they were.

The “me” inside of “me” has a lot to do with who I thought they were. And who I thought they were is surprisingly different than who my sister thought they were. And that is different than who my dad thought they were.

So who am I? And who do my children think I am?

My grandpa Jordan passed away last week at the age of 89. I have spent a lot of time in thought about the man and my relationship with him. And in my own head I seem to be mourning both of my grandfathers which is odd because grandpa Chism died nearly 20 years ago.

I really didn’t know my grandpa Chism when I was an adult. I saw him through the idealistic eyes of a child. He was big and strong and did the things big, strong farmer guys did. He was also quietly tolerant of me.

But I had time to really get to know my grandpa Jordan. He was not quietly tolerant of me. He was strong but not big. He did things retired city people did…like scratch lottery tickets. But he was also a carpenter and I have a number of skills I learned either directly from grandpa or from my father who learned from grandpa.

So who am I?

Carpentry and farming go well together but am I quietly tolerant or not?

I have wrestled with this kind of thinking all week. I am not Tom Chism. I am not Sherman Jordan. But they are certainly both a strong dose of what I hold up as the ideal of man.

I am acutely aware of both of my grandfathers’ many flaws. They were not perfect men. As an adult I avoided certain conversations with grandpa Jordan and to this day thank God he gave me a polite nickname (Old-timer). So why did he have rude nicknames for everybody else? That’s not part of my picture of ideal manhood. But it is not fair to say that my grandfather was a jerk. He could be at times but so can I.

There were conversations I just could not have with my grandpa. We could not talk about politics or religion…but that’s common in any relationship. But we could talk about stocks and coin collecting and commodity futures. These were safe topics, especially if you just open the throttle and let him run. But never get him started on “rich people” or labor or any of his ongoing list of conspiracies…

I learned to handle my grandpa safely. Great. What does that have to do with me? And what ON EARTH does that have to do with the farm?

There was no Jordan farm until dad bought land in the ’80’s. I think that is an important detail in this reflection. There was no land. No tie. No roots. There is a Jordan cemetery somewhere in Tennessee but I don’t know anybody in there. I know an awful lot about the Chism people buried on the next hill over from my house. I live in a house my grandparents lived in…a house my grandpa’s uncle built. On land we have owned for nearly 200 years. Why didn’t the Jordan family settle? Why didn’t they build permanence?

I don’t know much of anything about Sherman’s father, Arthur. I remember vague stories of extreme poverty and abuse. From what I have put together, grandpa Jordan had a very difficult childhood right up until he lied about his age to join the Navy. Then he met up with his siblings again, opened a carpentry business with his brother and played euchre. I have memories of my aunts and uncles playing cards at the dining room table together. Even if he made insulting comments, I think we can safely say that grandpa was different than his father. Better. Even if still rough.

And my father is better still.

I am who I am because he was who he was. I am who I am because he pushed me to become more than he was…even if just to prove him wrong about me. And my kids, through positive reinforcement, will continue that refining what it means to be a Jordan.

There is a lot to explore within our family legacy and culture. Who am I? Who are we? What do we believe? How do we treat each other? What do we offer our future generations?

I haven’t answered any questions here. These are ideas I am struggling to understand and I hope you are too.

Julie and I are exploring, establishing and refining our family culture together with our parents and our children. We are purposeful about giving everyone a sense of belonging, love, place and purpose. This is our way of cleaning the world by cleaning our front step. How are you changing the world?

The Farming Manual: Farm Tools


Henderson spends a lot of time in this chapter describing a world I have only read about. I realize the traditional tools used in York differ from those used in Cornwall but I may be in the minority of Americans who can point to York and Cornwall on a map…let alone understand that there are differences between racial or cultural subgroups living within Cornwall.

It is in the shovel that we see the racial choice most strongly marked, the so-called Devon or Welsh socket shovel is used wherever you find Celtic people, in Cornwall, Wales, the west of Ireland, up the west coast of Scotland, and of course in the Western Isles.

What a diverse world! It is all but gone in America’s Midwest. There are only a few tokens of my ancestry laying around the old farm house. Stories mostly along with a few food items and family values. But really, the whole thing has gone the way of the shovel. No real variety. The industrial age standardized the shovel into a horrible thing that breaks upon use. There is one design available at multiple price points in every hardware store in America.

This chapter describes the different tools in use by farmers from different counties. Changes depend on the size of the people in the county, the variety of plants available and just plain old user preference. It’s kind of amazing. Tools with enough variety to meet the needs of the farmer. Tools that farmer will use for his lifetime.

I can’t imagine. I recently bought a new hatchet. I didn’t need a new hatchet. I didn’t particularly want a new hatchet. Especially not the toy steel hatchet I bought. But I spent about 5 minutes looking at the grain of the handles in the store and found one with straight grain pointed in the right direction. I bought it. It is nearly impossible to find tool handles with the right grain orientation, let alone one that will hold an edge or is the right weight. I suppose that’s why there are so many of those horrible tools with fiberglass handles. Yuk.

So here I am, living in a world of stamped, pre-broken round point shovels and cross-grain handled axes and hatchets reading about a world of quality hand-made tools in large varieties. Different shovels for different soil types, scaled down for users under a certain weight (14 stone). I can’t imagine.

And it is probably my fault. I don’t want to pay $100 for a spade. I want to buy a $20 shovel and use it like a spade, then complain loudly on the internet when it breaks.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know about you but I could do a better job of caring for my tools. I could take time to clean my unbroken shovel and wipe the blade with an oil rag. I could keep the edge sharp. I could rub a little linseed oil on the handles of my tools. I could do a better job of keeping them put away (following behind my children…). Even my horrible post-industrial tools would be better if I would care for them a little better.

But it can’t just stop there. There are tools I use regularly and for hours on end. And I’m not talking about my chainsaw. We butcher chickens with hand tools. My best knives were given to me by an elderly man. His father was a butcher. My new knives don’t compare to those old ones. I prefer a high-carbon steel blade to a stainless steel blade. By that I mean I prefer working to sharpening. And in this case, I can buy near replacements of my old tools cheaper than their modern, stainless alternatives.

So where does this chapter leave us?

It may be as simple as this: Make an honest evaluation of your land, your size, your strength, your ability and your preferences. What are your needs? Now, what tools best fit your needs? Maybe you do need that $100 spade to help you double-dig your garden beds. Or maybe you don’t need to double-dig your garden beds. Maybe you need to mound up layers and layers of compost instead. That’s a different job, requiring a different tool. One sized to fit your body mechanics. One that does not overextend your reach or overtax your strength. One that makes work easy. Fun even.

How much is that tool worth? How many junk shovels and sore backs do you want to buy? Can you do a better job of deploying your resources? I’m sure Mr. Henderson would say something about Scottish opinions on relative scarcity.

The Farming Manual: The Reason For The Work


Chapter 1: Teaching Farm Work

Q: Why are we doing this?

A: Well, to make money. To pay our taxes and buy new shoes.

That, my friends, is not an inspiring answer.

Have I oversimplified the big picture? Did I make an assumption? I thought everybody knew. Henderson is laying out his class syllabus in this chapter but I was entirely struck by the big picture…and its implications. As we read chapter 1, Henderson shares a list of ways he evaluates potential employees. He watches to see if they are working and then says:

The ability to judge distance, detail and object, are very important factors which can make all the difference in mastering a craft.

I obviously want to focus today’s post on the object of the operation.

…can he explain the reason for the operation – which is to give every plant the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number which must be left to ensure an adequate yield from a given acreage.

My kids, I’m afraid, can not explain the object. In their minds we have cows because dad wants to have cows. While that is not entirely incorrect, there is more to it. We have a given amount of meadow. I can spend a huge amount of time keeping it mowed or I can mow it with cows. Cows, like any other mower, require maintenance. But they also reproduce themselves and taste great. So our object, using Henderson’s framework, is to give every cow the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. Where Henderson requires judgement of plant spacing, we require judgement of daily grazing allotment.

But that still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter because we could have a very nice house in town if we wanted. Instead we have a not very nice house way, way out of town. Way out of town. Like way out.

Why? And why cows and not sheep?

Maybe the question should be changed from “Why are we doing this” to “Why are we doing this?”

For a couple of reasons. First, cows make good economic use of our land. As long as we get rain and sunshine we will have grass. It’s pretty cheap and the cows like it. Add in a little bit of management and you win. The second reason is not about cows. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, deep down.

Our well went out at the barn two days ago. Right now we are hauling water from my house to the barn using the tractor. This is in no way an ideal situation and uses a lot of time. In the near future dad and I (or maybe just dad) will replace the well pump. It will be a cold winter day. Screws won’t turn, plastic will be brittle, old wiring will fail. But we will soon have it fixed. Then something else will break. That’s how it goes.

Will we break too? I hope not. I hope we are able to stand against the tyranny of our 40 year old infrastructure, becoming stronger and more resilient with each problem. Cue the fife and drum because we are part of a brotherhood of American farmers!

I guess, in a way, we have cows because I want to have cows. Because, like Oliver, I am not content to sit in my city apartment between sessions at my job. I want more! I want fresh air, hard work, strength, fitness along with cold toes and crushed fingernails! I don’t feel that these things make me more of a man than you. I don’t compare myself to you. I compare myself to me. I think these things make me more of me!

But I have gone astray. I’m reading a book, not delivering an Oliver speech.

Oliver is, I think, useful in discussing the book. If you are familiar, Oliver approached farming with books. His neighbors farmed because that’s what they had. They knew what they knew and did what they did, shaking their heads at Oliver’s “modern, scientific” farming. In the show, the two rarely got together and that, Henderson points out, is a mistake.

To acquire any skill expert demonstration and supervision is essential right from the start, and the object should be accuracy, correctness, ease of movement and then speed. All skills need time to be assimilated, and are the better for it. A few days of good training in one season will put you far ahead in the next year.

Rather than ask his neighbors, Oliver put his nose in books and leaflets. Only once in a great while did he bother to look elsewhere, usually to the clouds. Some years ago a real farmer friend set me straight on this very topic. I read a lot of books. A lot of books. But I had very little experience to back up my book learnin’. In conversation with Dave I could only contribute what I had read and I had read a book on any topic we could discuss. Now, Dave is a reader too. But Dave is a real farmer and at the time I was not. He pointed this distinction out. “I read a book! I read a book! I read a book! Well, Mr. Book, can you butcher a hog?”

Well, Dave, I read about it in a book. But it turns out that there isn’t a book on butchering that will teach you what you can learn from Dave in about 20 minutes. And, as Henderson pointed out above, that experience with Dave has percolated over the years. It gave me a solid foundation of learning upon which to build. That first pig was a slow process on a cold day. Now we go much faster.

Since the focus of this chapter is about teaching, not learning, I should point out some things about the way Dave taught me. Dave shot and stuck three pigs in succession then hung them from the loader bucket to bleed out. I watched (somewhat horrified). Three pigs. Dave worked on one, explaining what he was doing. Dave’s son worked on another, explaining nothing. The third pig was mine. I got a lot of help.

What a happy memory. It was so cold! We let the pigs hang overnight and packaged the meat in the morning. The kind of cold that makes your knuckles ache (Henderson has some advice about cold weather in this chapter too). But happy work with people we love.

A happy man is more an halfway to being healthy. Happiness is as good an indication of mental health, as a thermometer is of physical health. A happy worker has no worries, for he is far too busy to worry about problems which do not concern him directly. An unhappy worker magnifies his grievances, and their poisons settle in his muscles to add to his troubles.

Again, this is a chapter about teaching farm work. I suspect Henderson is including this detail in an effort to help you evaluate potential farm help. In a similar way, our pastor, when we were kids, told us to be sure to marry a happy person. And I found, during the lengthy interview process involving numerous candidates, Julie to be a happy person. So I hired her. And it seems to be working out pretty well. And we are, together (mostly Julie) teaching our children to be happy people…who will marry happy people.

We are nearing the end of the chapter and I guess it’s time for me to answer my own question. Why are we doing this?

The greatest service we can render anyone is to teach him to love his work, and to find in it contentment and happiness. … No farmer could spend time better than in devoting ten minutes a day, on his daily rounds, to stimulating each worker to the desire for knowledge by arousing his curiosity and interest in the things about him.

I seek to stimulate my children’s minds – and to engage my own – all while doing work we love surrounded by nature’s beauty. That is why we are doing this…which is to give every child the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. It is important to remember this when the well pump breaks…or when other things go wrong.

My experience convinces me that very few boys, and even fewer girls, know their own ability. It is something you have to teach them. It surprises many of them, and with delight, to learn how capable they are. But they must be given carefully graduated responsibility at first to see they do not fall down on the job in the early stages. Later they may blame themselves bitterly for the things that go wrong, then we have to help and comfort.

Yeah. Well, maybe I won’t screw up my grandchildren. I have a lot to learn on this topic. Fortunately, I have a better resource than Oliver, Henderson or Dave at my disposal. I have my dad who tolerates my ridiculous notions. I hope the final quote for this chapter is soothing to him.

But how worthwhile it all is, to earn the friendship, the affection and the respect of the young. To have the privilege of listening to the younger generation telling us how they hope to put the world and farming right. Few will dispute it has often gone wrong. It is a tremendous thrill to share with youth their passionate desire to make the world a better place, both for themselves and those who will follow after them. They will not fail if they only pass on the message that work is something to be enjoyed, that work is good for you.

One Hour At A Time

I am somewhat reluctant to spam my farm blog by pouring out my heart for my daughter but I’m going to do it anyway. She is a part of the farm. So there.

Things change every day. Every day. More frequently than that. Every hour. On Tuesday the 15th I went to work and my daughter had Osteosarcoma. I got to work and the doctors had changed their diagnosis to Ewing’s sarcoma.

We had planned to start Wednesday with a hearing test because one of the chemo drugs they planned to use could cause loss of hearing. Now that plan was scrapped. We had a start time and no other detail.

I need a plan.

A reader wrote to me this week suggesting we work our plan one hour at a time. One day is too big of a bite. We need to break it down. This hour I’m not going to cry. This hour I’m not going to say it is unfair. This hour I am going to work the plan.

This specific hour, 6-7 on Sunday the 20th, Julie and I are packing eggs for tomorrow’s delivery and doing a little housework. As we work we sip our coffee and talk a little bit about the next step. What is the next step?

We need to be packed and ready. If our little girl gets a fever we have to be at the local hospital within 30 minutes. We need to have a script ready for the hospital explaining our situation and letting them know we are on our way. We have to notify our oncologist to prepare to transfer our daughter from the local hospital to the one in St. Louis. Oh, God!

OK. Too much.

I need to pick up some pajamas for her today. Maybe load up a board game in her backpack and a favorite blanket.

That’s better. I can handle that. At some point today I need to write out information about her port and make sure the phone numbers are in our phones.

Got it.

But there is more going on in our lives than just my daughter’s cancer. I am married. Our marriage doesn’t pause. I have to continue to invest in my relationship with Julie. I have to help Julie to widen her focus. It’s not all about my wife and daughter. We have 3 other children to love. We have each other too. Human relationships are difficult and require effort to maintain. We have to make the effort even if we don’t feel like it.

The hospital gave us a book about how teens deal with sibling cancer. One point it made is that some siblings can feel dumped on by the additional chore load. I laugh because I know they are talking about city kids. Chores? Ha. But my kids do chores, man. In fact, while Julie and I were in the hospital the kids ran the farm. An aunt commented that they just all magically knew what to do.

They don’t magically know what to do. We have trained our children. We have made ourselves redundant on the farm. That didn’t happen in a day. That happened slowly, over time and in small increments. One minute here, an hour there, a comment, a criticism, a reminder not to leave the water running in the pasture.

We share our observations with the kids. We ask for their input. We make adjustments. We train and re-train each other.

We learn together.

That’s how we manage the farm. That’s also how we manage cancer.

We sit together. We talk about it. We cry a little bit. But a little at a time, as a family, we work to understand what is going on and find ways to help each other out.

I have no idea what our kids will ask us today. I don’t know what hurdles we will have to overcome today. Today is too far away. But I know it is 7:00 now and I haven’t opened the chickens or milked the cow yet so I need to go do that.

I have conquered the next hour. That’s the best I can do.

Normally I try to publish my reading journal on Sundays. This week I found it difficult to focus on reading. I have been reading Lord Emsworth and Others by P.G. Wodehouse. Hilarious. Truly hilarious.

Spring Greening

We are still sick. All of us. My 14-year old 6’2″ eating machine seems to be faring the best of all of us…but I think he’s just late to the party. Whatever this cough thing is, it got the better of me. I rarely get sick. I don’t remember ever taking two sick days in a row before. Yesterday I went with Julie and the boy to help move the cows. I couldn’t keep up with them. They were walking too fast. Ultimately, I just lay down in the warm sunshine on a south-facing slope, feeling the tender, fresh, green grass around me. Still too cool for bugs but the sunshine was warm on my face. It was pretty comfy.


Unrelated to the topic, there is about a ten degree difference year-round between the top of the hill and the little valley the boy is about to walk through. It’s pretty amazing. We try to walk up the valley on warm summer evenings because the rush of cool air flowing past us is great.

The chickens and cows are North of the hog building. We have the old flock of layers out there and running unfenced. I have mixed feelings about this but, really, I think the hens are doing very well and seem to be laying their eggs in the nest boxes.


The cows grazed the area pictured above a little more than a week ago. We are just about ready to mash the accelerator pedal on our pasture. I had trouble getting my cattle to shed out their winter coats last spring. Mark Bader responded to an email and suggested the cows were low on energy and that I should speed up the rotation in the early spring. OK. We’ll give it a try. In a few days I’ll split the farm up into a 10-day rotation giving the cows 3-4 acres each day. They can be as selective as they want. But for now we are still bunching them up into half-acre daily moves so they knock down weed skeletons and remove surplus grass. We are moving slowly trying to allow the grass to grow three or four leaves. Most of the farm has three leaves right now. The moisture in the soil and highs near 80 degrees are rapidly accelerating growth.


The picture above shows today’s grazing area. The shagbark hickory tree decided to give up the ghost last night. Fortunately it didn’t land on a cow. You can also see the saplings that have come up recently in that pasture. I need to get busy.

As warm as it has been, we are not out of the woods yet. We can still get a snow or two. Or a heavy frost. In 2001 or 2002 (I’ll have to check my bee diary) we had a 4″ snow on April 20. In 2011 or 12 we had a hard frost on May 10…and the alfalfa took a lot of damage. So did our tomato plants.

A Week in the Brooder

We drove to pick up our CX chicks a week ago bringing home 309 birds.

One week passed.

You know all those horrible things you hear about CX chicks? How fragile they are? How many chicks do you think we lost this week?


They are doing great. I don’t want to brag or claim that Julie and I are the best in the world at brooding chicks. There are a couple of things we have learned.

First, we have been lucky so far.

Second, CX don’t deserve their reputation. Chicks die. That’s kind of what they do. I don’t know that CX chicks are any better or worse than another breed on day 1. If you do anything wrong you will lose birds of any breed.

Third, not all CX are created equal. Whatever Ross cross Schlecht hatchery hatches are perfect for our style. We have tried birds from other hatcheries. We had one batch from somewhere else that slept with their face in the feed and really never moved. No thanks.

Fourth, it pays to drive to the hatchery. Well, it costs a lot to drive to the hatchery. I could lose 20% of my chicks before I began to pay for the fuel I used to drive to Iowa. SO it doesn’t pay. But it does pay because I didn’t kill 20% of my chicks. They are all alive and that’s a big boost to farm morale.

Fifth, make sure they get plenty of protein. We add in enough fish meal to make the feed 21%. Fertrell has a recipe to help you make the adjustment.

  • For brooder chicks needing a 21% protein chick starter mix, add two pounds of fish meal to 20 pounds (or a five-gallon pail) of 19% Broiler Grower.

I have known folks to raise non-CX chicks on 21% feed all the way through. You can’t do that with CX. You’ll end up with a bunch of flippers. Cut the protein back to 19% after two weeks or you’ll be sorry.

Sixth, don’t skimp on the riboflavin. We drop in hay chaff we dust off of the mower after each hay cutting, loaded with all sorts of weed seeds. If your chicks are crippled with clenched claws or are waddling around on their legs, not their feet, you haven’t provided enough riboflavin. This was pointed out in Pastured Poultry Profits. We have really only seen this one time, with an early batch. Ever since that batch we have included Poultry Nutri-Balancer in our chick ration. Also, we have given plenty of green material and seeds and we rarely have an issue. Beef liver and kelp make good alternatives. I might say PNB is the six and a halfth item on this list.


Seventh, the brooder matters.

Let’s talk about the brooder. Here it is from the outside. It’s a retired pig nursery.


The building should have power but…well, it doesn’t right now. It’s a small, insulated box that is surprisingly easy to warm with heat lamps, body heat and composting bedding. More on that last one in a minute.

Inside of the building we just took apart the pig pens and moved the feeders out of the way, making room for 300 gallon water troughs. To help trap heat when the temperature is below 0 F we keep scrap tin on top of the troughs. This is both low-cost and effective. What more could you want?


We try to keep one lamp per 50 chicks but this is easy to adjust. If the chicks are all huddled together under lamps, suffocating each other trying to stay warm you need to make adjustments. If they are all spread out panting and trying to cool off, make adjustments. The photo above is what we needed to see happy chicks running around, eating, drinking, scratching and napping comfortably without piling. The chicks can tell you what they need but you have to be attentive or they will die. I agree with Salatin’s notion that birds that die in the first 5 days were either defective or mishandled by the post office. After that, it’s all on your management.

The first week we are fine putting 150 chicks in a 300 gallon tank but week 2 we try to split them into a third tank. That’s a little more difficult than just moving the chicks because the third tank is not warmed up. We have to shovel out a portion of composting bedding from both active brooder tanks to help jumpstart the new space. We usually toss in a little fresh horse manure too…just to add a little more diversity to the compost biology.

Each day we add fresh sawdust and a couple of handfulls of hay chaff. Julie feels health is improved by stirring up the bedding regularly, mixing old and new, keeping things more fluffy than matted. The jury is still out from my perspective. Otherwise we keep the water and feeders clean and full. That’s really it.

We have brooded chicks in a square box. We find chicks tend to pile up in the corners. Watering troughs solved this for us.

We have brooded chicks under 4′ X 4′ hovers in the greenhouse. That worked really, really well one year, much less so the next year. Our greenhouse fluctuates greatly in terms of temperature and is hard to make cat-proof. So. We don’t do that anymore.

We have brooded chicks in our back room (not recommended), our garage (less than ideal), our garden (not bad, seasonally) our greenhouse (already covered that one) and now in the pig nursery. I love brooding in it. It’s so choice. If you have access to an unused nursery I highly recommend using it (h/t to Ferris Bueller).

There is one thing we like to do but have been unable to do to this point. We like to provide our chicks with creek sand. The creeks are Frozen so to this point…we have just…wait for it…Let it Go! LOL. I crack myself up.

Good luck brooding your chicks. It doesn’t always turn out this well. But when it does, I hope you crow about it.