The Family Stronghold

You are the same today you’ll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read. – Charlie “Tremendous” Jones

Well, Charlie, I just read the book and I’m different already.

We have been reading Bill Bonner’s Family Fortunes slowly over the past few months, taking our time, chewing through it and pausing to ruminate on concepts presented chapter by chapter.  I am the latest in a long line of family farming the same ground but, unfortunately, there is no family fortune.  We have eroded, North-facing hills, very little fertility and a couple of nickles.  We are lacking Bonner’s description of a council of family elders, a family bank and millions in cash and equity available for investment in coming generations of family entrepreneurs. I didn’t inherit the land I live on.  I am buying it with money I make, not money my dad gave me.  The only wealth I recieved to date from mom and dad was my faith, my work ethic and an insatiable desire to learn.  College was not a choice and was on my own dime.  Family sweat, not family cash, helped us reclaim the farm from the thorns and brambles and that’s where my dad has really contributed to the cause.  We have spent years clearing thorny things out of the pastures and fixing fences with years of work still ahead of us.  My job is to hold onto this land so the next generation can take the reins from me.  If I do my job well they will not only have the opportunity to inherit the ground, they will be getting something of greater value than I did.  That’s stewardship.

Bonner talks about the need to follow a well-worn path in business…doing something that others have already succeeded at.  We read and follow the examples of leaders in alternative ag.  He talks about how important it is that I not try to go it alone, that I work hard and take one bite at a time until I “find something that works before you run out of time, money and confidence” (p. 126).  He goes on to suggest a farm as possibly the ideal family business on page 141.

What is the ideal family business?  Hard to say, but it might be a large, diversified family farm.
Here’s why:

  • It is a difficult business, perhaps with relatively low returns on capital.
  • It requires active, on-site management.
  • It is physical, tangible, observable – and something to which people can become sentimentally attached
  • There is generally little liquidity, and a “liquidity event” is a very big deal.
  • The main asset – land – compounds in value without capital gains or income taxes.

What does this have to do with anything?  Our greatest assets are our children.  We work hard to teach our children right from wrong.  …that we are endowed by our Creator with certian unalienable rights.  To teach them when to speak and when to be silent, when it is appropriate to joke around, what topics are appropriate sources of humor and which are taboo and when to push the envelope.  We work hard and always put something away for a rainy day.  We think about what we feed our bodies and what we feed our minds.  We are careful about what sources of entertainment we choose and how much we allow ourselves to be entertained.  We love each other.  We value life.  We value community.  These ideas define us.  More to the point, they shape us and build us as a unit and create our family culture.

Though family culture could develop anywhere, Bonner presents that certain locations can function as an incubator of the family.  A place to hole up during a period of unemployment or just a place to relax and write a book.  I like these ideas.  Years ago I hit a crisis point that caused me to re-evaluate my purpose in life and, ultimately, forcing me to re-invent myself.  This happened in the home with my family beside me.  We stayed in our stronghold (playing Mario Kart Double-Dash!) for an entire summer together.  That house in town functioned as a stronghold for a time but, ultimately, it was too small for our needs.  We, as a family, felt a calling to grow beyond a garden and a couple of chickens.  Strangely, we find it to be easier to be involved in each others lives on 20 acres than on 1/8th of an acre.  We have common goals and interests but still have space for individualism.


Bonner suggests “Your stronghold should be a place where you can live almost indefinitely on local resources” (p. 302).  The stronghold should be well provisioned beyond just wine and firewood and it should be fully paid for.  If the goal is to have a refuge point during a period of personal crisis, you shouldn’t be worried about paying for it or what you will eat.  Well, we’ve got the firewood, a little food in the pantry and are planting fruit and nut trees.  Our efforts at canning food are increasingly successful and our gardens are better every year.  These things are nice but the big one in the list is just having it paid for.  Ugh.  We are nowhere near paying for the farm, though it is high on our priority list because it is difficult to do anything in debt.  Mostly, though, it’s because I want to leave my children more than a legacy of debt.

Proverbs 13:22 says:

A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.

This house…this stronghold is our last refuge from the world.  The place we feel secure from whatever the world throws at us (including 50 mph snow storms).  If nobody else believes in us, if we fail at everything we have tried, when we are down on our luck and feeling blue this place is home.  This is not just the place where we hang our hats, it’s the place we return to after our long and weary travels.  The place we want our children to return to….their children to return to.  A place generations of us have come home to.  It is our stronghold against the world if necessary.

Our job, a job we have chosen, is to start from nothing on worthless (but expensive) ground in a worn out, drafty house with a leaky roof and build something lasting.  Our job, as a couple, is to lay the foundations of lasting family culture and plant the seeds of future wealth.  Time is on our side.  The overall goal has nothing to do with farming (or even money for that matter) but building a family.  This farm is just where it happens.

Obviously I liked and recommend the book.  Be careful reading it though.  It’s likely to light a fire under your tookus.

Thrifty Homesteads and Family Fortunes

Sorry for the lack of posts lately.  The weather is great outside right now and my to-do list just seems to grow.  We’re not even finding/making time to read right now.  My pile of unfinished/reread/just for fun books grows…

It’s all compost and gardens with a smattering of turkey processing.

We are still reading Bill Bonner’s Family Fortunes.  We found a passage that seems familiar to us.

When we were driving through western Pennsylvania recently, we were struck by how cheap it would be to live there.  Houses are very inexpensive, at least compared to what we’re used to in the Baltimore-Washington metro area.  You could have your own garden.  A few goats, chickens and rabbits.  An old car.  A wood stove.  A library card and an Amazon account.

What more do you need?  Once you were set up, it’s hard to see what you could spend money on.  There are no shops worth frequenting, no restaurants worth dining at, no nightclubs, no theatres – not much of anything.

Would this be a barren and boring life?  Not at all!  Gardening, building, reading, visiting with friends, watching movies on the home computer.  What more could you want?  And with such low fixed costs, you could easily splurge from time to time with a weekend in Manhattan or Miami.

What would be a reasonable budget for a life like that?  Maybe $1,000 per month.

OK.  Well, I guess we’re living the dream…though I’m quite a bit west of western Pennsylvania.  I have a few thoughts on the passage above.  He’s not really writing about a dream life of gardening and chickens.  He’s writing about the need to minimize expenses in case your family fortune isn’t measured in millions.  In his example, he suggests a “fortune” of $300,000 at 4% interest to keep you in that $1,000 per month category.  With that, he thinks you could live quite well on your little farm in Timbuktu.  I think you can do better but let’s explore his example.

Garden:  With season extension your garden can provide a huge portion of your family groceries.  Check out The Winter Harvest Handbook, How to Grow More Vegetables.  Get yourself a small greenhouse and you should be in pretty good shape.  Just go out and get your hands dirty.

Goats: Ugh.  Sorry Caitlyn.  Goats are great because they are small enough to manage and they are generally fun to be around (does anyway).  BUT they jump fences, crawl under fences and turn themselves into a fog and pass right through fences.  They’ll destroy your fruit trees if given the chance.  They’ll help themselves to your lovely broccoli plants.  In short, they’ll compete with you for things you want to eat.  Even if you manage to keep them fenced (we keep ours fenced…now) it’s hard to keep things they like in front of them.  Goats like browse.  They want to eat tree leaves and woody, growing tips of branches.  There are a few weeds they like to eat.  This is a good thing early on if you live on neglected ground.  But after a season or two, the voracious appetites of your goat friends will have the weeds and brush under control.  Then what?  Well, they don’t eat grass.  So I guess you’re going to have to feed them alfalfa hay.  Remember Bill’s goal of living under $1,000/month?  It just went out the window.  

I’m going to suggest you buy raw milk from a neighbor or, if you have the room, get yourself a miniature dairy cow, specifically searching for a low-maintenance animal that does well without grain.  The goal is efficient conversion of sunlight into product and cows are just better at it than goats if your soil is in any kind of condition at all.  Milk is a great source of health and wealth on the farm as you can feed yourself, your pigs or even your chicks with milk.  Even the soil benefits from a feeding of milk.  But goats, as great as they are, may not be the best means to that end.

Chickens and Rabbits:
I absolutely agree.  But, if you’re looking to minimize expenses, just keep a few hens for eggs.  Better yet, keep a few ducks as they will eat more grass and weeds than hens.  Rely on the rabbits to provide the meat.  Kept for those purposes, you can mostly feed both out of your garden…and you can mostly feed your garden out of the chickens and rabbits.  Meat birds require a lot of time and energy.  Meat rabbits just don’t.  Four heritage layers will keep your family in eggs for two years.  Then you get a few replacement birds and make soup with the old ones.

Old Car?  Check.

Wood Stove?  Check…but not installed yet.  It would be better to go with a rocket mass heater so you wouldn’t have to own a chainsaw, just a good pair of loppers.

Library Card?  Check.

Amazon Account?  Check.  But it requires restraint.  It’s easy to fill your bookshelves or your Kindle with books you’ll never get around to reading.  Budgets have to include time.  Time.  Where does it all go?

$300,000?  Nope.  Not even close.  We have tens of dollars.  Dozens even.  But we’re moving in the right direction.

Other than that I’d say he’s not far off.  If we didn’t have a house payment and didn’t drive to town for work every day our monthly outflow would be something on the order of $1,000.  The difficulty comes when we need to make capital investments in our property to increase fertility, productivity or water retention…but I’m looking at it as a business and he’s just looking for a place to live.

I would also suggest a pig or two for your thrifty homestead to consume garden waste, orchard waste, kitchen waste and sour milk.  Mmmmm…bacon.

Well, those are my thoughts on it.  Let me know your thoughts in comments.