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.

StrongHold

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.

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A United Front or How We Got From There to Here.

This post is much more autobiographical than I like to write.  Please accept my apologies.  I think this is an important subject.

My wife and I are in this together.  The things we do are things WE decided to do, not things one of us forces on the other.  We live to fulfill our purpose.  We aren’t simply busy, our work is intentional.  This wasn’t always so.

I met my wife when we were 16 and 15.  I, like most public school children, suffered a total lack of vision.

Anonymous – “What are you going to do after high school?”

Me – “I don’t know.  Join the Marines or go to college or something.”

Even when we went to college I didn’t know what I was there for.  I enjoyed playing tuba so I was a music major for a while.  I enjoyed studying frogs so I became a biology major.  I even did a research project on tadpole development and published a poster at a meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Seattle, WA in 1997.  After college I needed a job.  Any job would do.  My wife was a year behind me in school so I needed something local.  I went to work for a software company in town.  It was Y2K and software companies were hiring.

You with me there?  Music -> Biology -> Y2K Software.  Movement for the sake of movement.  By all appearances I was succeeding.  I don’t know what I was succeeding at but I was “educated”, employed, married to an intelligent, beautiful woman and owned a home.  It all just sort of happened.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

Though I put too much emphasis on pretty and not enough emphasis on strong, I married remarkably well.  Everything else in life up to that point just sort of happened, but our marriage was intentional.

We realized we were just letting life happen to us not long after we had our first child.

We read a few books including Rich Dad/Poor Dad which, for all its flaws, gave me a push in the right direction.

Much later I found Crossfit and started making different dietary choices.  You have to make better dietary choices so you can recover between Crossfit workouts.  Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store shows you how limited your options are.  It’s easy to exceed your grocery budget eating only fresh foods.  We decided the quick solution was to be more serious about gardening and keep a few hens for eggs.

But this is real life.  Real life is hard.  We hit a rough spot in our marriage.  We bought an old fixer-upper house and spent several years making it livable.  As you can imagine, a house without a kitchen adds stress to a marriage.

It got pretty gritty and reached a point where we had to make a decision about continuing our partnership.  This was a hard time in our lives.  We were working so hard with small children, work, a major remodel, and home schooling we forgot to make time for emotional intimacy.  It was difficult for us to learn to open up to each other again.  Though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I feel this time prepared us for later struggles.  We renewed our vows on our 10th wedding anniversary.  This time we were less formal.

While we rebuilt our relationship we read.  Over time we started shifting our reading away from gardening and more toward agriculture; The Contrary FarmerMaking Your Small Farm More ProfitableBackyard Market GardeningYou Can Farm and Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it.  I started beekeeping.  We read books about homeschooling.  We studied Shakespeare, history, math, economics and chess.  We switched off our television and studied as broadly as we could, often reading aloud as a family for hours on end.  We adopted the philosophy that we can’t teach our kids but we can model education by teaching ourselves (See Thomas Jefferson Education).  It works.

As time passed we realized it was time to move.  We needed more than just a yard.  We prayed, we continued studying, we continued working, and we prayed some more.  Though the market had just crashed and we knew it would be tough we listed our house.  We had a vision of a preferred future, we were working to gain both experience and knowledge but there were no serious buyers.  Our bags were packed.  We were ready to go.  We couldn’t leave.

It took two years to sell our house.  Then suddenly it was gone.  Where were we going to go?  We looked and looked for small acreage farms but found nothing.  Oh, we found some but we were  not willing to gut and rehab another home and we weren’t looking for a mansion.  It seemed there was nothing in between.  We did, however, find a very nice home on a large lot in a quiet suburb.  The location was excellent, the price was right, the yard was huge and we thought it might be just the place to ride out the storm.  Maybe even build some equity…even if we couldn’t have chickens.

The suburbs proved to be too much for us.  We took on some major remodeling projects in the house, continued to read, continued to work, to garden, to keep bees and to fit in.  It didn’t work.  We just didn’t fit in.  Follow the link for the gory details.

So here we are, several years later, living on the family farm.  The road here was full of twists but there were a few things that were constant throughout.  My wife and I remained faithful; first to the Lord, also to our marriage.  We were diligent about seeking out experience and education.  Though we were stuck in town we were constantly working toward our goals, learning to compost, learning to dress chickens and rabbits, squeezing more food into our garden space.  All of this was accomplished together.  Years of working side by side, supporting each other, questioning our decisions together, moving forward hand in hand…often with great uncertainty.  Even today she weeds the peas….

…and I weed the peas.

I get into the near-freezing pond on New Year’s Eve

…and she gets into the near-freezing pond on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t be home working with her every day but all of our planning, all of our decisions, all of our dreaming is done together.  I don’t simply tell her we’re raising X chickens each year and go off to my job leaving her to care for it all.  We develop a plan together that we believe we can manage.  Yes, she works hard.  Yes, I work hard.  But the biggest job is staying close and open to each other…to continue dreaming together.

If you are going to sell your beautiful suburban home, move out to the lonely middle of nowhere, survive the scoffing and questioning of friends and family, milk goats and/or cows, raise chickens, kill/scald/pluck chickens, practice rotational grazing when all your neighbors think you’re nuts and devote yourself to gardening and canning instead of driving to a grocery store you’ll need your spouse on your side.  This is a wonderful place to raise kids, we eat the best food in the world and we have a lot of fun but homesteading stresses marriages.  The work is hard.  It’s easy to take on too much and start blaming each other when the money comes up short.  As a man it is easy to dig in my heels and try to force something to happen.  Because she is with me, I’m forced to stop and consider the consequences.  At times her hesitation is difficult to appreciate as I’m sure she finds it difficult to appreciate my lack of hesitation.

If I have to choose between the family farm and my marriage I choose marriage.  Stewarding my relationship with her is far above my obligation to steward the land.  My dream of remaining married to her for the rest of our lives supersedes my dream of home-cured bacon.  It is easy to lose sight of your goals when searching out a new dream.  Sometimes you find you traded in your Mercedes for a Yugo.  Emotions are poor counselors.  Don’t be afraid to embrace your dreams slowly.  Put your toes in the cold water together.