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.
- 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.