Sabbatical Reflections Five: Training My Eyes

To see.  

Did you know that visual processing is the only sense that requires participation by all four lobes of the human brain?  There are statistics out there like “over fifty percent of brain function” is required for visual processing.  Now, I have no idea if those are facts.  I’m sure a neuroscientist could point out some critical nuances and a more firstrate philosopher than I might require a definition of sense.  But, to the layman, much of our brain is either wired for sight or making meaning/memory from sight so, seeing is believing. More on that later.

A friend of mine recently passed along a video of Beau Miles, an Australian professor, who walked 90 km (55 miles) to work.  I found the professor’s observations and reflections on the adventure instructive for my current contemplative state.  Miles observes by walking that his vehicular commute does not afford him the opportunity to know where his “home lands” become his “commute lands.”  I will think about that for some time. In another observation, he notes that his worldview has changed as a result of walking. 

I cannot help but hear tones of Wendell Berry in the experience of Beau Miles.  Berry would encourage the farmer to appropriate scale via the ability to walk his property and to see.  He calls this the “eyes to acres” ratio.  

I was particularly struck by Beau Miles’ blog entry on his walks to work.  He describes the process of rescaling his sense of adventure and the “epic power of perception.”  There is something affecting about reading this in text after having watched the video of his walk.

In almost every way, my sabbatical is about this very same reframing.  I started chasing my tail several years ago because I convinced myself that the coming decade or two would require more financial resources than the previous two.  This is the “admission” I refer to in a previous entry.  The admission precipitated a cascade of conclusions.  Let me recap for you: 1) I will need more money, 2) I need a different job (= more money), 3) I will not be able to be a full-time farmer (because I need more money).  I’m not sure if the theme here is obvious but I’ll leave it hanging out there for now.  To be fair, there are other circumstances that inform my years of wrestling beyond the financial.  In very practical terms, aging families require more resources.  But, understanding my fixation on financial concerns is illustrative to my point about seeing.

Commuting to work in a car passing the land, the people, the trash, and the undulating plots of the stories told in the relationship between all of those elements is akin to my financial fixation.  Commuting to work in a car is aiming at a single point in space and time, the office.  Commuting to work on foot is aiming at a principle, to see.  Let me be clear that I am not making a moral argument with this distinction.  That is to say, I am not equating the efficient, practical commute with bad while the less efficient, more adventurous commute is good. Both have value.  The distinction is useful for understanding the power of perception, or the training of our affections.

Seeing is the precondition for aiming.  We can train our eyes on any aim.  I am particularly adept at justifying the target at which I have aimed.  How then, do I choose a target? I must check and recheck my sight.

I want to revisit Beau Miles’ observation that his walking commute affected his worldview.  In common conversation (at least in my very small social circle), ‘worldview’ is somewhat euphemistic for belief, even more specifically religious belief.  The real gravitas here is not in how or what we see but in how we are affected by what we see.  In other words, to view the world is to train my eyes to see. Training my sight is to be affected, otherwise I will not act. 

 If I do not act, I do not believe. If I am not affected, I do not see.  

By what then, do I choose to be affected?

Sabbatical Reflections Four: The Fruit of Aiming Well

If you’ve made it this far into my reflections, a few things are probably evident.  I am wrestling but I am not confused.  I am settling (aiming at anyways) but I am not surrendering.  

The endeavor is to be intentional, as has always been the condition of my aiming.  Meaning is in the tension of choosing, aiming.  I doubt I would wrestle had my aim been poor, no expectation of hitting the target.  That I might chalk up to ignorance, inexperience, naivete, stubbornness, even simple miscalculation.    

If I am allowed to mix metaphors (too late), the fruit of choosing my target well is not about the bow but about the arrows.  What have my children learned?  To produce, rather than merely consume.  To subvert self, to others, to responsibilities, to care.  To see that work can be difficult and meaningful and leisurely.  To laugh while shoveling (or to cuss while wrangling escaped calves…let’s not neglect all facets).  A dream is not ethereal nor is it always roses and sunshine. These are just a few of the fruits.  

In short, they have known my dream (target).  They have seen my work (aim). They have seen my heart in the dirt on my hands and perhaps, even in the cursing of calves, because I have leaned all the way in. They have leaned in as well.  None of this should evoke idyllic notions of a perfect little paradise.  No, bearing fruit is hard work.  It is imperfect work.  It is a process.  I am flawed, they are too, yet we get up and do what needs to be done.  Not always willing in spirit but we do nonetheless. 

How do we know what needs to be done? Because we have aimed.  Truth is aiming well, to know and to act on knowing.  To know and not act is to err.  Neglecting aim or aiming nefariously misses the mark.  True aim does not guarantee accuracy (fruit), but accuracy does not result from aimlessness.  An accident of accuracy lacks intention (aim).  

To be fruitful is to aim well.  To be fruitful by accident is a lie.  This is different from being fruitful despite my flaws.  How critical it is to aim well!


The arrows are also my ideas, my dreams.  If my children are well aimed, they are arrows.  If my dreams are well aimed, my children learn to be the bow.  Aiming then is simple.  The courage is in the launch, the archer’s paradox.  To allow the arrow to bend around the bow, seemingly off course, while trusting the aim is true.  The spine of each arrow a little different.  The draw and release of the bow a little different.  The wind a little different.   All while the target never moved.  Aiming is simple, not easy.

To be; at home.

Perhaps that is to physically be at home.  Surely that is a true aim.  But there is much more to aiming than presence.  To be, is to aim well, to know the conditions, to launch the arrow, and to evaluate accuracy.  A well chosen target coupled to a true aim is the cultivation of faithfulness. The cultivation implies shifting conditions otherwise there would be no choosing, aiming, or launching.  In truth, there is ONLY choosing, aiming, and launching.  There is no guarantee of an accurate result. But, there is no accident in accuracy, fidelity…

…the sweetest of fruit.

Sabbatical Reflections Three: Dream(s) as Target(s)

I continue thinking about aim, targets, dreams.  

Clearly targets/dreams evolve, even change significantly.  For example, when we bought our farm, we came from a house in the city where our garden expanded every year.  Our aim was primarily much more garden space with an eventual farm plan that included beef cows.  Instead, we inherited a rooster, Crest, and a hen, Hennie, from some friends a few months into land ownership, followed within a year by a milk cow. Aim: beef cows. Target arrived at: motley bird pair and a milk cow.  How did that happen?  Well, I hadn’t developed my “no free animals” policy yet and we were buying milk at considerable expense for our limited single-income budget.  So, our aim evolved toward a target.  And, I don’t know what to say about the chickens–it happens (or no harm, no fowl…sorry, couldn’t resist).

Which is more important, true aim or arriving on target?  A false dichotomy?

Let me put more meat on the bones.  We bought a farm to have meaningful work for our children.  We bought a farm to feed our children.  We bought a farm to have space.  We bought a farm to have nature out our back door instead of lawn and fences.  We bought a farm for many other reasons all of which added up to a dream.  Is that THE dream?  We aimed, we shot, we landed. The aim was true. The aim is true.  The aim will be true…?  I’ll spare us all the discussion of time but the temporal element does fascinate me. We bought a farm almost ten years ago and we continue to build our farm today.

THE dream in our case is more than a sum of the parts.  There is a synergy we’re after that amplifies meaningful living so that we’re not just about any one of the dreams.  Central to the “we bought our farm” because statements above is the vision that I would one day walk out the back door to work without driving away.  In other words, we aimed at making our life together in time and space. Ideal and idyll? Yes, but I’ve never hesitated to aim at the highest good.  I’ve never been too afraid of falling short to try.  I’ve never been accused of having too few irons in the fire.  Of course, I have fallen short of the ideal.  I just don’t see that as a reason to adjust the aim.

Therein lies the crux of the issue: what is the proper aim?  In recent years since my “epiphany” (see part one of this Sabbatical series), I have shifted my aim to thoughts of making my dream to come home, to be home, from my reality toward possibility for my children.  That is, I bear the burden of debt and leaving home to pay for it so that our farm will afford our children the opportunity to be free from that burden and home more, in time and space. This is not some utopian, cashless society dream but simply that the heavy financial lifting will be done so they are more free to choose to be home if they want.  Clearly assumptions are made about their dream(s).  We are not tyrannical and surely they will decide what is best for their own families when the time comes. 

Accepting that the farm is not a cottage economy enough to pay for itself moves the target. A move that caused me to consider a variety of other “career” options in the last several years.  A move that causes me angst, discomfort.  It feels like it does not fit, like a left foot in a right shoe. Not impossible to navigate but very obviously not the ideal.  Part of the reason for a sabbatical is to search out this discomfort.  Is it possible to get accustomed to aiming at the wrong target?  I think so.  Have I been aiming at the wrong target? I don’t think so.  Is it possible that there are targets beyond, yet in line with, the one at which I have aimed?  Seems possible.  Is it possible my aim is true and my target is well chosen, but I must hold aim a while longer? Also very possible.  

Ultimately, the dream is an anachronism.  I am aware.  I have always been a contrarian but that does not make me impervious to the fatigue of resistance.  Perhaps I am wrestling to hold what I know to be true.  Perhaps I am finally tempted by convention or convenience or (gasp) specialization as I cross into the second half of life.  I could have earned much more money.  I chose to trade earnings for time.  I am home much more than the average salaried employee.  Shouldn’t I just be content with that.  I don’t function well aiming at mediocrity.   

For now, there is no tidy conclusion to my thoughts.  I am feeling my way through this.  I am committed to sitting for a time.  It has been difficult for me to lay down something I cultivated over years. Something successful across multiple measures.  It is difficult to accept, “I will not be a full-time farmer.”  It is possible I need that dream regardless of or perhaps even in spite of the practical difficulties.  A well chosen target trues aim whether or not the arrow is released. Hold! Hold…

Reflecting on my fits and starts, the ideas of the last few years (some of which seem crazy now) I can see the restlessness, the wrestling.  I might even call this grief.  What else would the death of a dream be for a dreamer?  An archetype of temporal living no doubt.  Perhaps even THE dream must be allowed to die so that we do not.

Of course, there can be no resurrection if there is no death.

Sabbatical Reflections Two: Death of the Dream

I have written on this blog about “The Tyranny of the Dream.” That entry was something like advice to my future self. Prescient now almost six years later. I have been guilty at times of all that I advised myself against in those days. But that is not the point of this reflection. While tyranny assuredly causes “deaths”, I am thinking here about death of THE dream.

I am reminded of the Alfred North Whitehead quote, “[t]he purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying.” Can I exchange ideas with dreams? Let’s try: the purpose of dreaming is the let the dreams die instead of us dying. Hmm.

What is a dream? A dream is a future target at which I aim. I have many dreams. Most are dead. For example, in my now multi-year struggle with the second half of life (I don’t like “mid-life crisis” for non-trivial reasons but that’s for another post), I have dreamed of new jobs. Professor, principal, financial advisor, even health coach–read: forty-something fitness guru (laugh if you must). I can do anything. I don’t really want to be an IG model but, ok, if you insist. I am curious about a great many things. Why am I not doing just “anything” on the “I can do anything” list? Part of the answer is practical, “career” change is difficult. But all the above were dreams at one point or another, some only for a matter of minutes others for months employing much of my energy. Some related to personal interests and others more closely aligned with who I am. All compelling for different purposes. None are THE dream though and all are dead or mostly dead. No signs of grief.

The purpose of dreaming is to let THE dream die instead of us dying. Hmm. Rewind, the purpose of thinking is to let THE idea die instead of us dying. Hmm. I’ve had a lot of ideas. Maybe even more than the average man. What’s my THE idea? (Leave it to the definite article to make this difficult.) What is my ONE idea?

Idea = dream = target…what is the expression that equals dream? THE dream?

A dream among dreams is easy to define. Dreams are in the future. THE dream is almost unutterable as an expression. It is most intimate. It calls. It grounds my being. It unifies my being and my becoming. Living present, whole.

Ideas die to keep me from dying. Ideas are not me. THE idea is me.

Perhaps this is why “making a living” is often reduced to income. Perhaps this is our obsession with specialization. After all, isn’t it better to live, in part, than to die, trying to be whole? A compromise.

The death of the idea is the death of me. Of course my physical existence may live on.

I think.

Sabbatical Reflections One: Aiming at Targets

To enter rest is active, a decision.

This is a year of settling. That much I have decided.  It may even be a year or two late, meaning my need to settle has been knocking for some time.  I have been unsettled in the very place meant for settling.  The Homeplace.

We bought our farm in 2013.  I went hard to work for a handful of years with a mind to be a full-time farmer.  If you read other posts here or on IG, or read our website homepage, you will get a sense of why such a target is important to us.  

Years ago, I was given a Southern States gift card for appreciation of my role at my “day job” with the tag line, “a gift for your hobby.” Thankful of course, but I bristled at this phrase. My “hobby”?! No. This my passion, my calling, my target. Not hobby. Not side hustle. Not lifestyle. I will prove I can make this a full-time endeavor.

I don’t remember exactly when I realized I would need to remain employed off the farm for the foreseeable future, but that understanding occurred in stages over the last three to four years. Precipitated in part by a family growing older with more expenses, a son going to college and embarking on a life of his own, and the economic tumult of the last few years.    

I admitted the reality to myself and almost immediately gave up my rest.  Such an insight is only clear in hindsight.  I lost my rest because I lost my aim or at least the clarity of my aim.  Thus, I have been unsettled for some time, in incremental ways shifted out of true aim. Looking for the target through the fog.  I am inclined to say that each little shift was not adequately dealt with in its moment but, then I think, perhaps truth is in the process. Arriving at the target does not necessarily mean the course is linear, the conditions perfect.

I poured myself out into the land, the farm, the vision of home that included me, all the time, undivided.  For years prior to farming, we dreamed.  Maybe you are here too.  In those dreaming years and the first five or six of farm ownership, I found inspiration at home and on the farm.  

To unify living.  To live at home.  To work at home.  To be; at home.  

In the manner of the famous Nietzschean aphorism, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”, my “why”  was The Homeplace and one “how” was my day job. Another “how” was also putting “hands to the plow” as often as possible to will the target into aim. I saw this version of my why/how more as a source of dissonance then. I was settled by the form of the target then.  I am growing to see my why/how as a relationship of affordance now.  Seeking to settle in the aim rather than the target. Thankful I am able to do.  Do I make settling passive? Never. Do I negate the target? Never.  To aim at oneness is, in my view, the only true aim.  But, of course, my mortgage must be paid.  A constraint.  Or a condition for making this life.

What are the practical implications of these thoughts?  For me, entering rest as a decision.  

A sabbatical.

To start, from operating our herdshare.  Not because the herdshare is a problem or because a sabbatical is itself a solution. No, because I know I need a breather, a moment, and to act on knowing is truth. 

I need to sit with the real possibility of working off-farm for the next two to three decades.  Is farm income a distraction from farm produce? How does this reality play with our aim? Can I fully “be” at home and also work away from home?  Reflecting. 

I need to focus on the launching of young adults and the raising of those not yet to the point of launch.  Seeking how best to prepare the next generation for their calling as my calling.  What is the role of the farm in that endeavor? Evaluating. 

I need to know myself as a man of extensive capacity without the obligation to exhaust my capacity toward the aims of others.  This is an ownership of limits that reserves my best for the most affected, the arrows.  Am I the bow? How much tension can I endure toward their potential?  Serving.  

Our herdshare is not a particular hindrance for any of these questions. I will, in fact, continue milking cows for now, just with significantly more schedule flexibility in this sabbatical period. The herdshare is our primary farm income and, as such, represents the element that separates farmer from homesteader for us. Part of this rest is to determine whether we want to move into the future as farmers or as homesteaders. To assess our target and evaluate our aim. Not that the two identities need be mutually exclusive but each represents a little different focus and model. I find the distinction helpful in framing the assessment and evaluation.

I am tempted to time this rest period like parentheses around a caveat. To answer, “how long?”, with, “three months”, is an assurance to all.  I am tempted to pre-emptively defend against the inevitable, “but you could…” (insert external, uncontextualized entrepreneurial idea–see how I built some defense in there). Dreaming about how to replace my off-farm income has occupied many of my waking hours.  I am tempted to just keep doing what I have been doing.  I have built something of which I am proud.  We have wonderful relationships with people who love what we do. I am tempted by the pride of identity. I am a farmer; a source of pride like the Avett Brothers said, “pride like my mother has and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”

I am tempted.  A sabbatical is a risk.  

To what we’ve built. To my identity.

Any time a bow is drawn, we risk poor aim.   

But, it is an opportunity as well. To define a new target or, to reset our aim.

I rest, no parentheses.

Farming: A Framework

The last three posts have attempted to offer some advice to beginning or aspiring farmers. As I’ve said before, I don’t know if that content is useful to others, particularly farmers, but the writing process is useful for clarifying my thoughts and experiences. I don’t intend to rehash that post content here but to repackage it in a succinct, “all-in-one” framework.  I then hope to provide a little analysis of common areas of greenhorn struggle.

The framework:

  1. Why farming? Of all the adventures in humanity, why is the production of food compelling to you? Write this down and internalize your narrative.  Others will ask you and you will hone your explanations as well as your self-understanding in the process. This is not about “branding” yourself or justifying your compulsion to farm.  It is about understanding, clarifying, and articulating your why, which is the source of your farming vision.
  2. Articulate a vision. “Where there is no vision the people will perish.”  This is not the same as your “why.” A vision outlines where you’re going and helps as a high-level boundary for decision-making.  It doesn’t need to be complex or profound. It needs to be authentic. The Carolina Homeplace tagline is, “Cultivating Family, Food, and Community in the North Carolina Piedmont,” which is the foundation of our vision.  The order of the list is strategic and if we are faced with decisions that violate our vision of family, food, or community our answers will be simple; not necessarily easy but simple.  
  3. Develop a set of principles. This is the meat of the message of the “3 Principles…” blog posts.  The principles serve as the mediator between your general ideas about farming and your particular ground-level practice.  They form your primary decision-making matrix. If an idea violates your principles, one of the two must adjust. It may take some time in practice before your principles are firmly established.
  4. Choose your model(s) of production and begin.  Thinking and planning are critical but farming is in the doing.  Make sure your models fit your principles and aim at your vision.  Evaluate the feedback often. Be willing to adjust when the feedback requires but don’t be hasty in your adjustments.  
  5. Create tools.  This is an iterative process; small adjustments to feedback.  The process requires persistence and openness. Know your pride may get in your way; be aware. I see tool creation in three parts: knowledge application, assess feedback, repeat.  This process is continued until the desired feedback (i.e. production goals) is achieved. A model becomes a tool when it suits your particular context, serves your particular needs,  and is agile enough to accept minor tweaking.

Generally, the following is how I see the small farm challenges to present.  Most of us have the “why” in spades. We dream of farming for years and then we make the leap.  But we don’t have a fully articulated vision, if we do, we don’t revisit it often enough in the hustle of the establishment phase. If we come from non-farm backgrounds, we tend to be idealistic newbies and the learning curve is steep.  Carving out a farm, especially from raw or neglected land, requires hard work. Our principles are vague and held in mind but often skipped completely in favor of adopting models. We assume we can adopt the principles with the model but that is backwards, we just don’t know it.  Finally, we mistakenly assume that if (insert famous farmer here)’s model works and is time tested then it should work for us and we spend more time fitting ourselves to the model rather than developing our own tools from the model.

I tend to be grandiose and idealistic but none of the above five components needs to be complicated.  You don’t have to talk of systems integration or plan to the most minute detail. Confession: I am naturally a vision level thinker but I have had to work hard on the detailed planning.  Both are necessary.  You can’t know it all. The important idea is to outline your farm from the general to the particular.  Write it down. Then farm. And let your outline guide your decisions. Enjoy the ebb and flow of farm life.

3 Principles for Beginning Farmers: Part THREE…

…never let your jaybird mouth overload your hummingbird rear.

You may have heard some variation of the above Southern proverb or it’s economic counterpart about mouths and checks.  It’s one of my favorite expressions and outlines the truth that nature is authentic, which is the subtext of this last of three principles: learn the rules before you break them.  It seems inevitable, at the confluence of retail economies and instafame, that the prevailing marker of competence is self-proclamation.  I will try not to sound too curmudgeonly (‘ll leave the final verdict to my readers, all three of you), but I think the ubiquity of communication devices and platforms has allowed us to get too intoxicated on our minor successes (shout out to my previous blog post for the intoxication metaphor).

I doubt the small farm world suffers from any more or less self-promotion than any other current sphere of interest and I am not saying that self-promotion is categorically bad; I am not anti-profit. But when the landscape of information and community is dominated by virtual ecosystems, the pathways to perceived expertise can be difficult to distinguish from real expertise. Let’s not be quick to forget that food is produced in the real world not virtual space.  Karl Hammer, of Vermont Compost Company, speaks of earth and soil with a compelling combination of technical expertise and poetic wonder: we live in this life and our own definitions of divinity require that we never know all of it. The mass of our knowledge is dwarfed by the mass of our ignorance and that’s where awe and respect and even tradition come in. 

Natural ecosystems (an ironic qualification) have full measures of mystery built in.  We know so much yet so little of what is possible to know about life.  But we do know that nature has productive limits.  To learn the rules of nature’s production requires patience and observation.  Season upon season.  No shortcuts.  And, however valuable shortcuts to knowledge prove along your farm journey, there is no shortcut to expertise.  The work must be done.  Competence is knowledge tested in real conditions, not one test or two but enough to see patterns, to enable forecasting.

Conventional systems of production have put in the work.  I am no supporter of chemical intensive or extensive industrial agriculture but there is something to learn from every system.  Let’s not now, as new, exurban small farmers pretend that “we, the regenerative” have a corner on expertise as a corollary to our corner on knowledge.  I certainly think nature is a deeper well of information than any agricultural production system but I don’t think we do the world any favors by growing a garden for a season or two and then presuming we know how to solve the American food system issues.  There are plenty of keyboard cowboys in every arena but as a beginning farmer you carry a burden of responsibility to put in the work which takes time. Be patient.

None of that is to say we should not criticize the failings of other agricultural systems or the food system more broadly.  The bleak picture of health in America proves that need.  What I am saying is be mindful of the mass of our ignorance.  And, while social media gives you a platform, it is time that tests your knowledge, your resolve, and builds expertise.  Be aware of your productive limits in real and virtual spaces.  Be humble because farming can turn jaybirds into hummingbirds real quick.

The meta-principle in this series of posts and, in my farming decisions, is really to produce. Produce food of value.  Produce relationships of value.  Produce to connect others to what is meaningful.  Consume in such a way to honor the production of others and affirm their work.  I don’t know if we can do much more than that in this life.

3 Principles for Beginning Farmers: Part TWO…

…You are the Tortoise AND the Hare.

I may be stretching Aesop’s intent here but this is a story about abundance and scarcity.  The principle: develop your own vision for your own farm then put your hands in your dirt. This is a kind of “mind your own” dirty business admonition along with a principle of action.  In the first post of this trilogy, I claimed that a model is a model, in other words, a starting point not an end point.  Here I claim that the finish line is not at a fixed point in time.  In fact, if farming is both an economic venture and a lifestyle there are only goals, benchmarks, and milestones, no real arrival at a “finish” until the race is actually over. 

In farming terms, this means some people will jump out of the gate and be farming “full time” in a season or two. Maybe this is you and goodonya. Others may never make the “full time” leap despite the effort and still others never plan to move beyond self-sufficiency.  Don’t let the farm dream or another farmer’s success tyrannize you (if you’ve read my meager blog, you know I have this thing for hands in the dirt and tyranny). Our retail focused economy would have you believe that the first to market is the winner. That’s shortsighted. As a farmer, you know that cultivation of living systems take time, among other things, and the end result for the small producer should be quality food.  Be careful not to push the timeline too fast. Cultivating your inner producer is as critical to long-term resilience as the production itself.  And do not get intoxicated with early success.

I’ve heard people say chickens are the gateway drug to livestock farming, Well, similarly, if you buy one cow, you’re bound to want (“need”) another…and another.  We went from two cows to four in a matter of three months. With the confidence of youth and drunk on my “skill” in bovine husbandry, I jumped at an opportunity to achieve abundance.   I quickly learned that twice the time, twice the alfalfa pellets, twice the winter hay (you get the idea) were all impacting my management system in ways I did not anticipate. Oh and I forgot, twice the calves.  Calves are like different animals. They look like little cows but less predictable and more curious or, in other words, children. And managing one calf at a time is very different than managing four calves at a time. The point is that I had what I thought was an abundance of knowledge and systems to manage a couple cows but that quickly became scarcity when the animals doubled, and four is still a microherd.  My systems were not designed for scale then in the way they are now but that took some failure to help me revise. It’s a cycle, we restart at the finish, again and again and again.  

There is no winner.  And no, the message here is not that everyone is amazing at everything. That plastic trophy will die hard.  Producing food is, at times, hard work. Failure is inevitable. Perseverance is not. Produce at the pace of observation.  Take care. But be prepared to make split decisions when necessary and to assume up front that those decisions won’t always work out as planned.  It’s okay. Slow and steady accomplishes a life.  You’ll need to be a tortoise and a hare.

3 Principles for Beginning Farmers: Part ONE


The cart before the horse…


a model is a model.  Who doesn’t love a good tautology?   If you’re a beginning farmer, I’m probably not offering much that you don’t already know from experience.  That’s the first of several ironies at play here but, while this is structured like an advice column, I’m essentially testing my own ideas.  Feel free to comment, especially if you’re a farmer or a farm dreamer.

Allow me to quote myself from my previous blog post, “The challenge begins when we frame our models as the ideal rather than understanding those models as products of a set of principles from which decisions are made.”  Let me try that again: the goal is to understand another farmer’s end use tools as models in the development of our own tools.  I think that’s more to the point I was aiming at and hopefully I can clarify.  I do want to point out that, while I make a simple distinction between models and tools, there is a much more complex conversation to be had about that distinction.  The simplification is for purposes of the claim, the irony continues.

I’ve built nine different chicken tractors for layers and broilers.  Each design different that the one before.  I’m getting closer to my tool but I began with a Salatin model, along with a thousand other newbies across the country. For Salatin, his coop is not a model, it’s a time tested tool reflecting his production principles; some of which I share.  My most recent coops have diverged from the Salatin style based on features that work for our production principles, one of which is: manpower first, kidpower if possible.  That principle has led me to smaller, lighter coop designs that hold fewer birds but incorporate more family involvement.  The Carolina Homeplace tagline is, “Cultivating Family, Food, and Community…” Now, I can point out many ways we have not achieved the full fruit of that vision yet, but the point is that it doesn’t make sense to design systems that require the strength of several men or machines if we intend to increase family involvement in production.

The purpose of the chicken tractor example is to illustrate what I see as the most common beginning farmer mistake: farming (the cart) without a vision (the horse) or farming with too broad a vision.  Maybe that’s something like, “I want to grow food” or “my goal is to be a full-time farmer.” Neither of those statements is wrong, and, full disclosure, those are places we started, but the difference in progression from “producer” to “Producer” is not simply income or profit margins but refinement of the vision from which you will develop the principles that order your decisions.  Is there a set of principles that guides the development of your farm enterprises and systems?

The process, as I see it, goes something like this: high level vision, short/long-term goal-setting, ordering principles, model application, assess feedback and iterate, develop tools.  But this is a recursive process and, just as a reminder, different on every farm (remember: “if you’ve seen one farm, you’ve seen one farm”).  A model is simply a representation of real-world phenomena.  A starting point.  The tool is developed in real-time, responding to the feedback on the ground by making the necessary adjustments that are aligned with your principles.  Models are generalizable across applications. The proper tool is unknown until tested.  Even if you end where you started, you have developed a tool from a model.  Be careful not to misinterpret the process.  That is a short road to either tyranny by perfection or burnout.  And misinterpreting the process may cause you to advise others from an incorrect perspective.

There is a real, cautionary tale of the farming myth or farming orthodoxy and it is born from an individual experience incorrectly generalized and propagated as an end use tool rather than as a starting point model.  The idealistic farm lifestyle is a significant reason why many of us want to farm.  That lifestyle is real and deeply satisfying but it is also not easily achieved and requires intense work, planning, life balance, and resilience.  Navigating all of those challenges at once is where principles are critical.  I think the idealism of farming makes beginning farmers susceptible to myths of vicarious success through the employment of another farmer’s vision, principles, and/or tools.

Ironically, I’m generalizing across the beginning farmer experience and I’d love to hear comments from the whole range of experiences out there.  But, in short, my message is to do the intellectual work of developing a vision and a set of principles for your farm so that when you put your hands in the dirt to test a model, you can develop useful tools that improve your production.  Thankfully, there are a lot of good models and plenty of information on those models that provide a great head start.   Just remember that a model is a model.

The Pursuit of Imperfection


About a year and half ago I decided to step into the purebred cow arena.  No, not to actually show animals but for production purposes.  For a variety of reasons that are not germane to this blog post, my particular obsession at the time was the Guernsey breed.  Pedigree and show animals seem to run in the same conversation; a conversation in which I was and still am a greenhorn.  But I learned a great deal about a world of livestock and livestock owners that I would otherwise have little motivation to understand.  (That’s a blog post for another time.)

My original goal in owning dairy animals was simply to provide milk for my family.  Much like all our farming pursuits, our approach is to feed the family first and only then should any surplus serve another economic function.  Our home dairy journey began with functional animals meaning they could reproduce and make milk.  Beyond those simple criteria, I had an arsenal of information with zero experience.

Information rich and experience poor is how most of my new pursuits begin.  I’m certainly not unique in that regard, particularly in the small farm scene where we tend to begin with ideologies and models of successful farms as a template for our own pursuit.  But as Wendell Berry says, “If you’ve seen one farm, you’ve seen one farm.”  The challenge begins when we frame our models as the ideal rather than understanding those models as products of a set of principles from which decisions are made.

As I gain experience, I am reminded daily of the simple wisdom of Wendell Berry’s words.  I think of our operation as an integrated system ordered by a set of principles.  Those principles inform our decisions.  Not perfectly but if I catch myself looking at some other farm’s chicken tractor or dairy cows or garden irrigation or worm bins, I try to work from what I see back to the principle from which it came.  I’m not immune to farm envy.  But I’m learning to pursue imperfection, to stay on the path to The Homeplace not away.

More often than not, I find that whatever quality I thought was imperfect by an ideological standard has valuable place within a set of functional principles.  And those principles return us to our vision.

Stay tuned for a new series of blog posts: 3 Principles for Beginning Farmers.