The Tyranny of the Dream

This is a lesson on gratitude and perspective.  One that I have not always seen.  I think of myself as a man of vision, but, while that sounds important, I have come to know less and less precisely what it means.  This erosion of understanding, or confidence, seems only necessary to me now as I’ve spent more time with my hands in the soil.  Farm life, particularly livestock farming, includes daily surprises that test patience and resolve.  It is very similar to parenting in that way.  Then there are the chores that must be done every day.  Practical daily events, in the house and on the farm, have a peculiar way of ordering life.  I have not always appreciated order and, like many modern people in particular, I have spent my share of time avoiding and escaping daily ordered tasks.  Yes, there is some monotony in the daily farm life, but there is something intensely wonderful about repeating the same chores and observing the myriad small changes in each performance.

Endless incremental changes become profound epiphanies waiting for us to catch up. Moving too quickly toward our current conception of the dream means we risk missing the most important feedback to get us to that vision.  I have learned in this process of becoming a farmer, becoming rural that I must be conscious of the tyranny of the dream. My children may not get a chore done just right.  Their participation in farm chores does not carry the same highbrow ideology of my own book smart but dirt dumb greenhorn self. To see those little changes, I have to see these little people.  I have to see that none of the dream could happen without a woman who walks by my side and believes its possible.  I think the best dreams evolve and include. I think my dreams should inspire both my parents and my children.  It’s about connecting generations to create the future from the present.

Look into the future as far as you can and you’ll find nothing more important than the people who share your dreams of the present.  The only way to get there is by holding their hands, listening, and putting all those hands in the soil together.  I’m a work in progress but being mindful that the dream must be shared seems a step in the right direction.  The challenge is to keep this perspective daily along with the order of the farm life.  Cast vision with patience and resolve.  Dreams built with pieces of present moments are less likely to be tyrannical.


While Sons Become Men

The verse below is part of poem I wrote several years ago called, The Space Between Us:


               now i think of time

                walking to its rhythm

                while denying its existence

                present moments rarely pausing

                while sons become men in

                 the space between us.


I don’t share the verse with any thought that the poetry is remarkable.  I write when compelled as I have for as long as I can remember.  It is simply a reminder to myself to capture moments before they flee.  The point of this reflection is not the poem but to say the underlying observations in this verse are no longer the inevitable prognostications of parents with young children.  My oldest son has become a man.  It did not happen overnight and yet, it feels very sudden.  I think that’s my realization that this lanky soon to be 15 year old kid, who can still be silly with his four year old brother, aggravate his eleven year old brother, and reel off corny puns at the dinner table with the best tween humorists out there, can also chuck 50lbs. bags of feed, make clever short films, and rescue the escaped dairy herd from the front yards of neighbors.

In our two plus years of cow ownership, we’ve only had a few escapes.  None as egregious as the most recent.  The barn lot gate was somehow nudged open and the foraging free-for-all began.  The timeline of the jailbreak is unknown, as I was at work and the family was at their Tuesday homeschool co-op.  The details of the event are inconsequential to the point, which is, in part, to say that raising children is hard work and in the chaos we often miss the opportunities to reflect on real growth.  Being a husband and father are the only endeavors in life that push my strengths and, simultaneously, challenge every weakness.  These are expansive responsibilities and I have, more often than makes me comfortable, felt the pangs of failure in undertaking them.  One beautiful element of life among many others is that it’s cyclical so there are often multiple chances to get it right.

As my wife and I lay in bed talking the other night, it occurred to me that my eldest is bearing fruit.  That is, he is becoming the man we have aimed him toward.  That is not to say, our children have not borne fruit up to now.  Of course they have and continue to do so.  It is just too easy to get lost in our own parenting mistakes and our character flaws seen in the mirrors that are our children.  But it gives me great peace to see that our aim is true, despite our tendency to miss the mark.  It also gives me great peace that the space between us is filled with little souls whose aim is also true.  Maybe they will miss the mark fewer times than I have.  That’s The Homeplace Farm’s prayer of regeneration.

Here I Am, Caught in the Middle…With You?

I often find myself in the middle.  Perhaps of dichotomies I create but in the middle nonetheless.  This transition from handmilking cows to machine milking cows is one such moment.  I don’t know if the many other homesteaders or small dairymen out there find themselves in the same state of mind but, for me, this is no light and transient movement.  I am the guy who is far more comfortable raising a child than having a pet. There may, in fact, be many like-minded folks out there but it often seems our society sees pets as a some prerequisite to children.  Never made sense to me because, a dog, I do not understand.  I am also the guy who dropped out of college for several years to work on cars because, as an intensely cerebral person, I could not find meaning in college but acquiring skills satisfied my intellectual need.   Being in the middle of competing ideas is often my place of peace.  It is who I am.

Back to milking cows since that’s what this is about after all.  I am not against technology. I actually like appropriate technology, emphasis on appropriate.  I think a bucket milk machine is an excellent and appropriate tool for some contexts, emphasis on some.  So why is this a bittersweet transition? I am not convinced yet that my context fits the machine.  My struggle with this transition is in the hands, the ears, the soul.  I have come to know who I am through my hands, my abilities, my limits, me, all bound up in how the intellectual connects to the physical.  I am at peace in quiet work outside. I love the simplicity of a bucket, a cow, me and the soft sounds of milk hitting the pail.  And from that ancient interaction comes food for my family’s table.  Is that romantic? Of course, but, all the more evidence of it’s power to affect my identity as a farmer.

Why adopt a machine then?  In a word, resilience.  There are arguments about cleanliness, physical relief, time, and so on but, despite the opinions out there, I see very minimal difference between the products of hand and machine if both are done properly.  Resilience.  It’s far easier to train help to use a machine than to ask someone to learn to hand milk.  In fact, this reality defines the “middle” perfectly.  Handmilking requires commitment to the skill.  It requires endurance.  It highlights the absolute awe of a tool that is the human hand.  All elements that have become meditative experiences for me as I’ve learned to master milking cows and other handiness.

But to build a resilient food source and a resilient business, I have to loosen my grip on my own centrality in the farm operation.  And it has been our vision from the beginning to build toward a full-time living from the farm sooner than later which, for The Homeplace Farm, means potentially milking six to eight cows, up from our current three.  A machine represents opportunity to scale.  It also represents new opportunity for others to contribute.  Maybe it will generate new interest in my younger children or others for whom handmilking seems inaccessible.  (I suppose the machine could also push them away, too.)  But, ultimately, the machine means I’m less central to this good work of putting food on the table.  I have no plans to escape this work but there have been times in the past year that I’ve needed to leave the farm yet found that impossible. There may be times in the future that I will not have the same physical abilities I currently enjoy.  The core of our vision for The Homeplace Farm is the understanding that our relationships as a family are paramount.  As a father, I am irreplaceable in our home.  But there’s also an inherent humility necessary to accept that my skills as a farmer and provider are replaceable.  That’s resilience.  I’m not fully there yet but I’m working on it.

My wife will tell you, I don’t often plan for what could happen.  She’s right, of course, but the endurance of the farm beyond me is a perspective that has provided me important context for this middle ground.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Pocket

eggsinapocketI love pockets.  Pants (and shirts) without pockets are useless to me.  I love eggs.  I could eat a fried egg sandwich on sourdough for every meal and I do, when my wife is visiting her parents out of town. You get the punchline already: love for pockets and eggs does not mean eggs belong in pockets.  And, while there is much experience to substantiate the cliched maxim of not putting all your eggs in one basket, sometimes you have to learn by trying.  I have read about as much as a man could read about farming.  I have tried much of what I’ve read.  I was never told not to put eggs in my pockets when collecting the day’s bounty.  That may be self-explanatory to most but for me it was natural to put the eggs in my pockets as I went about my chores.  Inevitably two things happen: 1) an egg or two will break in your pocket (this is the lesson of the day) and 2) eventually you will have too many eggs to fit in your pockets (this the moral of the story).

I have learned two things as a beginning farmer that have become invaluable to my farming worldview.  Read incessantly and respect the experience of others but avoid chaining yourself to the ideas of others.  Your ideas are as valuable as another’s.  Your land is different than another’s.  Your family and your life don’t mirror anyone else.  So, you have to fail in your own context to grow. Or, put another way, just try things and learn.  Even if someone else or a book told you it can’t be done.  Sometimes especially then.  That’s the lesson of the day, every day.

The moral of the story is about the bigger picture.  I have been gardening for a decade and farming for three years but dreaming for a lifetime.  I am an idealist with visions of grandeur which can be a great asset but I must be cognizant of the tyranny of the dream.  I will write more about that later but for now it’s important to convey that farming is one step in front of the other.  There are a lot of successful small farmers.  There are also plenty of people in agriculture, and small ag in particular, that either say explicitly or intimate that it cannot be done profitably. You may dream of putting your eggs in a basket but don’t overlook the experience of your pockets.  Your pockets are critical to helping you define success within the dream.  No one else can do this for you.  Eventually your pockets will be empty.

A Home. A Place. A Farm.

Home.  If you can indulge yourself long enough to access the images conjured by that word, what do you see? How does it feel?  Who is there? If you did not pause to participate in this mental exercise, indulge me dear reader and start over.

Whether you’ve only just done this for the first time or you’re addicted to these kinds of visions as I am, you understand why I am writing.

Now, add to your daydreaming, the word place.  Place expresses the unique character of a location. In other words, a place is not a place on a map alone. And our places are not places without people; subjects. If you want much more eloquent expressions of this read some of the work of Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, or Wes Jackson. You will not have to go far to find the stirring of home in their work.

Our lives are full of pursuits but none more valuable than pursuing home.   I learn in pursuing home that I am important but only in relationship with those who share my subjectivity and are subjects.  This is not about sorting the good from the bad in our homes or a road map to the good home.  The value judgement here is simply that we should be present in our home. We all sort the good from the bad, the change from the status quo, in different ways.  I am confident there are many more people doing it better and more consistently than I.  That’s one reason, among many, this is an everyman’s treatise rather than an expert’s report.

This is an ode to home that only I can write about my own and only you can interpret about yours.  It is a call to put your hands in the soil, to walk with your children, to hold your wife’s hand, to move beyond divided living and become a family.  It is an invitation.

The Homeplace exists to say that home matters.  Home is not simply a pursuit among pursuits but the preoccupation of belonging. The connection between the home, its subjects, and its fruit is why we farm. The Homeplace Farm.