Driving Mr. Stoltzfus

I don’t exactly remember when I met Amos.  I’ve been doing business around the local plain communities for over 25 years now.  I’ve seen their children grow up, marry and have children of their own.  I’ve known a few of their horses, some to the point of buying them and bringing to our farm.  And so, this month I will reacquaint myself with some of my Amish friends in a rather intimate way – I’ll travel across the state of Virginia to help Jr. move back to Maryland.

I’m sure they could have found someone else to trailer the carthorse back up the road.  But I volunteered for this one, though I’d given up driving for the Amish years ago.  They like to travel in the dead of night, so as not to lose daylight hours.  That’s okay as long as the driver doesn’t need daylight hours, but I did.  Even so, I learned a lot driving Mr. Stoltzfus.

Amos has fifteen children, well over a hundred grandchildren, and is collecting greats into the dozens by this time.  We got together at an auction one wintery day up in Lancaster.  The truck he was riding in had crashed and he and his passengers needed a ride home – with all the stuff they had just bought.  The only seat in that truck that didn’t have two or three people sitting in it was mine.  The trailer nearly doubled the height of the pickup.  I suppose cops look the other way when they see a bunch of Amish stuff going down the road – who wants to inspect that mess!

Amos and I took a liking to each other.  He owned a farm machinery and welding shop (now taken over by his youngest son, Toby).  He was constantly going up to Lancaster County, PA to pick up machinery and parts.  I liked driving and seeing part of the country I’d never seen before.  We both liked talking about our faith in Christ and the Scripture.  Amos is a bishop, selected for the office by the casting of lots during a period of fasting by the whole community.

One time we so overloaded the trailer we had to stop at an overpass and measure the load.  We had three inches to spare!  On another occasion, I blew two tires on the trailer.  We had just loaded on the last piece of machinery – a hay baler –when we noticed one tire completely destroyed, the other nearly so.  It was after 5pm on a Saturday.  The Amish fellow that sold Amos the baler said he had a neighbor that had a manual tire machine.  We went over there and discovered that he had a machine, but now we needed tires.  Fortunately, the gentleman had two tires that had been sitting outside in his garden for several years.  It took us well over two hours to get those tires mounted and inflated (the tires had lost their form), but we got it done, tipping this kind Samaritan quite well for his patience!  We both returned home tired, each of us knowing we had to preach in our respective churches in the morning.

An Amish church service is an event.  It starts early in the morning, around 7 or 8am, and lasts for four hours or better.  The men sit on one side, the women and young children on the other.  The children are expected to sit still.  The men are expected not to snore.  The service is in German (PA Dutch), and the hymns are acappella.  The sermon is at least two hours, preached without notes, or any real preparation other than deep prayer.  The service is always held in a home.  A common meal is always served afterward.  Services are held every other week, with the off week being given over to the family reading from the gospels and getting the children prepared to sit still!

I was invited to Amos Jr.’s wedding several years ago.  I had taken Jr. to see his girlfriend several times and had come to know Lizzie’s family as well.  Isaac always treated me well.  He was a successful farmer in Charlotte Courthouse, VA.  I’d witnessed a barn raising there and marveled that no one was actually killed in the process.  “Organized chaos” is how it was described to me then.  I felt honored to be invited to the wedding, even though my greatest attribute was my minivan capable of hauling 7 people and several chickens.

Jr. initially settled next to his father in Maryland.  That’s always the rub when a couple hails from different communities.  Someone has to give up and settle someplace new.  Jr. worked at the local sawmill and Lizzie kept the house and a flock of chickens.  Over time, a child was born.

Amos Jr. decided he wanted to farm, and a farm went up for sale next to his father-in-law.  I walked the farm with Jr. several times.  I could never get used to the red soil in that part of the world, but it was a pretty farm that had potential.  With the children beginning to come, it seemed right that they would move to be near her home.

And so I helped move them down to Virginia.  And I got stuck.  And my trailer got stuck.  And I found out just how much strength a group of men have if they want to something unstuck.  They tied a rope to my truck and trailer and pulled them out!

Sometimes, things don’t work out.  Farming is a tricky business.  Markets that are high will fall in six months.  The joke about earning a small fortune farming by starting out with a large one is not too far off the mark.  All it takes is the unexpected tragedy/event to push a tenuous situation over the edge.  Premature twins can be that event.

The farm was sold to Jr.’s brother who lived close by.  Amos and Lizzie continued to live on the farm and Amos took up carpentry work to support them.  I drove Amos Sr. and B. Yoder down to Charlottesville where we met Jr.  Jr. and Lizzie were staying at the Ronald McDonald house next to the hospital.  The bill for over a month of NICU for the twins was high.  The community self-insures.  Negotiations brought the bill down to under a million dollars, but in order to get that deal, it would have to be paid in cash in 30 days.

Joe S. later joked that he was going to go around with a 55-gallon drum that had money slot cut in it, just to give everyone in the community an idea of the need that must be met.  Thirty days later, the bill was paid.  A community that works like that is better than any insurance company in the world.

Now it is time for Amos Jr. to move back to Maryland and start over.  The twins are nearly four, Toby desperately needs help in the welding shop, and I think Amos and Mary look forward to more grandchildren living close.  That same community that paid a huge hospital bill also helped build a new house for Jr. and Lizzie to live.

I’ll go down and help them pack up, load up the horse, the cow, and some furnishings.  I’ll try to stay away from the heaping loads and blown tires.  But I’ll never forget the difference knowing a plain family has made in my life.


Taking Stock

It’s been a long season.  This is not a new realization, but one I’ve become familiar with over the last eight years.  We stand in the midst of week 19 in our 22 week CSA program.  There were a couple weeks where we were really wondering if we’d have enough, and yet we always did.  The staff has dwindled as people have moved on from their farming venture.  Ed will be leaving at the end of the season, Bowie has gone back to school, Erik has his own farm to tend to, and Rob is rejoining the Washington D.C. office crowd.

It’s been a good season.  We finally broke the barrier on winter squash.  I kept the sheep in their designated pasture for the most part.  We butchered more chickens than we’ve done before, and even ventured into packaging parts.  I purchased some corn equipment and will harvest eight acres of field corn starting next month.  This will help offset our feed bills for the hogs and chickens.

We expanded into three more markets.  In the end I dropped one (just can’t work 7 days a week).  We’ve been able to introduce The Lamb’s Quarter to new friends.  We continue to make a difference.

One of the ladies at the butcher shop tells me I should just move in.  It’s true – I’m there at least once every week.  The butcher shop is 75 miles away….  I’m blessed to have access to a small slaughterhouse/butcher shop where my business means a lot to them.  They certainly mean a lot to me.  We’ve moved more meat this year than at any other time in our history.  I know the vegetables are good and simply taste better than nearly anything else you’ll find, but the meat is absolutely amazing.  You won’t beat it anywhere else.  We’ve built a business around the concept of shared blessings.

Now comes the tricky part.  As I’ve alluded to earlier, things are changing here on the farm as we look for new staff to help us, and take the time to look at our business model to see how we can better serve our friends, new and old.  I’d like to develop a delivery service for our meats and eggs.  We experimented last year with opening the farm store on Tuesday after the CSA season.  I’d like to do that again.

I’d like to hear from you.  What do you like, how could we improve, your ideas for the future of The Lamb’s Quarter.  I’d also like to identify young people who really want to farm but need to acquire skills.  And if we can grow this thing, someone who’s retired willing to drive a delivery route.

Thanks for being our friends and allowing us to share our blessings.

Post Script

We knew they were coming, arriving this morning a little after 11am.  A gentle knock on the front door followed by the undisciplined barking of our two dogs (I’m pretty good with kids, cattle, etc, but can’t for the life of me train a dog).  I happened to be in the house, grabbing a couple slices of cheese to tide me over to the dinner hour around 1:30pm.  Jesse and Heather were dropping by to say their farewells.

We knew this day would come.  As we stood out in the barn and chatted, or sat around the table and shared, it was all about the lessons learned over a year of Mondays spent on the farm; the dreams of a young couple to farm in their home state; the life changing vision of growing food and being able to have a hand, however small, in your own destiny.  Heather described her first work experience on the farm – butchering turkeys for Thanksgiving – as “life changing.”  Jesse has had his hand in so many of our projects over the past year.  And now they will load up the truck in the morning and head out to Michigan to begin their new life.

The truth is Miss P and I grow rather attached to many of the people who come here to help on the farm.  Some come to learn, others come to help out, and still others come to simply do something different with their day off work.  Jesse and Heather came with the express desire to learn how to farm.  After a while, I hired Heather to work with us at the market in order to show her how its done.  Both of these young folk can work.  They will do what needs to be done to make it work.  They will need that in the coming years.

We sat so long around the table I realized we were all avoiding the bittersweet of goodbye.  There was still work to do, but not before handshakes and hugs.  And a blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord Make His face to shine upon you,

And be gracious unto you:

The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,

And give you peace.





Growing Farmers

            We’ve waited over two months for it to come.  Something we had so much of at the beginning of the season that it was nearly too much.  And then it vanished. Every once in awhile it would come back to tease – a little here, a little there.  We were patient, I was prayerful. Today it returned.  A beautiful rainy day.  Enough of one that I’ve decided to catch up on some paperwork in the office.

            My “office” isn’t much.  It was a little addition built onto the old farmhouse by my grandfather so grandma would have a pantry.  I prettied it up with plywood and paint, but the term ‘cozy” was born right here.  The one (and only) outstanding feature of this little room is the crooked window. 

            From it I see two young men working in the greenhouse, getting it ready for the winter crops.  Ed has been with me three seasons now.  I suspect he might know how much I depend on him to get the vegetable end of the farm right.  With him today is Bowie who joined us in June.  Bowie’s a part-timer now, teaching every other day at a local high school.  I guess if you’re a math teacher you can do things like that.

            Tomorrow, Jesse will be here.  He’ll have just gotten back from the Detroit area where he plans to buy a piece of land and begin to farm on his own.  He has spent nearly every Monday this last year out here on the farm.  It’s like he’s cramming for a final exam.  Thursday and Friday Rob will be here.  He has dreams of moving back home to Alabama and farming with his wife on some family land. 

            During the month we’ll have others come out and help.  Over the years we’ve had quite a few come by and help.  Some stayed a few hours.  Some kept coming back.  Jeremiah hung out until he found a company willing to hire a veteran.  There were a few we couldn’t wait to see leave.  But they’ve been few.  Most have become friends.

            The statistics don’t look promising for farming in the USA.  The average age of a farmer is near 60; the average age of a cattleman in over 65.  For an industry to grow, the average age should be in the 30’s.  That so many farmers have a siege mentality is completely understandable. The siege mentality goes something like this:  If you weren’t born into it, you can’t ever do it.

            This thought isn’t without some merit.  Good farming is the accumulation of a lot of knowledge, some of which isn’t readily apparent or available.  The problem is that we simply aren’t going to birth enough new farmers into US agriculture before it collapses into a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto.  Those of us with farms who are willing to hold onto the promise of clean food have got to share the knowledge with folk who aren’t from the country, let alone the farm.

            Guys and gals like Jesse and Heather.  They are twentysomethings, having grown up in and around Detroit.  Not what you’d call prime farm country.  It was the Marine Corps that took Jesse out of Detroit and dropped him in Okinawa.  He married Heather, his high school sweetheart, got out of the Corps, and landed a job in Washington, D.C. at the USDA.  He took advantage of the GI Bill and got his bachelor’s degree from UMUC in business administration.

            For most people, that would be enough.  But Jesse and Heather are not most people.  They have dreams and hearts bigger than a government cubicle, and the discipline to make those dreams become reality.  Two years ago, they joined our CSA, picking up their produce in Alexandria on Saturday morning.  Then last November they came out to the farm and helped dress 32 turkeys for our Thanksgiving customers.

            Since then we’ve poured concrete and built doors; plowed and planted; weeded and harvested.  We’ve talked about rebuilding a local economy and building a currency from scratch.  We’ve dreamed of how the world could be remade around good people producing good food for good people.  Yeah, people really do talk about this stuff.

            Everyday during the week, Miss P. cooks a big mid-day meal for the farm crew.  Sometimes, the crew will cookout, just to give Miss P. a break.  Dessert is a once or twice a week treat, something to look forward to.  And every so often, the beer comes out.

            But mostly we work 8 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  No one but me works on Sunday, and I only do what is required to keep the animals going.  Now that fall is approaching, the work is slacking off a bit.  The CSA season is nearly over.  All too soon, Jesse and Heather will be back in Michigan.

            They have saved and planned.  They have no real debt outside of their housing.  They plan to see next year’s spring from a Michigan perspective.  There is no doubt they’ll have struggles.  They don’t know everything or even close to it.  But they’ve started the journey on the right foot, learning, planning, saving, and yes, dreaming.

            It’s the Jesse’s and Heather’s of the world that will be the key to turning around our industrial agriculture demise.  Young people willing to take a chance, cut the umbilical of the cubicle salary, and grow good food for good people.

            It’s night now.  My window is black.  The rain has past; Bowie and Ed have gone home.  The animals are all safely tucked in and I know the crops are as they should be.  On the farming front, there is peace, satisfaction, and the knowledge that I’m growing more than good food – I’m growing good farmers too.



A Mid-Summer Night’s Rest

             I’m sitting in the back room of a quaint little coffee shop, two hundred miles away from where I normally am at the end of July.  It’s an Italian roast from one of my favorite roasters, which is actually right up the street.  Black.  Also on the agenda is a brewery that has crept up on the outskirts of town since my last visit – a dozen years ago.  I’ve taken two vacations of sorts since then, and never in the middle of the summer.  That I’m able to take one now speaks of at least two things; stability and need.

            I’m constantly amazed when folk drop by to visit the farm.  I hear comments like “amazing,” “peaceful,” and the “you’re so lucky” refrain. Our visitors usually spend a few hours walking around, many help out with the work of the day (digging potatoes, butchering chickens, planting squash, etc.) and then leave to rejoin their regular lives.  I suspect that many are refreshed to have actually done something of significance rather than the cubicle data pushing that constitutes so much of the daily work in the D.C. metro region.  I also realize that many are envious of my zero commute, the environment that my children are being raised in, and the three meals I eat each day made from scratch by my faithful wife. 

            What is not seen is the wear that years of constant toiling take on the body and the psyche, the toll of summer days worked in the sun that drag on for 10 to 14 hours.  My father never took a vacation.  Ever.   Sunup to sundown, and often beyond, six days a week.  Sunday was for church, but was never without the chores that had to be done, milking the cow, feeding the chickens, haying and watering the cattle.

            I pretty much fell in to that routine when I returned to the farm.  Over the last several years I’ve had people encourage me to get away, take so time off.  Looking back, they must have seen something I didn’t (when the Amish tell you to take a vacation, one should listen!).  Finally, my customers at the market began telling me to take some time off.  Yikes!  I was wearing down and needed to take a few days rest.

            The fact that I could travel this far away and not worry about the farm is due to a fantastic farm manager and a great daughter.  Ed simply made me promise to be back in time for the next market day.  And Hannah nearly packed my bags.  Yep, that need thing showing through again.  The CSA is all taken care of, the vegetables will continue to be cared for, harvested, watered, and planted in my absence.  The animals will be under the expert observation and care of my daughter, who seems to have inherited my father’s animal husbandry instincts.

            So I sip my coffee and reflect on my fortunes.  I am a blessed man.  I live a dream that many have and few find.  I’m surrounded by family who love me, friends and customers who care, and farm help that is trustworthy and competent.  A mid-summer’s night rest may never have been so needed and appreciated as now. 

Open Farm Day

Please join us for our annual Open Farm Day on May 5, 2013.  This is a potluck affair that will kick off around noon and go until the last person leaves!  We’ll have tours, farming demos, animal appearances, and the annual “state of the farming community” talk.  A good day and a good way to mark Rogation Sunday – the ancient Christian rite of blessing the crops.

The Food Wars

I’d meant the day to be relaxing.  I’d done a little extra feeding the night before, planning to sleep in the next day.  Saturdays are really tough on me especially in the winter.  Because of a commitment I’ve made, I don’t get home until after 11pm on Friday nights and still need to see to the ewes, as this is lambing season.  Saturday begins in the wee hours so I can load the truck and get to the market before 6am.  This combines with my propensity to over indulge my coffee habit to produce a very worn out person by evening.  So I’d planned a relaxing, recharging Sunday with sleep, family time, food, and a little reading catch-up.

It was the last one that got me.  I’ve been getting an ag newspaper since the beginning of the year.  Didn’t order it; didn’t pay for it.  They often do this to show their advertisers a certain circulation level to justify ad prices.  As I read through the paper, I realized why they need to give away.  The farmers they are trying to appeal to are going out of business.  They’re the big guys that need to grow hundreds and thousands of acres of commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton) in order to make a living.

It was the back page.  You know, the inside back page always reserved for the parting shot.  And there was Mr. Black.  Yep, I’d read him before.  Yep, I knew if I read him this time my relaxing day was gone.  And yet, I had to.  He didn’t write anything that hadn’t been written before.  His game is real simple.  Without Monsanto, Dow, and John Deere the world would starve.  “Sustainable farming” is just a term used by educated know-nothings that can hardly feed themselves, let alone the rest of the world.  The true sustainable farmer is the guy who plants the best GMO seed available, is perpetually in debt to John Deere, and doesn’t farm an acre that isn’t sprayed with some chemical miracle after being juiced up with chemical fertilizer.  All other farming is simply “hobby” farming.

After reading that, I decided to check the news headlines for some happy thoughts.  And there it was.  Our generation has worse health than our parents’ generation.  And of course I smiled.  Follow the logic here.  We have more food and worse health.  Just because we can pump out more product per acre doesn’t mean that the product is better.  It only means there’s a lot of it.  Yes, we can produce 200+ bushels of corn on land that in 1930 yielded 50.  But that 1930 corn had far more nutritional value than corn produced last year.  So we need to eat more to compensate.  Enter the concept of the empty calorie.  Now we are on the road to obesity and diabetes, the gifts of modern agriculture.  A pharmacy in a supermarket is not a coincidence, folks.

BourneFarm_WfmFarmRd_08-08-08 (1) About that “not able to feed themselves or anyone else” jargon.  We’re a small enterprise.  Yet The Lamb’s Quarter feeds 90 subscribers each year and over 200 market customers each Saturday.  We keep pushing the boundaries back each year; and we’re doing it on a farm that only has about 30 tillable acres.  What this world needs is not more tech and tractors, but more guys and gals willing to farm.  The expansion of the farm workforce is the ultimate cure for the unemployment line.  Go learn how to feed yourself and some neighbors.

Another Day

I was out early this morning, checking the stock, feeding the chickens, and getting ready to make a 150 mile round trip to pick up 5 hogs we’d had butchered.  As I was moving around in the quiet of the morning, I could hear a turkey gobbler in the distant woods, calling out, letting his world know that he’d survived another night and was living in a new day.  I moved to the truck and began the rush hour journey to MD’s Eastern Shore.

The trip became more pleasant after I crossed the Bay Bridge and turned up US 301 into farm country.  By all visible measures the farms are large, worked by large tractors moving large equipment, planting large fields that will be watered by large irrigation systems.  And so it was today.  Farmers had the irrigation going full tilt as we face an April with no rain and little prospects.

On our own bit of ground, comically small in comparison, we’ve begun to irrigate just to get germination going.  What had seemed like a pleasant spring has suddenly turned on us.  The horses’ hooves resemble August, the spring grass is slowing down, and our dew points are beginning to rival the Southwest.  At least cultivation and weeding yield positive results.

Each year is different; average is only the mathematical computation of the competing extremes.  So here’s to another day of extraordinary beauty tinged with real, and expected, challenges.  It just wouldn’t be worth living otherwise.


Independent Thoughts

(Originally posted on July 4th, 2010)
Today is the Fourth of July, our nation’s celebration of independence from Great Britain. Our course we all know that what we celebrate is the declaration, not the actual fact. Independence was only achieved after a long hard war.

Farming has a lot to do with being independent. Many see family farming and small farmers as the final frontier in the struggle for independence. I used to think this was a lonely venture, to be trod in relative solitude. No more.

This year I have discovered that many people want to stake a claim to freedom that is found in the economics of the small homestead farm. We have had the most amazing number of volunteers turn up at our farm-gate, wanting to learn how to feed themselves. I’m witnessing a small revolution, one that is centered on the gift of good land and all that it implies in our lives.

This year, the 4th fell on a Sunday. And so it is appropriate to acknowledge that freedom is ultimately a gift from the Creator, and we are blessed with the ability to choose how we use that freedom. What my volunteers are teaching me this year is that many are using that freedom to help others and grow themselves in ways that only a connection to the creation, and ultimately the Creator, can. I do not know what the future has in store for this country. I do know that the liberty of freedom is coupled with the burden of responsibility – to each other and to our gift of good land. JB

Its About Time

(Originally posted April 4th, 2010)
Its all about time. Time to till the ground, get the plants in the ground, make preparation for the new year that is hard on us. Its about time – making the best use of it when there doesn’t seem to be enough, taking time to think and plan, and making work count.

Spring is here, and all the winter farming is put aside for the real world of soil, sweat, and sunburn. As a farmer, I wouldn’t have it any other way.