“Seek ye therefore first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Mt. 6:33)
For several centuries now, there has been an intense “cultivation” of the town and an under-cultivation of the country. Industrialism has been the focus of our economy, creating a mass exodus from the country as people headed off to the city for work. Many of my family, myself included, had to leave the country life of southwest Virginia and go to the city to “make a decent living”. The glamour and bustle of city life, the promise of education and well-paying jobs lured us country boys away from home like the three Sirens singing to Odysseus and his crew. Unlike his crew; however, we didn’t plug our ears. Coming from a life full of hard work and little if any excess, we were seduced by the promise of all the material things we could want – and more! Large houses and fancy cars along with leisure time galore was a lot more alluring than hard work under a hot sun with not much to show for it.
Little did we know that the call we were hearing was drawing us toward hardships of a different kind. The rat race. Suburbia. Complete disconnectedness from nature and from simple things. An immersion in information, technology, stress, and the demands of keeping up with a consumerist lifestyle.
We also didn’t think much about what we left behind. It had always been there, and I suppose we thought it always would be. But we were wrong. Back home, we lost our country culture and our communities as farming became a less-than-desirable way of life. As white collar jobs — and the education it took to get them — became the norm, opinions changed. Manual labor, and farming in particular, went from the way most people made a living to being seen as the refuge of the not-so-bright, or for those too poor to go to college so they could get a “real” job.
This societal shift left the areas I grew up in poverty stricken. Towns full of people with purpose transformed into ghost towns. Coal mines shut down and farms went bankrupt, unless they specialized in the sort of crops the government was willing to subsidize. The willingness to raise one’s own food on one’s own land (often while barely making ends meet) was replaced by the convenience of grocery stores; their shelves abundantly stocked with affordable foods year-round, not subject to the growing season.
I finally realized the trap I was in, and I decided it was time to reset. To go back to a simpler, better way of living.
It’s been over a year now since my family and I started our journey of farming and self-sufficiency, and what a year it’s been. From the very beginning, I was on a mission to be able to live off of what we could produce, and to get there as soon as possible. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! was my motto. Little did I know, it couldn’t have been a worse motto to have. I was later to learn, from my wonderful wife, a very valuable lesson. One that I’m still working on mastering, and one that I struggle with daily. I’ll have more to say about that later.
When we first moved to our new home, we wanted to begin a life of farming. This, we hoped, would not only lead us down the road toward our goals but also bring us closer together as a family. We wanted a life that would afford us the opportunity to spend more time together, to have more time to focus on each other, as well as more time to focus on growing in our Catholic faith.
We started our farming experience by gathering animals. Chickens and pigs were the first. We obtained egg-laying chickens from a friend and ordered chicks from a hatchery. In no time at all, we had eggs. A few months later, we were butchering our first chickens for meat. What I didn’t already know from my experience working the farm as a young man, we were learning together along the way. We ordered books and spent hours surfing the Internet for the information we needed. We spoke to fellow farmers on the phone when things came up unexpectedly.
Last fall we added rabbits. Two does and a buck. These were rabbits for meat, not pets, though I thought it might help the little kids to have a few that wouldn’t end up on the plate, so I got a few of those as well. I found out that I needn’t have worried the first time we feasted on home-grown hasenpfeffer! Our children adapted just fine, and in fact have decided to get rid of the pet rabbits to make more provision for those raised for food.
This spring, we had the opportunity to buy two established beehives from a local beekeeper. I had already ordered a hive and was planning on starting beekeeping just before summer, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and so ended up with a total of three hives. The way I saw it, a new hive wouldn’t produce for another year, but the established hives would start giving us honey right away. Like so many other things since we started our little adventure, I didn’t anticipate the learning curve, or the start-up costs for all the equipment I’d need. Fortunately, God provides, and we’ve been able to barter and borrow items needed. The hives are doing well. I’ve learned a lot about bees, and though it may sound odd, what I’ve learned has brought me closer to my Faith. Bees are amazing creatures. I’m not sure how someone can keep bees and not know, yes I said know, that there is a Creator. Their behaviors are so well-planned, so intricate, so complex, and all within something as compact but well-organized as a hive. Did you know that bees have the ability to maintain a constant temperature in their hive? When it’s hot out in the summer, certain bees can position themselves on one side of the entrance while others position themselves on the other side; one set of bees fan their wings to pull air in while the others face the opposite way to push air out, thus creating airflow and ventilation. There are so many fascinating aspects of their behavior; things that force you to sit and contemplate the wonder of their existence. It’s sad to think that so many miracles of God’s creation are all around us, yet we are too busy and too involved in our own little worlds to see them.
We also planted a large vegetable and fruit garden this year, while at the same time, we acquired the last animals to grace our homestead for the time being. These were two goats, Gloria and Rosebud, an Alpine doe and a kid. As always, we’ve run into a huge learning curve taking care of goats, learning to milk Gloria, and how to store what she produces. There’s also the issue of the taste. For those used to cow’s milk, the goat variety is a bit of an acquired taste, to say the least. Not everyone in our family appreciates it just yet. With steady milking, we’re getting a large yield, which is something we’re still figuring out how best to deal with. We’ve thought of making cheese and yogurt, but these things, too, require an investment in the necessary equipment and more time to make. Costs we didn’t anticipate. Problem solving is just part of the job.
One of the wonderful life lessons that you learn on a farm is about life and death and the purpose of God’s creatures on this earth. What a wonder it is to see the understanding in your young daughter’s eyes when the cute little chick she helped raise provides the meal on the table before her. All of the hours of feeding, watering, and taking care of those chicks, raising them up to full-grown chickens, and then realizing that their death provides sustenance for our family? This is a reality most people these days never have the opportunity to experience. Most children, if they even recognize a chicken (probably from a picture in a book) think that it comes from a grocery store, and doesn’t have any bones, and the meat mostly comes in the shape of a little dinosaur!
I also wish I’d been able to capture the look of satisfaction on my son’s face when we sat down to eat homemade sausage for the first time – sausage that came from a pig he’d done most of the work to raise from the time it was a 9-week-old piglet. You respect the food on your table a great deal more when you first care for it as a living thing, from birth to slaughter, all so there will be meat to help fill freezers and stomachs. I could see the pride he felt, knowing that he had been able to help provide for his family with all of the hard work he had done. No computer game or television show can even come close to producing those same feelings.
Both of my oldest sons have learned the happiness of building things with their hands. They’ve built chicken tractors and enclosures, housing for rabbits for winter and summer, fencing for hogs, and fencing around our garden and bee hives. The knowledge and experience they’ve gained is priceless. They now understand where things come from, and what it’s like to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They’ve learned how to take what God provides and use it to take care of a family. They’ve learned so much about our world. No, not about which politician is visiting the Middle East this month or what China feels about the debt our country owes them, but about the world that God made. The one they live in. They’ve learned about soil, water, animal husbandry, physical labor, creativity, weather, seasons, food, life, death. We’ve all learned these things together. In the process, I think we’ve all come closer to God, and our Faith has become that much stronger.
Time, it seems, is our most precious commodity. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past year, the cost of taking on too much. It doesn’t just affect me, but my family. As I mentioned before, my wonderful bride, to whom I owe so much, recently gave me a not-so-gentle reminder of this reality. I have come to realize that adaptation to this lifestyle, like any other large life-change, should be done slowly, and taken on in small increments. We have accomplished much, and have done wonderful things over the last year, but the cost has been high – and I don’t just mean money. I’ve learned the hard way that being so caught up in doing something, even something good, can be a bad thing. By being so wrapped up in building our farm and racing towards self-sufficiency, I’ve managed to let other areas of my life slide, including precious time spent with my wife and kids. The year has passed by so quickly that I feel I have missed out on my family, even though, for the most part, they were right there by my side. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been there, and I’ve seen them grow and learn about our new life here on the farm. But I haven’t spent quality time talking to them and listening to the other aspects of their lives. There’s always work to do, always another project that can’t wait. It’s a valuable lesson – no matter what life you’re living, it’s easy to get wrapped up in things that seem important and miss the most important things happening right there at home. It may seem cliche, but I’m learning the hard way: life is too short. Don’t miss out on the daily life of your three-year-old while burying yourself in your work. Don’t get so caught up in your interests or your hobbies that you don’t take time to pray and spend time with God. The Devil wants you to focus on your next business acquisition or your golf game (or your next animal or hive or paddock) instead of on God and your family. Take time to be with those you love. Take time to pray. “Seek ye first…”
“No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what shall you put on. Is not the life more than the meat; and the body more than the raiment? Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are you not much more value than they?” (Mt. 6:24-26)
I saw a quote recently from Dwight Eisenhower that I found to be true: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” Challenges notwithstanding, our family is so grateful for the life we now lead, and incredibly thankful for the things that God has provided for us. We are grateful for the opportunity to have what we have and do what we do, and know that we are truly blessed. It’s only been a little over a year, and we’ve done so much, but it’s only a beginning. Who knows where this journey through life will lead? We have God to guide our family and we have each other. It has been a tough row to hoe, and it has its challenges and learning curves, but for those considering this way of life I can tell you first hand: it isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding in so many ways.
And we know this life we’ve chosen serves a grand purpose. In the words of Pope Pius XII:
“We would not, therefore, wish to allow this occasion to pass without addressing a word of encouragement and exhortation, all the more so because We well know how much the moral recovery of the whole people depends on the steadfast faith and social integrity of the tillers of the soil.
More than others, you live in permanent contact with nature: in material contact, by the fact that your life is passed in places as yet far removed from the excesses of an artificial civilization and is also wholly directed towards producing from the soil, under the beneficent rays of Our Heavenly Father’s sun, the abundant riches that His loving hand has hidden therein; in contact that is profoundly social also, because your families are not only communities of consumers but, more especially, communities of producers.
From the fact that your life-work is so profoundly and at the same time so generally and completely based upon the family, and therefore so fully in conformity with the order of nature, arises the economic strength and, in critical times, the capacity for resistance, with which you are endowed, and also your oft-demonstrated importance in the development of justice and order, public as well as private, throughout the whole people. Finally, the stability of your family life is the reason of the indispensable function you are called upon to exercise as the fount and bulwark of unsullied moral and religious life, as well as the reservoir of men, healthy of mind and body, for all the professions, for the Church and for the State.”
Allocution Of His Holiness, Pope Pius Xii, To The Italian Farmers’ Federation, On The Occasion Of Their National Congress In Rome, 15th November 1946