I took the last month to live and work on a farm. This chapter concluded the 2019 Western Exploration of Living. Part of this Western Exploration of Living was Hunt Quest 2019. Maybe the whole thing should have all been called Food Procurement Quest 2019. First was the ancient practice of hunting and gathering. Second was the still ancient but comparatively modern practice of agriculture. I came in knowing nothing about farming. 30 days later, I still know nothing. Just enough to be dangerous. Here are some of the stories:
I did all kinds of things while at the farm. “Work” included farm work and also taking plenty of time and focus every day to work for my clients in my finance and investment business. I had loads of time and energy for all kinds of pursuits, maybe because of the things I didn’t do, such as: Booze.* Drive more than 100 miles all month. Watch TV. Shop. Go out to eat. Drink sugar. Eat preservatives. Train for triathlon.
*No booze in November, no acne in November. Hmmm, how about that.
Wait, back up. You worked on a farm?
Yup. I worked for a fellow named Gabe on his farm – All Seasons Farm – in southwest Colorado, near Durango. I found him on the internet, I messaged him, he messaged back, I called him.
“Hey, is this Gabe? This is Luke, I messaged you on the WWOOF website.”
“Hey man, yeah, Luke, you messaged me a few days ago, cool, thanks for calling! I’m working right now, so like, we’ll keep this short! You called me, and that’s like the interview. If people message me that’s one thing, but they need to call if they actually want to come to the farm.”
We chatted for 3 minutes and he said, “Dude sounds like we’ll get along just fine, what day are you going to come!?”
Farm life, in general:
It was stellar. There are a few things in my life that just feel right and natural. Backpack hunting is one of those. Running is one. Being on the farm seems to be another. Working in cooperation with the land, being a steward for the land that we are made of and that supports us and that we will return to, the same land that has given rise to our nation and our human civilization, working with that land to provide for myself and for others – it is something that feels right.
I looked at the stars every night. Orion, on the eastern horizon each evening and setting into the west each morning. The north star, noticeably closer to the horizon than anywhere else I have lived. The nights are long this time of year, so there is plenty of time for stargazing and restful sleep. When the sun was up for each day’s 10 or 11 hours of daylight, it was possible to go full-gas.
We worked every day. Why not!? That’s why we are here! Gabe is here to build and operate his farm. I am here to help. I am here to learn about the land and the economics and the agricultural practices. I am here to use my hands and body to do things! There is plenty of time before sunrise and after sunset to take care of my finance business and my personal needs. Let’s work!
Being at the farm was as good as anywhere. And the relative isolation of the farm was no problem. Granted, it was just a month, but I feel like if we turn off our Instagram and stop looking at lists of “Top 20 things/places/restaurants/activities” we might find that our current environment is everything we could want. It’s as good as anywhere. This coming from someone that has been around the world more than once and that, this year, easily slept in over 100 different locations: Where you are now, right here is probably just as good and interesting as anywhere. If there are no gangs, no organized crime, no corrupt officials knocking on your door, if there is economic and personal freedom, if the land is non-toxic, if you can walk the streets and fields without risk to personal safety, then where you are is probably as good as anywhere.
Here are some categories of the farm work I did. Examples, lessons and stories:
Previously, I had not spent any time around live chickens. This month I took care of 50 of them. Here is some of what a non-agrarian millennial didn’t know about chickens:
The farm has 50 chickens. The live in a chicken house with a very large outside wire-covered “run” that they can amble about, clucking, scratching and pecking while protected from hawks, eagles, fox and skunks. They spend most of their day in the “run” and most of the night roosted in the “house”.
Every morning I filled a bucket with feed, walked toward the chickens and listened for the first one to spot my approach. Cluuuuuck. Clueeeukk. Cluck! They would all run to greet me at the man door of the “run” then would run back toward the “house” when I swung the man door open. The bravest would be right at my feet as I poured the bucket of grains into their feed tray, then the rest would file out of the tiny chicken door, each pausing at the opening and filing out, one at a time, down from the chicken house with a tiny hop.
Chickens are remarkable recyclers of organic material. That is, they’ll eat anything, turning it into meat, eggs and compost. As I expected, they happily peck at mixed grains or pelletized feed and they kick at the ground in search of bugs. However, I was oblivious to the fact that chickens are omnivores – just like the robin plucking earthworms from your front lawn or the velociraptors of 160M years ago, chickens are stoked to eat meat. I saw them chase down a field mouse, snapping its spine and tearing it to gulp-sized pieces. Broken eggs are relished for yolks and even the shells. They eat garden scraps and food waste, too. Cabbage, sure. Tomatoes, yup! The internet has a whole list of what not to feed your chickens. Turns out, chickens may not be able to do algebra, but they can tell what to eat and not to eat on their own. Feed them anything and everything, and they will smartly pick through and avoid the unripe tomatoes and the moldy bits of squash.
Gabe’s chickens are egg chickens, “layers”. They were laying upward of a dozen eggs, maybe a dozen and a half, each day during the first week of November. Toward the end of the month, with their relatively elderly age and the ever-briefer duration of daylight, all 50 chickens combined each day to produce barely enough eggs for a single omelet. Supposedly they could be encouraged to produce more using artificial lighting, and they will naturally increase egg production again on the other side of the winter solstice. Who knew!? Maybe you, but not me.
I picked a few hundred pounds of organic cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse. Gabe wasn't sure about the shelf-life, this late in the season, so we didn't sell any to the grocery store. Instead I ate them, fed them to the chickens, dehydrated them, canned them and made spicy tomato jam.
We planted garlic for a few days. Stick a clove in the ground in November, cultivate it through the Spring, harvest a whole bulb mid-Summer (hopefully). I stuck cloves in the ground for three or four full days, contributing to the 10 or 15 full person-days that it took to plant the two-acre field.
Nothing grows without water, and you are acutely aware of that in this ultra-arid four-corners region of the United States. It rarely rains here, so everything but the hardiest grasses must be irrigated. The geologic aquifers, however, would not come close to sustaining agriculture irrigation wells. The solution is an ancient one – a series of creeks and ditches use gravity to carry water from the wet but inhospitable mountains to the dry but fertile valleys.
A ditch runs through the farm property and its water brings life to the land, but the ditch is a real pain, requiring annual maintenance and periodically flooding out adjacent fields. While I was there, we installed a quarter-mile of 8” PVC pipe to replace the ditch. This was a huge capital improvement. It should eliminate soggy and flood-out portions of the fields, eliminate a barrier running across the entire property, eliminate a breeding ground for weeds and eliminate many hours of annual maintenance. This land improvement took time (several days x 3 men) and money (1200’ of 8” PVC pipe and connections, a backhoe and operator, diesel and Red Bull to keep them going), but much of the financial cost was covered by the National Resource Conservation Service, who issued a sizable grant for the water and soil conserving project.
Growing up in southern Wisconsin, I became familiar with whitetail deer and their ability to thrive in edge habitat and agricultural settings. I was unacquainted with mule deer, but I understood them as a cousin to the whitetail, a larger, hardier, bigger bodied, bigger eared and bigger antlered cousin that roamed the Rocky Mountains. Unlike a Wisconsin whitetail, a mule deer didn’t eat corn from feeders, didn’t seek farm fields of soybeans and didn’t grow biggest in that patch of woods between your yard and your neighbor’s house. Mule deer were unspoiled by modern civilization. The further you got back into a mountain wilderness, the bigger and badder the mule deer you would find.
That’s what I thought. Turns out, mule deer are just like whitetail deer, and they loved the farm. After a couple weeks, they would hardly even raise their heads as I took an afternoon run down the farm driveway, allowing me to approach as close as 15 yards. Every evening a few would surely be in the farmhouse yard, munching on vines and fruits that we tore out from the cherry tomato greenhouse, and every morning they would be found 100 yards away, browsing through the hay field and warming in the first rays of daylight.
“Hunting” could not be had here. A doe or buck mulie could be taken as surely as harvesting a chicken, cow or head of cabbage.
Greenhouse/Hoop House/High Tunnel:
There were three “greenhouses”, each 30’ wide, 15’ tall and 100’ long. The most elaborate of the three was covered in semi-rigid plastic sheeting, was accessed on either end via a small roll-up garage door and was kept warm by an outdoor wood burner. The wood burner could take rounds of tree trunks up to 3’ in diameter and 4’ in length. The wood burner can keep the greenhouse at optimal growing temperatures even during the high-altitude winter, and since large, unprocessed wood pieces can be had for free, or very nearly so, it is possible to use the greenhouse/wood burner setup to affordably grow high-value crops nearly all year long. This year, the farm used it to produce thousands of pints of organic cherry tomatoes, worth a pretty penny even at wholesale prices, harvesting from May through November.
Certified Organic is a USDA designation. Accredited agents review your land and processes to provide the initial certification, and the inspectors monitor your operations going forward to ensure continued compliance with USDA organic regulations. Part of the ongoing monitoring is a “mass balance” – to protect against cheaters that may attempt to buy conventional food goods and pass them off as organic, the amount of food goods produced (mass out) must not wildly exceed the amount of seed and input purchased and planted (mass in).
Pulse LLC, an Investment Advisor:
There was perfectly good internet on the farm. Just the same as when I am anywhere else in the world, I used the internet everyday to provide needed and desired finance and investment service to Pulse LLC clients. On the farm, this took place primarily before sunrise and after sunset.
Plenty of time to read. The setting leant itself to the themes of: “The Ax Book. The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter“, “Farms with a Future”, “How to Build and Furnish a Log Cabin”, “The New Traditional Woodworker”, “Your Cabin in the Woods”, “The New Livestock Farmer” and “One Man’s Wilderness”.
The fellow in the above mentioned “One Man’s Wilderness” made sourdough biscuits for each dinner, so I did too. Homemade, fresh, quick. Organic wheat and grassfed, pastured butter biscuits, dipped in slow cooked beans or drizzled with farm raised honey. The pinnacle, the finest of simple fare.
Gabe has financed the farm’s buildout largely through his firewood business. It’s a straightforward business – buy logs, cut and split them into firewood, deliver the split wood to customers. Buy a product, slightly improve it, resell it. That’s a business at its most fundamental. Revenue = price paid by customer for each cord. Cost of raw material = logs. Operating cost = fuel and maintenance on a couple pieces of equipment. Capital depreciation = maybe 10% of price you paid for your used firewood processor. Profit = what’s left. Which is not much, considering the amount of time we spent bent over, picking up and stacking split logs, or the time Gabe spends on the phone talking to customers or driving the delivery truck.
I’ve worked many unskilled labor jobs – pick the weeds, mulch the beds, move the furniture, scrub the oil rig – but this firewood experience brought to the forefront a few ideas regarding work and money:
1. I was acutely aware of trading my effort, time and joint cartilage for money (well, I actually wasn’t being paid at all, but I could imagine making $10 or $12 an hour).
2. It is good (probably for everybody, but I’ll speak for myself) to stand in the cold, listen to loud machinery, drive a sliver into your palm, work your back to aching. It is a good reminder that you are human and so is that guy carrying shingles up to your roof and so is that girl sorting the medium from the large potatoes for 10 hours each day. Those are people too, and they are just like you. No better or worse. We are all just people.
3. I figure that my valuation of a good or service would shift radically if I earned a firewood income – a small income earned in a time-consuming and labor-intensive manner. There are not a lot of discretionary expenses that I would consider a worthy value, in exchange for my time and labor. Everything in life that you pay for - buying things or taking on recurring expenses or taking on debt – is a good or service in exchange for your money. And the money is just a proxy for your time and labor. We all know this, but the “money as the middle man” abstracts the idea that you are trading time and labor for a good or service. Firewood makes the relationship obvious – buying things is a direct exchange for your time, energy and labor.
4. Spending the day outside, doing the simplest of activities – your likes and dislikes, your discretionary desires – they adapt to the situation. At least for me, I saw my preferences and priorities rapidly adapt. I would not be able to afford a lot of things at $10/hour wages, but I think a lot of things would no longer attract me. Beans out of the slow cooker rarely tasted quite so good. The same hoody and jacket everyday became familiar friends. Breathing the outside air, the creation of something tangible, hot tea during lunch, a book and a few minutes on the phone with a friend before bed – those are perfectly good days.
Cutting firewood will not be my next occupation or side business. It is a terrible business. There are minimal capital barriers to entry and no specialized skills required, and you are selling the most basic of commodities, so there is minimal profit margin. And even this profit has very little propensity to repeat, and zero chance of repeating without additional labor. It is a great business, though, to learn a bit about all aspects of business and about life in general.
That’s the life on the farm. Probably I am over-selling the farm life. Not overselling it to myself, but to others – I can acknowledge that it is probably not for everybody, just like the other passions I’ve written about – backpacking, hunting, triathlon – are probably not for everybody. It's not for everybody, but it seems like people are finding entertainment and new perspectives from my experiences and writing, so thank you to all of you that have followed along, endeavored to consider a different perspective and taken the time to read.
I’m back in Wisconsin with a couple hundred pounds of meat from the Rockies, a few jars of tomato jam from the farm and a volume of small stories. That’s the Western Exploration of Living 2019. Thanks for being along for it.