Small beginnings

I knew for sure I was going to like Joel Salatin when I read Chapter 4 of You Can Farm, entitled “Do It Now.” It begins like this:

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve finished speaking at a conference and someone asks: “How do I get started?” My response: What are you doing NOW?” It makes no difference whether you are 14 or 64. Your response to that question will tell you a lot about how you will do as a farmer. […]

Fundamentally, you must look around and ask: “What am I doing NOW? What can I do NOW?” You see, most folks I’ve dealt with, who really want to farm, have the notion that if they just had some land, or if they just had more land, they could farm. It’s as if an elusive something—land, equipment, buildings, markets—is always just beyond their grasp, and they are just stuck until they can acquire that magic “thing.” […]

Chances are if you have no desire to grow anything now, you probably never will. You can grow something, even if it is a plant in a window box. But most folks can get access to a few square feet of ground, even if it is a spare flowerbed around an apartment complex. Quit mowing the lawn and turn it into a backyard market garden. If your more concerned about what the neighbors will say when you convert your lawn into garden beds than you are about getting started in farming, you’re too peer-dependent and would not do things differently enough to succeed even if you did have a larger acreage. Better to find that out now rather than later.

Goodness, there’s so much wisdom set down in those few paragraphs, wisdom that is applicable to just about any endeavor. Here are a few things that occur to me as I read it, with examples taken from the adventure Chris and I have had with music.

  • Salatin’s question, “What are you doing NOW?”, is a close cousin of Elisabeth Elliot’s advice to “do the next thing.” If your goal is at all realistic, there is almost always some small step you can take right now that will get you closer—maybe not much closer, but closer—to that goal. And taking that step will put one or more new steps within your reach. And even small progress toward a goal can motivate you to strive more diligently for it.

    Our goal was always to learn to perform at a professional level, but we weren’t sure how to get there, or if we were able to get there, or if we would like it once we arrived. But at any given point there was always a “next thing”—jamming with other people, playing at an open mic, working up a performance, playing on the radio, playing a dance, scheduling a weekly date—that was a worthwhile and achievable challenge all by itself, as well as a step toward the goal. Following that path has kept our progress quick and steady, and also kept us motivated to put in steady hard work.

  • There is also safety in making sure you’ve harvested all the low-hanging fruit, i.e. completed all the easily accomplished work toward your goal, before you attempt the more ambitious work. Best to know as early as possible, and before making major investments, that certain parts of your plan are unrealistic.

    We’ve always looked for the shortest, easiest, least expensive path to learn a particular lesson about music. We attended our first jam camp when we hardly knew anything about music, figuring it would be an easy way to learn if we actually liked playing music with other people. We spent a couple of weeks preparing for an open mic so we could find out if we liked playing on stage. We spent two months playing scattered weekend dates with a local band, just to see if we liked it (not much, it turned out).

  • It is good to put yourself to the test early and often. As Salatin says, it is way too easy to blame your lack of progress toward a goal on that “elusive something.” If only you had the proper tools, or if only you were given a job where you could perform your magic, or if only the right people were paying attention to you—then you could really do something impressive. Such idle daydreaming is only possible when you do everything possible to avoid the tests that lay close to home, i.e. facing up to the question “What are you doing NOW?”

    We’ve seen folks who have what we call a “Nashville talent scout” problem. They are convinced that they’ve already arrived, and it’s simply a matter of getting the right break to achieve stardom. So they spend all their energy chasing down gigs in hope that one of them will be their big break—and none of their energy improving their basic performing skills. Unfortunately, there are enough people around them who think they are called to be encouragers, praising them unduly and avoiding any sort of criticism. It’s much easier to bask in unwarranted praise than it is to seek out an honest evaluation.

    We try to stay realistic about both our ability and our potential. More accurately, we don’t spend any time worrying about our potential, which is out of our control, and we work hard to improve our ability, which is very much in our control. So we’re constantly seeking out people who can tell when we’re missing the mark and are willing to tell us so. Finding such folks is harder than you might think—people are so unteachable these days that takes some time to persuade someone that not only do you want their honest opinion, but you will actually follow the advice they take the time to give.

    Some of the honest advice I’ve taken about my singing stung badly enough that it wasn’t easy to go back for more. It would have soothed my ego—and saved me a lot of work—to decide that I just needed to find “my own sound” and then wait for the world to learn to appreciate it. Instead, some very kind and patient folks have told me how to get more bluegrass and old-time sound into my singing, and after a couple of years of humbly and faithfully submitting to their advice I think it’s beginning to pay off.

Business models

My first full-time job was programming computers for a small company in South Bend, Indiana. The owner was a good friend of some doctors in the area, and had originally gone into business to provide and maintain a computerized billing and accounting system for them. It was a good idea; doctors needed these things to handle their complicated arrangements with insurance companies and the government, and there were more than enough doctors in town to keep the business humming.

The business had the usual cash flow problems, and even before I arrived they had taken on a couple of customers who weren’t doctors; one was a marriage counselling partnership in town, and one was a large duck farm about forty miles from town. These customers were major headaches for the business, both because of their specialized needs and the one because an on-site visit took at least half a day.

Cash flow stayed bad while I was there, and suddenly I heard that we were now selling Apple II microcomputers. These sold quite well, but every so often the sale was closed by promising the customer some small amount of custom programming, which landed one more unrelated job on my plate. A few months later, just as I was leaving to take a job elsewhere, the company began selling the newly introduced IBM PC along with the Apples. A year later the company had folded, unable to deal with the web of obligations it had created for itself.

I thought about this as I was talking with Bev Eggleston, who told me that he was in the process of narrowing down the services he would be providing for farmers and retail customers. He loves his customers as much as we love ours, and we both want to do whatever we can to please them. But if you aren’t careful this can create major problems. In the early days you have way more capacity than demand, i.e. the paying work you have doesn’t come close to using up the time and resources available, and so it’s very easy to agree to provide a service that doesn’t quite fit in with the heart of your business.

For Bev, it was dealing with farmers who wanted very small quantities of animals processed; he would agree to do it because he had the time and wanted to help a customer, but quickly found out that his fixed costs, e.g. preparation and cleanup, cost him way more than the small amount of money he could charge for processing fifty birds. For us, it’s an order that involves a trip to the Post Office; almost all of our orders are picked up at the house, but occasionally there will be one that can only be handled over the counter, and the time spent on that costs us more than we make on the sale.

For Joel Salatin, the problem was that many potential customers wanted additional services that he couldn’t provide at a reasonable price—delivery, sales without an appointment, bagging, cutting, freezing, storage. His choice was to stay focused and to grow his customer base by seeking out people who were interested in the services he was able to offer at a reasonable price, rather than expanding his services.

The best way to manage such highly interconnected matters in your head is to have a business model, a clear and detailed understanding of how your business is going to make money. The better your business model, the easier it will be to make decisions about which new opportunities to pursue and which to avoid.

As Draught Horse Press has grown, we have repeatedly had to revisit the question of what exactly we were in business to do. Opportunities have come along to do something new, and we have had to decide whether they fit our business model, whether they would enhance or detract from the business as a whole in the long term. Often we turn down an opportunity that at the moment we have time and resources to handle, and would provide a decent return, because it isn’t something that fits into our business model. For example, we don’t mow lawns when business is slow. More seriously, we rarely do book tables, and then only as a favor, because we don’t see any way to make book tables an important part of our business; a particular book table might make us money, but we’d rather invest the time and effort required for a book table into a central part of the business, even if the payoff for that work is years down the road.

One reason it helps to have a clear business model is that you don’t have to think too deeply about many of the new opportunities that come along. When we turn down an opportunity to do a book table because it’s too far away or we don’t have time to staff it, folks will sometimes try to change our mind by offering to run the table for us for free. But since we decided long ago that we wouldn’t depend on volunteer labor to make the business viable, we don’t have to spend any time thinking the offer through.

We also do our best to avoid spending time justifying such decisions. The model represents a lot of thinking that has taken place over many years, hard to summarize in a few sentences, and people who ask for a justification aren’t usually all that interested in the reason we turned them down, they just want us to change our mind. Once when we turned down an opportunity that would have made us some easy money, we were told that if our business model told us to turn it down then the model must be broken. Well, maybe. In such cases we always go back to see if some wrong assumption is messing things up. But we try never to second-guess the results just because we don’t like the answer.

Field trip

Wednesday the family drove up to Roanoke to get a tour of EcoFriendly Foods, a meat processing plant that caters to farmers who raise grass-fed animals. The plant is the brainchild of Bev and Janelle Eggleston, good friends and disciples of Joel Salatin, who until recently were raising their own grass-fed animals in Mendota—yes, that Mendota—but two years ago decided that small-scale farmers such as themselves desperately needed a processing facility that was designed with their peculiarities in mind. Unable to find a suitable plant nearby, they located one near Roanoke and began the hard work of remodeling the plant by themselves. Recently they have begun processing grass-fed poultry, beef, pork, and lamb.

We arrived mid-afternoon, and Bev came out to greet us and show us around. Bev has lots to say, all of it interesting, and I long ago learned that the best way to develop a relationship with such a fellow is to just listen to what he has to say. So for ninety minutes he showed us around, explaining what he had done, how it would be used, and what his vision was for developing a market for grass-fed meat. Any skepticism I might have had about his very ambitious vision was tempered by the tangible accomplishment we were touring—he really had created a viable processing plant nearly from scratch, and we could see that it worked. In fact, we brought home a couple of hundred dollars worth of meat that he had processed.

Eventually Bev began asking about us and our interest in all this. He was surprised and pleased to hear about the influx of St. Peter folks into Mendota. We suggested that folks new and old in Mendota would be interested in learning more about what he is trying to do, so we are working towards hosting a community get-together that would center around a presentation of the EcoFriendly Foods story.

Java J's 1/25/05

My voice was pretty tentative, due to some sort of oncoming cold, but it wasn’t a strain to sing so we went ahead, part of the goal of the project is to learn to perform under less than ideal circumstances. Eventually I had a difficult time staying on pitch, but that was at the very end.

Again, not too many folks in attendance, although those who were there paid a bit more attention than usual. We won’t be there next week, due to another obligation. And the time is approaching when we’ll have to decide whether to continue and for how long.

Over eight performances we’ve learned an awful lot, but that is diminishing while the effort we have to put in stays the same. Attendance hasn’t picked up (not that we’ve done much to promote the date), and the crowd in general is not a bluegrass/old-time crowd. The staff is definitely not bluegrass, and though they’re kind enough I’m sure they don’t look forward to another three hours of it on a Tuesday night.

So we’ll be thinking about how to proceed, and asking friends who’ve been this route for their advice.

Country ham

Matthew’s tenth birthday is today, and one of the perks of being the birthday boy is that he got to choose the menu for the day’s meals. He had told us awhile back that he wanted to have country ham for one of the meals, so while I was at Joel Salatin’s farm I bought a package of country ham slices for today.

I’ve eaten a goodly amount of country ham since coming to the southeast, usually a big slice to accompany eggs and biscuits at breakfast. It’s definitely an acquired taste, only remotely like ‘city’ ham—it’s salty, greasy, and extremely dense and chewy. Matthew had tried some ham biscuits (biscuit sandwiches with small slices of country ham) when we ate at the Dan’l Boone Inn, and was pretty enthusiastic about them, which surprised me.

Well, it looks like I’m the only one who truly acquired the taste. While I was downstairs Debbie started heating the ham in a skillet for lunch, and suddenly everyone else was downstairs with me, complaining about the disgusting smell. Debbie asked me to check for myself to see that the meat wasn’t bad. It was fine, of course; the cooking smell is unusual and might concern you if you aren’t used to it, but I don’t think it’s actually disgusting. No matter—the tone for lunch was set, and so there was a big show with everyone else making astonished and dismayed noises as Daddy showily enjoyed his slice. Matthew tried a bite and decided it wasn’t for him, Chris and Maggie don’t like ham anyway, and the meat was way too greasy for Debbie.

Matthew’s slice was put away for me to enjoy at some later date, provided I can find a way to heat it without smelling up the house.

Topic A-ism

Mickey Kaus oozes common sense, which is unusual for a high-profile internet writer. In a post about network news he makes the following observation in passing:

There is a logic to Klein’s alleged plan–the logic of Topic A-ism. According to this theory, people want to read about whatever is the hottest story right now, and they want to read a lot of it–they want to wallow in it, get everybody’s “take” on it, stay with it and live it until the story’s next twist. Topic-Aism has long been a depressing reality of the Web. Traffic flows to whatever site has something up on the JFK Jr. crash, or the last debate, or the election returns, or whatever’s hot. If all you cared about was traffic you’d always write about Topic A. And there is always, by definition, a topic A, just as there is always a #1 on Blogdex. …

P.S.: I hate Topic-Aism, in part because it means people expect me to post something on the big story of the day even when I have nothing interesting to say about the big story of the day. … Plus the “other things going on in the world” are the Topic As of tomorrow. … Plus the pickins are easier on Topics B-Z. … Plus I get really sick of Topic A. …

This is an observation worthy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, since it isn’t really a result of television or the internet, but of the fact that 150 years ago we decided that to use information as a source of entertainment rather than edification.

Teaching reading and writing

We have all the kids reading lots of informative fiction in their earlier years, books which are aimed at young people and have intriguing historical or geographical settings. And we have them read a fair amount of nonfiction that introduces them to natural science and history. The goal is to teach them to love the act of reading, to spark their imaginations, and to give them a broad and varied picture of God’s creation. We don’t worry too much about what they retain, focusing instead on teaching them how to look up what they need to know.

It may be possible to teach children how to read for ideas at a young age, but I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t know how worthwhile the effort would be. When we were moving from Texas to Colorado in 2000, a two-day trip, a twelve-year-old Chris was riding with me while the other kids rode with Debbie. For most long trips we stock up on books, and this time I had bought a nice hardbound three-volume set of The Lord of the Rings that he spent most of the ride reading. While at the bookstore I also had bought a nice reprint of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella I re-read quite often.

At some point Chris got tired of Tolkien, put his book down, then fished around in the book bag and pulled out the Conrad book. He asked if he could read it, and I said yes. He started in, made it through the first section (about seven pages), then put it back in the bag. I asked him what he thought of it; he said it was OK. I asked him why he had put it away; he said that, actually, it wasn’t very interesting. I asked him what he thought the first section was about; he said “Some guys sitting around on the deck of a ship in the dark, talking.”

Accurate enough, even though it misses the point. And it’s not a point I expected him to understand at twelve years old; even now I can still spend long stretches pondering what Conrad was saying in that short prologue.

Chris has just turned sixteen, and has really begun to mature as both a reader and a writer. In the past year he’s begun to read for ideas, and has been reading material that is chock full of them. Last Janurary as we drove to Colorado and back he read Biblical Economics to me out loud, and we had some profound discussions about how the world works. Using Peter Leithart’s Brightest Heaven of Invention as a guide he has read two Shakespeare plays (Henry V and Julius Caesar) and is now reading a third (Hamlet). For the first two we took Leithart’s suggestion and had him first watch filmed versions of the play; for the third, he said he’d just as soon go right into reading the play.

We’ve also given him some cultural criticism to read, primarily Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood and Amusing Ourselves to Death. Currently he is working through John Taylor Gatto’s massive Underground History of American Education, picking it up in just about every spare moment. He has also worked through a couple of Joel Salatin’s books, You Can Farm and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven.

For writing, Chris has just finished a few months working through Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct, which he really liked. The rewriting exercises in Barzun’s book are challenging, time-consuming, and open-ended, but he never complained (much) about having to do them. And any time he and I were driving somewhere to play music, we would take the completed exercises and one by one discuss the original passage and Chris’ rewrite; often it was challenging for me as well, trying to figure out what Chris had done right and wrong, what he had seen and what he had missed, and explaining it all.

The Barzun study came at just the right time, since Chris has to write a short essay for each of the Shakespeare plays he reads. Both essays so far have been technically solid, obviously due to what he learned from Barzun; reading his rough draft for the second one, I asked him to rework an unclear paragraph using Barzun’s guidelines, and the second draft was dramatically better. Both essays have done a good job of tackling ideas found in the plays; he now sees much more than two guys sitting in the dark, talking.

This is exciting stuff for me and Debbie, partly because it vindicates some unusual assumptions we made earlier on about how to teach reading and writing, and partly because we see that Chris is now equipped to devour the books that have shaped our own thinking, and is inclined to do so. Much of Chris’ training from this point on will be supplying him with a steady stream of the best thinking and writing we know of.