I always have a handful of ambitious but vague projects brewing. I keep them to myself as long as possible, because most of them will never get beyond the thinking stage. and it’s easy to get a reputation for being all hat and no cattle, i.e. all talk and no action.
Occasionally I will announce a project in its early stages, as a way of pushing myself to make it a reality. But this can backfire if the project hasn’t spent enough time in the thinking stage. Good examples include the series of study guides that I have promised and failed to deliver on multiple occasions, and the plan to exhibit at homeschool conventions that we abandoned at the last minute earlier this year. Both were projects I thought were very important to complete, and because I was having trouble getting them off the ground I tried announcing them early as a way of forcing the issue. Further thinking revealed that the study guides needed, well, further thinking, and that exhibiting at a homeschool conference was just a bad idea. If I hadn’t broadcast my plans early on, I would have been spared some embarrassment.
One of the projects I have been thinking over for the past six months or so is recording a series of conversations with fairly ordinary people who are passionately involved in something that is of general interest. It’s my experience that nearly everyone becomes articulate and persuasive when discussing a topic that is close to their heart. I especially like to listen in on such conversations when the folks talking aren’t hampered by highly developed speaking skills; the talk is plain and direct, and can move a sympathetic listener to action. And I think the passionate testimony of someone who just happens to know and love a particular matter is more affecting than a similar message from someone who is in the business of communicating such messages. So for awhile now I’ve been wanting to produce a series of recordings called Plain Talk, which would be just that—straightforward conversations with ordinary folks on topics that are important to everyday living.
More recently, I realized that the growing community of Christian agrarian webloggers were exactly the sort of folks I was looking to talk with. In fact, I saw that for many of them their passion for agrarian living had trumped their natural reluctance to engage in something as self-focused as weblogging. They are driven to edify and encourage others by telling their own stories, and to do so they will risk coming off as immodest. I understand their passion, having kept my own weblog for five years now for the same reason. And I’ve been greatly edified and encouraged by them as I’ve made slow, stumbling progress on my own agrarian journey.
So it seemed good to start the conversation with them. Early this summer I asked a few of the Christian agrarian webloggers if they would be williing to participate. Some were hesitant; still struggling with the matter of public writing, they were uncomfortable positioning themselves as public speakers. But again the drive to get the message out overcame their uncertainty, and they agreed to give it a try.
At that point the plan was still vague, and a busy summer and fall kept it on the back burner. But one of the ongoing jobs this fall has been to revise and expand our offerings in preparation for the next catalog, due in February 2006, and the thought kept coming up that it would be very good to have a bunch of the Plain Talk recordings available for sale by that point. I decided to try to have eight of them ready by the end of 2005, and to get a start on the project sometime in November.
Happily, unrelated circumstances forced me to start the project. Chad Degenhart let me know that he and his family would be passing through, and we asked them to come visit. Chad was on the list of folks I knew I wanted to talk with, so we decided to try recording a conversation during their visit. We did, and it went well enough to get me thinking through the details of how to get another seven of them recorded.
I looked down my list of folks I hoped to talk with, and saw that six of them lived along a loop to the west and north of me—Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana. Assuming their schedules would permit it and that I didn’t linger too long in any one place, I could drive that loop in six days. Then I looked at our calendar and found that the only full week available before the end of the year was the following week. None of the six people knew about the project, so I quickly sent emails to all of them explaining the idea, asking if they were willing to participate, and asking if they would be available the next week. All six were surprised to be asked; some were pleased to help out, and some were a bit hesitant, but soon enough I had appointments set with all of them.
I left home Sunday afternoon and drove to the west side of St. Louis. The next day I drove to Covenant Reformed Church in Rayville, Missouri, where I met Pastor Thomas McConnell in his basement office for a noonday recording session. Our visit was brief—I was on the road again by 2pm—but the conversation was excellent, just the sort of thing I had hoped for. Pastor McConnell has a vision for Covenant Reformed Church and the town of Rayville that is well thought out, practical, and stirring. I think our conversation will inspire many of the folks who are taking their first hesitant steps along the path to a Christian agrarian life, and may lead some of them to consider participating in the work that he is doing there.
By 7pm I was some distance into Kansas, visiting with Brian and Christina Fuller of Fuller Family Farms. Like many of us I’d come to treasure Christina’s weblog, both for its own sake and for the fact that it provided constant practical encouragement for women who were pursuing an agrarian life for their families; it’s a kind of encouragement we need more of, and so I was particularly hopeful that we could record a conversation that would be similarly helpful. There are obvious and reasonable questions, though, about the propriety of me having this sort of conversation with a woman, particularly a homeschooling mom whose husband works away from home during the day. Brian and Christina decided to give it a try, during the evening when Brian could be present. I spent a little time beforehand talking with Christina about the project and my own background, while eating away at some excellent Fuller family cheese. Then we recorded our conversation, which I think was a great success; the Fullers’ family story is a compelling one, and Christina tells it in a lively and thoughtful way. I left late that evening, taking some of that delicious cheese with me, again wishing I could have stayed longer to visit.
The next morning I looked out my hotel room window and saw snow on the ground; so much for my plan to avoid winter weather by making my tour in mid-November. That day I drove to Ames, Iowa through lots of slushy, blinding snow, and although it wasn’t cold enough for the roads to freeze there was enough accumulation that every time a truck pass me it would coat the windshield with so much snow that it took long scary seconds for the wipers to clear the view. Around 4pm I arrived at Shady Larch Farm to visit with Jim Cutler and his family. This was going to be the most leisurely part of my trip, since I was staying the night with the Cutlers, and of course we spent the afternoon and early evening talking away. I was a bit worried that when we turned on the recorder about 9pm that we had talked ourselves out, but no such thing—again the conversation was very good, just the sort I had been hoping for.
That night was a cozy one, sleeping in a well-insulated farmhouse heated by a wood stove while 50 mph winds came blowing across the plains from the north. After another chance to eat the Cutlers’ wonderful home cooking, I drove over icy roads into the town of Ames to visit with John VanDyk, a friend I met through his weblog five years ago, when he and I were part of what was then a very small community. At the time John was homesteading, a word whose meaning I barely knew, on acreage 30 minutes outside of Ames while still working at Iowa State University in town; since then he has moved to the outskirts of town. I learned a lot from reading John’s running account of his experiences as a homesteader, and when I first started making noise earlier this year about moving onto acreage and trying my hand at farming John was gracious enough to send me a detailed email warning me against being overly starry-eyed about rural life. It was a much-needed corrective, and I was looking forward to covering much of the same ground in our recorded conversation.
Once I arrived we agreed to plunge right into the recording, then go out to lunch afterwards. Because I know John and enjoy talking with him, our session ended up being much more of a conversation—in fact, I probably did too much of the talking—but I think it went well and I hope others will enjoy it. When we were done we lingered over a great meal at Hickory Park, and then I was back on the road, arriving in St. Cloud, MN around 7pm.
The next morning I drove another half-hour north through frigid but sunny weather to visit with Tom Scepaniak, who has been chronicling his ongoing transition from commercial to traditional farming methods. I drove up just as Tom and his father were finishing the morning chores; the three of us chatted a bit, and then Tom drove me around his farm, showing off his cows and his corn, noting how he was glad for the cold weather because it froze the muddy ground. We then went to his home, next door to his father, and proceeded to record a conversation that explored the farm life from the point of view of a man who had grown up on a farm, gone part of the way toward commercial farming, but then decided to break free of the agribusiness model. Again I had to be on the road shortly after we were done, in order to drive part of the distance to my final stop.
That final stop was at Pilgrim’s Wayside Farm just outside Indianapolis, to visit with John Mesko and his family. As I arrived early in the afternoon, John was driving his John Deere tractor onto a flatbed trailer so that he could drive it to Minnesota the next day. The Meskos are pretty busy right now, but were gracious enough to make time for our conversation, and we talked about their efforts to create a farm that would not only sustain their family but would also reach out to the community and teach them about agrarian living. As I was leaving, the Meskos were distressed enough that I couldn’t stay for supper that they insisted I take one of their chickens and a couple dozen eggs along (they didn’t have to inisist very hard). Five hours later I was home again.
You won’t be surprised to learn that each and every family was more delightful in person than they are as an internet presence; I wish they all lived next door, and I hope there’ll be chances in the future for longer visits. My biggest regret was that there was so little time available to get to know them in person. But I hope that the conversations we recorded will give people a chance to get to know them better than is possible through their weblogs. Although the project isn’t complete yet, it’s far enough along that I’m confident enough to talk about it publicly. I’ve begun editing the conversations, and if things go well they should be available for sale in a few weeks.
My second biggest regret? That I drove through Kansas City—twice!—without being able to stop and eat there. Some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, and some of the best pan-fried chicken, is served in Kansas City, and folks who know me well will understand how painful it was for me to pass them up. But I was a man on a mission, and for once the mission trumped my stomach.