In 2001 I left the corporate tech world and, thanks to substantial savings, we began a slow process of figuring out how we wanted to live. We had always gravitated towards simplification, and for the next four years we tested out simplicity and (eventually) agrarianism. By 2005 we figured that our three teenaged children and three very young ones would do best on a rural farm, so we moved onto 30 acres in an isolated part of south central Kentucky.
My series of blog posts on simple living was written just prior to our move, and they give a very clear picture of what had led us to the farm and what we hoped to accomplish. But to summarize, the objective was not to establish a successful commercial farm but to establish a new way of life for ourselves—I always thought of the farm itself as a testbed for experimenting with ways to live, experiments which might or might not lead to a working operation. And the farm itself ended up not happening. We raised produce for market, chicken and pork and beef and goat for ourselves. Much of what we ate was home grown. We lived frugally, buying used and maintaining and repairing rather than buying. We stayed home, and learned to enjoy that. We got to know our neighbors and attended a small church a couple of miles down the road. Those and many other changes, large and small, worked their way into our lives for seven years.
Life as a whole was pretty good, and could have continued on indefinitely but for two things—our cash flow was negative, and our children were getting older. The farm itself was not producing enough income to sustain the family, and we didn’t want to make the changes necessary for that to be a possibility. And while the older kids enjoyed farm life, they hadn’t embraced the farm itself as central to life—farming was just one of many options available, and in important ways not a very attractive one for them. But since we were so isolated, all their better options involved moving a fair distance away from home. So rather than force them to split up the family as they pursued those options, we decided to relocate to a place where options would be closer by. We now live in Frankfort, a small town (25,000) with a higher-than-customary level of urban resources due to being the state capital, situated near three very large cities—Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati.
We’ve been here nearly four years now, and the family is still largely intact. Chris (27 today!) has a room over the separate garage, which serves as a workshop where he fabricates, uh, metal things—most importantly gasifiers, i.e. gizmos which turn wood into combustible gas which can run engines, even auto engines. He also co-wrote a book on building a wood-powered truck, and created and runs a membership website for woodgas enthusiasts. Maggie (24) has focused on designing and creating clothing in various modes. She worked locally at both a “fiber arts” (yarn etc) store and a fabric store, before deciding this summer that she wanted to get back to farming, specifically meat and dairy. So in August she signed on to apprentice at an organic farm in southwest Virginia, which turned into an assistant manager position which she’s accepted for at least the 2016 season. The farm is a five hour drive from here, so she visits regularly. Matthew (about to turn 21) stayed for a year after finishing school, then decided to see the world and checks in occasionally. The younger four—Elizabeth (13), Jerry (12), Benjamin (10), and Peter (8)—are still being schooled at home.
Earlier this year it occurred to me to write a counterpart to my Simple Living series of posts, explaining in detail how each of the ideas panned out in real life. That might still happen in some form, but likely not as my usual first-draft blog posts, since it is a sort of reflection I now want to in writing which is initially private. But I thought it might be helpful to briefly note some of the lessons we learned on the farm which stuck with us.
We eat simply. This was initially a response to our new circumstances. The farm was producing, well, the sort of stuff a farm produces, and we wanted to learn to eat it. And we lacked convenient access to other options, the closest supermarkets and restaurants (of any sort) being at least 30 minutes away. So we gravitated towards eating in a way which was a good match to fresh food at hand and once-a-week trips for supplies—simple ingredients prepared at home in a simple manner, nothing artisinal about it, eaten together as a family. And rather than feeling bored or deprived, we learned to appreciate and enjoy such meals for their own sake.
Since moving to town our eating habits haven’t changed, and I think they’ve blessed us in many ways—good health, modest expectations, time spent together, low grocery bills, no money spent eating out. It’s not that simple eating was key—what was of key importance was consistency, finding a way to live in which all parts were in proper balance. Eating simply, with the habits and attitudes it required and reinforced, played a role in our efforts that reached far beyond the food on our table.
We don’t buy much (and what we buy doesn’t cost much). Again because we lacked convenient access to other options, we learned to make do with what we had, and to squeeze the last bit of life out of it before replacing it. It helped tremendously that we had a teenaged son with a growing interest in tinkering—I can’t tell you how much money we’ve saved over the years through the repair and maintenance work Chris has learned to do for the household. And as his expertise grew, our appreciation and understanding grew for where the value in material things actually resides, and we became a household content and even pleased to overhaul our 15-year-old washing machine or buy a 20-year-old car. We hand down clothes, or buy from Goodwill or the cheaper selections at Wal-Mart, except in cases where quality and durability are a significant factor (e.g. work boots). We buy much of our food in bulk. We frequent the local library (physically and digitally), and make good use of online used book stores.
We don’t earn much. Our savings ran low at roughly the same time we had decided to leave the farm, two years before we managed to sell and move. But our gradually increasing frugality made for a soft landing. In 2010 I began working with Pete Wernick, our musical mentor and friend, to establish a network of bluegrass music teachers, which turned into a paying position—not a high paying one, since my income is tied to what this still-young business brings in—but enough that our negative cashflow eventually turned neutral and then a bit positive. I also earn a bit on the side from doing occasional IT and website work for a couple of local businesses. We currently have more savings in the bank than 80% of Americans—which isn’t saying much, but it takes the edge off.
What’s been important is this: our frugality has made it possible for me to pursue work that I think will fit in with the rest of our life, with little regard to how much it pays. Jody Stecher, one of our musician heroes, once told a friend that as a young adult he consciously decided to choose his work first, then figure out how to live on whatever it paid. Wise man!
We stay home. This has in fact been a defining characteristic for us since the kids first came along. We have lived in remote locations several times, each time getting a bit better about centering our activities around home life. When we joined an intentional Christian community in 2001, that preference ended up being a sticking point—most of the rest wanted to spend what seemed to us to be interminal hours together, and after brief attempts to fit in we simply withdrew, declining nearly all invitations to socialize. I still think that for us it was the better choice. Our family ties are for the most part strong and healthy. Seven years on a rural farm put them to the test, one that only strengthened them. We continue to reap the primary benefit, a rich life that doesn’t cost much to sustain.
We keep tech at bay. But only by comparison to the normal run of folk—the Old Order Anabaptists still put us to shame! I have mixed feelings about where we are at with respect to tech and media consumption. There were a couple of points early on where we might have forsaken them altogether, and I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we had (and whether we could have stuck with it!). Instead we periodically took half-measures to limit their roles in our family life, then allowed them to creep back in to an extent. Any efforts we made were well repaid, but they were far from comprehensive or complete.
Where are we now? Well, I spend most of my waking hours touched by computers, both for my work and for many of my extracurricular activities. The rest of the adults have and use them, though in a supplementary role, for entertainment and research. The older three kids weren’t given access to computers until they turned 18, and I think we will stick to that rule for the younger four. Chris and Maggie have smart phones, which they use primarily as mobile computers. And we own a $10 prepaid cell phone. I’m not against them, but since I work from home I don’t need one and otherwise have no interest in them.
We all watch video in varying amounts, mostly older movies, lately some of the better recent movies and TV series. The younger four kids are allowed videos on Friday and Saturday afternoons, 6-8 hours a week total. We make use of Netflix and DVD rentals from the public library. We don’t watch cable or over-the-air TV broadcasts. Debbie, Chris, Maggie, and I all own Kindles, and we love them.
We don’t worry about career tracks for the kids. Or outcomes of any sort. I can’t say exactly what role the farm played in this, but it was the period when our oldest three transition into adulthood, and as that happened we realized that as parents we were in the business of equipping our kids, period, and doing that well was as much as we could do to help them thrive as adults. So once they turned eighteen we switched to a support role, offering but never imposing what help we were in a position to provide as they began traveling paths of their own choosing. We haven’t, for example, expected them to go to college, but would be fine with any decision to do so and would help as we were able—room and board maybe, tuition not at all. None of the oldest three have chosen that particular path.
I make regular visits to see my dad. I’m not sure this fits on the list, but it is a significant part of our family life right now. Until 2001 our entire family made regular visits to see my folks in El Paso, but since then it’s been difficult both financially and geographically. Around Christmas 2013 my dad (84 at the time) had a health crisis, and for a few months afterwards I spent more time with him than here at home. To do so, I figured out how to make my work totally portable—when I go to visit now, all I take is a small bag with my laptop and a few other accessories. My dad recovered well, but he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed providing it, so for the past two years I’ve been making three-week visits every three months. This puts some extra strain on home life, but thanks to Debbie’s efforts and the solidity of our usual routines it hasn’t been burdensome.
The above list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. In writing it I wanted to give folks who have been following our adventures some feel for how it has played out in our everyday lives. I know that time and again I’ve been majorly disappointed when some Christian teacher or lifestyle guru finally pulled back the curtain on their own circumstances—usually when forced to—and allowed us all to see them as all hat and no cattle, all pious exhortation and no practical follow-through. Worse, the results in their own lives often disproved the message they preached, something they downplayed so as not to endanger their livelihood. I’ve tried in my own writing to be modest and tentative in presenting the convictions we’ve chosen to embrace, and honest about the experiences good and bad that followed. We’ve finally been at this long enough to draw a few conclusions with a measure of confidence—but still, we can only go by what we’ve lived and what we’ve seen in the lives of others. As always, your mileage may vary.