Sunday, January 08, 2006

Dilemma of the Modern Agrarian

I must say that Herrick Kimball's, Dec. 28th post called, "Light in Our Dwellings" was a very well written observation about modern society. I'm reminded of a dilemma I have been pondering these past years since we moved to the farm. The question is, how far exactly, can or should a person go to keep ones self from being caught up in all the worldly trappings of modern civilization? I have seen this type of question being discussed amongst most homesteading agrarian type folks who long for that "simple" life for a long time now.

It seems we are all faced with the same types of pressures keeping us yoked to the modern materialistic culture. So to what extent should we go to become un-yoked? Should one look at the Amish example and forbid all things technological. If so good bye my new blogger friends. Good bye modern conveniences.

Yet, as I've noticed in Wisconsin anyway, the pressures for the Amish and the like to also compromise with technology is obviously an ever growing topic of debate amongst those kinds of communities as well. When we used to go to the Aldi store in Wausau we saw van loads of Amish type folks shopping there right along side all of us modern people. I never did ask them if they were Amish or what, but they did dress the part. Nevertheless they were of that kind of religious persuasion be they Amish or not. At some point their community made a compromise. The pressure is definitely there.

My Uncle Glenn and I used to discuss this type of thing quite regularly and for me the jury is still out. Our family has a foot in both worlds, actually leaning more towards that of modernity. Things have flip flopped from that of our ancestors. As of the mid 1800's their livelihoods consisted of mainly what they could grow and raise for themselves, supplemented with a little cash money. For us, our livelihood consists mainly of cash money, supplemented with a little of what we can grow or raise ourselves. And the pressures are enormous to stay hooked on money, with the endless array of modern technological gadgetry of which we are ever tempted to purchase. Every where you look there is some merchant singing the sirens song to get you to spend your hard earned dollars with them. There was a time when I had a terrible resentment towards money and modern things. More precisely, I have quite enjoyed modern conveniences but, I had a resentment that it all had to cost so much. So many reasons to spend the money.

The bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Seems to me, to be especially true in these here "modern" times. There is nothing new under the sun.

Uncle Glenn used to rail against all who he called, worldly Christians. He reasoned that the fact modern Christianity lacked even an inkling of the power of the first century church, was because of compromise. Christians were just too worldly. To him there was no difference between a modern American Christian and an out and out heathen. I was inclined to agree with him to a certain extent even though at the time I was even more a modern than I am now.

So for me the question is still pretty much the same. How far do you go? The answer isn't necessarily to abandon all things modern. I'm sure there are hard core Luddite type folks out there who are just as worldly in their hearts as any modern person could be. A person can have a worldly materialistic mindset even towards all things agrarian. We can covet and worship our milk goats and draft horses just as much as a person could covet and worship gold rings and sports cars. It's the condition of the heart.
It's a matter of balance, of being in the world but, not of it.

Herrick said, " The only way I know for Christians to effectively separate from the culture of industrialism is to embrace Christian-Agrarian life and culture." We would conclude precisely the same thing and is in fact one of the driving forces behind what brought us to Northern Wisconsin. However the dilemma we find ourselves in, even after all this time, is the factor of money.

Sustainability of the Agrarian Life

We got off on the right foot I would say, making a strong start of it. Within the first year at the farm we were well on our way to being able to completely feed ourselves. However, we were a long way off from being able to support our animals. We were dependent on buying the majority of our animal feed. During the summer months we have plenty of pasture for the grazing animals but, way up here in Wisconsin we often have some long OLE winters. It requires a pretty sizable stock up just to make it through and you find yourself praying that the snow will melt at the proper time and that the succulent grasses will once again emerge from winters icy grip.

By late summer that first year we could see that our bank account would soon dry up, so I started working for a local temp service doing all kinds of odd jobs for a fraction of the pay I was used to getting back in Illinois. Kelli has always been a stay at home mom and it has always been our conviction that no matter what, we will stick to that plan and simply make do with less if need be. The Lord has honored that conviction and so far she has yet to have to work anywhere but home. After a short stint with the temp service I then got a job with an auto parts store in Eagle River as a parts delivery man. Then our house sold in Illinois and once again I returned to the farm to devote myself to it full time and start building our log cabin. We envisioned renting out the cabin to weekenders looking for a unique place to get away from it all. Income from the cabin would be our plan for the cash money it would require to survive in our modern homesteading endeavor.

Back in Illinois when we spent time in Galena we had once stayed at an early American styled log house. It was an 1800's building that had actually been dismantled and relocated to that site. We fell in love with that kind of simplistic architecture and dreamed of building something like it of our own someday. We also thought we would like to try that type of business eventually, as the owners of that one said, they always had satisfied customers, which had nothing but praise to say about their stay.

From then on we did much studying of early American architecture and found author builder/restorer Charles McRaven to have the most detailed information on the subject. A link to his website is posted at the side bar on the right. McRaven is a purist who even goes to the lengths of forging his own nails in keeping with the time period of restoration projects he has worked on. Though we were inspired to build our cabin from the early American time period we certainly were not purists when it came to building ours. For one thing we felt time was of the essence since we needed to get an income coming in as soon as possible. At a later post I'll get into more of the specifics about how we built the cabin.

Building the cabin was quickly draining the money we got from the sale of the house and I started wondering what we could do for money while we were constructing it. One day while up on a hill that over looks the homestead area I was looking at all the livestock we had accumulated and the idea occurred to me to open a petting zoo. I figured if it at least paid for the feed then it would be well worth it. We live right along a main road between two major Northwoods towns so I imagined if we just put out a sign people would come. And come they did. We had over 500 admissions that season. However since we were just aiming to feed our animals we only charged a fraction of what we should have and pretty much just broke even after paying the insurance. We figured we'd better have liability insurance what with all the sue happy people out there nowadays. But it did do what we wanted and paid for all our animal feed.

Nearing the end of the season I happened to find a part time job with a guy who had his own garbage route. So I started doing that as well. Between becoming a garbage man and running the petting zoo I was starting to feel I was stepping back into the rat race. But, money was getting to be a real issue. We were running out. Then the guy with the route up and decided to move himself and his family to North Carolina and talked me into buying his business. The details of which I will also save for a later post as it will take us off the subject of this one.

It is all behind us now and we've been in the garbage business for over 5 years now. Getting into it turned out to be a fiasco at first and we never did get back to the petting zoo after that first season, much to the disappointment of a lot of people. But, we did manage to finish the cabin and our money problems aren't nearly as bad now. Actually this past summer we have gotten to the point where we can breath again financially, but I have to question how far removed we have come from our original goals and ideals.

We came to learn that if we were going to do anything here it had to pay it's own way. As far as animals go, we wound up with a lot of free loaders because we just plain love to be around lots of animals. Like it or not we had to thin it down and just keep those which would support themselves. Otherwise there was just no way to pay for it all with the low income we've had these past years at the farm. We have actually been living well below the poverty level. Yet we have plenty to eat and I actually gained 40 lbs. since we moved here, though I came here a little on the thin side. I blame the weight gain on the goat milk. However we haven't done goats in awhile because it was getting to be too much. We do have one little pygmy goat as a pet that a friend gave us. He doesn't eat much.

Chicken eggs were our best sellers so that is what we do now. Poultry is the thing we have stuck with but hope to reorganize in the future and get back into bigger livestock. We all love to have grazing animals around. It is just so amazing to see them out there munching away on the grasses all to the credit of our creative Lord. It is truly a miracle that a living creature can convert pasture into energy and sustenance and in turn feed us. I love that and hope to return to partaking in it before long.

There are all sorts of questions about how to really make a living from the land in these times. How commercial do you want it to become? For us organic is the only way we want to do it. Do we promote that and sell our produce at a high price making it hard for the poorer folks to buy good food? We sell our eggs for $1.25 a dozen right now. We could easily get twice that but, we have to ask ourselves, what we are really trying to accomplish? Half our friends probably wouldn't be able to buy from us anymore but, there are still plenty of well off folks who would love to have healthy farm raised eggs. It creates a dilemma.

I think that this is one of the draw backs for most folks out there who dream of living a biblical agrarian lifestyle. How do we fund it in this age of mammon? There is an enormous amount of pressure to have to make tons of money in this culture. When we first made our move, our kids were little. Right away they joined the local 4-H. Which by the way is a good way to get kids interested in agriculture. But, with all the 4-H activities you wind up spending handfuls of money running around doing all the things. We started going to a church over 20 miles away and with that, again there we were, spending more handfuls of money being involved with all that. Just the gasoline alone was enough to break us, not to mention the wear and tear on our aging vehicle. So many programs to participate in. So many reasons to spend money and therefore having to create it. And that is just two examples. The list is endless for everyone's own unique situation.

How do we make it sustainable? That to me is a question I've yet to really find the answer to, but I'm working on it. We have dreams and visions for what we want to do here and I suppose they would make what we are doing more sustainable, but it's the getting there that is the hard part. The getting there, without, compromising our biblical values.
These are question's that I wrestled with for a long time prior to making our leap into the rural life. Even though I have yet to fully come to grips with my question's. I'm glad I followed my cousin Bob's advice, lowered my "standards" and made the move even though I didn't have it all figured out..

Actually they weren't exactly my own standards. The standards I had been following were set in place by the society at large. I couldn't move my family to a place that didn't provide all the modern conveniences that we were so accustomed to. So once I lowered that expectation and just trusted the Lord I was then able to muster the courage. I'm glad we did it. It's much better on my out look trying to work through the tough question's while actively pursuing an agrarian life.

Until Next Time


Blogger Walter Jeffries said...

We need to pick and choose the best of the traditional and the modern. There are traditional things that we do not want to perpetuate - slavery for example. There are modern things I want to avoid - television for example. Things that promote sustainability, that connect me to life are the ones I like. Things that promote greed, corruption, waste, etc I try to avoid.

Speaking of such things, please read my post about the National Animal ID System (NAIS) on my blog today. This is a scary example of over modernization that I really don't want to have anything to do with. I really, really, really do not want the government tracking all my livestock and reaching so deeply into my life.

2:47 PM  
Blogger HomemakerAng said...

THis IS A GREAT POST! lots of the same ?'s I have... Don't give up on your dreams... I put you under my favorites!

As Thoreau stated and one of my favorites, "Do not part with your dreams or aspirations for when they are gone you may still exist but you have ceased to live!"

6:09 PM  
Blogger RL said...

Welcome and thanks for the nice comments. About dreams, yes I think dreams are important too. I believe that God puts dreams in our hearts to move us along on the paths he has destined for us.

Yes I agree. And in some ways we have opportunities that our forefathers never dreamed of. Well, maybe they dreamed of them but certainly didn't have them, for instance obtaining fresh clean water at the twist of the wrist. Or having a hot shower at the end of a hard day.

I raced right over to your blog after seeing your comment on NAIS. I was going to make a post about this too. You did a great job in bringing out the concerns. I'm still going to make a post about it on my blog so as many people as possible will hear about it.

This is a very real threat and Wisconsin is at the forefront of implementing the system. It is now law in Wisconsin that every person with "livestock" even if they are for your own consumtion or are pets has to register the premises they are kept at or face fines between $200-$5000.

We need a public outcry to get this stopped. It is a horrible intrusion into our private lives.

A friend of mine said regarding this subject, "after they get our animals, our children are next"

That's something to think about!

9:20 PM  
Blogger Walter Jeffries said...

RL, interesting note on the water. The spring that serves our house was 'developed' over 200 years ago and served the original builders of the house in the 1770's. I suspect that the spring is part of why the house was built where it is. When I replaced the 1/2" diameter plastic line buried 3" deep with two 1" pipes buried 3' deep I discovered the previous pipe which was lead (ugh!) and the one before that which was wooden and still had some serviceable sections up near the spring where it was always underwater! They had hollowed out cedar and buried the joined sections to make a pipe leading down to the house over 200 years ago. Pretty amazing.

9:23 PM  
Blogger RL said...

Wow, that is amazing. Your homestead must have lots of history.

You caught me in my haste. I know that running water and even sewers have been around for a long,long time. I suppose I was thinking more of the stories my grandparents talked about, of hand pumping water or even toting buckets from the spring or creek. Running water for them would have been a welcome luxury.

This reminds me of a true story my Grandma Jessie used to tell.

When she was a young girl, one time she went to a sleep over at a wealthy friends house near town. The thing of note about the stay was that the house they were sleeping over at had recently been equiped with running water and an in the house bathroom. None of the other little girls including my grandma had ever experienced such a thing before.

I forget how many were at the sleep over but, they all took turns getting ready for bed in the new bathroom.

One by one they all took their turn and the girl who lived at the house being the polite hostess waited until last to go in and change. No sooner did she leave when there arose a terrible shriek from behind the washroom door. All the guests came running to see what caused such an aweful fright. They saw the young lady of the house staring into the sink, in which sat a fresh pile of human poop.

As it turned out the girl who did the deed explained that when she went in to use the facility, she couldn't tell where to make her deposit. She saw the toilet bowl with the sparkling clear water and thought to herself, surely you wouldn't put it in the water. So she only did the next logical thing, in the sink it went. After realizing what a most embarrasing mistake she had made, she emmediately ran out of the house and all the way home never to show her face around those girls again.

I always felt sorry for that little girl but really it was an honest mistake. Who would do their business in perfectly good water. One can only imagine what she did at the toilet.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Randall Gerard said...


A thought provoking post. I really don't see any way around the money dilemma as long as christian agrarians insist on going it alone. This is not a criticism, just an observation. There's just no way that one family can produce everything they need AND want from one piece of ground, not even a large family.

We would have a better chance at sustainability and more freedom from the money culture if we would establish neighborhoods, villages or whatever you want to call them, and divide up the labor. Isolated farm families just can't do everything. There's not enough hours in the day; not to mention the necessary tools, skills and knowledge.

You seem to have a better situation then many; I can't imagine owning 120 acres! And yet, you still need gas, electricity, pharmaceuticals, clothes, etc. And again, I'm not criticizing; you are to be applauded for making a good start in a wholesome direction. But, if the christian agrarian movement doesn't get more community oriented, it will not last. What we are attempting is too big for families alone; it requires sustained effort from extended familys, good neighbors, churches, all living in proximity to each other and pulling together. If the amish are making compromises with modernity, what chance do isolated individuals and families have?

Good blog, by the way.

11:37 AM  

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