Thursday, July 28, 2011

magic beans

I am often asked how I manage to run a small farm alone while working a full time job. To many people it seems like a lot of work, or impossible. My answer is always the same but never seems to satisfy the people who ask it. I tell them two things: when I started all this I had one red dog in an apartment in Knoxville and it slowly built from there.

The second part: I fell in love.

I attended my first sheepdog trial in the summer of 2008. Less then two years later I had 6.5 acres, a white farmhouse, and a border collie puppy in my arms. What made this happen? It certainly wasn't an inheritance, marrying rich, or because I gave up my day job and found unclaimed dirt. There's certainly nothing wrong with those twists of fate, but they just weren't mine. I'm not from wealthy lines, haven't had any luck in the love department, and everyplace I lived since college I had to pay to take care of. But my point of telling you this isn't to point out shortcomings, it's that you don't need to be a wealthy, lucky, partner-in-crime to have a farm. You need to be resourceful, and stubborn, and believe in sheep.

That's what I did. After that sheepdog trial I was certain I wanted to be a shepherd. I didn't know if I could have sheep on rented land or how to take care of them. All that aside: I got serious about it in my heart. I bought books on sheep care and stacked them in places I would see them everyday. I went to Sheep 101 workshops held by my local extension. I joined the North East Border Collie Association. I bought the Storey's Barn Guide to Sheep (even thought I had no sheep or barn) and hung it up in my kitchen like a calendar. Every day I flipped through facts and charts. I bought a shepherd's crook online. I believed in this possibility with all my heart. It was a spell and a prayer, all of it.

Sheep came a few months later, a surprise trade for fiddle lessons. My landlord allowed them and neighbors and friends helped me build the shed (which is still here in Jackson, and now will house my first ram, Atlas). Supplies to build that first sheep house were less then 200.00. The wood was a kind gift, the t-posts and fencing cheap as they could be. But it lasted long enough.

When it came time to figure out a new home, things were scary, but I never doubted for a minute that there would be a farm. Thanks to you readers, a random USDA homeowners' program, desperate sellers, and buyer's market, and dumb luck—I bought a farm in the spring of 2010. There are now a dozen sheep out there, two new ewes on the way, and a thriving CSA in its second year. People in two countries have knit warmth from the animals I share my morning coffee with. Today a coworker told me about the rabbits she had for dinner, and how her son Jackson even ate the heart and liver. I am a web designer by trade, but a web designer that feeds and clothes people too, even on a small scale.

It fills me with such simple happiness. The work to make it happen has been constant, but it is a warm fog I overlook. The end result—a passing conversation in the women's bathroom or an emailed picture of fingerless gloves—resets my heart.

The list of things I need to do on a daily basis, the animals, chores, gardens, blog and books grew organically over time. If you took that girl from her first sheepdog trial and landed her in this Civil War Era farmhouse (with Civil War Era problems) it would not be the same story. I worked up to my current workload, be it farmwork, officework, and writer work over years of steady addition. What was once a few hens in a backyard in Idaho is now a sheep farm in New York. It happened one small project at a time, over years and across a nation. I am used to my life and what it asks of me. I am grateful for it.

When I moved to Vermont, the idea of owning a flock of sheep was on par with owning my own television network. It was something other people had, sure, but they had some sort of magic beans or knew the right people. My understanding of making dreams happen was confused with money. I thought that as long as I could earn enough, or win enough, or save enough I could make just about anything I wanted come true. This turned out to be absolutely false. Money plays its part, no question about that, but around here all money does is perform tasks and keep the banks happy. It comes and goes in small numbers, exchanged constantly in this community for goods and services. Local carpenters got a chunk today for the building of the new sheep shed. The Stovery needs a down payment for the new chimney. There is a roof to repair, hay to buy, a stable to build, and wood to stack before September comes. If I waited around around till I had 25k sitting in the bank, I still would not have my farm. To me, waiting for lump sum to start playing in the dirt is ridiculous. Starting a farm doesn't take cash, it takes will. If you have enough of the second, the first will find a way to you.

I am telling you this because I want you to see that a breeding flock of Scottish sheep started as a book about sheep care near my toilet. The result you see on these pictures only happened because of that slow addition of hope and force. One weekend it was a book by the toilet. The next there was a potted snap pea in the kitchen window. The next weekend I learned to bake bread. Later that week I'd rent a movie about the Amish from the library and take notes about their canning jars. Nothing happens fast, though it must appear that way when you see it as pictures and posts, or read it all in a few days. Please, never compare your own farm dreams to a weekend read through this blog. This is nearly five years of whittling magic beans out of credit card bills, paycheck-to-paycheck living, long days, and a savings account a 99-year-old could not retire on.

All that said, I am happy. And if a farm is what you want, and you do something (no matter how small) to get there everyday, then you will create it. I know this to be true and I know it from those of you who started reading this blog without land or chickens or cows and now you are running ranches or getting laying hens in your backyards. It is as normal as rain, happiness. You just need to decide it belongs to you and love it with all you've got.


Blogger Jasmine said...

Word, sister.

July 28, 2011 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger bluetick said...

Very well said! It really only takes will and determination to see it happen one step...or in our case one animal at a time. Our dream for a more sustainable lifestyle started with a dream just 3 years ago while living in a sub division in town. Now with 2 Angora rabbits, 25 chickens, one dog and 21 acres we are building our farm one step at a time...paycheck to paycheck, on a web designers salary as well :)


July 28, 2011 at 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Jenna. It's so true that we must do these things in small steps. When each step becomes part of "normal", we add another small step. Before we know it we are miles from where we started.

I needed to read this today. I look around our land and see so much that needs to be done, and wonder where the money will come from. But it will come, and it will be done, and I know in my heart what you say is true.

July 28, 2011 at 9:49 PM  
Blogger jennifer said...

I believe what you say also, happiness is ours for the taking. Our little farm grows and we learn something new everyday. It is super exciting to eat what you raise and healthier too.Each day on a farm holds so many surprises and challenges, I think that is what makes it so wonderful. Thanks for writing about your days I enjoy reading it all.

July 28, 2011 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger DarcC said...

Damn straight, and damn eloquent. My answer to the same question is this: "You know all those hours you spend watching TV? I'm outside working." Nobody likes to hear it, but it's the truth!

July 28, 2011 at 10:05 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

Awesome,awesome post!!!

July 28, 2011 at 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preach it!


July 28, 2011 at 10:26 PM  
Blogger jim said...

jenna-one of the things that make your blog so appealing is that you tell it like it is. Bad times and good times, big events and little events----no sugar coating just reality on a day to day basis. It's
a lesson in life for all of us faithful followers- keep taking us on your journey----thank you for sharing.

July 28, 2011 at 10:30 PM  
Blogger Firecracker Farm said...

DarcC - I love that bit about the TV! Consider it stolen. It is my new favorite line.

July 28, 2011 at 10:42 PM  
Blogger bree said...

I enjoy hearing your story. I read you everyday. Thanks a bunch for this inspiration which one can apply to any endeavor.

July 28, 2011 at 10:49 PM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Amen to that!

July 28, 2011 at 11:40 PM  
Blogger beccaWA said...

Awesome post! You're inspiring me... so guess what I just did???

Ordered my very first chickens from MyPetChicken!!!!

July 28, 2011 at 11:55 PM  
Blogger Joleen said...

. . . and it's been beautiful and inspiring coming on the journey with you through your words . . .

July 29, 2011 at 12:05 AM  
Blogger redbird said...

Thank you!

July 29, 2011 at 12:53 AM  
Blogger Rosie said...

Bravo! Well said. I needed to hear this to get back on track and focus. Thank you!

July 29, 2011 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

We find a way to do the work because we MUST. We die a little inside every day that we're not doing the work. If you love something enough, you find the time, the energy, the will, the resources.

July 29, 2011 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger David Shearer said...

Whether you know it or not, you are rockin' the world Jenna. Keep it up!

July 29, 2011 at 1:26 AM  
Blogger Patsy said...

You have done well Jenna. Have you been back to the cabin in Vermont to see what it is like now?

July 29, 2011 at 4:30 AM  
Blogger karen said...

Great post-so inspiring. Thanks for sharing all that you do. Karen from CT

July 29, 2011 at 6:55 AM  
Blogger daisy said...

I so agree, Jenna. If you can dream it, you can live it. We're moving along with our plans and you are part of the reason. Thanks for sharing your determination and strong-willed spirit.

July 29, 2011 at 7:20 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Thank you all! I would love to hear where some of your own dreams are at?

Patsy, just once, a year ago. I drove by and it was shortly after I left and things were all over the yard bring cleaned and such, there was outdoor furniture, and things I never saw before. I have not been back. Mostly because it's on a dead-end road and the only place to go is that cabin and the folks I rented from don't think kindly of me.

July 29, 2011 at 7:25 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Thank you.

We just moved into an apartment that will let me have a proper garden, not just containers, but I'm having to scale back my plans for this fall and next year due to health concerns. I've been kicking myself about this for weeks, because I could do so much more with the space I've been given.

Thank you for the reminder that small steps are better than nothing, and that I'm still making progress to where I want to be.

July 29, 2011 at 7:47 AM  
Blogger The Finicky Farmer said...

"If I waited around around till I had 25k sitting in the bank, I still would not have my farm. To me, waiting for lump sum to start playing in the dirt is ridiculous. Starting a farm doesn't take cash, it takes will. If you have enough of the second, the first will find a way to you."

Wow, Jenna, thank you so much for this hopeful post. Your words of encouragement couldn't have arrived at a better time.

To baby steps and big dreams!

July 29, 2011 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger Mustard Moon Farm said...

great post, Jenna! And so true! When I first read your book and started following your blog 2 1/2 years ago, we lived in the middle of a cul-de-sac neighborhood smack dab in the midst of a decent-sized city. My husband and I both had the dream to be in the country on a place of our own...and now, 2 years later, we find ourselves on OUR piece of land, bought at auction-10 acres, several nice outbuildings-including a great barn and cute house. We have added 2 cows, 1 steer, 2 pigs and 30-some laying hens-and have successfully harvest our first batch of meat hickens-rigt here on the farm (with another batch to be harvested soon)...and of course, a huge garden which is providing us with a bounty of produce! It's true that money is not the answer-we live paycheck to paycheck on one income-it simply takes sheer grit and determination to see your dreams turn into reality. And as Believers, we also see God's hand in the way our circumstances came to us. We have much to be thankful for. Thanks for an inspiring post!

July 29, 2011 at 8:22 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

what a great post.

July 29, 2011 at 8:43 AM  
Blogger Gretchen said...

Needed to read this today. Feeling very far from our dream right now and spinning around a list of "next steps". Just do something!!!


July 29, 2011 at 8:50 AM  
Blogger Drummond Farms Alpacas and Woolens said...

We believe that if you have it in your heart and in your mind and believe that it will come to be with everything you have than it will be. We started life in an apartment, several homes in subdivisions throughout the years and now on five acres. We thought we would have to find more land to start, grew frustrated at the cost to do so and then decided let's see if we can get started here. Three years later, here we are nice home, we built a barn, put up fencing and bought four alpacas. We now have 12 alpacas, we are learning to process the fiber ourselves and what joy! All from a dream...that is just starting to come true. Your motivation, your blog and books have been a great fire for us.

July 29, 2011 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Mel and Chris said...

Thanks Jenna!

July 29, 2011 at 9:36 AM  
Blogger greendria said...

Awesome post, as usual.

July 29, 2011 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Aja said...

Love, love, love this - inspiring!

July 29, 2011 at 11:27 AM  
Blogger Annaliese said...


I have been reading your blog for some time now and have really enjoyed the posts like this one that make my dreams of having a farm (or at least a biiiig yard of my own) not seem so far out of reach. Your determination is extremely admirable, thanks so much for sharing all the trials and tribulations, I'm not only learning a lot but being constantly inspired to pursue a similar path!

July 29, 2011 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Tina said...

Thanks Jenna! I am getting ready to take the plunge in 45 days. The off-ramp is under construction. You are an inspiration and damn funny :)

July 29, 2011 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Lily Boot said...

This is the perfect medicine I needed this weekend. Your words have strengthened my resolve and filled me with hopeful excitement. I am in awe of all that you have achieved and determined to get there too :-). Have a great weekend.

July 29, 2011 at 11:30 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

You know what, after losing that cash I did feel down, but I reread this about 3 times and then soliceted ads and planned out the stove payments. It all gets done..

Thank you all.

July 30, 2011 at 7:23 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

What a great post. I understand what you are coming from. I am in the same boat like you and others on this blog. Paycheck to paycheck, overtime and a mortgage. If I did nothing and waited to save up for a farm, probably will take me at least 40 years to get a farm. That is why I started a vermicompost business since I have good knowledge. I plan to use this business to help finance my dream. In the meanwhile take one step at a time,learn more, take tours and volunteer at farms.

July 30, 2011 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger natalie said...

once again, the words from your post sink into my soul in the most profound way. you speak from the depths of your soul in the most honest way, and it really shows, because your readers, or at least me, can feel it.

i do have a involves not hearing rush hour traffic outside of my apartment. it involves hearing the trees whisper to each other and watching my kids play until the fireflies start the night shift. i too read books. books that don't necessarily match my life in any way, shape, or form right now, but i too have a dream. i am glad to know that i am not nuts. that i am moving in the right direction.

thanks for the honesty of the progression of your life once again, and thank you for cheering us dreamers on.

July 30, 2011 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger AnnaSky said...

Thanks for that. I need a little reminding from time to time.

July 31, 2011 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Qalballah said...

Wow. Amazing, and it resonates with me. I dream every day about a farm. Like you, I'm not wealthy, nor know the 'right' people, but I do think, love and dream about it constantly. Obsessively even. And you know what - if a man is on the right road, all he has to do is keep walking to reach his destination right?

This post has kept my far-flung hopes and dreams alive. THANKYOU

July 31, 2011 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Hen Jen said...

oh wow, this is so inspiring. We have hens in a backyard, I'm not sure how strong a dream owning some land is for us...but I do know that I have a few dreams I need to dust off right now. Thanks for the uplift!

August 1, 2011 at 3:29 AM  
Blogger Matt_Middleton said...

Thank you :)

August 1, 2011 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger zaza said...

February 21, 2013 at 4:20 AM  

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