The wind picked up quickly as the rain began to fall. We were in the barn talking about the new arrivals, the pigs, when Travis' son ran into the barn and exclaimed, "Dad! You gotta check out these clouds!"
It was only a few moments later that we ran for cover in the house and watched the storm pass through. The 70 mph straight-line winds blew objects violently around the yard. In the middle of the furry, two of the calves ran out of their pen away from the protection of their mothers and into the pasture. Travis nearly went after them until his wife, Allison, reminded him that his life was more valuable than the calves. (Thankfully, the calves returned to their mothers unharmed once the storm subsided.)
I had arrived at Brookside Farm to begin the interview less than an hour earlier...
[S]: Travis, since I know you are a "part-time farmer," what's your day job?
[T]: I work at Mayo in IT.
[S]: Hm. An IT guy that likes to farm?
[T]: Yeah, when I got out of high school I entered the B.U.M program at RCTC (Rochester Community & Technical College).
[S]: The B.U.M program?
[T]: It stands for Building, Utility, & Mechanic.
[S]: That's an awful acronym.
[T}:Yeah, it is. After graduating from RCTC, I got into maintenance at Pace Dairy in Rochester and started handling controls and programming. At that point, I was married and we had started our family. I decided I should go back to school in order to earn more money, so I earned a degree in Computer Science from Winona State and started working at Mayo. We bought this place four years ago in October.
I always wanted to live in the country and we finally decided to move when DMC (Destination Medical Center) began to take shape. We figured that if Rochester is roughly 110,000 people and Mayo Clinic employs roughly 25-30,000 employees and they want to double the number of employees, then Rochester would also double in size. At that point, land becomes more valuable and it will become harder and harder for a single-income family to move to the country.
We have just a little spot with only 5 Acres. It's not a lot, but it's enough for us. It's kinda like that sign at Jimmy John's, "The gap between more and enough never closes," or something like that. A person always wants more, but it's nice to be happy with what you have.
[S]: Was it easy to find a place you could afford?
[T]: What I tell people is you can't buy a diamond. You gotta go buy a lump of coal. There's a guy down the road who hauled out dozens and dozens of big metal bins full of people's trash because that's what they had to do to buy the place. After a lot of work, they have a nice place with a brand new house.
[S]: So, tell me about the "coal" that you bought. Or, is your place somewhere between coal and a diamond?"
[T]: This place was somewhere between coal and a diamond. We haven't had to do a lot to it. We took down a silo which was a bit dangerous. We're also reverting a lot of our field back to pasture so the cows can graze.
The barn needed some work, as well. I retrofitted it for our use by building in some coops, removing some walls, building stairs to the loft and what not. It makes it more useable, though it's far from perfect.
[S]: Describe your overall operation.
[T]: Well, we've got about 30 hens laying eggs and another 60 meat birds that are just starting out. For the first three weeks of their life, we keep them in here (see picture left) because they need the heat and are just too fragile to be out. Once they are outside they will go into our chicken tractors which are portable chicken coops (see picture below).
I move the chicken tractors every day following the cows in the pasture. I'm still learning the whole grazing thing, but I have cordoned off the pasture so the cows graze in a small area before I move them to the cordoned off spot. So, once the grass gets cut by the cows, the chicken tractors come behind them and the chickens fertilize the grass with their droppings. You want to fertilize when the grass is beginning to grow like after it's been mowed down by the cows. The short grass also exposes all the fresh greens and bugs that chickens like to eat. They will also go through the cow manure and eat fly larvae helping to keep the fly population in check. I guess there's also an enzyme in herbivore manure that the birds need or like. I find this sort of symbiosis fascinating.
I didn't develop this system. It originated with a guy named Joel Salatin from Virginia. He's an advocate for organic, local food and was in the movie Food, Inc. among others.
[S]: How many acres of pasture do you have?
[T]: On Google Maps there's this really cool thing where you can select a square section of your property and it'll tell you how many square feet it is. So, according to Google Maps, I have about 1.25 Acres fenced. Not a lot, but it should do.
[S]: Do you like to blend tech with your farm?
[T]: Even though I'm a tech person at work, I really try to disconnect from it at home. I got my first cell phone in December and now I feel I'm more connected than I want to be.
[S]: How many chickens do you sell in a year?
[T]: Last year we sold 150. This year I'd like to sell 200, but we may be just shy of that.
[S]: How many eggs do your chickens produce in a day, typically?
[T]: About two dozen a day, currently, but we'll be up to 4-5 a dozen a day soon.
For a while, we couldn't keep up with demand. It's one of those foods that's a gateway to the local food market. No one wants to buy, as a first-time transaction with a local farm, a half a beef. But $4 for a dozen eggs is a smaller investment. Plus, you can see, right away, the difference between store-bought organic eggs and free-range, local organic eggs. There's a huge difference in color and quality.
[S]: And you have three cows?
[T]: And three calves. We got the cows about five weeks ago. They showed up on a Wednesday and we had our first calf the next Wednesday.
[S]: Did either you or your wife grow up on a farm?
[T]: No, neither of us did. I have to admit I'm a little nervous about the cows. Well, the cows themselves are easy, it's the grass/pasture management that will probably prove more difficult. I don't want to feed them corn, so the grass is their food. I've got hay, but I'm worried I don't have enough pasture. It's maybe a little bit of helicopter parenting.
[S]: You're better off being a "helicopter farmer" than not, I'd bet.
[T]: Yeah, I like that - "helicopter farmer."
[S]: Why do you do it - farming?
[T]: My wife and I landed on farming for different reasons. She started eating healthier and it made sense to her to raise our own food. For me, it was self-sufficiency. Living on five acres isn't a lot, but we could be growing all of our own meat and then some. But, if we could get enough sales or produce enough money off what we do to pay would pay the mortgage, We started out by renting out our shed for people to store RVs, boats and what have you. That's been the main capital that we've invested into the farming operation.
[S]: So you're capitalizing on nearly every space you can?
[T]: I want to. We've also planted an orchard...apples, peaches, pears, plums.
[S]: Have you been successful in raising peaches?
[T]: There are blossoms on our peach tree for the first time this spring, so I'm hoping to get peaches this year. Of course, a person can buy good peaches, but I'm hopeful that a home-grown peach will be even better. I can't imagine walking over to my tree and pulling a peach off and biting into it and the juice runs down your chin and shirt. Ah. That'll be the best.
[S]: Do you consider this a hobby farm, or a side-job?
[T]: Well, we describe our operation as a micro-farm. To us, a hobby farm is mainly for fun and not to make money. I'm certainly not going to get rich on five acres, but I'd like this to be self-sustaining with the chickens earning enough money to pay for the chickens. Same for the pigs and the cows.
[S]: Is it worth it?
[T]: For me, it is. I enjoy it. It kind of touches on a lot of what I like to do. I get to build stuff and learn things all the time, but then you get to see how things are so intertwined. It's the symbiosis that I really enjoy. I'm definitely not an expert, but the more I learn about it the more I want to learn about it.
[S]: You mentioned pigs. Tell me about those.
[T]: They arrived last Thursday. I'm a "helicopter farmer" with the pigs, to borrow your term, because I've never raised pigs before, either. They are a heritage breed called Gloucestershire Pigs. The cows are also a heritage breed called Dexters. They're triple purpose breed - they are raised for milk, food, and as work animals. So we got four pigs.
[S]: The pigs are adorable! (There are two pigs hiding in the straw, if you can find them).
[T]: I just hope they taste good. Like the cows, I'm a little nervous about raising pigs. We'll keep some and sell the rest. Thankfully, all that meat is spoken for. I hope they work out, I just don't want to fail.
[S]: Do you find there is a certain anxiety in farming? As in you don't necessarily have control?
[T]: Well, no matter what you do there is no control.
At that point, Travis' son interrupted us with his weather announcement. Perhaps it was a fitting interruption as one thing a farmer cannot control is the weather. Once indoors, we resumed our conversation...
[S]: Would you farm full-time, if you could?
[T]: You know last spring I took a week off to clean up some old metal and Allison asked me that same question. The easy answer is to say "yes," but I wonder if I would miss that time away from home. There are days that I think I could do it, but there are times when that seems a lot scarier, too, to produce your own income. There's a risk, but I suppose we all take a risk no matter what we do.
[S]: What's most important to you besides the usual suspects such as faith, family, friends, and home?
[T]: In the day-to-day, I think I want peace and quiet in this stage of life. With four kids that is hard to come by. If there is a moment of quiet these days it doesn't last long. Of course, people tell me this is a phase, but it's hard to believe.
What I have found I want is to be happy with wherever I am with whatever I have. It's much better to be happy at what you're doing than having a certain position, or title, or wealth. That's something I understand better the older I get. If you have a great title at a job someplace, but you aren't happy what's the point? It's like what John Piper describes as Christian Hedonism. Finding that whole happiness and following God.
It wasn't long before the storm cleared and we said our farewells. Travis went out to check on his livestock, Allison got the kids to bed and I jumped in the Toyota for the drive home. I was thankful to have had gracious hosts who allowed a stranger to hunker down in their basement.
Travis' story, and the stories of others like him demonstrate the importance and value of work. Even hard work. Built into our human DNA is a need that is only fulfilled by work - providing for ourselves and families and even our communities. As a pastor, I believe work is a gift given to us by God. Even before the fall, God gave humans the charge of tending the garden. I'm not suggesting that one must drive themselves mad with effort, but that a certain focus and drive is life-giving. I suggest it may even contribute to a sense of self-worth even though our worth is not found it what we do. It's an interesting dichotomy.
Perhaps that dichotomy is best held in the space between more and enough; contentment and need. As humans, we must work to survive (and even be happy), but working for the wrong reasons (like personal riches at the expense of others) may be detrimental.
Work is the vehicle that leads to provision of our physical needs, but it can also lead us to a place of contentment knowing we have contributed to the betterment of ourselves and those around us.
What work fuels your soul?