Work Life

Working to Live

LAKE MACBRIDE— Let’s face it, we’re not like the Kennedys. We have no progenitor who leveraged a rising mass society in a way that both produced wealth and enabled new generations to focus on life free from financial concerns. That such a family existed, was well known, and equally well documented, influenced my generation in ways that continue to be revealed. There may have been others like them, but the Kennedys were it when it comes to a lifestyle free from financial worry, an algorithm built into the software of the lives of sixty-somethings.

It is not that there haven’t been brief periods of financial independence. While serving in the U.S. Army, there was no time to spend money, and I had almost an entire year’s salary in my savings account upon discharge. This created the financial freedom to attend graduate school full time and receive my masters in 17 months without worry. There have been a few other times like that, and I felt free to enter and exit the work force as it met my short term needs. I still feel that way, but as I aged, options changed.

It is one thing to talk about creating a sustainable life on the prairie, and another to actually do it. The comfort of regular pay, on a predictable schedule, can be addictive, even when it is not sustainable. Sometimes we become crack-heads of routine inside a career, with all the problems addiction brings.

When one breaks from the cocoon of a long career, it is a world of light and uncertainty— part was expected, but everything is brand new in its unique iteration. The hounds are let loose from their leashes.

Part of the breakup with a career is living and working with much younger people than relationships built over decades. It is refreshing. It is scary. There is risk. There are sore feet and chapped hands from doing new things.

We can find income to live. It is not even a question. When a friend first suggested temp jobs as an option for extra cash, it took me a month to decide to pursue the idea. Once I did, it took exactly six days from decision to working the new job.

Making money is not the problem. The challenge is creating a process for living focused on something other than our job. We are not the thirty second elevator story about who we are and what we hope to be. When we recognize all work has merit, we have a chance of breaking from the enslavement of careers.

We may work to pay for food, shelter, clothing, communications technology, transportation, insurance, interest and taxes, but until we experience the epiphany that working is living, and such living is fine compensation, a happy life may elude us. We could go on hoping to build a nest egg for retirement, get money ahead so we can take a break, win the lottery— such notions a malware embedded in the stories of Camelot and of summers in Hyannis Port playing touch football.

What else can we do but go on working?

Kitchen Garden

Cotton, Capital and Sustainability

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, lodging books up well in advance. The annual March event started as a way of controlling the snake population and has evolved into a festival that attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually. I haven’t tried rattlesnake meat, which is popular at the festival, but it reportedly tastes like chicken.

During a business trip the weekend of the event, I stayed at the home of an area cotton farmer because there were no motel rooms available. The octogenarian owner provided a pickup truck tour of the local cotton operation before dinner one night, driving most sections of his 5,000 acres. There were other large cotton growers in the area, and our conversation covered a range of topics from government subsidies, soil quality, tumbleweed, boll weevil control, growing conditions and harvest. We drove by the large cotton gin built by a cooperative of growers. Cotton hulls were stacked in gigantic piles near the equipment. There was a use for cotton hulls, but not enough of one. He was cottoning up to me because of the financial investment our company made in his sons’ troubled trucking operation.

We wouldn’t call  his cotton growing practices sustainable, quite the opposite. It was as good an example of industrial agriculture as there is. If there was a boll weevil outbreak, the crop dusters came out in force to spray the section and eradicate the pest. He did what he needed to manage the risk of growing cotton, and cooperate with his neighbors to get the annual crop planted, grown and harvested.

I met his two sons, and they leveraged the farm to try to make ends meet in their trucking company. The reason I was in Texas was the troubled trucking operation. The experience helped shape my view of the importance of capital in a farming.

It is one thing to locate a plot of ground and grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market. It is another thing to sustain operations over decades. The lack of adequate capitalization seems to be a primary tension point for beginning, local producers, with start-up, scalability and processing mentioned frequently as challenges. Like any farmer, local food producers make deals with people who have capital in the form of land, equipment and money: banks, government, parents and neighboring farmers.

For a local food grower to sustain operations, managing capital is equally important with managing growing practices. In my experience, not enough attention is paid to capital management by sustainable agriculture practitioners. Financial sustainability goes with everything else in sustainable agriculture, and can take decades to achieve in the best of conditions.

My experience in West Texas was a bit disturbing. The way the land was treated, the use of chemicals, the attitudes of the farmers, all of it had a sense of desperation about it. It was especially evident in the way the sons used the farm as leverage for their failing trucking business.

If sustainable agriculture has a chance in the 21st century, practitioners must learn more about the relationship of capital to farming. As a successful practitioner of sustainable agriculture recently told me, “the ‘kids’ who were not depression era people never got the hang of the financial end of things and overspent even though much was handed to them on a silver platter.” Last time I checked, very few people continue to hand out silver platters.

Home Life Writing

On Our Own

Main Street
Main Street

LAKE MACBRIDE— Unexpectedly, as the automatic garage door opened, the rural mail contractor was pulling up the driveway in his SUV to leave the box that contained my last 1,610 posts, written in a fever since 2008. They didn’t seem like much for the investment in time and resources. I thanked him for the delivery and walked into the garage and closed the door.

Within a few minutes the box was opened on my writing table, the volumes examined, then in place on the bookshelf with the previous iterations of this blog. Familiar with the work, it was time to turn to other things.

It was foggy on Sunday as I left the newspaper to return home. The new lamp posts faded from view down Main Street. I focused on traffic, instead of a distant view obscured by weather. The new crosswalk was comforting— the brick-like impressions guiding me across Highway One and toward the vehicle which would carry me home via Main Street, then Highway 382, going west out of town.

It is hard to imagine the landscape without roads and pathways. Harder still to believe it is possible to step off main traveled roads. Yet, in the fog of morning, after the snow has been melted by rainfall, we think we can make our own path— and sometimes do.

At times like these we are on our own, hard pressed to explain how or why— making it hard for others to provide succor, even when succor is needed. In a turbulent world, full of beaten paths and depleted resources, we make choices and ask, is all vanity, or is it possible that if the earth shall abide forever, we shall too?

With this refreshed blog comes a challenge, the same challenge as before, to sustain our lives on the prairie, but with it, something different. It is an edgy feeling— an urgency. That before long, our time to make a difference will have elapsed and our relevance in society faded like the vanishing point on Main Street that morning. By beginning again, there is new hope, a fresh view. There is a belief we can depart from la vie quotidian and sustain a life when people seem caught in a vortex of desperate conformity. It doesn’t have to be that way, especially once we realize we are on our own.