Just Another Old Curmudgeon’s Rant

BooksBefore me is a shelf overflowing with books about sustainable, organic, contrary, back-to-the-earth, independent, hobby, traditional, and subsistence farming. Intermingled are also some more theoretical, philosophical, theological, and idealogical books about simplicity, detachment, technology, economics, and other facets of agrarian life. Having come to the brainchild of farming later in life, months after we had already left the city and moved onto a portion of my wife’s family century farm—with no active farmers within shouting distance—I had no option but to turn to books (this was years before the flood of on-line sustainable farming “experts”.)

Over these past twenty-five years of unsuccessfully studying to enter one of God’s most precious professions, or as the Angelic Doctor called it, the husbandman, I’ve come to consolidate these agrarian / farm / back-to-the-earth writers into five general categories:

  1. Purely theoretical or idealogical;
  2. Efforts to influence the entire US government and/or economic system;
  3. Efforts to establish rural agrarian communities;
  4. Advice on how to make enough profit from small farming to live like everyone else;
  5. Efforts to help homesteaders become self-sustainable—sometimes, with an emphasis on becoming profitable, but more often with only a practical emphasis on “living off the fat of the land,” as said by one of my favorite balladeers, David Mallett.

We moved to our rural acreage in the mid-1990s primarily to escape the growing craziness of the city with no thoughts about farming—heck, in my entire life up to that point, I’d never even owned a pair of bib-overalls! From childhood I had barely experienced a day without television, and never imagined getting my food from anywhere except from a grocery store or restaurant. From age 13, if I wasn’t going to some kind of school, I was leaving home to go to some kind of office. When I stayed home to work on the yard, it either had to clearly be my day off, or I felt I was playing hooky.

But then, at age 46, sitting on the porch of our newly constructed cottage-in-the-woods, looking across the valley to the barn that my wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather had constructed one hundred years before, from timber harvested from this land, the question arose as to what that barn was originally for? And why was this land once cleared by hand from wilderness nearly one hundred and sixty years ago?

It was then that I first began reading books of the first category: Why Farm? Why simplicity and detachment? Why back-to-the-land or “escape to the woods”? Why question our culture’s complete surrender to technology? Why consider becoming self-sustainable, even living off the grid? Why desire a return to a focus on God’s creation? I was permanently moved by the more theoretical books by Gene Logsdon (The Contrary Farmer and Living at Nature’s Pace), David Kline (Great Possessions), E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), St. Bonaventure (Journey of the Mind to God), Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), Neal Postman (Technopoly), the Twelve Southerners (I’ll Take My Stand), R.F. Nash (Wilderness and the American Mind), Chesterton and Belloc, and many others. I was greatly moved, but far from ready to farm.

I also read a few books from the second category aimed at changing our entire government and economic system, such as Who own’s America?, but I was never tempted to dip my toe into the murky, green slime of politics—frankly, I didn’t see that either party were united enough to make any satisfactory changes. They were both bastions of bellowing blowhards promising everyone a piece of the American Dream, as they understood it, which was always and only about materialistic prosperity.

I then read some books from the third category about the need for forming cooperative, unitive rural agrarian communities. This sounded appealing. One of my favorites, which actually spanned all five of my categories, was a classic from 1940, by two Catholic priests, Ligutti and Rawe, entitled Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom. My knowledge of history, however, reminded me that, though this utopian ideal had been tried a bazillion times, it has rarely if ever worked, except in Catholic religious communities where everyone is under a strict mutually accepted hierarchical, authoritative structure. A “Benedictine community” with only the rules, without its underlying Catholic foundation and ecclesial, monastic, authoritative structure, is just another Christian sect that, as always happens, will eventually split into eternally splitting peas. (If you don’t believe me, just wait.) And besides, my family and I had sunk our toenails into this property, with no intention of moving away, and with no likeminded cottage farmers within screaming distance (except for Marilyn’s younger sister, Holly, who was running the family apple orchard), so the idea of forming a community was not a reachable goal. Heck, just getting one family to work together, let alone two or more, is close to a miracle.

Then came books from category four which were all about leaving the hell-hole rat-race of the cities, and embracing the rural life, with the promise that, if one does it correctly and diligently, step-by-step as they suggest, one can make just as much money on a small farm as one can from any boring city job! But, frankly, I’ve never been the least bit motivated by the profit margin, especially after my adult Christian conversion. Ever since, for forty-five plus years, after leaving engineering, I’ve been in leadership of some kind of non-profit Christian ministry, and I’ve never thought about doing anything specifically just to make money. So I found trying to view this land as primarily a scheme for making money unmotivating. I certainly don’t consider this wrong in itself. When we first moved out here to the woods, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to continue supporting my family with the fledgling non-profit Coming home Network, so I explored whether I could develop this property into a working farm, collecting most of the necessary equipment, erecting all new perimeter fences, following Noah’s lead by introducing two of every species of farm animal, raising a few crops, but in the end I never saw a hint that I could ever bring in enough profit to support my family. But really, from the beginning, I always became quickly bored with these profit-focused farm “infomercials”.

But the books that most inspired me, that instilled a true conversion of heart, were the many books, old and new, in category five about sustainable cottage farming. These authors attempted to translate agrarian theology, philosophy, and ideology into active, practical, and doable strategies. I could mention many, but maybe my favorite was John Seymour’s classic The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it. I might also mention a family favorite, Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. (Another great book I’ve got to mention is The Independent Farmstead by our good friends, Shawn and Beth Dougherty. This very practical book spans categories one and five, and the only negative thing about the book is that it hadn’t been published yet when we first began thinking about farming!)

me milkingSo, we caught the bug to at least try small scale farming, and my family jumped into it with all ten feet! Within in a year we were herding ten Suffolk ewes and their lambs; milking a Jersey cow named Kristina, with her calf, Ribeye; turning raw milk into butter and cheese; stealing eggs from our Rhode Island Red chickens; fattening a pig with leftover milk; precariously harvesting honey from a bee hive (I made my boys do this); and tending an 80×20 foot garden. Our largest crop, however, was always quarts upon quarts of wild black raspberries and blackberries.

That was twenty-five years ago. In the interim, Marilyn, our three sons, and I have experimented and dirtied our hands with nearly every aspect of cottage farming, all while I was trying to run a full-time apostolate, traveling every week to EWTN in Alabama, and often speaking somewhere on weekends. Now, however, our boys have followed God’s lead in their lives and moved on, and Marilyn and I, now empty nesters, are both eternally proud of all three.

But now I’ve been asked to look back and pass along some thoughts. Unfortunately, these may come across more as the rants of an old curmudgeon than as a cheerleader for cottage farming. There was a time when I was an outspoken cheerleader, parroting those who believed the only way to save America was to restore the network of small farms that once graced our land from sea to shining sea! But not so much now, and maybe that’s what I need to talk about.

As I reflect back, I need to admit that, of all the things I’ve learned in my nearly twenty-five years out here on this rural land, the most disturbing revelation is how blind I was to how lazy, complacent, and flaccid our technological world has made me—and dare I extrapolate this to “made us.” All the writers I’ve read warned of this—an ancient Greek philosopher even warned that the more we grow dependent upon the written word, the less we’ll be able to remember things. (I can’t seem to recall his name…)

It makes me tremble a bit just to think back upon all that we once did on this cottage farm: to raise and milk dairy cows, and then process the milk into cream, butter, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, farm cheese, etc.; to raise sheep, pigs, bees, beef cattle, goats, chickens, etc., and even a sway-backed old 4H horse named Skippy. When I was younger, I had three boys to order around, in other words, “Hey, boys, we’ve bought into this, we have the livestock, it’s good for us, so let’s do it”—but all along there was still that lamenting, taunting inner voice, “Think about how much easier it has been all your life, from the time you were born, to just jump in a car and go down to the market and buy fresh milk, butter, cheese, cottage cheese, honey, lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and eggs?” It’s not the argument, “think of what else you could be doing?”, because if I hadn’t been out doing farm chores, I’d likely not have been golfing or exercising or reading or doing woodwork or the myriad of other things I thought I’d rather be doing, when I was sweaty to the skin and slogging through knee-high mud. I’d most likely be sleeping in later, or spending more time at the office, even if I had nothing specific to do, or watching old episodes of Andy Griffith—all the things I’ve just naturally grown to do over my past seventy technologically lazy years. These are the things my mental muscles have grown accustomed to doing; these are the grooves that my self has grown accustomed to wallowing in. And now that I’ve got no one to order around, no one to do it for me, and because of my “rheumatism”, it’s just easier to drift back into the life-long normal wallowing mode.

I still believe the ideals — I still agree, not only with everything I read in those books, but with everything I had the audacity to write in a book of my own! But now the problem is getting off my hind-end and just doing anything.

In chapter nine of my book, entitled, tongue-in-cheek, Our Economic Future (and Limits Theory), I give seven alternate steps to escaping the chaos of our “modern, industrial, progressivist, politically unstable world”:

  1. Focus on the stable and established;
  2. Reduce the incessant voices;
  3. Reduce financial entanglements;
  4. Practice personal subsidiarity;
  5. Live more simply;
  6. Consider a more self-sufficient life on the land;
  7. Make more time for God.

tv 1958I still believe in every one of these steps, but I’ve basically failed at all of them. Why? At least partially because of my addiction to technology. All my life, from the time my parents bought our first tv, from the time I switched on my first switch, my entire life has been a surrendering to the influence, convenience, simplicity, and speed of technology. And like any other addiction, it’s hard to break free, not just because we’ve become accustomed and dependent, but because in the process we’ve lost the ability to live without them, and our physical and mental muscles have atrophied. And to make matters worse, the communities we live in have become designed around and dependent upon all these technologies. We might try to break free for a time, we might even be successful for a while, but when things get rough, I gravitate back to what I’ve always found easier, quicker, and cheaper—and this is exactly what the oligarchs of digital technology are counting on.

The problem with trying to live a simpler, detached, and sustainable rural life based on technology, however, is that it ultimately is not sustainable at all, because we tie our horse to a wagon up front that we just can’t keep up with. To the extent—to the frightening extent—that we become dependent upon technology, we become enslaved to those who provide the power for this technology, and in this digital age, this enslavement also includes those who provide the platforms for us to continue using that digital technology. And right now we see this clearly as gas prices rise, equipment and supplies become scarce, product quality falls, and the internet has destroyed any possibility of the decentralization its cheerleaders once promised.

Ten years ago I spent thousands of dollars erecting several miles of new high tensile perimeter fence. But this fence requires electric, so for it to work, I’m at the mercy of the local power company. But I not only have to keep paying my electric bill, I have to constantly fight the growth of plants along the fence line. On top of that, I recently found nearly a dozen fence posts that had sheared off at the ground level. The manufacturer used inferior wood to produce these treated posts, which we bought from our local chain farm store—Who really knows where these posts were made and how, from a manufacturer whose primary goal was to make them cheaper with inferior materials, but yet sell them at near-regular prices just to make more profit? And now I have to figure out how to replace the dozen posts if I want to continue raising cattle. And since I have no one to help, I’ll have to either do it myself, at age 70 with two bad rotator cuffs, or pay someone to do it—but I’m not making any profit from my farm to cover or justify this. So I must have a continuous outside income, or continuously dip into savings, just to finance my technologically dependent cottage farm hobby. Or, I can just stay inside and catch up on old episodes of Maine Cabin Masters.

Even as I write this, I almost killed myself trying to swat a lousy fly high up on a wall with a magazine. Ouch! If it’s hard for me to swat a fly, how can I feel confident enough to commit myself any more to caring for livestock? It’s easier to get motivated if you have sons to tell “do it!”, or partners to assist you, or if the cultural situation becomes so bad that we feel compelled to do these things just to survive! But short of this, that old whisper just keeps on a’comin—“Why, when you can buy?”

I hate to admit this, but as long as there’s a tv in my home, hooked up and ready to watch with the push of a remote, I’ll eventually just gravitate to it, like a pig to a trough.

barn and snowSo, as I temporarily switch off the television, to look back over these past twenty-five years on this cottage farm, at all that we’ve tried and accomplished and experienced, and given all that I’ve read and discussed with other homesteaders, here’s a few things I now consider essential when considering shifting one’s life out of the city in an attempt to living more simply on a rural cottage sustainable farm:

1: First, maybe as a preliminary, I need to state clearly that, as negative as I may sound, I have no regrets from these past twenty-five years on this beautiful cottage farm, and look forward to as many more as the good Lord in His mercy might give my wife and me.

2: We must begin with a complete surrender to Jesus Christ. Certainly there are many successful cottage farmers who don’t start here, and may never get here, but whenever I read their accounts, or watch their YouTube instruction videos, I can’t help but sense that something is missing. I’ll not argue this here, but only say it has something to do with grace and humility.

3: We must accept as an underlying assumption that this world and everything in it was created by God. We owe everything to Him, and everything that He created is good. Without this underlying assumption, our well-meaning attempts to do something meaningful with this world can easily become sidetracked by sincere but false gospels.

4: We need to remember that God created Mankind as the pinnacle of Creation, in His image, which means we were created to imitate Him and to care for this world as He does—as He so loved! We have been given responsibility to care for this way-station between this life and our true citizenship in His Kingdom. This means that this Earth and all of its other inhabitants are not more important than or even equal to Mankind, but that we as God’s Stewards have been given responsibility to care for this earth and its creatures—to give it back to Him better than we found it.

5: We must remember that the Catechisms of the Church have always taught that we were created “to know, love, and serve God and to enjoy Him in this world and the next.” This was why He gave us this world and all the technologies that shape our lives—not for us to accumulate power, prestige, position, or possessions, but to help us grow in holiness and to live in love, if we use them responsibly and wisely. (Question: Has the increase and pervasive use of technology in our country, culture, and world over the past two hundred plus years made humanity more holy? More loving? More humble?)

6: We must begin by accepting that we are living now, at this time, in this world, in this culture, and in this particular place because this was God’s will for us—not 100 or 200 years ago, or 50 years in the future—but right now in 2022. We need to accept that this soup is the soup in which God has called us to swim. And regardless what our government or culture believes or mandates, this is the world in which we are to live out our faith. We must remember those first century Christians living out their faith in faithless Rome. Their primary goal was not to change Rome, but to not let Rome change them. This doesn’t mean we must surrender to unjust laws or not work to change them, but until then, we must live out our faith as if tonight we just might have to stand before Him and explain ourselves. We also need to be careful of being guilted into abandoning all technologies in order to return to a supposedly more pristine, simpler time! I can tell you, my boys and I tried cutting down a large walnut tree with a traditional two-man saw! It was fun and exhilarating, at first, but in the end, we were glad we could finish the cut with a chainsaw—and I’m guessing my wife’s great-grandfather and grandfather would have given anything to get their hands on a chainsaw when they cut down all the trees to build our old barn!

7: But given all that I have just said, we still need to listen to what our Lord taught in the Beatitudes as a Staircase of Conversion: about our need to detach ourselves from the things of this world, from sin, and from ourselves; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be as merciful to everyone in our lives as God has been to each of us; to seek purity of heart in everything we do; to be a peacemaker, and to accept whatever suffering might come whenever we try.

8: But everything I’ve said so far must be done with an attitude of gratitude. We must begin by being thankful for the blessings of this world in which God has called us to live.

9: We must be cautious of the whispers that try to encumber and motivate us through false guilt and fear. All of my life, from the crazy days of the Cold War through the end of the last Millennium, and now in the present crisis of this 21st century, I’ve lived under the constant bombardment of voices claiming we’re living “on the eve of destruction.” Many of these voices are what drive people to escape the city, to become “preppers”, living off the grid, and to become self-sustainable farmers, even though this may not be God’s plan for them at all. I have friends, for example, who once left their city jobs and sold everything to escape from the city, but after five years of failing at farming and losing everything, they ended up writing a book to add to my large collection, but this time about mishearing God through the din of false voices. We need to be cautious of the constant drone of apocalyptic voices on the internet. No matter how bad things might get, not everyone is called to farm!

10: We need to recognize that God did not leave us alone in this world to figure everything out on our lonesome, nor did he just leave us a Bible as some kind of self-guided handbook, or a myriad of self-help books or websites to chose from. Rather, He gave us a Church, with Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and, yes, with rules and regulations (fence lines), all gifts to us from God, not just because He loves us, but because of our sinfulness—especially to help us combat the slowly escalating addictive influence of technology.

11: But it’s also important to recognize that unfortunately over the centuries, many in the Church have unhesitatingly bought into and surrendered to the addiction to technology. Over the centuries, God has used reformer saints, and religious groups, and even non-Catholic Christian communities, like the Amish, to remind us of how radical the Gospel truly is. Jesus said, “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). What does this mean?! What kind of sacrifice does this require of us? On our own, or under the pressure of our surrounding community, we can interpret this in many ways, or even convince ourselves to ignore this as something intended only for a few. This is why we are called, not to imitate someone just because he might be an ordained religious leader, but to imitate him to extent that he is obedient to the Church and in imitation of Christ. This is precisely what St. Paul said: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

M & M & pitchfork12: Finally, if you can, do it. Jump into cottage farming with all ten feet, but not because you have to or because you ought to, but because you’ve been given by God this great privilege—this great gift—to do and experience something which millions of others wish they could. Whenever you walk out onto your land, follow St. Bonaventure’s advice and look for the vestiges of God in everything you see, with an underlying attitude of gratitude, always expressing a prayer of thanksgiving, and with your eyes and hands and heart, offering up a sacrifice of praise.

The Beatitudes: A Staircase of Conversion

Dear friends, thought I’d let you know what I had the privilege of doing this past weekend: my son, Fr. Peter, had invited me to give a talk for their Lenten Mission at St. Michael Parish in Findlay, Ohio, where he serves as Parochial Vicar. Here’s a link to the talk. The speaker was a bit long winded, but hope you enjoy.

An old Farmer’s Rant

BB & fireA friend of mine, an aging wanted-to-be farmer, recently shared with me a piece of his own Red Zone Thinking. We were relaxing in front of the fire in our hearthstone wood stove, and this is the gist of what he shared.

“You know, there was a time when my contentment was being shattered by bitterness. From scratch I had developed our farm for the future of our family. It was for our children to experience a better life, and hopefully for their children, too, for all of us to work together on this property, being good stewards of God’s land, out of the clutches of this crazy materialistic world! But then all my children moved away to live in the city, of all places. Now my wife and I are retired empty-nesters out here on this acreage, but I can’t do the farm work by myself anymore because of my health. So the farm is going to sit idle. After my children graduated college and got married, rather than coming back here to live near us on a part of this land, to eventually make the farm their own, they all moved away, and too far away to be of any help. There have been days that I felt like it was all just a waste.”

He then paused for a sip of coffee, and after a long quiet stare into the fire, he continued:

“But then I remembered. I had done the very same thing to my parents, especially to my father. After college, I got married, and instead of moving up closer to them, my wife and I moved farther away. And I ended up doing something he never dreamed I’d do—he never wanted me to do—we built a house on a portion of my wife’s family rural property, and of all things we tried to develop it into a self-sustaining farm! Like my father, I had no experience in farming whatsoever, but we gave it a shot, in many ways so that our boys could experience the rural farm life. But now I look back and think I understand the sadness I often saw in my father’s eyes whenever we and our kids would make the occasional trips up to visit with them. I guess I’ve learned how, in an ironic sense of God’s humor, I’ve been “hoisted with my own petard.”

“Our decisions were never a rejection of my parents or even their wisdom. I just thought we were trying to follow God’s will, and busy trying to do the best we could with everything we had on our plates. We were given an opportunity to live on this rural land, and we thought it would be a great place to raise our kids, and it was.”

He took another long sip and meditative gaze into the fire.

“Contentment for me involves apologizing in prayer to my departed parents for any heartaches my obtuseness may have caused them, and it likewise involves letting go of any bitterness the devil might tempt me to feel toward my children. We were blessed to have lived together on this land, and I pray that they learn to be content where they believe—where I believe—God has now called them to live. And I pray God continues to give my wife and I the grace to learn to grow in contentment on this fine rural land that He has given us for our retirement.”

In my own Red Zone thinking, as I consider what Marilyn and I need to do out here as empty-nesters on our forty-acres in the years ahead, there are some things I have come to learn. Just because we live out here on this rural property, or because we established this farm for our boys and brought them up on this land, does not therefore automatically mean that God has called any of us to be farmers. There are myriads of publications and web-blogs exhorting people to return to the farm, to save our country by re-establishing traditional American small farm culture, and to avoid the coming Tribulation by becoming self-sufficient and off-the-grid—and I can’t deny that there were times I at least tried to preach and live this separatist agrarian gospel, and I whole-heartedly agree there is great value and hope in it.

Our 3 sonsBut now I see that we must not douse ourselves or especially our children with false guilt over their supposed responsibility to take over this farm [or might I add, any family business]. We may have done all this for them, which is truly generous and charitable and humble, but we need to remember that they need to be free to discern whether or not this is what God is calling them to do. It may be that God called us to live and to bring our sons up on the farm, in a rural enclave where they could receive the blessings of a more traditional, rural education and culture less tainted by the craziness, wokeness, and apostasy of the surrounding culture—but not necessarily so they themselves would remain in this rural safe stronghold, but so that they would be better prepared to go forth and live and preach the gospel in the midst of a lost world.

I see that this has happened with our three sons. Actually in spite of my many, many short-comings, and my wife’s and my less-than-perfect attempts at parenting, all three of our sons look back and (at least) say they loved growing up out here on our rural “cottage farm,” which, though together we tried to develop it into a self-sustaining, even profitable farm, barely qualifies even as a “hobby farm”. But it was increasingly obvious all along that continuing on the farm, even taking it over after I had entered into the Red Zone, was not where their hearts were leading them.

JM & catOur oldest son, JonMarc, was eleven when we moved from the city to our new house out in the country. At first, we weren’t thinking of transforming our retreat in the woods away from the city into a working farm. But very quickly we decided that this was why God had called us out here. From the beginning, JonMarc was involved with every improvement and edition to our “farmness”. He helped me build our large chicken condominium (with all hand, non-electric tools, mind you); he learned with me how to raise chickens, sheep, dairy cows, and pigs; and he was my main partner in sharing the responsibilities of daily milking and most everything else on the farm.

But he also had many other interests. He and his brothers were homeschooled, which gave them plenty of time to absorb and enjoy the gift of this rural respite. JonMarc, though, was also hungry for outside activities, at our parish, with other Christian farming families, in athletics at the local community and high school, and especially in community theatre.

It never crossed my mind to press him into taking over the farm because I never sensed this was what he was called to do. He first attended the Pontifical College Josephinum to discern priesthood, but after just one semester he discerned this was not where God was calling him. He knew he was called to be a father. He transferred to several other schools to major in philosophy, and while he was at a secular JM & Tstate university, he became active in the on-campus Catholic outreach. There he met his future wife, Teresa, who was serving as a missionary with that outreach. Eventually they got married, are about to give us our sixth grandchild, and both remain active in serving our Lord and His Church. JonMarc runs the CHNetwork for me as its Executive Director and both he and Teresa are very involved in diocesan, parish, and local ministries. They also use the media for outreach to other couples and are becoming active in leading Catholic pilgrimages.

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

Peter & BullOur second son, Peter, also says he loved growing up on the farm. He was seven when we moved here. He was always there beside his older brother trying to give a hand on everything we did. He was active in 4H raising bees, he helped with all the other farm work, and I especially remember him helping me deliver and care for Suffolk lambs and Jersey calves. And he too was involved in all the same off-farm activities as his older brother—church, sports, and theatre—and he too did not give obvious signs that God was calling him to remain on this farm.

He attended a Catholic university where he came of age and matured greatly. Like his brother, he majored in philosophy, and was particularly active in music. Upon graduation, he became the music Fr Peterdirector at the very Newman Center where JonMarc and Teresa had met and used to serve. But then he surprised us all with the news that he believed God was calling him to become a priest. The diocese of Toledo affirmed this call, sent him to six years of study at Saint Meinrad Benedictine Seminary, and now he is an ordained Catholic priest, serving the Lord as a parochial vicar.

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

Richard on horseOur youngest son, Richard, was a different challenge than our other two boys. He was three when we moved to the farm, and he landed running! He was always there beside his brothers trying to help, but more often than not, he saw everything we did as an invitation for fun. While his brothers and I milked the cow, he was riding one of the sheep around the crowded barn. When his mother went out to gather eggs, he was there with a switch to chaise them.

But in time we discovered that Richard had unexpected disabilities that made it obvious that farm work was not where he was being called. And besides, work today on a small farm requires a person to be a bit of an introvert, for the work demands that you spend most of your time alone out somewhere on the back R & Kacres fixing fallen fences, clearing clogged culverts, or chasing chambering chickens. Richard was always an extrovert and needed people. He had followed his brothers in all their outside activists, especially in community theatre. But in the end, his disabilities have made finding his vocation difficult. Probably the biggest blessing in his life has been meeting his future wife, Katie. They are now recently married and both trying to discern their place in life, and though they may move into my wife’s mother’s vacant house near us here on this property, it is still unlikely that his particular abilities will allow him to consider “taking over the farm” after I truly enter the Red Zone and “retire.”

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

JM, P & R

Now Marilyn and I are empty nesters out here on our forty-acres. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we’ve freed ourselves, at least for the winter, from responsibilities for any livestock—and during the recent frigid snow and ice storm, I’m SO glad I didn’t have to wander out precariously onto our hills to drag hay to starving cattle or to punch holes into frozen stock tanks! Now, our main responsibilities on this cottage farm involve stoking our wood stove, herding seven chickens and seven cats, while M & Mplanning for whatever we might be able to handle in the coming year. We might bring in some feeder calves, we might add two piglets, we might add some ducks, we might erect a make-shift greenhouse from a pile of old sliding doors, we might cut lots of paths through our woods for the grandkids to enjoy, we might add a pond, and we might even expand our garden. Or, we might do nothing at all.

Truth is, contrary to what the books and web-blogs have tried to convince me, I’ve never really felt God has called me to focus all my gifts on this rural property as a farmer. Ever since I was twelve, I’ve either been a student or working some job. For the past 45-years I’ve been involved in some kind of Christian ministry. The past 29+ years I’ve led the Coming Home Network, and for nearly 25-years I’ve hosted the Journey Home television and radio program on EWTN. This has involved leadership, writing, speaking, traveling, and even spending some long hours with a few bishops and priests! And all this while my family and I were trying to make a go at it out here on these forty acres—well, actually far more often with Marilyn trying to herd the boys to hold down the fort and keep up with my usually failing farming experiments.

view from hillThe truth is I consider it one of the greatest gifts God has given me to have the privilege to live out here on this rural acreage in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Every day I’m grateful for this, especially as I watch the free-roaming birds, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other native residents who have allowed us to share some space on this their property.

But especially now, as I’m more cognizant of entering the Red Zone, I think back on all we’ve done here, together, and am now finally letting myself be free of the false guilt I’ve put upon myself to be something I really have never been—a farmer. I have grown to have the highest respect for farmers. As Thomas Aquinas himself admitted, they are truly gifted men and women, at the top of human society, and worthy of our praise! And frankly, I am not worthy to be called one. I’ve tried, and by God’s grace and mercy, we’ve actually accomplished quite a bit on this land—though I’d never for a second think I ought to start a Youtube Channel telling anyone how they ought to farm! Ridiculous!

fire in stoveSome of  you might have guessed, but I lied to you earlier. I have no old farmer friend who was ranting in front of my hearth fire—that was me. I had indeed once succumb to the temptation of bitterness, but by His mercy, I have come to appreciate what I have shared with you in this post. I’ve grown to see that God had called Marilyn and I out to this rural property not to become farmers, but for the opportunity to discover, through farming, together with our sons, what the gospel of Jesus Christ is really all about. It’s certainly about faith, the sacraments, the Church, and all that, of course. But it’s mostly about love and humility, forgiveness and humility, detachment, simplicity, sacrifice, and humility, courage and others-centeredness, and did I mention, humility?

When you discover by grace the Lord Jesus and try to live according to His ways, you eventually have to let go so that you can become what the Lord wants you to be.

Contentment Learned

by the woodstoveOne of the most crucially important, yet dagnabedly elusive, aspects of Red Zone Thinking is CONTENTMENT. When we’ve arrived in the “red zone” of life, or are planning ahead for it, we want to be content. We don’t want to spend our time looking back with regret, or being anxious about tomorrow, wringing our hands over all the unknowns that keep poking their ugly heads up into our path. We want to wake up in the morning, and, at least after our first or second cup of coffee, look forward with optimistic joy to the day ahead!

Which is why I believe St. Paul wrote most of his Epistles through the lens of Red Zone Thinking. He may not have used this terminology, but constantly in all his letters he exhorts his readers to follow our Savior as if they might meet Him soon. For example, these words to the Christians in Rome have the clear ring of Red Zone Thinking:

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:11-13, emphasis mine).

Red Zone Thinking means not letting these words of Scripture pass by without pausing and thinking, “Wait—he’s talking to me! Right now, not some day way in the future. How should my life, starting now, by grace, be different, before it’s too late?”

And he also spoke of contentment. When Paul wrote his letter to his Christian friends at Philippi, he happened to be imprisoned and in chains for the preaching of the Gospel. After many positive words of encouragement, he wrote:

“Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13, emphasis mine).

What seems important to point out is that Paul doesn’t merely say, “I am content in whatever state I am”, but rather, “I have learned to be content.”

In other places, he commands his readers to choose to be content:

“…if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8)

“Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5a).

And in another place, Paul emphasizes that this contentment, which he exhorts others to choose, is something he himself has chosen:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Contentment is an attitude we choose, but in his Red Zone Thinking, Paul recognizes that it is a virtue he had to learn, by grace, as his heart learned to see the struggles of his life through the lens of the Cross of Christ, for he clearly admits, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” He even learned to accept the sufferings he received from living the Gospel as the means by which he could “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

And it seems to me that learning contentment in the Red Zone requires reflecting back upon our mistakes. I can’t help but picture Paul, as he sat in his cell, encumbered by chains writing this letter, pausing to remember an event that had happened years before when he first brought the gospel to these very Philippian Christians—an event which, with hindsight, he might have handled differently. His companion Luke had recorded it in his second letter, so he can’t escape public knowledge of his brash act of discontentment.

Paul and Silas, and apparently their new companion Luke, were on their second missionary journey, immediately after the Jerusalem council. They had arrived in Philippi, and on the sabbath, as Paul and His companions were heading toward the synagogue, this is what happened:

“As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she did for many days.

“But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, ‘I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

“But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, ‘These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.’

“The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:16-24).

All because Paul got annoyed. I can just see Silas, as they sat side-by-side in the stocks, saying, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” With hindsight, Paul might have wondered if there wasn’t maybe a better way he could have handled that. I mean, as crazy as she might have been, still, she was accurately promoting their cause: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And, yes, freeing the girl of that demon was a praiseworthy thing, but maybe with a little more patience (i.e., counting to ten first), he might have avoided their being seized, dragged, convicted, attacked, stripped, beat with rods, thrown into prison, and stuck in the stocks.

Of course, Paul could claim that the “rest of the story” justifies his actions and their sufferings! For, as St. Luke continues, the benefits that God brought out of this “nice mess” began through their decision to choose contentment:

“But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.

“But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’

“And [the jailer] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, ‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’

“And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.

“And [the jailer] took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:25-34).

As Paul reminisced, he may have seen how giving into discontentment had gotten them into a “nice mess”, whereas an act of grateful, worshipful contentment had opened the floodgates of God’s grace and mercy.

Seems to me that Red Zone Thinking involves learning to be content by looking back and learning from our failures as well as our victories in Christ.

St. Paul admitted that contentment is something we learn, but this learning requires that we choose to move forward toward contentment even when we don’t feel it—for the feeling of contentment is something we leave to God. Earlier in Philippians 4:6-8, Paul describes a process that maybe he had found helpful for choosing, growing, and learning contentment:

(1) “Have no anxiety about anything” [The first step involves recognizing, identifying, and owning any feelings of resentment we might have harbored about anything! This must be rejected or it will grow into bitterness and discontent];

(2) “but in everything by prayer and supplication … let your requests be made known to God” [The most important response to any anxiety is turning to our loving God, asking for His forgiveness, wisdom, grace, and mercy];

(3) “… with thanksgiving” [Choosing to be thankful is not just the most important attitude for growing in contentment, but for growing in every aspect of the Christian life—we must remember and recognize that every single thing we have in our lives come from Him and we must receive it all with gratitude!];

(4) “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” [Here is the feeling of contentment that is not something we can make happen but is rather a gift from Him that can help keep us in Him]; and

(5) “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [We need to replace anything in our minds that might draw us towards bitterness and discontentment with things that draw us closer to God.]

As I think about this, with beverage of choice in hand before the warmth of our hearth, I need to end this post with the same disclaimer that St. Paul himself used earlier in his letter:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).

Lord, help us all to learn to grow in contentment.

God’s Gift of Creation

Hereford BorthersA couple years ago, my good friend and coworker, Bill Bateson, accompanied me out to my cottage farm where I video taped a short reflection on God’s Gift of Creation. In this short video, with Bill & his camera on one side, my (former) two beautiful polled Herefords chewing the grass in the background, and my overgrown pasture all around us, I reflect, from Scripture and St. Bonaventure, on the importance of looking for the vestiges of God “in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Hopefully, our search for the evidence of God in His Creation should fill us with gratitude. I posted this on my previous blog, but I wanted to re-post it for your thoughts. (If you are interested in more of my thoughts along this line, you might check out my book, Life From Our Land.)

A Farewell to Bovines

Farewell to BovinesAs some of you know, my family and I have tried to make a go of it out here on this muddy, mostly wooded portion of Marilyn’s family Century farm. Our 40-acres consist of a valley on top of what has been called “the Highlands” since the earliest maps of our county—thus, “Highlands Valley Cottage Farm”. We added the quaint term, “cottage”, because we daren’t imply for even a second that our efforts have had any semblance to a farm! 

To take a step back further, as some of you know, I came to this with no experience whatsoever in farming or even gardening! I spent forty-five years land-locked in cities before we escaped to this isolated valley in the Appalachian foothills. Just as I disclaimed in my book, this website will NOT consist of blogs or videos on “how to farm”. I might share how we happened to try something, or more often how I worked myself out of a hole I had dug for myself! But I wouldn’t presume for a second to have the wisdom or knowledge to tell anyone about how to do anything on a farm! Rather, we’re mostly just sharing with friends—fellow “cottage farmers”—what we’ve been up to, and maybe asking advice on how to manage the latest crisis.

In trying to learn how to farm, we’ve accumulated quite a library of books and weblinks about traditional, organic, sustainable, subsistence, small, or cottage farming—even some books claiming one can actually make a profit from farming! Overflowing with great ideas, these books have successfully inspired many young couples, with growing families and manure-spreader loads of energy and enthusiasm, to consider giving life on a small farm a shot! Some of these pilgrims land running, maybe not certain what they’ll need to do in the months and years ahead, but ready to take on whatever comes! All power to ‘em! And now, whenever I pick up one of those books, I sometimes find my own latent enthusiasm being rekindled, thinking, “Gal dern’it, I think I can still do that!”—forgetting that I’m not 45 anymore, but a few weeks shy of 70.

The problem is that, with the plethora of these enthusiastic go-getter books, there’s a corresponding absence of books about what to do with a small farm once the kids have all moved away, leaving you alone to do all the outside “farming” chores, while you’re reaching retirement age, with the strength and stamina of an old coot. 

This is a little of what this weblog is about: What do my wife and I do with these 40-acres, as we consider “retirement” with no particular need to make money from this land? It’s certainly not that we’re wealthy, but rather I’ve never been able to make enough money from this farm anyway to make the effort worth it. Oh, sure, there’s all the idealisms about how beautiful, enriching, and invigorating it all is just to be outside, out in nature, out with the critters, doing farm work! Well, that’s all well and good, except when it’s 6 degrees below zero, as it was this morning, with 8-inches of drifting snow, the cattle are up in the hills far away in the back pasture, their water trough is frozen, and they’ve eaten the last of the hay, so that, even though my joints are killing me, I’ve got to walk through the snow down and up a hill to the barn to get the tractor to haul another round bale, but the tractor’s frozen, so I have to plug it in for an hour, and, oh, I’m out of round bales, so I have to first thaw out and then drive my frozen truck and trailer 10 miles on icy back roads to the nearest farmer who can sell me a round bale, and then haul it back, unload it, and then once the tractor’s thawed, use the 3-point-spike to precariously lift and haul the round bale up the snowy slope to the cattle, and quickly drop the bale, jump off the tractor, and unravel the bale-mesh before the bull decides, as he normally does, to attack the round bale to show it who’s boss! All of this by myself, and long before my morning coffee has even had a chance to awaken some sense of hopefulness to this new day!

herfordsWhich is why it finally became obvious that it was time to bid A Farewell to Bovines. I truly love cows (regardless of what the environmentalist wackos claim their flatulence does to the ozone layer). Off and on for 20+ years, I’ve rotationally grazed dairy and beef cattle, always just a few at a time. Our hilly, mostly clay and partially wooded property lends itself to pretty much nothing else. Periodically surrendering to the guilt of needing to do something useful and productive with this land, I’ve adopted a system of semi-mob grazing, using polytape and step-in posts, that is supposedly good for improving the land as well as keeping the cattle on grass almost year round. Problem is, this is almost as labor intensive as keeping a dairy cow, since semi-mob rotational grazing requires moving the cattle into a new polytape contained paddock every 12-hours, 24/7/365. 

But without additional help, especially with no one to fill in for me when we’re gone, it became increasing apparent that it was time to “retire” from cattle farming.

We presently had a poled Hereford family: a gentle, 1500+ pound 5-year-old bull named Curley, a 3-year-old “freshened” heifer, and a 11-month old bull calf. After considering many options over many months, we narrowed all the options down to one: butcher the bull ourselves on the property, and then give the heifer and calf away to our oldest son, who, in partnership with a young farm family, could raise beef for their two growing families.

You might be wondering, “Wait, did you say butcher the bull yourself? On your own property? Why, in God’s Name, would you do that?!!” Well, for lots of reasons, but mostly because, due to the way our culture has responded to the Covid pandemic, all the butcher shops within driving distance are booked into next year! So, I took a butchering class, and with some friends with butchering experience, we butchered Curly right where we dropped him.

I won’t go through all the details of our day-long endeavor—which included my able friends doing most of the work, and my chasing, for over a mile across snowy hills, the escaped heifer—but in the end, mostly because of the mercy of God and the skills of everyone else except me, Curley the bull is now hanging in two coolers aging for two weeks, and the heifer and calf have a new home.

barn in winter 2This morning I woke up as usual at 4 AM; Marilyn was back asleep after a restless night. It was -6 degrees outside and mostly cloudy. I made coffee, which is hard when you really need coffee before you can make coffee! I fed our herd of cats, brought an armload of wood upstairs, rekindled the fire in our Hearthstone stove, and then quickly checked my eNews app to make sure our country was still here! With coffee in hand, before going up to do Morning Prayer, I paused by the fire, glancing out the window, across the snow covered valley, over to our now empty 100-year-old barn, and, with a toast of my cup, said to our generous Creator: “Lord, I’m grateful that those 1000 cattle You own are now safely on someone else’s hills.”