"So, why are you doing this again? I guess you like trees and space and stuff?" A friend asked in complete seriousness over lunch, during a cool month in 2008. I don't remember the details. We were downtown and both wearing suits, I know that much. It was smack in the middle of my graduate school education - you know - back when I quit my job in order to become America's Next Top Social Policy Reformer. Back when I spent more money on heels and tailored suits than animal feed. Back when the farm was no more than a twinkle in my eye. She had a smart phone which was still sort of a big deal at that time, and I remember she checked it periodically to make sure she hadn't missed extremely urgent emails (I am not judging. I probably checked my email three times while writing this sentence). We sat in a busy restaurant near the state capitol where the air feels electric and urban and exciting - if you're into that stuff. I used to be into that stuff.
She'd asked a good question - a great question. For months now I had practiced a response that sounded both purposeful and thoughtful, that would elicit awe and respect instead of a wrinkled nose and confusion. I practiced a confident hands-on-hips retort to the expected "farmer" judgments that would inevitably be made. At that time, I was fully immersed in a policy program surrounded by students eager to work in Washington D.C. and change the world through powerful appointments in foreign and domestic government or foundations, or the sort of organizations that do things like, you know, change the world. And in the midst of all that, I decided to be a farmer. It was a confusing moment in my chronology. This lovely friend certainly wasn't the first to ask, but she was the first with whom I was completely honest, mostly because I was tired of giving The Speech that probably included an explanation about my passion for environmental and agricultural policy (false) and how the land and subsequent farm would become some sort of semi-urban space open to disadvantaged youth so they could learn about self-sufficiency (also false). That's not why I wanted this life, but at that time, it was the only explanation that made sense based on all the other decisions I'd made up to that point. The honest answer was out of sequence, old fashioned, jarring. But I was tired of The Speech followed by jokes about cowboy boots and cow shit. So I stopped lying, and I told her exactly why I had already lost so many nights sleep with the anticipation of what might be coming. Regardless of how unsophisticated, dull, and unimportant it sounded to the professional sensibilities of my peers.
"I'mdoingthisbecauseIwanttokeepgoatsandcowsandhavemyownmilkandmakecheeseandkeepahuge gardenandliveoffmyanimalsandsitonmyporchtowatchthesunriseandset." I said it so quickly everything jumbled together. I doubt she caught more than "cheese" and "porch." She laughed, "Seriously?" "Seriously," I responded, face stoic, readying myself for critique and willing my defenses not to crack a joke. "Well," she put her phone down and was suddenly at full attention, "I think that's incredibly exciting. Good for you, girl."
I stopped giving The Speech after that conversation and began answering such questions with a new Keep it Simple Stupid approach to the entire situation: "Because I want to farm." It would take much time and actual farming to eventually understand the real answer to "Why this life" question we would continually (and still) receive. I don't think about that question or that answer very much anymore. It's surprising now to remember how my answer used to consume me. It was necessary to craft an explanation that was tangible and reasonable. It was important to me that I appeared as a person who makes meaningful choices. Although I'd never talked to anyone about this dream pushed into the deepest crevices of my imagination, this was no ephemeral fantasy. But no one knew that.
Since we moved here, all of that has changed. Since I brought home four baby goats that required round the clock bottle feeding, all of that has changed. Since we broke ground on our first jumbo-garden that was tilled with the tractor, all of that has changed. The doing somehow legitimized the wanting - for me. I am thinking about this now, today, because there has been so much doing these past months that it occurs to me how suddenly explanations are no longer necessary. When you are in the midst of your life, no one asks why but instead how. I am not seen any longer as someone yearning or striving or scribbling because I no longer see myself in that regard. I wake up and battle the bucklings, feed the inside then the outside dogs, separate cattle, count chickens. A weekend date night is a late trip to Lowe's in the old farm truck that gets burdened with barn-building material before the luxury of dinner at Taco Cabana. That's high rolling, for us.
Today I remember that lunch with my friend, not so many years ago. Back then, I measured success conventionally against a professional and financial yardstick. I was in the thick of a textbook "dream job" for someone with my background and supposed interests. Then I drowned in boredom and rose to the surface - here. To this place of modesty and riches. Relatively speaking, I've accomplished a lot that looks pretty on paper. Today, however, I managed to fill a stainless pail with sweet, thick milk from a cow whose name I know, whose face I scratch each morning, who comes when called. I managed to complete a goat barn started months ago that is now ready and waiting for the baby goats that will be here any moment birthed from the babies I brought home and bottle-fed myself for months. My legs are permanently bruised at the level where the bucklings' heads reach and bruised from the gates and branches that hit them. My arms are strong and my hands literally ache. Out here I see the sun rise and set rather than just knowing it happened.
When the cow seemed to dry up, Kimberly advised to up the ante with feed and general care. And it worked - doesn't always work that way in general life - but the rules are so simple here. Out here you get back what you put in. It's a lesson that took 33 years to learn. Fresh milk from my own cow is liquid gold, its value directly related to the labor involved, to the expense of feed, to the level of care and patience required. Those products we find so readily available and packaged neatly at $3 per gallon are shamefully cheap. The cost of food we buy at big box stores skews expectations of price. Real food, good food, clean food - it ain't cheap. It shouldn't be. Behind that carefully wrapped cheese from the farmer's market is a man or woman, an expanse of land, some buildings scrapped together of metal and wood, is sickness and health, is drought and flood, is a herd of animals tended, nursed, and loved.
I say now, with hands on my hips, "I farm." I do this because I love the animals and I love the view. I don't aspire to fight big battles anymore or save the world. I want to fight the good fight of turning animals and dirt into food. I can count each dollar that went into a cup of fresh milk, can measure the physical pain it caused, the labor it required, the patience it demands. Nothing is more gratifying then the jar of liquid gold in my fridge, maybe fool's gold since I can buy it cheap at the gas station down the road. It's the most precious stuff I own.