When our guests arrived at the same time Thursday morning, we were a bit surprised. One couple, our friends and coworkers at St. Brigid's Meadows, live across the street. The other couple, my parents, live 3 hours east of us. When our guests came in the door bearing gifts of smiles and pies, we knew this would be a good day. Welcomes and introductions aside, we settled in for a homemade brunch consisting of farm raised foods and good cheer.
In the background, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade added atmosphere and we all dug in. Soon, we fell into comfortable conversation and before long, the pretense of new faces was shed. It was a great start to the holiday, followed by a group effort clean-up in anticipation of the Big Meal later in the afternoon. The Blankenheims
It was a long distance from where we were in our relationship just a short month ago. But to fully understand what happened in the last month, I must back up nearly two years. (Don't worry, it won't be a day-by-day account!)
As Andy and I dove more and more fully into this farming take over at Foxwood Farm, we had to start thinking differently. When we first moved back to Wisconsin from Colorado Springs, we were still in the corporate rat race. I had quit full time graphic design to freelance from home, in anticipation of our first child in a few months. Andy took a sales position that had him away from home over 10 hours per day. Between long work hours and late pregnancy, we did not have many thoughts toward the farming endeavor and only had a few planning meetings with my parents on the direction of the farm. Our initial interest had been a tourist type farm with a few niche artisenal products and more of a hobby farm atmosphere. As we progressed into our pregnancy, we took a natural birthing class and learned a great deal about nutrition and diet for a pregnant mother. Logic told us that what was good for the pregnant mother was good for everyone, and we started to change the way we ate. We found a local source for eggs and switched to whole milk, some organic fruit and whole grains. For my birthday in 2007, I got a book from my oldest brother that became the catalyst for an entire life paradigm switch. The book, The Untold Story of Milk, completely opened our eyes to the benefits of fresh, unprocessed milk ... and the amazing government take-over of our food system in the last 100 years. We had the time to read most of it together and when Elly was born, continued reading it individually. We knew then that we had to get hold of this milk, but did not know how.
In August of 2007, we moved to the farm. Andy still worked the same job, and I had my freelance work, with a baby, and our lives were not yet involved in farming. Andy took care of the animals on weekends, but it wasn't until winter of that year that we knew we couldn't work a full time job and farm. There were not enough hours in the day. Our plans for a tourist destination had morphed into providing local, everyday folks with the type of food that would nourish them and not poison them. Suddenly we were in the mentality that this was no longer a hobby dream. This was the real deal. When Andy quit his job in February of 2008, we had taken the plunge. There was no going back then. We'd intentionally burned the boat and we were here to stay.
Looking back, that fierce "Pilgrim" mentality was both our greatest driving force and our deepest downfall. Our focus on what we needed to realize this dream became like a laser beam. Others outside that focus had trouble getting a word in edge-wise and most often that was my parents.
We were very conflicted with our plans. On one hand, Mom and Dad were very supportive of our future goals, yet on the other hand, we felt a lot of pressure to do things that Dad had always wanted to do on the farm. It was a battle from nearly the beginning. In June of 2008, about the time we first began this blog, Andy quit his part time FedEx job and devoted all his strength, time and thoughts to Foxwood Farm. There was much to do. A lot of the farm had been allowed to decline for several years because at the time, my father saw no one coming to take over. He was thinking of retirement and buying new machinery or fixing not-so-urgent problems was low on his list of priorities. Now, with a young, entrepreneurial man ready to take it all on, there were several years of clean up and catch up to do. The hours were long and hard. Andy learned so much that first year.
And he also learned about the dynamic of The American Farmer. My dad is The American Farmer. He is independent, often working weeks at a time alone, relying on neighbors for seasonal help and in turn helping them in season. He has gotten by for years on his own ingenuity, thriftiness, and self-reliance. Cold days, sweltering days, sick with the flu; no matter. There is a job to be done and The Farmer will not call in sick. (He can't!) That self-reliance is what has kept the people farming through this difficult century.
And that same self-reliance has the unfortunate effect of closing off new or unproven ideas. Bring in Andy; completely new to farming, having no credibility, and a learning style completely foreign to my father. Andy asks questions about everything. He just has to know why/how/when things work. "Why do you do that with this tool?" "I'm not familiar with this process ... wouldn't it go more efficiently if you eliminate that?" "Couldn't we try this method?"
In trying to ascertain the "WHY?" of farming, Andy became to my father a great hold up in the progress of things. He was not interested in teaching Andy. He just wanted to get the job done and on to the next bullet point in the never-ending list of To Do's. But for Andy, just doing something and moving on was not teaching him anything. If the same problem occurred, the cognition to recall how to fix it might not be there because he didn't fully understand the process from the first time around. It wasn't but a few months of this delicate question and answer dance that tensions arose between the two of them. When we took our turn at being shepherds in the summer of 2008, relations were already strained. As a family, we decided to look into group counseling, to help us understand the dynamics we were confronting on a daily basis.
From early fall 2008 to early spring 2009, we went faithfully as a group of four (Elly had a babysitter during that time) to work out our personalities. It was rough at first, but after coming to a safe place to vent our feelings, reveal hidden emotions and talk through misunderstandings, the four of us felt like we could "graduate" and meet weekly at home to continue planning for the ramp-up of Foxwood Farm. Suddenly we had a basic platform on which to talk through ideas successfully, and all of us were renewed with hope.
With a new baby in the mix, I was pretty much taken out of the farming equation, and it was again many hours with Andy and Dad working side by side. As our product line expanded from free-range eggs to grass fed beef, we looked forward to gaining a milking herd. The sheep continued to be a source of future promise for independent income, and we expanded our family garden to a quarter acre.
As our first cow Charlotte freshened a whole month early, we scrambled to set up the barn for milking. Our dream of having fresh, unprocessed milk was finally here and hopes were high. Dad taught Andy and I to hand milk her as we had NOTHING ready yet. But within the week, and then the following month, we got sufficiently set up with a milking system. We revamped the milk house, built an on-farm store and bartered for some essential freezers and electrical work. By the time our second cow, Tilly, came into the barn, it was just about June of 2009, and we had already pre-sold shares for her milk. We finally felt like we were underway.
And you know the rest of how it all went down, as we detailed the chickens, sheep and garden story right here in this blog. Our customer base was growing steadily and so was our milking herd. By the end of July, we had 7 cows and more milk than we could sell (at the time). So we decided to become part of a processor to pick up our excess milk. On Andy's birthday in August, our first milk pickup occurred. It was exciting and bittersweet. We never wanted to go outside our customers and sell commercially. But the pressure for bills and rent caused us to reconsider.
During this time, our families still met weekly, but the meetings were less and less productive. They became more centered on money and bills and becoming profitable. Mom and Dad were rightly concerned that they had put a lot of saved cash back into the farm, but were seeing little, if any, return on the investment. We were also rightly offended that they would demand as much return on investment so early in the game. After all, statistically it takes new businesses upwards of five years to become fully profitable. We were barely into our first year. The problem was two-fold. Our unwillingness to do things as they "always had been done" (Andy's questioning everything, either out of sheer thirsting for knowledge, or actually asking if there was a better way) and an out-of-the-box marketing strategy. What we wanted to do was not only foreign to the farming community in which we lived (crop farmers, government subsidies and selling everything off the farm wholesale), but it was foreign to how my parents had farmed as well. Though they knew it could work, and we all had studied several successful families doing direct-to-consumer farming, the actual nuts and bolts of working within that framework were still hard to adjust to.
As the months passed, it became more and more obvious that Andy and Dad could not even work together on projects. They divided the farm responsibilities between them and went about business as usual, barely talking and often, not seeing each other throughout the day. It was a mutual decision in order to keep the farm running without constant battles throughout the day. In the fall of 2009, we were asked to start paying rent on the house, cows and land. This was something we had been graciously pardoned by my folks from the time that Andy quit FedEx the previous summer. With our current bills and income, we were only able to pay on the house rent. All other rents silently added up ... on paper and in our heads. We sold the sheep, having too many projects for Andy to take care of effectively all at once. We continued selling the milk via word of mouth. At the end of 2009, we were actually poised to become profitable. If our milk sales continued the way they were, we could quit selling commercially. By autumn, our beef calves would be old enough to sell direct to consumer and with the added income, we'd be able to start paying all the rent for the farm. It was a hopeful time, and we couldn't wait to ease the tensions that were at a breaking point with Mom and Dad. In December, we "got off the truck" from our commercial milk hauler and welcomed the New Year with high hopes.
In January, we got the letter that would send our business into a tailspin we were never able to recover from. With our infinite tax dollars, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection had surfed this very blog and found us "guilty" of selling fresh unprocessed milk directly to consumers. They threatened to shut us down if we didn't cease what we were doing.
In fear and desperation, we shut down our personal blog, erased our Facebook page, canceled our LocalHarvest page and had this very blog purged of anything related to raw milk. Every source of viral advertising that had been steadily leading consumers to our door was effectively silenced. Our patron base plateaued as we asked our current milk customers to keep their favorite product on the down low. All our hopes turned to the pending raw milk bill coming through our legislature in the coming months.
We asked for more time with my folks and they granted it. We and others rallied our friends and customers and overwhelmed the public session on the bill in March of 2010. 700 people from around the state came to show support for the bill that, although flawed, would keep farms like ours in business until a better bill could be passed. In April, the bill passed both the House and the Senate by just under a two-thirds majority. It seemed we had won and Andy and I began getting the farm ready for the new bill requirements and updates. We had a massive marketing campaign ready at the very minute we heard the green light from the governor's mansion. And so we, along with my parents, and the rest of the fresh milk farmers across the state (and the nation), waited on that signature.
It was sure to come. He had stated support early on and for months, reiterated that he would sign a reasonable fresh milk bill. A month passed. Still we waited. The controversy grew. And we began to feel the pressure. Even before we learned of the governor's veto, the dam had broken on Foxwood Farm. A few months back, my parents had written a letter explaining their needs and feelings in the farming effort. It was basically saying, if you can't make a go of it by June, we all have to be done. The strain, the relationships, and the financial burden was coming to a head.
It had been half a year and we had managed to take on almost all the livestock and building related bills. We had taken over all animal husbandry, and while there were still mistakes being made, we felt the crash course had really given us a surviving knowledge of how to farm on our own. But we still could not pay anything but the house rent. The DATCP letter, compounded with the lack of new customers, had left us far from our end of 2009 projections and once again, we were not showing Mom and Dad what we promised.
To make matters worse, when we thought the bill would pass, we changed the way we sold milk on farm. We no longer bottled for people; we asked them to buy our bottles and fill jars on their own. We also eliminated assigned days for people to pick up milk (a way to regulate a finite supply of milk). In doing these two necessary changes, we lost almost half of our regular patrons between April and July. Our income dropped to half of what it was and we were desperate.
Most of our former customers don't know this, but every time just one of them didn't come to get milk in a given week, or opted to buy milk from the store because filling up in the milk house wasn't convenient, we were one step closer to losing hold of the farm. This is not to blame any one family or person. It's just a simple fact of small businesses. It's the people that know the service is there and choose not to spend their dollars at said business that eventually see the "Closed" sign on the door.
Though we hadn't talked with my parents directly in months, we could sense on a spiritual level that our time at Foxwood Farm was at a close ... unless we did something. In a last effort, we all met with a mutual friend and had a mediated meeting about the future goals of each family. Andy worked for several days on a counter-proposal to my parents' initial demand: buy the whole farm, rent the whole farm, or we're all done. In his well reasoned proposal, we would rent only the number of cows we needed, only the number of acres we could manage and all the buildings. This brought the monthly rent to a manageable amount that also brought my parents a nice monthly income. In addition, it allowed us to focus heavily on ramping up our current products in order to begin saving to buy the farm.
Unfortunately, that wasn't at all in the goals of my parents. They had reached a point that they just wanted to be done with the farm, and us taking over only five to ten acres was not a viable solution. What would they do with the rest while they once again waited on us? It meant more crop farming for Dad, and at the time, he was much more interested in his personal pursuits that did not allow for a farming lifestyle. All of this was completely understandable and totally within their rights as landowners. They had a lot of money built up in the equity of the farm and at the end of their 60s, wanted to see some of the fruits of their labor.
June came and went. We barely talked to them anymore. One morning as Andy and I prepared to head to church, our friend Gale stopped in unexpectedly and told us that we needed to do something regarding the farm. He didn't know quite what, but he'd been feeling this for a long time and had finally felt he needed to sit us down and talk with us. "You've got to ask for help," he told us. "Maybe make your story known and see what happens." It began a ball rolling that we never ever dreamed of.
My parents took a short trip to visit my brother in Colorado and during that week, we wrote a letter to five or six people within our sphere of influence explaining our dire situation and asking if they had wisdom and advice for us. Each of them came back with amazing ideas and empathy, but one happened to know a farmer in La Crosse that was looking for a family to hire. The rest of that thread you all know very well.
By the time my parents returned from Colorado, we had already met with Vince once and had determined to follow this unexpected path as far as it would lead. We were unsure of how to do this, but needed to break the news to Mom and Dad that we were pursuing a plan that did not involve Foxwood Farm. We took them out to eat and told them the whole story. When they told us we had their blessing and that they felt this was a good plan, we knew that there was no turning back.
I think it was that very day Foxwood Farm actually died.
For we knew, if working at St. Brigid's Meadows didn't pan out, there was no net for us at Foxwood. We were either moving west, or done farming. Period.
In August of 2010, just a short 15 months since we had begun milking a single cow, we packed up the house and left the place we thought we'd call home for the next 40 years.
We left the farm, but we couldn't leave our feelings of failure, hurt, sense of unfairness, and a lingering ache that our dream had been robbed of us. Initially we shut off all contact about the farm. It was too painful to hear. And since my parents were intimately involved in the dissolution of the farm goods, we needed to squelch contact with them as well.
Andy and I were harboring intense feelings of betrayal and anger towards my folks. In order to deal with them, we didn't. We busied ourselves in our new jobs and dove head-first into our new roles at St. Brigid's. We set up boundaries for what we would or would not talk about on the phone. We had need to return to the east side of the state a couple times and purposely took roads that did not pass the farmstead. It was a complete shut down.
I knew it was a temporary fix, but it's all we could do in the immediate. The distance was a welcomed barrier and the only thing we were sad about was the fact that many of our patrons had to flounder to find another source for their milk. We could fool ourselves that we were dealing with the loss of Foxwood Farm, but my subconscious knew better. My Spirit wouldn't let me get away with it that easily.
A few months passed. I found myself encountering dreams about the farm and the farm house on a nightly basis. In fact, as I talked through these dreams with Andy, I realized I'd been having an awful dream relating to the farm nearly every single night since mid-September. They were not necessarily nightmares, but filled with an overall uncomfortability about the events unfolding. They ranged from real life knowledge to ridiculous, but all were themed around the farm house and the changes being made to it. They became so frequent, that I quite telling Andy the details and just said in the mornings, "Had another farm dream."
We finally sat down and talked about what to do about it. Obviously I needed to deal with this painful loss in a more constructive way, but was unsure of what to do. Initially, I wanted to write a letter to my parents letting them know exactly what I felt, as a way to get them to understand their role in everything. It was a very human and self-centered plan. And a normal one. As we prayed for guidance in this delicate issue, my brothers contacted me about getting in on an anniversary gift for Mom and Dad. Their anniversary is right after Thanksgiving.
This is important because they wanted to honor our parents with a substantial gift to celebrate 45 years of marriage. I found myself wanting not only to participate, but help dictate how we could make the gift more meaningful for the two of them. I mused on this feeling before church one morning. Why was I so eager to honor people who had dishonored my dreams and family so recently? It was a deep desire within me to do something very special for them. I pondered this as we drove to church. The sermon that day was all about honoring those in authority, regardless if we agree with them or not. I couldn't believe it. God was setting me up! (He's good at that.) I listened at the edge of my seat. I had no notebook to take notes, so unfortunately I can't recall most of the details, but the Bible verses the pastor found in both the Old and New Testaments confirmed and reaffirmed my desire to honor my parents.
Within the week, I wrote them that letter, but it had a completely different tone. I didn't mention everything I had wanted to unload on them. Instead, I came in the opposite spirit and told them that for the first time, I was beginning to see God showing me the role Andy and I played in the very demise of the farm. That we were just as, or maybe more, in the wrong from the very beginning of the farm endeavor. That we did not honor them and that we allowed the perceived offenses to keep us from seeing their part in the farm. It wasn't long, but I laid it all out for them.
And as deer hunting season opened the week before Thanksgiving, I went to visit them with the kids for the weekend. It was a nice visit, and we officially invited Mom and Dad to have Thanksgiving at our home in Coon Valley. They graciousy acknowledged the letter and as the two of them walked in our door, it was a truly an event to be thankful for.
Thursday late afternoon, we sat down with the Blankenheim's, my parents and our little family said a substantial prayer of thanks. Just the fact of us sitting there was a testament to the humbling grace of God and what he can do with broken hearts. We aren't through it yet, and there is much more healing to be had, but we are positive this step was the first good step in a long time, for our relationship.
Then Dad gave a toast. It was short and could have easily been missed in the following conversation, but I heard it loud and clear.
"Here's to an interesting and painful year...and a beautiful ending to that year."
Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on Google+.