I got an email from this guy who told me he thinks I need a friend on a farm. I think he wrote the email right after I wrote about being a pint-sized ENTJ on the estate-sized front lawn of my grandma’s house. I am not sure how he knew I am fascinated with farms, but I am. And I’m always curious about how family farms work here in Wisconsin: what life is like, and why do people keep choosing that?
He invited me and my kids. He told me the farm was more than an hour out of Madison. Ten minutes out of Madison is farmland, so more than an hour out is really hard core. I went to a farmer’s market with my oldest son to check out the farmer, to make sure he wasn’t an ax murderer or something.
To be honest, I couldn’t tell from looking at the farmer’s market. Really, even an ax murderer has to have a job. I asked for his phone number, in case I got lost on the way to the farm. He told me it was a party line — a term I haven’t heard anyone use in real life. He also said his parents might answer the phone.
“You live with them?!?!” I tried not to sound judgmental. I write all the time about how living with your parents is a good idea. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how Norman Bates lived with his mom.
The farmer said, “Don’t worry, I’m not Amish.”
I thought that was charming. I mean, of course I didn’t worry that he was Amish because I don’t know anyone who is Amish. I didn’t even know there were Amish people in Wisconsin. But you can learn a lot about someone by how they choose to reassure you. And somehow this was so genuine that I was, actually, reassured.
The farm was really in the middle of nowhere. It was in Wisconsin, but it would be a suburb of Dubuque, Iowa, if Dubuque had suburbs. I had to call twice because I thought I was lost. Both times, the farmer said that I was actually following directions just fine.
The farmer lived in a town of 500 people. None of whom I could see from his farm.
I parked my car in the middle of his dirt road. Or his front lawn. They were sort of the same. There were fields everywhere. It was every farm: Red barn, white house, green fields.
The first thing I said to him: “What are you doing out here? All alone? Who do you talk to? You don’t even have a real phone.”
He smiled. He said he had friends.
I looked around and decided his friends were very far away.
It turns out, though, that his friends had kids. He had “city friends” and they brought their kids to visit the farm. The place was tricked out for kids: a rope for swinging, baby chicks to hold, baby pigs to pet, and ten cats he let my son feed. We walked to the field with the cattle, past the hens and roosters, alongside the vegetable garden that was for the pigs to eat, stepping through the barbed-wire fence. The farmer scanned his field for the herd of cattle, and my son held his hand while we traipsed toward the cattle.
“I don’t get it. You read my column and sent me an email to come to your farm?”
“I wouldn’t send an email to a syndicated newspaper columnist. I saw the note at the bottom of your column about your blog. So I started reading your blog. And then I bought your book. And then I wrote to you.”
“You read career advice?”
He thought my question was funny. “I’m an entrepreneur. And I read your blog because you write a lot about entrepreneurship.”
“You’re an entrepreneur?”
“Farming is changing a lot. It’s a lot like what you say about how corporations won’t take care of you and you have to take care of yourself.”
The farmer told me about how the buy-local movement is great for his farm. It’s increasing profits for farmers who can shift their business model.
He called out sort of a bird call (but deeper, for cattle) and the herd walked toward us. I thought there would be a stampede like in a movie, but they just came to say hi.
My son fed grass to snot-dripping Angus cattle and I asked the farmer if these cattle are those organic, grass-fed cattle that I see at Trader Joe's.
The farmer said that they are hormone free and grass fed, but he doesn’t get certified organic. It’s just jumping through hoops for the government and he doesn’t need to do that in order to sell to socially conscious restaurants. I liked that he was cutting corners. I liked that he knew which details to ignore.
I asked him how he knew what to write to me in an email, and he said that today, the family farm is about marketing. “It was a sales pitch,” he said. “I thought you had a problem and I thought I could solve it.”
I thought of all the problems I have and tried to remember which one he said he was solving. I felt like there were so many he could solve, but if he had mentioned them all, I’d have never responded to his email.
On the way back to the house through the field, he told me he thought I needed a place I could go that was peaceful. He told my son not to step in cow pies. We ducked under the electric fence. He told me it wasn’t on, but he wanted us to practice because it might be on the next time we came.
I got excited that he thought there would be a next time. I thought my life could be very peaceful here, as I looked out on the fields like they could fill my days. I made a note to see how much it would cost to get wireless Internet at his house.
We arrived at the farm at 5pm, so I brought dinner. My son and I are two of the pickiest eaters in the world, but I wanted to bring something that the farmer would like to eat. I brought chicken wraps and vegetable wraps. And I brought bagels for me, because I eat them almost every meal. I brought desert so I seem fun. And I brought popcorn for my son because that’s one of the only things I know he’d eat that would occupy him for the duration of an adult meal.
“I know there’s a lot of food,” I said. “You can keep what we don’t eat.”
“I don’t know if I’d eat it all,” he said. “Maybe you should take back the cupcakes.”
“Just throw out everything you don’t want,” I said.
I looked at the farmer. That did not go over well. “Um. You don’t throw out food, do you?”
“Not really. No.”
I thought about throwing out an Angus steak that I grew and slaughtered myself. It would be impossible. I didn’t know what to say. Next to my farmer, I looked less like an environmentally-conscious city person and more like a heathen.
I told my son he had to eat two mini-Gouda cheeses before the popcorn. Mostly for show. So the farmer thought I didn’t let my kid eat popcorn for dinner. The farmer had never seen Gouda cheese. So he put one on his plate. Along with a bagel.
The farmer asked if we give thanks before a meal. I looked at him, speechless. I think because I want to be a person who gives thanks, but I could tell he was a person who really did give thanks.
He asked if it was okay. And how could I say no, it’s not okay to give thanks?
So the farmer thanked God for our food and our safe trip.
And my son ate extra cheese and looked very healthy.
And I thanked God that my blog introduces me to people who can change my life.
Other posts about the farmer: