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:

How I started taming my workaholic tendencies

Self-sabotage is never limited to just one part of your life

Think of networking as a lifestyle, not an event

156 replies
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  1. justin
    justin says:

    What a great post. I follow your blog regularly and I really enjoy it. The variety is great, the content is great, the advice is great. I’m in the process of a career and industry change and I’ve found several invaluable gems of advice in your archives.
    Thanks again.

    • Jonha Revesencio @ Happiness
      Jonha Revesencio @ Happiness says:

      Penelope,

      Same here, I especially love every posts that involve the farmer. I think it’s cute to know what your differences are and how you both compromise.

      I never thought the farmer was a reader because he sounded (through other later posts) like he doesn’t.

  2. JMW
    JMW says:

    Maybe I’m on a limb here but this kind of “entrepreneurship through the eyes of actual entrepreneurs” — unlikely ones, especially — is fantastic and could be a niche blog by itself. Just a thought. Field journalism for bloggers, I like it …

  3. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    That is an interesting story. About perspective. And recognising that one’s own way is not the only way to frame the world. That with each territory comes a different set of problems, requiring a different sort of prioritisation but in the end, messages such as ‘take initiative’, ‘don’t waste resources’, ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’, ‘seek new pastures’, ‘learn that it is not possessions in the house that make you happy but what you do’ (oh, whatever, just ignore the farming puns, please) are common to all situations at work and in life.

    Good post! Unusual but good.

  4. mary
    mary says:

    I love your blog, read it regularly, and just now I’m compelled to comment. What a great, great story – on so many different levels. I’m starring this one in my Google reader.

  5. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    So glad to hear about your farm visit. It can really be truly relaxing to visit a farm. I know your kids must have had a great time and sounds like you did also. There are a lot of family farms left and they do well when they market to achieve the best value for their products. Just do not ever volunteer to clean the chicken coop and pitchfork the soiled hay into the compost pile.

  6. Adunate Word & Design
    Adunate Word & Design says:

    I’m a Wisconsin small business and farm girl at heart, so this post hits home.

    Wisconsin is full of farmers, most of them dairy, who are excellent entrepreneurs and marketing gurus. They have to be, because in the last 30 years the idea of the family farm nears extinction due to government intervention, middleman markups and overall high economic issues.

    Many Wisconsin farmers combat this by creating their own product. Rather than shipping their milk to dairies, farmers such as Crave Brothers in Waterloo, http://www.cravecheese.com, now make their own specialty cheeses and sell them to niche markets.

    Other farmers have diversified into all together new products. In Ixonia, Wisconsin two brothers took over the family dairy farm and created Eberts Greenhouse Village, http://www.ebertsgreenhouse.com/. Today, this is a phenomenal botanical experience for anyone who has even an inkling of gardening interest.

    These are two examples of many. What’s great about them is they have created a means of carrying on a family-owned business. They have created top quality products – local products that defy corporate enterprise. And, my favorite, they have preserved their land and not sold it off for development.

    Yes, Wisconsin is full of smart, innovative and hard-working business people. Learn from them. And check out their products at http://www.savorwisconsin.com/default.aspx

  7. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Ha! Ha! I was thinking what Ed was thinking.
    Really, this is beautiful. I’m glad you got to go. You’ve been needing an opportunity to get out in the country.

  8. Milena
    Milena says:

    You sound so different in this post, in a good way. While no one has offered a trip to a farm from my blog, I second the notion that it has changed my life.

  9. JB
    JB says:

    What I like is the title of the blog…it hooked me in because I thought I was learning about a new tool. Then, your story kept me here. Nice job. I have a lot to learn from you, thanks!

  10. Fitarella
    Fitarella says:

    I love this post and I love this side of you. I don’t know how to explain it, organic and genuine I think? Not that you aren’t genuine in your other posts, but this one there’s no added preservatives…does that make sense?

  11. Queercents
    Queercents says:

    What a warm and reflective post. This story reminds me of those nonprofits groups that take inner city kids to experience a day of country life. There's nothing like fresh air, green grass, and farm animals to make everything seem alright. You can skip Yoga/Pilates session tonight – you've already bowed to your inner self.

  12. kate
    kate says:

    . . . this is one of the most gorgeous posts i’ve ever read . . . because of its simplicity and heart, but also because it speaks to that intersection between the modern world and the old world, that intersection we must come to to survive and thrive the changes that are coming to our way of life . . . what an awesome way to start a day . . . thank you!

  13. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    Thanks for this post.

    My family farms in Iowa – and sometimes I feel ashamed to be from a ‘hick town’ in the middle of nowhere. This reminded me that growing up on a farm and knowing where your food comes from is a privilege that not many get to experience in this day and age.

    Beautiful, thoughtful piece.

  14. Dan Owen
    Dan Owen says:

    Does this guy know you’re blogging about him? That his sexual prowess is likely to become a topic of discussion here? Don’t punish him — Emily Gould-like — for having merely entered your orbit. He sounds like a decent, kind-hearted guy. Your husband was once too, probably still is.

    Kids love farms.

    * * * * * * *

    Oh you don’t need to worry about this guy. Before I had been on the farm even for a half-hour he laid out the rules for what I could write about him and what I couldn’t.

    -Penelope

  15. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Not to be all “you’re a great writer–you should write a novel!”…but if the time ever comes when you get too stressed out being an entrepreneur, you should write a novel. I know you wrote some kind of fiction under another name (which I’ve not yet read and will have to check out). If you write fiction your lawyer can’t give you crap about disclosing details of your personal life.

  16. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    I guess I’m the only reader so far who didn’t like this post. You come off as a woman wanting to please – everything the (male) farmer says or asks, you think of how to answer so he sees you in a positive light. If you don’t usually give thanks before meals, you should have told him. If you regularly throw away food, be honest. It sounded like a first date where all you wanted to do was make sure there was a second, and if that meant bending the truth a little, well so be it.

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      I think penelope was being a gracious guest….”when in Rome…” is a wonderful way to experience another way. I am sure if he had asked her to ‘hail hitler’, she would not have complied. I, for one, do not want to see good manners go the wayside and to imply that being open-minded is somehow the territory of women-only is fair to no one. And if you someone opens your eyes to one of your negative behaviors, there is no sin in keeping quiet, and promising yourself to make a change for the better. I have had this lucky star fall on my head several times, humbing me, and kicking my butt into making a change for the better. There is no glory in behaving in a manner that says “this is the way I am and if you don’t like it, you can shove it…”. New people in our lives are marvelous opportunities to start fresh with no preconceptions, putting a marvelous foot forward, and hoping some of it sticks for good!!!

  17. Milena
    Milena says:

    @ prklypr

    Interesting take – I think Penelope was reflecting what is naturally thought of as rules of propriety when you are someone’s guest. You know, “When in Rome?” There is nothing offensive about joining someone in saying Thanks before a meal even if you regularly don’t…and as for the food issue, perhaps she was caught off-guard and unsure how to respond. Obviously a farmer has a lot more uses for leftover food than Penelope does. She doesn’t exactly have farm animals sitting around to eat catch the overflow…

  18. sophie
    sophie says:

    prklypr, I disagree. I hardly think Penelope is chameleon to her surroundings or company. This is Penelope we’re talking about, after all. Perhaps she is pointing out her opening outlook and sense of awakening to ideas different than her own.

    Penelope, Madison is an ithsmus in more ways than one, in that its surrounded by a world quite different than its own. Madison is very liberal however most of Wisconsin is not. Prayer before dinner is a good thing. In Wisconsin it’s also common. (Go Badgers. Go Packers.)

    The farmer sounds like a great person. His values to be noted!

  19. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    This post grabbed me this morning and I just had to respond to it.

    I grew up in Wisconsin, and I have found it difficult at times to explain to people the midwestern sensibility. In big cities on the East Coast, the assumption is that ignorant bumpkins in floy-over country just don’t understand the world, and that they like to shoot guns and go to church to fill their empty lives.

    Sometimes people are genuinely shocked when I tell them that I would like to move back to the Midwest someday.

    Of course, the reality is that many people make conscious choices to preserve a way of life that is important to them – and reinvent it for a new generation. Much like your new farmer friend.

    Thanks for sharing.

  20. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    A perfect example of how a blog post can be compelling, authentic, and transparent without recourse to sensationalism or controversy of any kind.

    Best post on your site that I’ve ever read.

  21. Chris
    Chris says:

    I agree with some of prklypr’s points.

    “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.”

    There is something so immature about the need to write this down where the farmer can read it. Too desperate for my taste.

    I can see you moving onto that man’s farm and within weeks, writing a snobby blog about how basic and difficult your life has become. Not all of farm life is romantic. It is one of the most demanding existences there is. Appreciate the beauty, yes, but be respectful, please.

  22. Jennifer Lynn
    Jennifer Lynn says:

    I’m a Manhattan girl who is madly in love with New York City, but this makes me want to run– not walk– to the country and feed chicks or something!

    I mean, Central Park is great and all, but compared to this…

    Great post!

  23. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    The past two weekends Date #4, a certified farm boy-cum-lawyer, has taken me out to the country for a little peace and quiet. This past weekend, I visited his family’s ranch, which included a stone-built house from the 1850s with no air-conditioning (this is Texas – that’s unheard of). There were three rooms – his grandparents’ bedroom, the girls’ room and the boys’ room… For 11 kids and something like 33 grandkids. They still speak German.

    It’s a lesson in humility. And somehow, that brings quiet to my mind.

  24. Lane
    Lane says:

    Wow. Just. Wow.

    I love this post because it touches something in me that I’ve been feeling. Just over the last couple of months I’ve been considering moving to Viroqua (http://www.viroqua-wisconsin.com/) in the Driftless region of WI and farming. From corporate city-dweller to farming. Taking the ideas of marketing and business that I know and applying them to farming, while at the same time building community.

    I’m so glad the farmer contacted you because what he says is right on. Farming has to change to survive in the coming economy, and people’s minds are becoming more cognizant of where their food is, and where community is. What a great experience for you and your son.

    It touches me even more because Saturday morning, I was on my way to that Madison farmer’s market when I was in a terrible car accident. Miraculously, I walked away unscratched. Reading your blog post this morning was just what I needed – as if I’d actually gotten to go there afterall.

    And it makes me so very ready to give thanks.

  25. Lance
    Lance says:

    I’ll join in the chorus in saying bravo to this post. My grandparents have a farm and I grew up around farm culture. I think it is natural to want to return to that or to experience firsthand if you never have. One of the best memories I have of my grandpa was waking up at 5:00am to feed and milk the cows. When I think about it logically, I don’t think I want to do it but when you are out there, you want to be a part of it.

    @ Chris – I don’t know where it is mentioned that farming isn’t difficult. I think you’ve let your overriding assumptions color the post in a negative light. That’s terribly unfortunate for you.

  26. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    First of all I’m glad the farmer dispelled your preconceived notions about farming. Farmers are the original entrepreneurs. And they are very technically savvy. Even back in the 1980’s many farms had satellite dishes to get data from commodity markets.

    Since he lives with his family, it is actually a family business.

    Back in WWII farm boys were sought after for tank crews. Many of the soldiers under General Patton were farmers. Why did they specifically choose farmers? Because of ingenuity. Farm boys were used to fixing farm machinery in the middle of nowhere when it broke down, they also knew how to improve the equipment they had to keep it running. With farmers driving tanks, if a tank broke down, they’d find a them.

    Take a look around at your suburban sprawl Some farmer made millions selling their acreage for a new subdivision.

    There was a time in the US not too long ago where farming was the #1 industry / employer. Not anymore in the US.

    I’m glad you found new respect for farming and I hope you learned you can’t pre-judge someone by what they do or judge someone by who they are because of their occupation.

    Farming is not an easy job, you have to know everything from the environment to meteorology to world markets to veterinary medicine to agriculture to science. Math is also extremely important: How much do I plant, what is my yield, how much does it cost versus my profit, how much fuel will it take, how much wood / materials do I need to fix the barn, build a fence, etc.

  27. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    What a wonderful story! It makes me want to visit a farm. I told my friend back in high school that when I have kids, I want them to spend a summer working on a farm so they can learn the value of hard work and enjoy life without all the amenities city or suburban living provides.

  28. LP
    LP says:

    Penelope’s post (a good post, BTW) on top of that ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’ reality dating show — makes me think we’re looking at the beginnings of a new farm-chic cultural moment. Will overalls make their first comeback since the early 1990’s? Will supermodels start sporting farmer’s tans? Who can tell?

  29. Chris
    Chris says:

    @Lane
    If you move to (or even just vist) Viroqua, be sure to visit the little bakery on the east side of town off Hwy 14. Amazing breads and pastries.

    @Lance
    I think the negative light that was shed comes directly from P’s silly schoolgirl daydream of moving in with a farmer after 10 minutes of visiting a farm. The beauty is in the farm, not the desperate need to belong to a stranger’s world.

  30. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Love this post. Even with the sorta incredulous tone, there’s a ring of authenticity and groundedness that is very refreshing.

  31. Noelle
    Noelle says:

    You make me love Wisconsin all over again. My farmette is for sale, just outside Mt Horeb, I’ll tell you about it next time I see you at a preschool thing-y. ;) ~Noelle (Sofia’s mom)

  32. PunditMom
    PunditMom says:

    Thanks for reminding me with this story that there a lots of reasons I write my blog other than stats. This was a friendly reality check I badly needed.

  33. Lynda
    Lynda says:

    This post is definitely what Wisconsin is all about. It’s a bunch of blue-collar workers who actually have very successful businesses. Never judge a book by its cover. I’m glad you went to his farm and learned a lot that day.

    BTW.. Love your blog. I’ve recently become a regular reader and it was before I realized you live in Wisconsin!

  34. Mitch Wagner
    Mitch Wagner says:

    I love this post.

    I made a note to see how much it would cost to get wireless Internet at his house.

    I think that’s the 21st Century of writing your first name and his last name in ballpoint pen on the cover of your spiral notebook, just to see how they’d look together.

  35. Jo
    Jo says:

    That’s a great story! But wait until you have to get up at 5 am everyday to milk the cows. It will make a 9 to 5 city job seem very easy.

  36. Lane
    Lane says:

    @Chris: I’ve seen that bakery but I will stop next time! I visit Viroqua all the time – my mother lives in Gays Mills, and Viroqua feels like my home away from the city.

  37. Neil C
    Neil C says:

    This is the most authentic & real person you’ve ever written about. I have new respect for you for this post (but it doesn’t change the fact that generation Y still sucks)

  38. Dia
    Dia says:

    Yep–this post definately sounds like one of those things white people like. I’m not white and maybe that’s why I’m not seeing anything special about going to a farm to visit and seeing the particularities of this farmer’s way. Enlighten me please! I am from Wisconsin and went to school at UW-Madison so I do know a thing or two about farms.

  39. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Dia: You’ve gotta go girl. It is the contrast that is so joyous among other things. I have taken country kids to Manhattan and City kids to Iowa and in both cases they had a blast as did the adults. I thing you will notice with most rural farmers is a lack of white non-white thoughts. Farmers think of people as cityfolk and countryfolk and they will treat you the same as Penelope. UW-Madison is a great school but a gigantic school where it is hard for me to picture learning about farms unless you went out to some a bit distant from Madison. Assuming you are black you probably realize how many sharecroppers worked the land as farmers until the lure of urban jobs and the drought of the 1930’s sent most to the City. Please find an opportunity to spend some time on a rural farm and you will see what the post was about. For those other rural readers do not assume you know Madison or Manhattan unless you find a native and spend time with them also. The differences between the two worlds are almost 100 percent.

  40. Briana
    Briana says:

    There are times when I don’t quite know if I like reading your blog (so I keep reading to find out one way or the other), and then there are posts like this. I loved it. Thank you, it made my day.

  41. Paul R. Williams
    Paul R. Williams says:

    As a fellow Wisconsinite, (ya der hey…where we park our cars side by each and such) this was a blog post that really hit home about why I refuse to accept really worthwhile job offers somewhere else and demand my entreprenurial independence. Its also why most people in those organizations agree to accept my refusal and demands, especially if they are originally from “fly over country” themselves.

    If you liked this story…check out this YouTube post that Tom Peters linked to not long ago:
    http://www.tompeters.com/entries.php?note=010392.php

    Thanks again Penelope!!!

  42. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    I feel so happy for you, I don’t know what to say.

    On a post related note, I think we’re starting to see a trend where people realize that the power of the web truly is more relational than it is in marketing, etc., because relationships are underlying to so many different aspects of our lives, which can include marketing, but doesn’t have to. Thinking of posts on Ittybiz, Copyblogger, etc. about how so many bloggers are just blogging to other bloggers, marketers to marketers, etc.

    We hear the word “social” so much in terms of the web now that it’s funny that it would suprise us when it comes out on top in the equation…

    So maybe it’s not a NEW way to measure ROI, instead, it’s just something that’s so fundamental, we kept forgetting to factor it in for a long time.

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