Two weeks ago I was in a gas station in Lincoln County Kansas after two days walking in pursuit of birds along the vast expanse of the blue hills. A man got out of a truck next to me and walked inside. The clerk casually asked him, “have you got all your farming done?” I suppose that is like asking the parent of a 6 year old, “have you got that kid all raised?”
I am tired on a cold day, but I know that I am not done. I know that I wasn’t put on this world to get done. I was put here for the journey, through success and failures, through joys and trials, and at times through rest. We don’t rest because we are done, we rest because we will never be done.
I came across a sketch in my journal from about 30 months ago. I stared at it. I felt a little tired. 30 months ago the seminal idea for the creamery at Elderslie was on paper. Life goes by so fast. Today we are not done, but the story is going on, and soon, within weeks, milk will start running through the veins of our new creamery at Elderslie, as another chapter begins.
I am a son of Adam Smith. I was taught that endeavor is motivated by self-interest and justified by profit. But as I have grown older I feel that is an oversimplification of the human being. Not that Smith was wrong, but that maybe he needed to be blended equal parts with Tolstoy or Wordsworth and taken in balance.
After ten years as a small business I think one of the things that has impressed me most is how complex and personal it is. Many times you won’t really know if the decision is right or wrong. You can’t rely on profit alone to justify it, nor can your self-interest clearly guide a complex decision like “how important are the aesthetics of a wall?” Its just a wall, really, right? I don’t have an answer but reading James Rebanks “The Shepherd’s Life” I found another way to struggle with the topic.
In the Lake District of Northern England farmers still engage in a backwards relic of the medieval age called walling. They spend some allocated portion of their year stacking stones and repairing the walls which are so characteristic of the region and one of its great charms. These walls are impractical. They cost so much in labor, and God help you if you ever had to buy that stone. But this old habit, born partly of necessity since they did not have other materials, is continued because of affection. They love their walls. And if you ever go you will fall in love with the charm of this impractical, archaic, unprofitable way of life.
The most efficient ways of doing things are often not the most lovely. We often seek to justify gruesome aesthetics by pointing at the money it made us or saved us and saying, “look what I have been able to do with that.” Thus we build a harsh and bitter world, which we separate from our lives by distance, by walls, and by habits, and then live in a world where all the aesthetic beauty is only aesthetic and has no function.
I believe there is a deep lesson in walling. There are parts of the world of production which are unavoidably gruesome and unlovely. But we as human beings, moved by affection, can choose to build a world not unprofitable, but less profitable and more lovely. We still need to make a profit, but what if the poets and philosophers are right that humanity exists more in contentedness with simple things than in the accruement of wealth.
In the end we have to make profit. In the end we have to take care of our families and our homes. But in the end I think the question of “how beautiful is the world we are building?” should haunt us each time we build a structure or create a lasting mark on the physical world.
About ten years ago I was sitting at the table with my father and brother discussing goats. How much milk does a goat produce? How much cheese is that? Are there any advantages to smaller production? The questions swirled, and though much discussion was had, they remained mostly unanswered.
Three years ago, the questions started again. Through the interim my mother had maintained a few goats, made cheese, and kept the faith. My mother has always been attracted to slim odds and difficult endeavor. These questions started an odyssey in my life that has taken me around our country investigating small corners of the world and businesses I would never have imagined.
My travels took me and other members of my family from the Redwood Hills Creamery in Petaluma, California, to Idyll Farms which looks out over the lakes at the Northern tip of the Michigan lower peninsula. Along the way I met some interesting characters. In California I met a Swiss dairy scientist who could lose you in the technicalities of milk, bacteria, mold, and complex equipment function. In Iowa I met an American contrarian who probably built cheese caves because he feared nuclear war and being in a cave surrounded by cheese that might be edible for 8-10 years if the world melted down seemed prudent. In Indiana I met German industrialists bent on producing mass quantities of milk and cheese through synchronized systems of industrial organization that never slept with barns that stretched for miles. In little corners of every place I travelled I met poetic souls working as cheese makers or affineurs who followed Thoreau or Wordsworth and believed that small endeavor close to the land was a realization of something human and beautiful.
As with all endeavor, eventually there comes a time when you must decide to go forward or not. That point came as a slow realization wrung out of late-night board meetings, stressful dinner conversations, and idyllic moments pondering cheese in all its glory and possibility. Thus, plans are drawn and the heavy wheels of a building project are turning again here at Elderslie.
The Creamery at Elderslie will be under construction through the spring and into late summer, but will be our largest project to date. We are building a facility to eventually house about 100 milking does with production focused on retail sales of artisan cheeses and gelato here on the farm and as gift items for delivery or shipping. By fall of 2018 we should have a completed facility and be ready to offer a lovely addition to convivial evenings or special gatherings. Local cheeses and goat gelato are on our minds, but for now we will be digging foundations, pouring concrete, building the herd, and keeping the faith.