Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Family Farm - From Burning Bridges to the Tornado

I laid out the story of the farm from my great-grandparents buying it to my being able to lease it from my parents, but I thought it might be worthwhile to also tell the story of the time between when I quit engineering and when the tornado hit the farm. 

After I had left both college and engineering, I packed up my old pickup and headed to the mountains of Colorado (nothing against WY, MT, or ID, but CO was closer) to look for some elk and just drive around thinking.  

I had a rough idea about what I wanted to do in my life, but as I drove across OK, KS, CO, NM and TX (gas was cheap back then and I drove all over the place taking the long way to the mountains and back),  along the way I saw cattle, antelope, elk, deer, grasslands, and wheat fields, and I came back with a rough plan of what I wanted to do.

At the time, it never really entered my mind that I could or would lease the farm from my grandparents and farm it, but I knew that I wanted to manage some land for both hunting (I had to hunt) and cattle (to make some money).  

I'd read the book Pasture Profits with Stocker Cattle by Allan Nation which talked about the stocker operations of Gordon Hazard, and I'd also read a couple of books about whitetail deer management written by Dr. James Kroll.

Gordon Hazard ran a low-input grass-based stocker operation because it was a more profitable way to graze cattle from the weaned calf stage to the feeder steer stage. His stocker operation was based around buying light weight calves and putting 400 lbs. of gain on them by grazing them on grass, minerals, and water.  

Dr. Kroll was planting food plots that had combinations of different crops (oats, wheat, rye, clover, etc.) as one of his methods for managing whitetail deer. In other words, he was talking about planting 'cover crop cocktails' long before planting cover crop cocktails became the newest thing in farming.  

I had an idea that I could combine those two ways of thinking into one strategy to run a profitable farm/ranch. In addition to grazing native grass pastures, I could also grow winter wheat for the combined opportunities of a grain harvest, some stocker grazing, and food plots for the deer.  I also thought that if deer grew better on a food plot with a combination of different plants then cattle should also benefit in the same way from grazing a cover crop cocktail.

Since I didn't have a farm to try any of this out, I started planting garden-sized plots (3000 square feet or so) trying to figure out just how to grow wheat, cover crops, and deer food plots.  That morphed into also growing a decent-sized garden because if I was improving the soil fertility with cover crops, I might as well also grow some food on the same plot (which then led to my Terra Preta experiments).

Eventually, through trial and error, I had a pretty good idea about how to grow a decent wheat crop, cover crops (or food plots), and a garden.  Scaling my experiences up might be a problem that would need work to overcome, but I had an idea that most of my ideas would work on a farm scale for raising cattle, deer, turkey, wheat, etc..    

So, I spent more time hunting on the farm, and observing cattle, grass, and wheat, but I still didn't think I wanted to rent the farm from my grandmother at this point.  I was more-or-less self-employed at this time making some money, spending as little as I could, and saving as much as I could while I bided my time. 

Then the tornado hit my grandmother's farm. 


  1. So what did you do for ground at that time? Lease?

    1. My parents always had a big garden when I was growing up (I had to help in that garden and didn't really care for gardening as a kid), and I was able to use that garden area as my gardening and test plot area.

    2. That's interesting.

      My father maintained a tremendous garden. I used to sometimes say it was a subsistence farm, which was an exaggeration by quite some measure, but it was a big garden. After he died I kept it up for awhile, and noted that there were some things that I produced even after I was married and had kids that we could go nearly all year long on. Potatoes were one. I'd harvest in September right after deer season and I'd just run out prior to spring planting.

  2. I have to note that I sure see a lot of my own story in yours. After I graduated with my BS in geology, I had a year of forced unemployment as there were no jobs. During that year, I worked as a National Guardsman, but I also spent a lot of time out of doors hunting and fishing. It wasn't a great year in a lot of ways, my mother was very ill, etc., but being out of doors in that year made a permanent impact on me.

    My college years were mostly spent outdoors, when not in the classroom, anyway. Looking back, that was one of the very best things about them. That post college year was that way too, but with no real sense on where I was going at the time.

    1. I've probably said it before, but back then I never would have guessed that anyone else was doing or thinking about things the same way I was at the time.

      I also don't know if it would have helped or hindered me back then to be able to go online and find a few like-minded people as easily as it is today. I'd like to think it would have been easier to figure out which direction to go if I could have interacted with more like-minded people. Of course, that might have pointed me in an entirely different direction.

      Life can be tough to figure out at times, but that might be the way it's supposed to be.

  3. During that post engineering school, farming experimentation period, did you keep your hand in engineering?

    1. Not really, although I held out a little hope for a while that I might find an engineering job that "I could live with".

      After deciding not to get a masters degree, I more or less lost all interest in getting an engineering job (can't really explain WHY, but I did, I was disillusioned in a way). It's not really something I'm especially proud of, and it's difficult to explain to anyone, but that's what happened.

      I second-guessed that decision almost every day for years while I struggled to make a living and strained almost all my personal relationships (but at least I wasn't living somewhere like Dallas, working 80 hours a week, and in debt up to my eyeballs).

      I wouldn't suggest anyone try doing something like that unless they absolutely had to.

  4. My biggest regret is that I didn't take a year off or two post college graduation to drive around and see life. Had I done that, I'm guessing I wouldn't have ended up where I am today, and that may have been a bad thing because I have it pretty good right now. I just know a handful of people who did it and their stories are always the same. It was a life changing experience and they have so many good memories. They seem more likely to try something new and live life more fully.

    All is not lost though. I hope to get the kids up and out of the house and then maybe take a year or two roaming where my heart desires and perhaps get a little bit of the benefit even though I'm doing it much later in life. The plus is that I'll be old enough to enjoy it more fully than I would as a pimply faced young 20 something.

    1. You might enjoy it more if you wait to wander around until you are older, but you usually have better stories to tell if you were young, broke, and stupid when you did something.

    2. I've heard a lot of people wish for that, but having had a period where I was off for a year from school, I think the stress of it isn't appreciated.

      The problem with looking back and saying "I wish I had a year", is we look back at it from the prospective of where we are, and assume a certain continuity. But usually at that young age things that hit us are decision making in and of themselves, and almost any minor change in direction can be hugely significant, for good or ill, or more often than not for just something different. That job we didn't take, that person we met or didn't meet. Hard to tell how any of that would have played out.