19 January 2007

How Did We Get Here?

Some time back, I was getting caught up with a friend from college. We'd both left Northwestern in 1991 with Masters degrees in political science, and hadn't spoken to each other since.

I explained that I'd gone to work for a political polling firm, conducting survey and focus group research for Republican candidates and conservative causes. I'd enjoyed that work very much, and the firm kept me on part time as a telecommuter when I'd decided to go back to school and finish my doctorate at UCLA. Along the way, I'd gotten married and had a couple of children---and then, with the dissertation in its final stages, moved from Los Angeles to a five acre farm in rural downstate Illinois.

"You did what?" he asked.

"You know," I replied. "Moved to the country. Bought a hundred-year-old farm house. Started raising our own food. Homeschooling our kids. Started my own public opinion consulting practice. Trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, all the while working as a pollster and trying to get my candidates elected."

After a pause, I added: "We've basically become Thomas Jefferson's 'yeoman farmer'."

He burst into laughter and replied, "I was just thinking, 'Jefferson would be very pleased.'"

Jefferson romanticized the small agrarian freeholders of his day as being the country's "most valuable citizens," but becoming "tied to our country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds" was far from my mind (and my wife's mind) in 1999. We were living in a small house on a small subdivision lot in the High Desert of Southern California. I was telecommuting with a political polling firm based in Detroit as I worked on finishing my doctoral dissertation at UCLA.

Y2K was closing in, and speculation was rife as to what kinds of disruptions we'd be facing when the new year rolled over. We didn't think the world would end, but my wife and I found ourselves thinking and talking a lot about the aspects of daily life we took for granted. Somewhere along the way, we asked ourselves, "Where does our food come from, anyway?"

It was a fateful question, because it led us to study the whole industry of modern food production. And the more we learned about how livestock are factory farmed in confinement, how fruits and vegetables have been bred for shelf life and shipping rather than flavor or nutritional content, and how commodity grains are processed to death after leaving the field, the more troubled we became.

1999 rolled over to 2000 without incident, but we were facing a different set of problems: everything our three year old son was eating seemed to be giving him rashes and making him break out in hives. We tried switching to outragously expensive organic produce, meats, and eggs, and that seemed to help. My wife was soon on a first name basis with the staff of the local organic grocery store, but something still seemed to be making our son sick. Only by eliminating all gluten from his diet did we finally fix it. We began buying rice and quinoa (the only grains we could find without gluten) in bulk, and grinding our own flour by hand for his meals.

As our daughter got older and began eating solid foods, we discovered she had the same food alergies. Puzzled, we kept reading about food and where it comes from. We also spent hours reading Carla Emery's book, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. Sometime in early 2001, both of us --- but especially my wife --- had had enough of trying to survive at the margins of Big Food. We'd also had enough of being thousands of miles from family, and living in a subdivision surrounded by neighbors who played stereos at all hours of the day and night. We longed for independence, privacy, and community. As I was in the final stages of my dissertation, and my boss had long grown comfortable with my telecommuting, it no longer mattered where we lived. So we asked ourselves, "If we could live anywhere, where would it be?"

For a variety of reasons, we settled on rural downstate Illinois. It was reasonably close to family, a reasonable drive to Chicago and a short distance from Champaign-Urbana (where we already had friends), and Illinois has among the least restrictive homeschooling laws in the nation. We found an excellent real estate agent in the general location where we wanted to be, and began working with him long distance. He found several promising listings, and we flew out for a weekend in the spring of 2001.

After a day of driving around, we decided to make an offer on a 1600sf, two-story, hundred year old farmhouse with five acres and a few outbuildings. We flew back to Los Angeles, put our house on the market, and by late July I was driving a Ryder truck across the country with all of our worldly possessions. We didn't know it at the time, but we were becoming what author Rod Dreher would term "Crunchy Cons."

The house was far from perfect, but seemed like paradise after the High Desert. We started out knowing nothing---absolutely nothing--- about gardening, raising livestock, building fences, planting trees, or anything else, when we first arrived. And, apart from the buildings, there was nothing on the property but a lawn. Over the last 5+ years, we've slowly shaped the property (and our lives) into what we dreamed of back in California.

This blog will share our experiences --- especially the learning experiences, and our reflections on them. We're still learning, and still making mistakes, but still having a lot of fun doing it. It's hard to think of a better decision we've made than to move to the country, and to become "Jefferson's Yeoman Farmer."


John Kaufman, Editor said...

Hello. I stumbled across your blog and thought you might be interested in a new online monthly publication called The Northern Agrarian based up in Wisconsin. The first issue will appear on Earth Day, April 22.

Regards, John Kaufman, Editor

Yeoman said...

Doggone. . .another Yeoman blogger. And another Catholic using the Yeoman tag too.

Good to run across you.

TYF said...

Glad you found me, and glad to hear I'm not the only one who thought of using this name!

Anonymous said...

I am glad I found your blog and I will be following it regularly. I grew up on a small farm in India, in a state where communists were elected and removed from power democratically in the 50s. My father saw the writing on the wall and educated his brothers and children... and most of us hold jobs. We realize that farming is probably the only honest profession in the world, it is n't the easiest. It is also NOT easy to break the bond with land, even though we don't depend on it anymore. While I am making a good living in the US, (not in a profession honest as a farmer) I am thinking of manning a small farm again