The farm phone line has been ringing off the hook for the past couple of weeks, getting our ducks in a row on everything from a tractor and livestock trailer to getting electricity running properly (we've had to move an electrical pole!) to meeting with architects for the creamery to trying to pin down where all the sheep are coming from in the Spring. In the plus column right now is that our chicks are coming and fencing is starting on Monday. We also got our farm truck, which is very, very exciting because now we can move stuff around! However, despite all of the intense excitement, one thing sent my adrenals into hyperdrive: money. Getting hold of it, and understanding what the heck to do with it is just a massive, essential, pain-in-the-ass. We've been using GoogleSpreadsheet to develop a 4-year cash-flow for the farm. While spreadsheets are a fantabulous tool, we found that sometimes they add too much complexity to the situation. We got to the point, about mid-week last week where neither of us were at all sure anymore of how the farm was going to support itself. Panic ensued. We moved numbers around, tweaked things here and there on the model, only to realize that all of a sudden we had unknowingly increased the number of sheep we needed to be sustainable to 600! We totally exceeded the capacity of our land. In all our projections, we lost sight of the ground itself. We totally lost control.
This red-flag brought Ross to say, "you know, if I can't explain it with a crayon, it's too complicated." So, we had what we dubbed The Crayon Meeting. We closed the computer, grabbed a marker, a white board, and a calculator, and ran our cash-flow.
We both felt better. We know, completely and totally that these numbers are generally very unlikely to be anything close to what is really going to happen, but what it did tell us is that we aren't crazy and that the business can run without dying: it's possible. We always knew this intuitively, but the numbers had to reflect this intuition on some level. They do, and I feel like I can breathe a little easier. It was, however, a big wake-up call to the reality of the potential loss if this doesn't work. It's a terrifying thought, one I can hardly entertain. But for me, that was all the more fire underneath me to see to it that is doesn't. I'm carrying Joel Salatin's words around with me like a talisman: you will never regret self-abandonment. Lines from Wendell Berry's The Wild Geese flow through my mind:
Geese appear high over us, pass and the sky closes. Abandon as in love or sleep holds them to their way clear.
It is abandon that will hold me, that will help me to find the way though this. Abandon, according to my trusty dictionary, in its most literal sense, means to give up control. There is such an element of all of this that is totally out of our control. Project and run numbers though we might, we will be wrong. But that is in no way a reason to panic or a reason to say no. This may be the biggest leap of faith I will ever undertake. I could turn inside out with nerves. But underneath the nerves is this unyielding sense of purpose; a kind of unseen, unknown, totally felt thread that I am following in the dark.
This month's issue of Culture Magazine offers a short little story that calms and soothes me when I'm feeling frayed. It is totally sappy, totally the stuff of a Hallmark Family Movie of the Week, but it works, and I see myself inside of it, and I feel better:
Cindy Callahan: sheep farmer, cheesemaker, employer, mother, grandmother, former attorney, nurse, and co-fonder of Bellwether Farms in Sonoma Co. California.
I live on the ranch. The alarm goes off at 4:45. I get up, get my clothes on, brush my teeth, fill my carafe with coffee, and head down to the milking. I'm not a people person; I'm an animal person. We have 34 acres. We used to live in a very large house in San Francisco. One day my husband saw an ad for a piece of property in Sonoma. So we drove out to see it.
It all started with a crazy idea. People thought we had a business plan, but we didn't. In the beginning, we thought we'd raise steer because we like beef. A livestock advisor came out to visit and said that for every steer you could raise five sheep on the same land. I'd never even seen a sheep, except in pictures. With the ram, nature took its course. I sold lamb to friends until the number got to be too much. I called up Chez Panisse. They were our first commercial customer. . .
People said, "that crazy woman from San Francisco thinks she can milk sheep." They'd come in from the fog –we get a lot of fog down here– and they'd stand in the milking parlor and just watch. "I had to see it to believe it," they'd say.
I used to be a clotheshorse in Manhattan. I was a single nurse, living on the East Side. I spent my days off at Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor. . .
I always say I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I say if you have a dream, pursue it. . . I was 51 years old when I did this.
I say I'm 26. I've been a scholar and a teacher. I've seen lots of sheep live and in person, herded them, worked with them, sent them to slaughter, and sold them. I know what curd is supposed to look like before you cut it. If Cindy Callahan could do all it takes to be in this business at 51 with what experience she had, I'll be damned if I can't do it too.