The pursuit of destroying rugged individualism:
A farmers confession
Becoming a rugged individualist.
It takes time for me to extract all the juice out of my experiences. I am a fairly slow learner and most of my education comes from hands on screw-ups. Some of you know me only as a farmer. You met me with boots on and cannot imagine me apart from green pastures, white sheep and a big barn. Others of you remember me before the farm even existed and may recall me only in hospital scrubs. Some of you have only just met me on the road of our missionary journey. Your experience of Geoff the Farmer and nurse are only through the pictures and stories I tell. Still there are those that only remember me as an 8-year old boy in a crop top t-shirt riding my new BMX bike down the slide at the playground across the street. Those few people are probably now asking themselves “is that boy still alive?”
Little known facts about me: I’ve had 4 broken arms, one broken leg, a half dozen concussions, amputated most of my index finger with a table saw, and and at one time more than one limb was in a cast. I’ve been fired from more than one job and hold 2 separate undergraduate degrees. I’ve lived in 6 different states and now 2 different countries. When Renee and I were first married I had no idea how I was going to support my young family. So I went back to school to get a marketable skill. When we started the farm, I didn’t have anyone to guide me through the process. I mean seriously, how many people do you know that can do real estate, marketing, legal, animal production, sales, distribution, animal husbandry, mechanical and horticultural mentorship. I mean the list is really pretty small. How in the world did a guy like me manage to pull of a successful farm? If you had asked me not that long ago I most certainly would have attributed it to grit. Quickly conjure up an image of a gritty man in your mind. Maybe he is a hard working fireman with soot on his sweaty, helmet-framed face, sparks flying and the glow of fire backlighting his silhouette. Possibly you see a cowboy leading a horse at sunset with the collar turned up on his duster, with big snow-capped mountains in the distance. Maybe you picture a farmer with his big hat leaning on the wheel of a green tractor, the field behind him stretching for miles. These images are easy to paint in our minds, as they have been used in many Super Bowl advertisements to sell beer or pickup trucks. However, long before that, every young man has them imbedded in his psyche. These are our boyhood heroes, and for good reason. They remind us that pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and blazing the trail is our birthright and an opportunity to be seized. Rushing out into the big world and grabbing it by the tail is the big-eyed dream of many. There is just one tiny problem with being a rugged individualistic kinda fella: it is a fairy tale for boys and for the poor young women who inherit these dreams. Striving to be a rugged individual is a fools game that brings more hurt than good.
Who is becoming more rugged in individual efforts?
Let me be first to say, I am not a namby-pamby young guy that has never done anything with my life. This is an observation and council from a guy who is growing and reflecting on his youth before it is too late to act differently. And sure, my over-reaching ego still rears it’s ugly head, possibly even writing this, but grace has brought me thus far. Make no mistake here; I can only even begin to have these thoughts, and write them down here, because of the many who have invested, forgiven and loved me way above what I deserve. I have for sure coached both my children how to be rugged individualists. My kids have known the work of people easily twice their age. They have worked outside in 110 degree Fahrenheit heat; they have been up before dawn for chores, and out with flashlights to finish things that couldn’t wait until morning. All under the pretense that they will be better people for it. It really is a simple formula on how to lead your children into their gritty britches, teaching them to put them on one leg at a time with sore backs and calloused hands. I told myself hard work, dedication and the ability to go it alone will make them better spouses, employees, co-workers and teammates. All the while, my stiff necked approach was more self serving. Teaching my children to be rugged and gritty was more of a reflection of me and my misguided values than teaching them essential moral guidance. I used to work 12-hour shifts at the emergency room, commute an hour each way and spend the time I should be sleeping getting farm improvements done. I did that for 4 years straight with an 80-hour work week, and the harder I worked the more I was convinced that our success was directly proportional to the grinding down of my own body and my mind. The more sacrifice I put in, the better off we would be. I expected personal sacrifice to produce some magical reward for my family and me.
Oh and how it did produce a reward. Individualism is a bedfellow to isolation, and the less I acted as if I never needed anyone else the lonelier I grew. The more I practiced not relying on anyone else and relied on my own talent, my own knowledge, my own strong back, and my own emotional strength the further and further I got away from being wholly known by anyone else. Renee suffered the most in this regard. We always have been a pretty good team in terms of being effective at getting stuff done. She is patient and kind with me, her true gift to our marriage. Always willing to permit my stubbornness but rarely without a warning. Before we were blessed with the opportunity to farm I would work so much overtime at the hospital that she and I were living two very separate lives. We’d pass each other at home in the morning while she made coffee and sacked my lunch; a fast peck and I was off for another day of sacrifice for my family. I was winning at the rat race. We owned a house and two cars, we had money for little vacations, and the kids went to the splash pad just down the road. But I was still a rat. The farm began to reveal the chink in my armour, as my capacity to go it alone exceeded both my health and my mind. I would regularly say “hey Renee, could you get the other end of this?” or “honey, will you get for me a supply to finish tomorrow’s job?” while I went to work in the ER.
Under the big hat
My desire to sacrifice, be gritty and pull my family up by its bootstraps ended complete in mental, physical and spiritual isolation. I didn’t have the luxury of sinful, rugged individualism anymore. The Smith family bit off way more than it could chew in the form of 18 acres of prime Fort Bend county farm land, a dream of something bigger, and a property in need of a ton of tender loving care. In true Smith family fashion we jumped in with both feet into farming. We couldn’t afford it, didn’t know the first thing about running a commercial farm, didn’t have the time in our already fulltime career, it didn’t exactly match our priorities, and for sure was not a way to build the safety net of savings and wealth. It’s true that for me personally I died a thousand deaths on that farm. Under my big hat things were being chipped off of me in daily and unexpected ways. My instant just add water career slammed into the slow churn of the seasons. The pace that I wanted to sacrifice myself to was melted away by weeks of rain forcing me to wait on projects. Fruit only came in season no matter how quickly I wanted to harvest it and sell it. New vineyards arrive packaged as a 6-inch stick with a palm sized root ball; blackberries come much later. My need for immediate return died on that farm. It died over and over in a slow, agonizing death. In much the same way, my “I got this” approach died on that South Central Texas pasture. 80 cubic yards of mulch spread by hand in June; 18 acres of fence went up in the month of August. The farm flooded over and over again, and when I had no options for how to keep a flock of sheep safe, healthy and out of the water, my individualism was of no help me. When I lost an entire herd of pigs, I didn’t get them back all by myself. When I signed up to feed 50 homeless youth for Easter, it wasn’t me that shouldered the call to treat them like children made just like Jesus. When we were told that the county would never recognize us as a farm it wasn’t my charisma that changed the tax code for small farms. This could go on and on as I tell the actual story of just what happened on that farm.
A living breathing invitation to see just what God can do
The truth is, the farm was barely mine at all. Sure in title and deed it was, but it gained its stride only as I realized that there is no ‘me’ in this, only we. An individual, no matter how rugged, cannot pull off very much that becomes meaningful. Quite the contrary. There should be so much more honor in the term ‘rugged community’ than there seems to be currently. Every opportunity and issue that was created during the process of crafting a farm found its solution in relationship and collaboration with other people. Flooded pastures and quickly failing sheep were rescued by a dear family of ranchers from Central Texas, not by my ingenuity. A pastor’s wife and a generous chef friend orchestrated entertaining and showing hospitality to our neighbors and at-risk teens. A pig farmer friend, a cross fit gym owner, and my father spread 80 yards of mulch into the blackberry orchard planted by my in-laws on their Christmas visit. The fence went up in the blistering heat with a tractor borrowed from my brother, three volunteer chainsaw operators, and my church family.How in the world do I even begin to take credit for the magic that was cultivated in this place? Bootstraps? How do I ever suggest that I pulled myself up to this place by my own rugged and gritty personality?
I will proudly and gladly take credit for only one bit of success that may have fertilized this gravid ground. When we took the leap, and bit off more than we could chew, Renee and I intentionally, purposefully and anticipatorily set out to create a tribute to Jesus through our efforts. We set out to create a living, breathing invitation to come and see what Jesus can do with a blank slate and open hands:
a place that didn’t have the barriers that a church with walls has;
a place where the teachings of Jesus were in action and not just given lip service to;
a place that never turned away a neighbor;
a place that always treated all God’s creatures with dignity, both human and not:
a place that the broken-hearted found rest, and that the beaten back found new inspiration;
a place where time was precious and rarely wasted alone;
a place that knew both justice and mercy.
Not just a farm, but rather a surrendered tribute to the Living One who taught me to live in rugged community.