Archive for the ‘The Neighborhood’ Category

Sabbath Intersections

2199 days.

That is the number of days from the time I left Atlanta to “move to the farm” until the first night I actually spent as a resident at the farm.

Those days were filled to the brim with adventures, misadventures, inspiration, devastation, faith, doubt, arrogance, fear, humility, gratitude, tireless work, costly laziness, shrewdness, obtuseness, bliss, depression, wonder, success, failure, encouragement, insult, love, heartbreak, good fortune, bad breaks, providential serendipity, sheer willfulness, and more or less – determination.

Some of that story is recorded here in this blog. Most of it is not.

33,686 days.

That is the number of days Max Skeen, owner and prior resident of the farm, lived on this earth. The adventures and wonders that filled the days of Max’s life are not my stories to tell. They are written elsewhere, both on paper and in the hearts and memories of others.

Our stories have intersected. Sometimes we knew it.

Max told his children stories of remembering the High Rock Lake dam being built. He knew that some of those fleeting visions came from before he was really even old enough to have well-formed memories. After the construction was complete he remembered more clearly that local folk were allowed to walk across the top of the dam. He could remember vividly the precarious steps across the structure.

highrockdamI do not remember how old I was when I first collected memories of the High Rock Lake dam. We lived about an hour northeast of there and in the summer we would often spend Mondays, my dad’s day off, at the lake. Sometimes we would drive across the narrow bridge that still spans the waters below the dam. It was a rare treat for me when we would happen to drive past the dam, which was not really on our way anywhere. As dams go it’s a pretty simple one, but in the wonder of childhood it was one of the most massively intriguing structures my young eyes had ever seen. I KNEW it held adventures and would beg my parents to stop so we could get closer.

Just about a month ago I kayaked within a couple hundred yards of it and settled in the shade of that bridge with a friend. I sat there remembering the pull that dam had on me as a child. Sitting there floating in the water I had not yet heard the stories of what a fixture the dam was in Max’s memories of the childhood he spent a mile and a half down the road on the farm I now call home. It’s not allowed any more, but I’m going to have to walk up there one day soon just to sit and take in the view.

When I began my figurative journey to the farm that was not yet called Healing Springs Acres in 2010, I had no idea, literally, where I was going. The first time I drove down the back roads that led to the farm I rounded a curve and came out of the trees to cross the bridge ahead. I looked casually to the left and was struck again with wonder when I realized with much older eyes that I knew exactly where I was. The unknown way was marked with the old and familiar dam from deep in my earliest childhood memories.

Only another mile and a half down the road to Max’s childhood home, I saw for the first time the old barn that still sits as the dominant feature on the farm. Logic dictates that I would have seen it as a child too on those trips past the dam. Then it was just another barn on another road and held no place in my memories. Over the years I’ve come to learn that nearly everyone in the southern half of Davidson County has some level of familiarity with that barn if they drive up and down that road much at all. It’s simply one of the only landmarks on a long straight stretch of road with little more than tress.

Celestes Barn Pic

Photo by Celeste Murphy

That first time I saw the barn I did not yet know that Max had used some of the money he’d saved in the Navy to pay to have the barn built for his father when they needed a better place to keep the plow animals. Max knew by then that his life’s trajectory would never take him back to the farm and building that barn was the best way he could help. It still sits there today as the base of operations and the best source of shade for working in the two front fields.

Max shared that story when he visited the farm a couple of years ago. I was in the process of assessing whether or not the barn could be refurbished and had gotten an estimate. It seemed high to me but I was prepared to honor any sense of nostalgia he might have for the place. I still didn’t know in that moment that he’d been the one who paid to have it built to begin with. When I shared the estimate I learned where my friend Gary, Max’s son, got his sense of relentless pragmatism. Max immediately chuckled, winced, grimaced, and shook his head. He said something to the effect of, “That’s three or four times what I paid for this barn to have it built to begin with! Tear it down if you can use the lumber. It’s already served its purpose and it’s not worth spending that kind of money on it.”

The weather may tear it down, but I don’t think I ever will. There are a couple of modifications I have planned for the barn in order to use the roof as a rainwater collection system. Whatever ultimately happens to the old barn, it was a pure joy to stand in the shade of it that day as it served to reveal that Max’s heart was still rooted in the practical productivity of the farm. If a tool, say an old barn, has a useful purpose, use it. If it doesn’t, fashion another tool to accomplish the worthy purpose. That’s how a farm works.

MAx and Mae 1994 (634x800)This past weekend I received word from Max’s children that he had passed away in a peaceful rest. As I write this they are still in the midst of accepting the grief and the joy that accompany the sad task his daughter described as, “… marking a life well lived.”

I see the marks of Max’s life in this place daily as I plow up the old shoes thrown by the animals he and his father drove as they plowed this same dirt. Interns moved rocks this summer from piles that I can’t imagine made their way out of the fields in any way other than with Max’s help. The first terrace in our main field is shaped from the plot where the house he slept in as a child would have sat.

The numbers of our days have intersected. They have intersected in the wonder of a massive dam. They have intersected in labor. Now, they intersect in rest.

Over the course of the summer I have looked back over our first six growing seasons to ponder the lessons learned. It began to occur to me that reflecting and resting were the perfect rhythmic response to the difficulties and challenges of these first six seasons of learning. The seventh year is the Sabbath year – the year of rest.

Part of what is clear, as described in the immediately prior post, is that a fundamental element of the model Healing Springs Acres is built upon isn’t working. In six years, we have not found a workable balance between having enough time to work on the farm while working away from the farm to have enough money to fund the work of the farm. If a tool, say an operating model, has a useful purpose, use it. If it doesn’t, fashion another tool to accomplish the worthy purpose. That’s how a farm works.

As Max has now gone on to rest, those who knew him well enough to love him are entering a season of reflecting on who he was to them. Another kind of season of reflection had already begun to turn here at Healing Springs Acres.

Our stories have intersected. Sometimes we only knew it upon reflection.

Intersections of Sabbath rest.

Keep us all in your prayers as we fashion new tools to accomplish a worthy purpose.

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Program already in progress…

It has been far too long since I’ve written anything here – not since the summer of 2013.  That seems like forever ago, and yet it seems like just a few months or so that I’ve been meaning to put up another post.  All of 2014 and 2015 were spent in another assignment as interim pastor of a nearby congregation.  Given the facts that growing food to give away still doesn’t pay very well, I still do have bills to pay, and work away from the farm is necessary, it was an ideal opportunity to live and work close by – only 15-20 minutes up the road from the farm.

Even though it was close to the farm, it was more than full-time work.  No one even tangentially related to congregational work will need any explanation of the fact that I barely had time to keep the actual farm work going, much less time or energy to write here too.  The weekly requirements of sermon writing, Bible study preparation, and newsletter column writing completely absorbed any writing impulses which might have eventually manifest themselves in a blog post.  Even if I’d had the impulse, it always felt like a luxury which competed with actual physical work at the farm that always seemed to pile up faster than it got done most days.  Weeds don’t stop growing for one to write.  As I said early on here on the “What to Expect” page – I’m running a farm, not a blog about a farm.

Since it’s been a while, let me attempt a brief summary of the trajectory of the Healing Springs Acres project just in case you’re joining this program already in progress.  Nearly every sentence which follows probably should have been its own three to five paragraph post along the way.  Alas…

2011

  • The first year we put seeds in the ground and probably our most productive year pound for pound.
  • The consulting work I did that year afforded me the most time to devote to tending the farm (which is to say that I wasn’t doing enough consulting work for that to be sustainable and I had to make other commitments of my time in order to have enough money to make life work).
  • My primary source of volunteers this first year were from His Laboring Few, a biker ministry in Thomasville, NC. They were also the primary recipient of nearly all the food we grew.  They served it fresh in their neighborhood kitchen.
  • That first year we planted what would become a fairly standard mix of corn, green beans, okra, squash & zucchini. The squash, zucchini, and okra did the best.  The corn and green beans did well too.
  • I had time, but not money.

 

2012

  • My first assignment as an interim pastor.
  • I spent four days out of seven an hour and a half from the farm and had to seriously amend the crops planted for the year. Since I was away from the farm too much to tend things that need daily attention like okra and green beans, I only planted corn and potatoes – crops for which I could more manageably plan a predictable single harvest day on a tight and somewhat inflexible schedule.
  • Enjoyed an influx of volunteers from the church I served, First Baptist in Elkin, NC.
  • Received the first major gift to support the work of the farm (a personal gift, not a charitable gift). Those funds provided for the purchase of the trailer that would eventually become my residence at the farm, assisted with initial utilities installations (which were mostly provided by the Skeen family as improvements to their land), and provided bridge funding after I finished the year as interim and sought new work.
  • I had money, but not time.

 

2013

  • The toughest year yet. With some funding to tide me over, I quickly realized that only one of the two primary contracts I had counted on for work to support myself was going to come through for the year.  I was working with another congregation in what was a difficult interim transition, but was not working fully as their interim pastor.  I spent the whole year with getting by money, but not getting-stuff-done money.
  • With the remainders of the gift I’d received, I weathered the stark reduction in income and was able to trade my old 1977 VW camper van for a truck. There was also a BBQ smoker thrown in the deal which I was able to use for a few fundraisers for the farm.
  • I still managed to plant and harvest corn, green beans, squash & zucchini, okra, and potatoes – and added sweet potatoes. All did well but the potatoes.  Neither the Irish potatoes nor the sweet potatoes amounted to anything.
  • We did set out the first 200 mushroom logs to begin a cash crop to help cover the costs of what we grow to give away. The crew of volunteers from FBC Elkin was indispensable for that.
  • There were still some volunteers from His Laboring Few, and most of the food still went to their kitchen. I was not able to visit their services on Sundays though and the volunteers began to drop off.
  • Despite managing to grow food another year, progress on the infrastructure to allow me to move to the farm had ground to a complete stop.
  • The summer had been wet to the point of preventing tractor work at critical times and I never caught up with the johnson grass.
  • By the end of the summer, I was probably clinically depressed and carried a lot of guilt for having started the year with such a significant gift and having what felt like so little to show for it.
  • I had time, but not money.

 

2014

  • I accepted another assignment as an interim pastor as described in the introduction above. I lived in a parsonage owned by the church and, for a while, the urgency of finishing the set-up of the utilities for the trailer at the farm waned.
  • This was a full-on, completely involved 60-80 hour a week interim once you threw in meetings, hospital visits, and visitation.
  • Fortunately, the congregation was half full of farmers and they understood and appreciated what I was doing at Healing Springs Acres. I had the flexibility to swap a day off in response to the rain, but there still weren’t enough days off.  I was constantly behind the curve on fighting weeds and picking beans.
  • Unfortunate events at His Laboring Few brought changes to their work.  We began taking our food to The Pastor’s Pantry in Lexington, and to Upper Room Ministries in Southmont.
  • The youth groups at Jersey Baptist Church and Center Hill Baptist Church became regular volunteers at the farm.
  • We had decent crops of green beans, corn, okra, squash, and zucchini.
  • This first year of the two year interim pastorate was a year of recovery from 2013 – both financially and emotionally.
  • In addition to personal financial recovery, a friend introduced me to a couple who were looking for meaningful ways to give money from a private family foundation. They chose Healing Springs Acres as a recipient.  Those funds provided for the tractor we still use, a new barn, and the completion of the set-up of the trailer utilities over about an 18 month period.
  • I had money, but not time.

 

2015

  • Healing Springs Acres had its first summer intern! He nearly single handedly won the battle against the johnson grass in our two main fields!
  • We lost roughly 80% of our green beans, corn, and pink eyed purple hulled peas to Deer.  We had expanded into a third field for the first time and the deer completely wiped out the corn and green beans in that entire field.
  • Our best performing crops continued to be green beans, okra, squash, and zucchini.
  • We started anther 100 shiitake mushroom logs. The initial work day was staffed by the chainsaw crew from FBC Elkin, and an inoculation crew of friends from Jersey Baptist Church.  The rest of the inoculation was completed by a crew of homeschool moms and their kids.
  • Towards the end of the year, it was clear the interim assignment was about to draw to a close. Completing the utilities set-up for the trailer became urgent again.  The final steps – literally, decks and steps – for inspection to have the power turned on were completed at the end of the year.
  • Once the county released the power company to throw the switch, other issues emerged. There was still more plumbing and HVAC work to get those systems running than had yet been clear.
  • That’s about the time the rains started…
  • I still had money, but not time

 

2016

  • 2016 started very wet. Nearly every weekend I had available to move was soaked with rain.  One CAN move in the rain but, all things being equal, it’s better not to if you have the option.
  • Fortunately the new pastor at the congregation I had served was buying a house and didn’t need to move into the parsonage. The leadership of the congregation was very gracious and kept encouraging me to take my time and move when it made sense rather than dragging all my stuff back and forth through mud puddles.
  • The weekend I was finally set to begin moving all my stuff to the farm, the trailer was broken into. That set me back considerably with the need to make repairs and increase the security of the farm before moving myself and all my meager worldly goods down there.
  • After six months of grace after my work at the church finished, I moved to Healing Springs Acres. More about that later…

 

Every year has brought its own mixture of challenges.  Most all of them derive from the essential dilemma of finding the equilibrium between trading time for money.  Each scenario which has unfolded in these first six growing seasons has missed the balance point and erred on one side or the other of having enough money to make life work but not having enough left over time to give the farm its due, or having enough time to work the farm, but not enough money to do what needs to be done.

One of the obvious questions folks have asked is, “Why not just go get a steady job close to the farm?”  It’s an obvious question, and one I’ve asked several times myself.  A major element in the backdrop of all of this has been the fact that since leaving Atlanta, I was deeply invested in the hopes that a ministry consulting group I was involved with would grow into steady work.  I was saying no to other possibilities all along the way to keep myself available for that – a posture I held to faithfully for a total of about 6 years. That has turned out to be one of the most financially costly decisions of my life and I have yet to recover.  2013 was the year I could afford it the least, yet doubled down the hardest on that effort.  It did not work out.  In 2015 I finally washed my hands of what has been my only professional failure and allowed myself to turn fully toward other opportunities.

Since then, I’ve done what would’ve probably been the sensible thing all along.  I’ve taken a three quarter time position as Executive Director of a small not-for-profit within about an hour of the farm.  I drive to Winston-Salem four days a week to work with a beautiful community of folks there.  As I drive, I weigh the balance of trading time for money and ask the only obvious question.

Given what I’ve learned these first 6 years – where does Healing Springs Acres grow from here…?

Sometimes things don’t work out — but sometimes…

Sometimes things don’t work out.

The last Friday of this past June, on one of the hottest days of the summer, a handful of volunteers from the First Baptist Church of Elkin, NC helped set out 800 sweet potato slips at Healing Springs Acres. We should have harvested them sometime in the middle of October.

With no irrigation the tender shoots didn’t stand a chance in the heat. Only about 5 of the shoots survived the 12 to 15 scorched days from when they were set out until it finally rained on them. Rabbits and deer ate the few that survived. Rain was steady after it started but the long, hot, dry spell was too much. We didn’t even get enough sweet potatoes for a pie, much less the thousand or so pounds we’d hoped to give away.

You may already have worked out that planting the sweet potatoes on one of the hottest days of summer and not watering them for a week and a half didn’t make for the best chance of a flourishing crop. Well, of course. However, the slips were a free gift. We weren’t in control of when they were given to us and they had to go in the ground within a week. There wasn’t anything else to do. We didn’t yet have water at the farm for irrigation. The rains have been good to us over all, but this time there just wasn’t enough moisture.

Sweet potatoes are generally regarded as a super food, which is actually more of a marketing term than a scientific one. It refers to foods particularly high in nutritional chemicals and other healthful benefits, and with few negative qualities like high fat content. The dual criteria for what we cultivate here at the farm is that it be densely nutritious and have a decent shelf life. Both matter. Some of the folks who end up eating food from Healing Springs Acres don’t get regular, nutritious meals. It’s all the more important then that the meals they do eat are nutritious. The shelf life matters too. We need to have as much time as possible to harvest and distribute food so that it can be used beneficially before spoiling.

Sweet potatoes fit both of our criteria. So it’s even more disappointing that the first sweet potato crop at Healing Springs Acres was a colossal failure. Sometimes things don’t work out.

Anyone who knows me can readily see that I don’t miss many meals. Unfortunately, that’s not true for enough other people. Recently I shared on facebook a newspaper article from a nearby city, Greensboro, NC. That article reported the combined populations of our neighbors in Greensboro, NC and my home town of High Point, NC as 4th in the whole country by a then recent Gallup poll for people who say they don’t have enough money to buy food. Neighboring Winston-Salem, NC was 3rd and Asheville, NC was 7th at the time.

Some reading this will be inclined to wonder what vices those families might be wasting their money on so that they can’t buy food. I have to admit that I wonder too. But, honestly, I don’t care. I can’t figure out a productive way to address complex issues like drug addiction, gambling, or any other expensive vices with a person who is still too hungry to hear an invitation to helpful guidance over the sound of the grumbling in the pit of their stomach – or soul.

I’m not professionally qualified to assess, or fully address, most of the complicated issues that might be contributing factors for someone’s hunger. I’d be willing to bet my motorcycle that the majority of readers here are likewise ill equipped to diagnose from a distance whether or not these families with children “deserve” to be helped. Even if we could make such an assessment, I still don’t care who “deserves” to be offered something to eat if they are hungry.

The article does provide a clue though about what some of these families were spending their money on before they found themselves in need of food. The Executive Director of one agency which provides meals and housing knew some of the people who where calling to ask for help. In her words, “Thing is, many of them had made donations just last year.” Apparently many of those needing help had been providing the same kind of generosity to their neighbors that they now needed from others. They weren’t necessarily wasting their money on vices at all. It may well be that, beyond their control, life just got more expensive than they could afford faster than they could fix the situation.

Sometimes things don’t work out.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” He didn’t say, “I was hungry and after I passed your needs assessment, you gave me something to eat.”

When I reflect on the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, I try to keep that in mind. That’s the Chapter where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats according to who helps the thirsty, hungry, sick, or those in prison. There’s nothing in that chapter about judging who does or does not deserve assistance. The only mention of judgment in that chapter refers to the judgment of those who don’t even try to help. I’m well enough aware that “helping” doesn’t always actually help. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help our neighbors though. It only means that we should be careful to do it well.

Why are so many of us so quick to assume the worst of anyone who needs help? Perhaps generosity is a better response than suspicion. After all, sometimes things don’t work out.

We’ve had our share of things not working out around Healing Springs Acres. The sweet potato crop was a failure. You may have read about recent vehicular difficulties which impact the farm. Getting electrical power to the farm has been difficult at best. Multiple housing solutions have fallen through at the last minute. Funding has been tenuous.

Sometimes things just don’t work out. Then again, sometimes they do.

Sometimes a spirit of generosity is so contagious that resources multiply into a more plentiful product that the mere sum of their parts. Sometimes a supportive community surrounds possibility and refuses to let it fail to grow to fruition. Sometimes the bountiful economy of God breaks into our own human economies of scarcity in ways that tempt us to claim providential miracles when in truth, as often as not, providential miracles are really just the natural results of faithful people venturing out to be the kinds of neighbors God has called them to be. That’s what has been happening lately at Healing Springs Acres.

Our regular monthly support has grown lately to about $500 a month and seems to be increasing. That comes in gifts that range in size from $10 to a couple hundred a month. We recently got word of a $25,000 contribution. Total fundraising for the coming year with cash and gifts in kind is just under $40,000 – about 25-30% of our first year’s needs including operating expenses and one-time infrastructure investments. I’ve finally located a trailer cheap enough to afford and nice enough for my daughters to visit. We can finally get power for winter construction projects. We have the resources we need for a chicken coop. There’s a fair chance we’ll have our own tractors in place by spring (but, if you’ve got a spare, we’ll still take it…). I got the title issues with The Pickle, my ’77 VW camper bus, worked out. Even Babe the Blue Ox has been running better after a rebuilt carburetor, an oil change, and new plugs and wires.

That’s all true because of an incalculable mixture of unexpected generosity, persistence, serendipity, hard work, and sheer good luck. A generous community of support is growing up around the possibilities represented by Healing Springs Acres.

As I walked out of the post office the other day with a $25,000 check in my pocket, a neighbor stopped and asked if we were going to water the crops next year. I was excited to say that we now have the infrastructure in place to irrigate and we won’t risk losing a whole crop again. He smiled and said, “Good – I want to help pay the water bill!” Thanks to a growing neighborhood of support, we can keep doing our best to be good neighbors to the folks around us for whom things haven’t worked out so well lately.

Sometimes things don’t work out – but, thanks be to God and good neighbors, sometimes they do!

Who is your neighbor?

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