Illustration by Christa Allen
The other day, beset by a rare call to creativity and overcome by the beauty of a cool, summer day (not to mention a deep disinclination to perform pressing, though very dirty, chores), I gazed deeply into the fluffy, puffy cumulous clouds inches from my skull and wondered aloud, “What should we have for dinner?” This query is neither uncommon nor insignificant, though where it led me that day was a bit out of the ordinary (though not uncharacteristic).
Recently, my family and I visited a friend’s farm and toured her solar-powered, earthen home; upon leaving, we wondered aloud about the path that led her to off-grid living and, ultimately, a life growing certified organic greens. This friend has shared bits and pieces, compelling plot points involving a farming internship and years in a graduate chemistry program, but in the end, her path is hers and I can never hope to understand it the way she does.
It’s not idle wonderment, all this path pondering. As full-time farmers, we’re dependent upon the kind folks in town to purchase our sundries, so we peddle proteins every Saturday at the farmers market. Years of running a coffee shop taught me an invaluable lesson, one I now apply to standing behind a folding, plastic banquet table, hawking meats: People like to talk. And, presumably because my wife and I don’t fit the mold of your typical farmers (we both own straw hats, but limit their usage to on-farm tasks), people often feel compelled to ask us how in the world we ended up farming. My response, after cautioning them against the phrase “ended up” and the finality it imposes upon a pair of wanderlust-stricken idealists, is to tell them our path to farming started at the dinner table.
Conscious eating isn’t new, nor can I claim we put an original twist on it. Though most people don’t scan their suburban dinner plates and, a few years later, find themselves ankle deep in pig manure, some do, and I can’t pretend we’re the first family to drive a U-Haul up a gravel driveway to fill an old farmhouse with anachronistic Target furnishings. That we began choosing products containing the descriptors “all-natural” and “organic” some ten years ago, right after our first child was born, is commonplace enough to border on cliché. We sought out local products when everybody else did, learned to cook from hit TV shows, gathered recipes from websites like Allrecipes and Pinterest. We’re similar enough to townsfolk to serve as a heedful warning against an unchecked curiosity in homesteading.
The dinner tables my wife and I have owned over the course of our fourteen-year marriage serve as chapter breaks in the story of our life so far. Our first was a two-seater bistro table, tall and small, the perfect fit for our low-rent, one bedroom apartment—it fit a pair of microwave dinners just fine. A few years later, conventionally employed and sleeping in a suburban house, we bought an actual dining room set, a faux-antique number with a stainless steel top. We moved that heavy thing from one house to the next, through shifting employment conditions, adding chairs as we added children, one day making the decision to eat every meal prepared in our house at this surface. We celebrated culinary successes, powered through failures and learned to savor both conversation and flavor at its increasingly scuffed tabletop.
Then, almost two years ago, we unloaded that stainless steel beast from the U-Haul, set it up in our new farmhouse dining room and realized our big, beautiful table was actually pretty small. Dwarfed by the centuries-old gathering space it occupied, we saw, as if for the first time, our son perched at the end like a vagabond, our daughters’ shoulders touching as they speared that first piece of bacon produced here on the farm. The first guest to visit our farm—luckily a bachelor who journeyed our way solo—took up the last inch or two of tabletop real estate, and we worried over the larger groups promising to travel our way. We volunteered to host holiday events and envisioned brothers, sisters, cousins crowding our couches while balancing cranberry sauce and red wine.
But we’re homesteaders, right? We live to solve problems. My wife found plans for a DIY farmhouse table with room for ten online and, after a few days of sawing, screwing and sanding, we’d built a not-too-shabby dining room table that better fit the room, our family and the people parading through the farmhouse. Our beloved, old table moved to the kitchen for spillover or impromptu meals. We produced more and more of the raw products we cooked with, our meals and dining space both mounting a case for our dream of self-sufficiency.
So the answer to my question posed to that deep-dimensioned summer sky? Pork chops, an easy call for a pig farmer, but the sky beckoned something else, something new. I wanted a family dinner under those clouds. I set to work scrounging up scrap lumber from around the farm, jotted down some numbers on scrap paper and, totally on a whim, began building. Within an hour I had a four-legged frame and, after a quick trip to the pile of fence planks we salvaged from a horse farm last summer that looms against the back edge of the farm, I’d cobbled together a rustic tabletop. My wife retrieved a bench I built a while back from the side pasture, and we both gazed with delight upon our brand-new outdoor dining table.
We ate pork chops under the open sky, surrounded by chickens, dogs and farm cats and, though I can’t read the meaning just yet, I suspect we turned the page on another chapter. If it doesn’t rain tonight, we’ll eat chicken outside for dinner, but that’s another story for another day.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.