Last summer, while showing a friend how I manage grazing at The Grove, I made an offhand comment about enjoying how the sheep always look like they are thinking deeply while chewing the cud.
“The ruminants are ruminating,” she quipped off-handedly.
It took a half-second before the light bulb went off upstairs, my quizzical look turned into a grin, and I realized: THAT’S where that word comes from!
Her half-second confused look back changed to subtle astonishment when she seemed to realize: Wait—he didn’t know that?
No, ma’am-- I didn’t. But it’s always fun to learn new things.
While far from the most important or perspective changing tidbit I’ve discovered over the last couple years, ruminating is something I’ve had a lot more time to do these days. Most of the time I’m working alone on various long-duration, low-intensity physical projects: moving sheep, tending chickens, working soil, transplanting starts, etc. In a lot of ways, these tasks have replaced distance running as something I do that keeps my body and subconscious mind occupied, while the rest of my brain chews on whatever set of ideas or concepts are churning on any given day.
I also listen to podcasts. Lots of podcasts.
There was a concept that popped up on one random show where a gentlemen explained how “The Past is the Future.” While it sounds a little gimmicky, the more he explained, and the more I ruminated on the idea, the more it began to make sense.
The most basic example would be something like a retirement account. In some sense, the health of the account is based entirely on what one has done in the past. Did you allocate and automate the contributions early in your career, then essentially “hide” it from your “present” self to avoid falling to the temptation of a weekend in Vegas? Good job! You’re smarter than me, as my financial situation would be much better today had the Air Force not sent me to Las Vegas on at least four separate occasions with a group of peers in my mid-20s.
There aren’t that many opportunities in any particular “present” to correct course and dramatically influence the future balance of the account as contributions are capped every year, and anyone who’s ever talked to an investment manager knows the dollar you put in at 18 is worth way more than the one at 25 or 30. And if you wait until 50 to start planning for retirement, your best bet for a good return on investment might, ironically, be a trip back to Vegas with a blackjack chart and nerves of steel.
But it turns out the application of the idea is a lot deeper than just another gimmick to get folks to hand over $6k a year to Wall Street, even if it is (on average) a good idea (usually).
I’ve begun to see how this year, the success of my farm is way more dependent on the accumulated decisions I made over the last year than on anything I do today or in the next month before growing season really starts. And, because I’m so new to this, I didn’t even realize what I was doing when I made those decisions—or, alternately, didn’t have the wisdom to see the connection between any specific decision and the distant future, except where plainly obvious.
A great example are my goats, Opal and Ophelia. When we got them—as two of the first four livestock animals on the farm back in 2021—my reasoning seemed sound. Goats will generally browse more than sheep, and there are enough woody plants and weeds in the pasture and along the fence line to justify having a couple extra targeted chompers.
The goats did exactly what I wanted… but I noticed that as the lambs grew, they essentially ate the exact same plants as the goats, and with similar order of preference. The only real difference was the goats’ ability to jump up on their hind legs and grab a branch from higher on a tree or bush, then pull it down to the ground where the sheep would quickly join the feast. In fact, while initially entertaining, it became a concern that some of the woody plants that I wanted to keep in the pasture were getting a little too much attention, entirely due to the goats extended reach.
Suddenly my reasoning for getting them was a little shaky-- but they were part of the team, and my family enjoyed them. They became just another couple of animals in our quickly growing flock.
Last Fall, I introduced a ram to the flock for the first time with the intention of lambing this Spring. Being an intact male, I expected him to jump in, show everyone who’s boss, and get to work.
Opal wasn’t having it. We knew she was in charge prior to the ram, but had no idea how quickly—or effectively—she’d have the ram fall in line. In fact, she seemed to take exception to certain… activities… the ram had been hired to perform. Strategically timed head-butts really threw the ram off his game and had me a bit concerned. Even then, I figured they’d sort it out.
Now, I’m not so sure. While we have some ewes about to drop lambs, it’s definitely not the whole flock. Also, I fully expected to have the first lamb by this time in March, which leads me to believe Opal deterred relations long enough to delay my lambing by half a month or more; which then deters when the animals are ready for market; which then may lead to supplementing hay in the Fall, or keeping more animals over the winter; which then translates to unexpected increased costs and decreased revenue. In other words, the future of the farm and business.
If you’d have told me two years ago that my decision to buy a couple goat kids would affect my 2023 lambing success and schedule, I would have just been confused. And even though I had a couple “present” moments to decide on whether to keep the pair around, I didn’t have the wisdom to understand the effects of my decisions. The past is the future, indeed.
All of this is running through my head while I’m, no kidding, shoveling poo filled bedding into my truck bed for the umpteenth time to move over to the compost pile, since the animals are back out on pasture and won’t be under the shelter any more. The psychologists could probably have a field day, but let’s set that aside a moment.
If there’s any truth to the whole “the-past-is-the-future” thing, what’s “the present”? What are we doing day in, day out, to add to our past, and work towards our future, which are clearly linked? What the hell did I just type?
It took a few more days of ruminating, and a few more loads of animal bedding before I started to come up with anything resembling an answer.
In some sense, I think all we do every day is mediate negotiations between our past and future selves, whether in farming or anything else. The best negotiators are the most clear-eyed and honest about themselves and their environment, and can make acceptable requests from the future based on reasonable assessments of the past. Couple that with discipline, hard work, and hope, and you have the potential for success.
A farmer that runs a successful beef operation can reasonably expect to transition over to a cow-calf operation and do well. A lot of the knowledge and wisdom gained from the first venture would clearly translate over to the new, and it’s a good bet that someone who has been successful in the first venture be successful in a similar second.
If another farmer decides he wants to transition his land from pasture to corn fields, it’s likely to be a bit more difficult. There will clearly be some overlap of experience between the ventures, both being agriculturally related at the very least, but it’s likely to result in a longer, more difficult negotiation.
And if instead of a farmer, you take a veteran with no history in agriculture who decides to try to build a profitable, small-scale, regenerative agriculture business… well, he’d better buckle up.
One thing I’ve had to accept the last couple years is that I have almost no right to expect anything from my future in farming outside of hard work and hard lessons for at least another year or two. I simply haven’t had enough time or experience to have a serious negotiation with the future, particularly in the near term. The only thing I bring to the discussion is a history of grit and stubbornness—and while that’s both useful and versatile, alone, it’s not enough to guarantee success in any venture.
There is one last thought that has been gnawing at me the last year or so; one that I walked backwards into—from my perspective—by accident. Again, not my own idea, but instead a compilation of concepts explained from various smart folks on podcasts buzzing into my brain while I go about my various daily chores. And it seemed to slide into this framework I’ve been ruminating on quite nicely:
I don’t think we are alone at the negotiating table.
Every day I become certain there is someone—or something—else at the table with us. Or maybe standing behind us, watching over our shoulder, able to analyze the quality and honesty of our negotiation from the very same perspective we enjoy. Heck, maybe at times they are the only thing holding us up to the table, while we negotiate our way out of a real pickle.
That first farmer who wants to switch from beef to cow-calf? Sometimes it doesn’t work even for him, despite how well argued and reasonable the negotiation may be. There are always factors outside the scope of the agreement that can come in and knock us off our feet: economic challenges, natural disasters, personal tragedy, sickness… whatever. Maybe even our own thinking that it will be easy, or is justified, or owed, is enough to throw the whole thing off and land us in a future place we didn’t expect.
But… I’m not certain the success or failure of the venture matters as much as we like to think in the grand scheme of things. It may be missing the forest for the trees, as they say.
After all, in some sense, isn’t the real challenge to keep our composure at the table, regardless of what the future turns out to be? To continue the negotiation in good faith, no matter what, and not kick the table over when we don’t get our way? To accept the lessons of our experiences, reorient ourselves, and keep moving forward… even if it becomes abundantly clear we might not like or have any control over what our likely future is to be?
It's a lot to ruminate on. If anyone figures out answers to any of these questions, let me know.
In the meantime, poking this keyboard with my fingers isn’t getting any plants growing or sheep tended. As the point of these blogs is to give folks a chuckle—not pontificate on the mysteries of existence—I’ll leave those of you who stuck with me with a little consolation prize. Thanks, and best wishes!
What do all sheep secretly want to do?
To wool the world.