Blazing Hot Metal, Breaking Away from All Work and No Play, and Making Myself More Interesting
My glasses were covered in steam behind a faceshield as my shoulders felt the weight—not physically but mentally—of the hot molten aluminum in the crucible my neighbor and I were holding. Dropping it now would not only be quite dangerous, but would have cost a few hours of work. Carefully, we poured the molten metal into a hole surrounded by black sand. The molten solution cooled quickly—from over 1350 degrees to just over room temperature—in a matter of fifteen minutes. Then we would know if it worked or not!
This is, possibly, the beginning of a hobby on my part. But let me explain why this is significant. It’s been a somewhat philosophical thought I’ve entertained over more than a few bowls of our popcorn or alone in a tractor late at night…
You see, farming is so unique from other businesses. Don’t misunderstand—I do believe it’s better, but I fully admit that’s more subjective than objective. It shouldn’t insult any non-farmers reading this. Farming combines elements of the blue-collar and white-collar, tempered typically with a multi-generational operation—and often long line of prior generations. But it can also be a blessing and a curse—at least in one regard. It’s when your passion is your work.
It’s been said that “Enjoy what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” There’s some real wisdom in that saying, if a bit simplistic. I don’t enjoy building balance sheets for my banker or scrapping my knuckles underneath a truck or tractor being repaired, for example. But on balance, I immensely love my family farm. So did my dad. And my grandpa. And, I assume as was taught to me, my great and great-great Grandpas.
So far so good, right? Well how do you get away from your work then? If it’s your hobby and passion, as well as your work, then what to do? That’s the trick. The farm always follows you home—it’s part of your family life, your identity, and frankly, what you want to do. Any family business run by an entrepreneur can grasp parts or even all of this puzzle—they just likely won’t have 150 years of history on their shoulders with two toddlers on their lap reminding them of it!
My grandpa was actively involved in “serving his fellow man” as he put it. It was his Christian ethos, borne from surviving World War II. But it allowed him to travel. And travel he and Grandma did—all 50 states, many of them by road and prior to interstates. So he had a hobby, somewhat, that took him off the farm to recharge.
Dad was much more introverted. He was always pleasant and fun to speak with, but never a socializer—he went to meetings, enjoyed his time with folks, then came home. He—and his family—never really went out just to go out. But he also served his community, albeit without the multi-state travel. And he was an avid reader and a thorough Civil War buff too. Until kidney disease and cancer took its toll, Dad loved traveling with family to see the states. The last 12 years of his life, riddled with sickness, robbed him of this hobby though.
Which brings me, at 31, to my own philosophical dilemma. If you love your work and it is your vocation as well as your hobby, isn’t that enough? I’ll volunteer a resounding “NO.” Dad’s life example, taught me many lessons, but one was about the need for a hobby. Cancer cursed Dad’s body, which meant his love to travel with family—his dreams to travel in pre-retirement and retirement with Mom—were no longer an option. So the hobby died. But worse, his physical abilities on the farm slowly waned until he was very limited. He was slowly, mercilessly, being deprived of his work and hobby for 12 long years. (Dad’s valiant battle is worth another blog post.) The key takeaway though is that Dad’s work AND his hobby, being essentially one and the same, were both killed by cancer. You have to separate from work for your own health.
More selfishly, however, I don’t want to be boring. If all I have is work that serves as a hobby, then that’s all I have to talk about—I wouldn’t be making myself very interesting if I only dedicated time to consider business!
At first, I thought that if I had approached the farm differently enough from Dad and Grandpa that I safely had a hobby. After all, not many farmers push the envelop with startups that are completely outside their comfort zone. And Pilot Knob Comforts has been just that! Quite a roller coaster ride with many challenges and long hours—many more to come I’m sure! But it is different enough than driving the semi down the county highway or assessing a growing weed that it sure felt like a “hobby” away from work…well, now I know better. 60-90 hours of work per week is still…60-90 hours of WORK per week. Even if you love what you do!
So, what to do?
So what about tinkering? Admittedly, I don’t fit the farmer stereotype of being a crack mechanic or especially handy around the house. Dad and Grandpa were not. They were workhorses, but not handy. I’ve gathered from family that I’m quite a bit ahead of them. But watching “This Old House” on PBS or hanging out with my genuinely handy brother-in-law highlights my shortcomings. All the more reason to take up tinkering!
I list “tinkering” because I don’t really have a better way to describe what men who played with Legos as kids do as adults when they have real tools and “good” ideas. Thankfully, I have a farmer neighbor, Willard, up the road who’s graciously invited me to start attending his “Mancave Mondays on Sunday” where they discuss grand ideas and tinker in his shop. He was a teacher by trade off-farm and has acquired over the years many wonderful metal and wood tools. The one he invited me into the shop for was the forge. That’s right, a forge. You build forms, pack sand, pour molten metal, and then you have your own creation.
Willard built forms for a scale model grain bin. (Imagine a large metal can on concrete that stores grain, if you’re unfamiliar with what a bin is on the farm.) This is gold if you’re a farm kid from 2-7 years old, though adult farmers would love to have this in their office too. He was gracious to consider that I, having two young boys, might get use out of those old forms he made. So Willard has taught me how this works. I’m slowly building my family’s own scale model grain bin setup. And I’m thrilled! But more than that, it’s fun to have someone else with whom to consider other tinkering projects. We have discussed corn-cob gas production, organic electrical weed control, and on-farm biodiesel generation to name a few ideas. I already feel more interesting in just three visits to tinker in Willard’s shop!
With any luck, I’ll yet build an awesome grain bin site for my family to keep for generations, forged by my hand (with Willard’s guidance of course). In the process, I’ll learn more about forging—and think of other tinkering adventures. Fun thoughts as the steam cleared off my faceshield—glad I have a budding hobby to consider off-farm!
If you enjoyed this long, rambling thought on why I need a hobby, why don’t you share some comments below. I hope it gave you new perspective from our family farm—thanks for reading!
**“But Joseph Said God Meant It For Good” by George Reynolds. It’s a fascinating look at what it must have been like in daily life and rise of Joseph, inferring details to bring this perspective to life. It is a GREAT read!