Did you ever wonder why?
Did you ever wonder why?
Did you ever wonder why the emotions which run closest to our hearts are difficult to say out loud? We end up being silent, not saying anything or at least very little. We'll chat about surface things but the deep things go unsaid. Maybe I'm over-analytical, but I have meditated on this phenomenon a lot.
The love that you have for your teenagers, for example, or for your parents. It's there, it's real, it's deep but it's hard to verbalize. Most of us don't express it nearly enough. It's almost like we draw back from even trying to put these almost sacred feelings into words. They make us vulnerable! We might be misunderstood... we'll look silly... others may think we are oddly sentimental... we feel exposed.
I even feel a twinge of this inhibiting self-consciousness when it comes to expressing deep gratitude. I think that's wrong... plus I despise inhibitions. So this Thanksgiving season I'm just going to say it anyway even if you think I'm funny... even if I'm misunderstood.
To you, our loyal supporters... our Family Cow tribe:
Dawn and I and our family express our deepest, deepest, deepest, heartfelt gratitude. (Yes, I wrote that three times.) Your support over the last 14 years has literally saved our Shank family farm.
I'm not exaggerating... about the gratitude or about the farm saving value of your support. I know it's a busy Thanksgiving week, but stick with me just a bit as I share a little background to explain.
Dawn and I took over the farm from my parents as soon as we got home from our wedding trip in August 1990. As a still-wet-behind-the-ears 20 yr old, I naturally looked to those older and more educated for answers. Agricultural university experts, extension agents and the always helpful Monsanto reps seemed like trustworthy sources of information and advice. Since they all agreed, there seemed to be no need to look further.
We obediently and aggressively followed the confinement and chemical farming experts' advice for over 15 years. By late 2005 our farm was so close to sinking financially that we could taste it. It was bitter.
Gwendolyn says she remembers me gravely breaking the news to the family one bleak November night that we were losing the farm. The banker had been to see us that day. He told me that we were on the short leash and if things didn't turn around by April that they'd need to put us out of business and we'd have to move off the farm.
To get the full picture here, you need to understand that as Mennonite Christians, we have strong religious convictions against taking the bankruptcy protection route. We believe that to use bankruptcy to avoid paying creditors who did business with us in good faith, on credit, trusting our word, is unethical. Maybe I can explain more on this decision of faith some other time, but for now, suffice it to say that bankruptcy protection was not an option. Dawn and I personally would have been responsible for any and all unpaid debt left over from the pending farm failure. And there was an embarrassing amount of debt!
The financial drain was bad, but the emotional and physical drain was even worse. Fear, pain, shame, failure, fatigue, remorse, if-onlys, utter exhaustion, discouragement... we felt it all. We had tried so hard! And now this!
Yes, we had God, we had our church community, we had family, we had faith and we had prayer. And for these all we were and still are profoundly thankful. But the emotional turmoil was still indescribable.
It was in the midst of this crucible of pain that God worked. It's almost hard to piece together even now how he arranged the shards, but he did. Through a chain of events we felt God nudging us, moving us to make 180 degree turn in the way we farmed.
I still remember the day the pieces fell together in my mind. Graze organic Jersey cows! It was just like someone unseen had verbally given me a job assignment. Looking back... I really think Someone did.
So, true to these nudgings, Dawn and I turned our back on chemical agribusiness. We stopped cold turkey from injecting our cows with BST, (Monsanto's production hormones) stopped giving them antibiotics and stopped reproductive hormones. We quit spraying our fields. Instead, we planted grass, and put up 3 miles of high-tensile perimeter fence, laid ½ mile of water pipe, bought a bunch of pasture water tubs and temporary internal fencing and put our cows out to graze the new pastures. What a happy day that was for us and the cows. We still like to look back to those pictures of the cows dancing in the grass on those first grazing days.
A few months later we sold our Holstein herd and bought Jersey cows. The plan was in action! We were stepping out in faith on the arduous 3-year transition journey to get the farm and herd fully certified organic. In Dec 2008, we were finally awarded our first official organic certificate for our entire 120 acre farm!
Whew!... So now all was well, right? And the Shank's Organic Farm and the farmers thereon lived happily ever after. Not quite.
Our financial situation had actually gotten worse during the 3-year transition. Organic farming was a huge, steep learning curve and a few times while learning we almost missed the curve. So the bank was still muttering and threatening. Our whole family loved organic farming. But selling organic milk to the organic pasteurization industry on the organic milk truck was not much better financially than chemical farming.
So we were organic farmers yet our ship was still going down!
Up to this time I had never given a thought to selling food from our farm in any way except to the processor. The processed food industry doesn't want farmers to think of any other option. And I guess they had me well trained. The processors just want farmers to grow food and sell it to them (at a low price established by them, of course), they sell to a distributor, who sells to a grocery store who finally sells the now processed food to the moms and dads who need it for their family.
One day it hit me. Maybe that Someone spoke to me again. The processors are the problem! We need to sell this food directly to the moms and dads! We don't need the processor, distributor or the grocery store anymore. With today's technology, we can connect directly, communicate directly, families can order directly, we answer questions directly and deliver directly. And we’ll all benefit from the connection. We’ll benefit because we have cut out three middle men and they’ll benefit because they get fresher, unprocessed, real, raw, organic foods from a farm and farmers that they can truly know on a first name basis and even visit the farm if they wish.
This "Uber of food and farming" model was profoundly intriguing. I even dreamed up the name The Family Cow! But it would take a good deal of money to get set up and we were already broke and there were so many unknowns and I was 38 and starting to second guess my ability to run anything successfully! My Dad and Dawn’s Dad together pledged a $38,000 loan to get started, but still we hesitated.
The biggest unknown that made me hesitate was the people... the moms and the dads we'd need to depend on to support us.
Would the people really, truly support us? How could we know? Would the raw milk and real food moms really care that much? We had our dream, but the question was, "If we build it, will they come?" Would they really go to the extra bother of ordering their food online, taking time out of their busy day to meet our bus in a parking lot? How could we be sure?
And the big scary question was, would they be dedicated enough to pay the higher price for pure and unprocessed foods? (We knew right up front that there was no way that we could compete on price with cheap, processed foods from the factory farming, industrial chemical farming world of McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Giant.) So we knew it would take families who cared enough to pay more for better foods, not cheaper foods.
So anyway, this is what I set out to say in the beginning. (I'm sorry that it has taken me this long to get here in my story. I'm not a professional writer. I never took writing lessons and I do struggle with conciseness at times. Maybe I need an editor to cut out some fluff.)
This is where I find my heart and the heart of each of my family this Thanksgiving Day. We are just totally overwhelmed with gratefulness for each of you.
You have supported us... even beyond our wildest imaginations! You stuck to us and prayed with us during the dark time of Jan 2012 especially. You have proved that you are willing to do all of those things that we were unsure about! Close to 100 of you even came forward with $5,000-$10,000 pre-payment advances to help us in some improvement projects in 2014 – 2015 and again in 2020 when we bought our own butcher shop. (You should see the looks of disbelief and envy on the faces of my still-chemical-farming friends when I tell them of that level of tribe cohesiveness!)
Can you understand better my overwhelming gratitude now on this Thanksgiving Day? We are not silly or exaggerating. This is real. Your friendship and loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals were the rope that snatched our family and farm from drowning. I still can hardly believe it. We were so close to going down... But even the bank is happy now! After years of punishing losses, the last 10 years have been solidly profitable. It will still be 10-15 years before we can ever hope to be debt free, but at least it's moving in the right direction. We now have hope... We now at least know that the light at the end of the tunnel is truly the end and not another train coming at us!
Hey, I just hit upon the answer!
Seriously, the whole way down through writing the above explanation of our gratitude I was still trying to analyze why telling you all this... being this transparent... opening my heart like this still felt a little scary. But just now as I write, the analogy becomes clear.
I think we feel vulnerable to show just how grateful we are because we're still on the rope! And you're still holding the other end. We still totally depend on you. There is no plan B. I think we feel a subliminal fear that, to profusely thank at this point is premature... it could cause you to relax your grip or attention. You might feel 'mission accomplished' when actually it is just mission successfully started.
Anyway, I've got to close. Maybe I should have been a psychologist instead of a farmer. I can get a bit hyper-analytical at times. :)
The long story short is that our Shank family is supremely thankful for you: our Family Cow family this Thanksgiving Day. Your un-flagging dedication only serves to galvanize our resolve to never disappoint you with our service, our caring, our trust, our transparency, our faith and especially not the quality and purity of our foods.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
All the best of Food and Blessings...
Real Farmers... Real Caring... Real Foods.
P.S. Keep an eye out for large savings Friday – Monday to stock your home with nutrient dense foods at once-a-year sale prices. We believe it is better to give the gift of Real Foods this holiday season instead of contributing to the excess of stuff many people in America already deal with.