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For Farm and Family: Reflections on Making

Things: Issue Three

Rory Groves

I was eight years old when I wrote my first computer program. It was a random number generator—a small but sure victory for a young child. Sevens, ones, fives, eighteens (and who knows which number next?) were appearing on the screen in all their monochrome glory. I was elated by the fact that I had turned my idea into a reality: I had made something.

It was the beginning of a long career in high tech that would lead me to the unlikeliest of places: farming in rural Minnesota.

After graduating college at the height of the dot-com mania, I was brimming with ambition and ready to make my “dent in the universe,” as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs put it. As a young tech entrepreneur, I assumed it was my birthright to become a “dot-com millionaire.” After all, that’s what the New Economy seemed to promise in 1999.

So I hung my shingle and waited for the venture capitalists to come knocking. But my dreams were dashed when, months later, the mania turned out to be a lot of hot air and I watched with bewilderment the implosion of the “dot-com bubble.” The New Economy still had to abide by the rules of the Old Economy, it turned out. And instead of becoming a dot-com millionaire, I found myself sans a job.

A Slowly Coming Tide

My experience was not unique; I was another casualty of the centuries-long march of Human Progress. Rather than spending decades mastering one’s own trade and passing that craftsmanship and skill down through the generations, the average person today will work seven careers in his lifetime. Indeed, someone working in my field who does not continuously retrain will become obsolete in about three years.

But the history of innovation is a record of upheaval, if nothing else—“creative destruction” as Joseph Schumpeter called it. And continual outmoding and obsolescence is the price we pay for our upwardly mobile, opportunistic society.

Starting around the close of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution kicked off a half-century of innovation that would upend thousands of years of custom in a single generation. Labor-saving devices like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Samuel Slater’s textile mills revolutionized the fiber industry and brought into centrally-situated factories what had historically been produced on the home farm.

As domestic functions were centralized into efficiently-run factories, the resulting material wealth surpassed anything pre-industrial families had known. No longer were families bound “to the land” for their subsistence: women and even children could work for wages with little or no prior skill due to the specialization of labor and standardization of parts.

As we were making a farm, our farm was making a family.

It should be noted that, historically, families always engaged in multiple occupations. Ben Franklin was an inventor, author, publisher and statesman. George Washington was a surveyor, military strategist, and orchardist before he served in the White House. Our forebears were, by and large, generalists rather than specialists. And the work was shared by, and in service to, the family.

But with the reorientation of society around more efficient means of production came consequences that took generations to understand—consequences that are still being sorted out today.

One historian records that, prior to the introduction of machinery,

The typical shoemaker had long been his own master. He worked in his little shop at home as he pleased, doing perhaps farm work or engaging in some other occupation a part of the year. He objected to serving any other master than himself, and believed that obedience to a foreman was a surrender of his personal rights and liberties. He was reluctant to submit to factory hours, from seven o’clock in the morning until six at night, and to exacting factory regulations. He opposed in the like manner the introduction of labor-saving machinery. The general industrial growth of communities was, however, an irresistible though a slowly coming tide. Progressive methods of employment and the introduction of machinery gradually broke down all opposition.[1]

The Spirit of Making

One of the most enduring features of the Industrial Revolution was the way it “broke down” relationships. This is most visibly seen in human relationships: hands that once drove teams of horses now assemble parts on the factory floor; communities that once lived interdependently in rural farms and villages now live in cities of strangers; families who for millennia worked together towards a common end now participate in a “division of labor” wherein husband and wife pursue separate careers while their children are raised in age-segregated government schools.

But other kinds of relationships were severed as well.

Our modern theory of work—of dividing labor and standardizing parts—is predicated upon separating thinking from doing, and theory from practice. In so doing we have created vast abundance of things but neglected the greater importance of making. The task of the craftsman, it has been said, is to “make well what needs making.” Today the emphasis is rather to make cheap what needs making.

Whether that is cheap petroleum-based substitutes imported from China or cramming 40,000 turkeys into a climate-controlled building and calling it “farming,” there is a spirit involved in making that doesn’t get apportioned when we stamp out parts in high capacity. It is imparted only through careful attention, through the union of our thoughts and actions.

What is the value of a dishtowel? Perhaps a few dollars at a discount store. But what is the value of a dish towel woven on a loom by your daughter, with colors and fabrics and patterns deliberately chosen to reflect the culture of your family? This is a form of making I observed at a friend’s homestead recently. You can see how a thing begins to take on deeper meaning when under the attention of an artisan who loves the thing she is making and loves the people for whom she is making it. Such a thing passes beyond mere utility—such as the dollar-dishtowel that will be thrown out and replaced by another cheap imported substitute. It now becomes a showpiece for the family, the fruit of a daughter’s dedication and skill. It is, in other words, no longer a commodity. It carries significance. It satisfies not only physical needs, but spiritual as well.

The same could be said for hand-crafted furniture made from lumber harvested from one’s own land, a fine woolen sweater made from fibers sheared from one’s own flock, or the several cords of firewood split and stacked for the long winter. Technology may be involved to lesser or greater degrees (a wood-burning stove is a fine piece of technology). But the intention behind the product has much to do with the significance it carries. And this is what is lost when we separate thinking from doing, when we make cheap rather than well.

A Terrible Thing to Waste

The Industrial Revolution, in truth, never ended. The high tech industry of which I was once a proponent represents, perhaps, the final stage of “breaking down of all opposition.” Where the revolution of the 18th century sought to leverage our hands, our geography, and our families for the benefit of industry, the revolution of the 21st century is intent on harvesting our minds.

In his best-selling business/self-help book, Deep Work, Cal Newport describes a theoretical office environment in which workers in the knowledge economy can maximize their personal productivity. It’s called a Eudaimonia Machine (from the Aristotelian concept of achieving the “highest human good”). “In an ideal world,” Newport suggests, “we’d all have access to something like the Eudaimonia Machine.”

This metaphysical superlative boils down to an office space with five rooms.

In the first room, The Gallery, workers become inspired by the accomplishments of their knowledge-working colleagues. Further in (the rooms are arranged in sequence), workers meet, debate, and collaborate over a cappuccino in The Salon. The Library provides access to research materials (presumably in hushed tones). The Office room boasts white boards and cubicles for “shallow work.” And finally, “the deep-work chamber”: six by ten-foot cells protected by thick, sound-proof walls where workers may achieve “total focus” and be liberated from the distracting demands of human relationships. (Just plug me into The Matrix already!)

“The goal of the machine,” the author explains, “is to create a setting where the users can get into a state of deep human flourishing—creating work that’s at the absolute extent of their personal abilities.”[2]

So under the banner of personal achievement, Aristotle’s “highest human good” becomes a prison cell.

And yet, this is the logical conclusion of the Industrial Revolution, where all men are reduced to machines, and so thoroughly that even our thoughts become commodified. Historian Allan C. Carlson opines that “[i]n our time … all of those new jobs—all!—are the very ones threatened by the culminating triumph of the machines, in artificial intelligence and robotics. The human enablers, it seems, are becoming ever less important . . . and may soon not be needed at all.”[3]

A Coherent Life

Sensing the coming tide (and ships it would inevitably sink), I decided to move my family to a hobby farm several years ago in hopes of picking up a few lessons on self-sufficiency and escaping some of the more glaring “amenities” of the knowledge economy like cubicles, asphalt, and rush hour.

Initially I thought this arrangement would create a healthy work-life balance. I would work in the abstract world of algorithms by day and get my hands dirty in the tangible world of gardens and orchards and barns in the evenings and on weekends—a sort of professional therapy for the screen-bound knowledge worker. I certainly had no intention of slowing my high tech ambitions in order to become a farmer.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford insightfully comments on this work-life imbalance that we have come to accept as normal and even healthy in the era of extreme specialization:

It is common today to locate one’s “true self” in one’s leisure choices. Accordingly, good work is taken to be work that maximizes one’s means for pursuing these other activities, where life becomes meaningful. The mortgage broker works hard all year, then he goes and climbs Mount Everest. The exaggerated psychic content of his summer vacation sustains him through the fall, winter, and spring. . . . There is a disconnect between his work life and his leisure life; in the one he accumulates money and in the other he accumulates psychic nourishment. Each part depends on and enables the other, but does so in the manner of a transaction between sub-selves, rather than as the intelligibly linked parts of a coherent life.[4]

When that work inevitably ventures into the gray areas of modern business ethics, such as approving bad loans that will be sold to unsuspecting investors, the cognitive dissonance between work and leisure metastasizes into a spiritual dilemma—the unfettering of one’s conscience in favor of the “corporate good.” The mortgage broker finds himself making ethical concessions in order to maintain his “true self.” In time, his “making” becomes his undoing.

“The work cannot sustain him as a human being,” Crawford writes. “Rather, it damages the best part of him.”

In my own case, the contrast could not be ignored: every day I would leave the glowing LED display of my computer screen and join with my family in tapping maple trees, planting seedlings, harvesting asparagus, and later, beets and potatoes and apples. We were eating chops and steaks from animals we had pastured, eggs from chickens we had hatched and raised.

The “hobby farm” was more real than my “real job”: it was the more coherent way to live and work. There was careful attention, and intention, in everything we did. More importantly, we were doing it together.

We weren’t only discovering the significance of making, we were also recovering the significance of relationship: as we were making a farm, our farm was making a family.

“It wasn’t so very long ago,” writes Blair Adams, “that parents taught homesteading skills and crafts to their children. The father, whose craft made provision for his family, imparted his abilities to his children, and so the craft was handed down from father to son and generation to generation. Likewise, master craftsmen trained apprentices in every aspect of fine workmanship. This extension of their craftsmanship would, then, benefit the entire community by passing on the skills indispensable to family and community living.”

The Road Less Traveled

“This is all well and good,” one might say, “but how are we to recover craftsmanship and the spiritual embodiment of things in the industrial age?”

I would like to offer historical trades as a guidepost. Like my experimental foray into farming, there are modes of work that can offer “safe passage” to a more meaningful, more coherent, more family-centered life.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there were around 70 distinct occupations. Today, there are over 30,000. However, most of those preindustrial professions have survived to this day (over 60 of them). Professions like woodworker, innkeeper, brewer, tutor, midwife, and of course, farmer, shepherd, and carpenter have been around since the founding of our country and still remain viable careers today.

By comparison, of the tens of thousands of modern occupations, many won’t last the decade. The robotic revolution, for example, is predicted to displace 800 million workers by 2030. Meanwhile, jobs in the building trades are projected to increase by 30% over the same period.[5]

While not all trades are suited to all people, there exist stable vocations that resist automation and the isolating tendency of modern careers—reinforcing, rather than undermining, family relationships and a functional home economy.

Historical professions give us an opportunity to bring our things back into alignment with making again, and in the process recover something greater: families, communities, and faith.

What God Has Joined Together

“God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). It was good because it was made by God. In other words, the things derived their value from their maker, not the other way around. But what is the value of making in a throwaway economy, when the value of labor has been reduced to the productive output of a machine? More importantly, what are we communicating about the value of things over the value of making?

Farming taught us lessons that money couldn’t buy. Namely, that there was more value in making a family than in making a buck. Whatever the cost, we were determined to pursue work together rather than paychecks apart.

We started growing food mostly for ourselves, to be more self-sufficient, and it is a whole family affair. This led to hosting workshops on our farm to teach homesteading skills. The workshops led to publishing a quarterly newsletter to share what we were learning with other families who are walking a similar path. It turns out there are a lot of families walking this path: our newsletter now goes out to two thousand families on four continents.

Out of the newsletter sprang a book—an inquiry into vocations that would unite our family rather than divide it. Since the publication of Durable Trades, we have received hundreds of letters from other families who are searching for another way forward. Many of them have made significant strides toward establishing their own family-centered economies.

And so, after twenty years in high tech, I shut my software business down this year. Our family economy now consists of farming, writing, and teaching. Like our forebears, we are engaged in multiple occupations and the work is shared by, and in service to, each other.

For the first time in my career I feel as though I am living a truly integrated life: where beliefs are not separated from actions, where theory is not separated from practice.

I am making things that are meaningful, with people who are meaningful to me.

[1] Frederick Allen, The Shoe Industry (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), 21.

[2] Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 95–97.

[3] Rory Groves, Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time (Front Porch Republic Books, 2020), xii.

[4] Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 181.

[5] James Manyika et al, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation,” McKinsey Global Institute, November 28, 2017.

Rory Groves is a former technology consultant and founder of multiple software businesses. He and his wife Becca reside in southern Minnesota where they farm, host workshops, and homeschool their six children. He is author of Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time. You can learn more about the Groves’ family ministry here.

Posted on March 28, 2023

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