2019 Christmas letter

Dec. 31, 2019

Hi everyone, and Happy New Year!

My standard reply to anyone who’s asked about this letter has been that I’m waiting until January, because it doesn’t feel safe to say that we survived 2019 until we actually have. I have mostly not even been joking.

Simply put, the past year has been hard. Not separated-at-the-border hard, or wrongfully-convicted-and-sentenced-to-life-in-prison hard, or even received-a- terminal-diagnosis hard…but hard just the same: professionally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and just about every other way you can name. Honestly, that neither of us was committed for psychiatric treatment at some point feels like an achievement. And based on the number of people who’ve expressed genuine concern for us in the last few months, our countenance regularly bore our angst.

Will’s dad passed away last January 26, approximately one month after we moved him into Oakview Terrace in Freeman, and one week after he suffered a stroke. In his last weeks at the farm, Solomon and I spent part of an evening with Arlan so Ellen could attend the boys’ school Christmas concert. He wasn’t in the mood to visit, preferring instead to listen to music on the cassette recorder. That night it was Hudson Shad, and as I heard a refrain in German, I asked Arlan, Verstehen Sie das? Yes, he said, he understood some of it: “He wants to sterben” (that is, to die). Arlan put on his familiar (though increasingly rare) grin as he continued, “He encourages me.” 

Arlan’s own desire to die was no secret. We lost him in stages and over years. Fragments of his spirit weakened and died alongside his muscles and neurons. His memory and mental faculties endured far beyond several other capabilities. But by the end only his heart remained strong and we feared he might have to spend years trapped in that completely immobile body.

In that way the stroke was, as brother Stan said, a gift. Arlan had threatened to quit eating while he was still living at home. We urged him not to make Ellen watch that and he mercifully obliged. But after the stroke, Shella told her dad that she didn’t think any of us would blame him and encouraged each of us to grant similar permission, which we did.

On one of the last days before he moved into Oakview Terrace, Arlan made a point to tell Will how happy he was with the direction he and Stan had taken the farm. It had not been easy or popular. There had been failures along the way. Our courage and confidence had at times waivered, but Arlan’s support had not. One cannot underestimate the power of parental blessing.

We know that our newest venture would have excited him, and it so grieved us that we never had the chance to share it with him, even though it was in the works for months before he died. As it was, it was the very beginning of April when news broke of a Freeman-rooted trio launching a project called “Prairie-to-Plate.” Will represented one third of that trio, whose new company centered on sustainable meat production, and USDA-inspected humane slaughter and processing. Along the way, the company also acquired Freeman’s prime restaurant property and reopened it as “The Chislic House.” This project has completely consumed our lives the past year, and brought with it both extensive learning and colossal stress. We could never predict whether each new day would see some momentous breakthrough or a staggering setback. Our world became HAACP plans and USDA regulations, dry ice certification and shipping procedures, HR and management responsibilities, municipal procedures and politics, ndas, trademarks, logo contests, labeling and licensing requirements,  and so much more.

And the people we’ve met along the way! Will and I joke about the colorful cast of characters that will grace the stage someday when he writes “Prairie-to-Plate: The Musical.” In one scene, nearly twenty folks of all ages huddle around stainless steel worktables far into the night, skewering small pieces of meat and weighing random dozens in pursuit of a 1,000 dozen goal by week’s end. In another, a motley trio of employees rides a flatbed trailer, transporting via the South County Road a massive antique stove on loan from the local museum. Yet another scene could depict a meeting with senior management at a major regional supermarket chain. There would be no shortage of material!

Our single biggest takeaway from the multiple encounters like these is that there are reasons people are the way they are. And it is usually worth the time and effort required for one to discover and understand these reasons. Reminding ourselves of that has led to many rewarding experiences, and reinforced gratitude for our own [functional] pasts.

But our learning curve with Prairie-to-Plate has been steep and some individual lessons costly. In fact, it remains to be seen whether we can weather them, or whether they will end up costing the entire dream. And that is a very painful place to find ourselves, especially in the project’s infancy, especially in light of what we gave up for it, and especially because of the hope and enthusiasm it obviously generated for so many producers, employees, customers, and other friends.

Excessive spring rainfall created hardship for many, many farmers in this country, and for farmers in this region too. Will was relieved to have the diversion of The Chislic House, where he spent many days converting a storage area into a USDA-inspected cut & wrap room, improving kitchen lighting, pouring concrete and making other necessary physical improvements on days that were too cloudy and wet to be in the field. We planted only about 2/3 of our acres this year. And, in a series of unfortunate events that could test even Lemony Snicket’s imagination, we’re still facing a mountain of work this winter in order to sell all of our 2018 (yes, 2018) crops by 2020 planting.

Niece Kelsey and Brett’s wedding in June was a bright spot, and an invitation to perform at the reception gave us an excuse to break out the ukulele, mandolin and tambourine. An unexpected adjustment came soon after that with Stan and Gwen’s decision to trade houses with their other daughter Lindsey’s family. So we see less of Stan and Gwen, but the boys have enjoyed seeing little Ezekiel out and about.

When we committed to Prairie-to-Plate, we downgraded expectations for a family vacation, but still certainly planned to get away for at least a few days. As July and then August dwindled, we concluded it simply was not in the cards, which was a tough pill to swallow.

As for the boys, they’re still around and generally quite inseparable. Last weekend’s snow storm has meant high times testing out their new snow tubes across the road in Orville’s pasture, second only to being pulled by Dad on the four-wheeler.

Solomon is 11 and a sixth grader. His basketball season is nearly over and he’ll soon be busy rehearsing as “Bruce Bogtrotter” in this year’s Schmeckfest musical, Matilda. He’s relieved that Mom has been too busy to keep up with piano lessons this year, and wishes he could have the same luck with the French horn. The farm is still his favorite place.

After a year off, fourth grader Christian is back in the same classroom as his brother. He has always enjoyed math, and is gaining appreciation for science too. In fact, he and Solomon each won their respective divisions in their classroom science fair this fall. Last spring, Christian again participated in a youth soccer program. He’ll play basketball for the first time this year, and will also be in Schmeckfest as “Nigel.”

Liam, 13, plays every sport we allow (soccer, basketball, track) and we’re looking forward to next year when he can drive himself to and from practices. He continues to play trombone (he especially enjoys pep band songs) and will fairly often go fool around on the piano even though he doesn’t have to. He enjoyed singing with Will in the chancel choir at church this fall.

My third year as chair of the Freeman Academy board was a doozy, adding even more stress to my 2019. I’m glad to say the presenting issue is now mostly resolved, my gut no longer aches, and I’ve started sleeping again. But a few more hairs are grey and the boys insist I’ve sprouted a mustache. (To any of you who see me regularly and feel compelled to check, please at least be discreet!)  I’m teaching exactly one [really great] piano student this year, and still directing the church ladies choir.

Will managed a few badly-needed days away at the annual Acres USA eco-ag conference in Minneapolis. While we’re encouraged by any sign of the needle moving toward regenerative ag even here in rural South Dakota, we’re impatient and, therefore, disheartened much of the time. The Acres conference is, for Will, both stimulating and vital. Though some people wonder what he was thinking, amid all the busyness, Will agreed to direct Matilda. “Frankly,” he explained, “I feel like I deserve to do something that is life-giving for a change.” 

I think I’ll stop there for this year. Sure, there’s plenty more to say, but I’ve already said enough that doesn’t fit the T.H.I.N.K. criteria. We realize ours are first-world problems; even so, sometimes self-pity is attractive. Suffice it to say, we’re glad to put 2019 to bed and hope to catch a break or two in 2020. 

Sherilyn, for the family