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Part One: End of the Road Farm vendor feature

“Honey – we’re farmers!”

I’ve had a ball writing feature stories on my vendors since Market opened in August 2016, and in that time I’ve shared plenty of anecdotes and misadventures of our own farm family. I finally decided it was time to share an extended, true vendor feature on our own End of the Road Farm in Fletcher for the first time!

While my Dayton students and I were expanding each other’s vocabulary, them with all things historic and agriculture, me with all things ghetto and colorfully unrepeatable in polite circles, Lee was patiently expanding his farming, historic knowledge and skills with things as varied as masonry, old-fashioned carpentry, blacksmithing, and draft-horse farming, while working to rebuild the abandoned, dilapidated homestead he’d purchased four months prior (he joked when we met that the house and outbuildings on his farm were in such a sad state of disrepair they devalued the property enough for him to be able to afford our 21 acres)! He was a welder by trade, and had studied with master blacksmiths and been the blacksmith at Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky before moving up to Ohio to farm with horses at Carriage Hill Metropark, what was an 1880s living history site in Huber, with the almost 70 year old farmer who would become his (our) best friend.

Enter the infamous Butchering Weekend at Carriage Hill – I had just begun volunteering there, thinking it’d both be fun and give me something to take back to my students, most of whom had never been out of Dayton. My job that weekend was to render, in large kettles outdoors, lard from the pig the men were butchering – stirring, stoking the fire, keeping it from burning, explaining what we were all doing to the public – not rocket science, but a load of tedious fun.

All of a sudden, I turned around and the youngest of the butchers, covered in blood, carrying a big chunk of something and grinning slyly, asked if he could deep-fry his ribs in my kettle? Even better, when he took the wooden ladle from me to stir as we talked, he finally declared them ready, scooped them out, sliced them in half with his pocket knife, and we shared our first meal – I couldn’t have guess that 13 years later we’d still cook meals together (not always that rustic), be married going on 12 years, have five children, and he’d still be as romantic as that first time.

It was immediately evident he was simple in worldly terms – since he didn’t own a phone, he borrowed a co-worker’s the following week to call, and I swear it sounded over the high wind blowing behind him like he asked me if I’d like to go to a bar. I may not be a teetotaler, but to anyone else I’d have said no, not my idea of a first date. When I agreed and he gave me directions to his house, and told me to be there at 6:30 the next morning (Saturday), of course I needed clarification – found out he’d said BARN, not bar, and we were going to spend our first date working on taking down the barn he was hauling back to his farm to put back up as his two story mechanic/blacksmith/carpentry shop. I could never say I didn’t know what I was getting myself into on Day One. And no wonder when he took me to meet his family less than three months later, his grandpa hugged me and said he’d hoped but didn’t dream a woman existed for his grandson.

Now if you’ve never been to Celina in early February with a high wind on a clear, 14 degree day without a tree in sight, try to imagine the old farmer who wanted the barn off his property stopping by, asking Lee when his crew would show up. When Lee straight-faced looked at me and said, “She’s right here,” I can only say love makes you crazy and keeps you from laughing at poor old men who you’ve innocently confused and shocked. I also knew Lee wasn’t kidding when he’d said he was broke yet would take care of lunch – we took a break, climbed into his truck, and instead of driving to pick something up like I expected, he whips out the brown bag lunch he had thoughtfully (I am biting my cheek and tongue) prepared – an apple and a peanut butter sandwich sans jelly apiece, and two Vanilla Wafers each. And oh, he was on a serious budget so no turning on the truck for a little warmth on break (I would soon learn how long it takes an old diesel to actually warm up).

We agreed on several things immediately – we loved reading, history, and gardening (probably in that order), enjoyed working together, didn’t see a point in dating if we couldn’t envision a future together, wanted as many children as God gave, intended to homeschool, and wanted to live as self-sufficiently and simply as possible on a small farm. Our only point of contention, him being Reformed Baptist and me Traditional Catholic, seemed workable. We both thought it a successful first date.

He talked about marriage right off, and looking back I laugh at him testing me, never hoping I’d enjoy slinging chains, stealing his tractor jobs, and helping turn the old farmstead into a home as much as he did. Isn’t he lucky?

The real test came when he found a combine for sale, necessary if we were going to provide our own grain in large quantities – she was an old Allis Chalmers 60, pull-type combine from 1947, in Indiana for $300. We got there early morning, fell in love, and waved at the two old men staring incredulously as we pulled out, intent on pulling it back to his house 115 miles away. They told us we wouldn’t make it. We were young and foolish enough to believe we could, as is the case with most of what we’ve done in our marriage. Well we only stopped every 30 minutes to grease the old bearings and hung dangerously out of our lane as we were over 14ft wide.

Being the two least technological people in the world, we had literally mapped out our travels on paper, of course never assuming how unreliable our maps would become – so much so we got lost in Oxford (poor college kids would never be the same), unable to turn around (whew!) and kept plowing (literally) on. When we thankfully got out of town, he looked at me and said, “If we survive this day we’re definitely meant to be, and should get married tomorrow.”

That was before I was intently studying the map and giving him directions yet again – “Ok, you’re going to come to such and such a bridge, cross it, pass such and such road, and keep going straight until we get to such and such town.” I could feel the truck idling yet was pouring over the map for the next direction to give. “Um, Dear?” “I’m telling you, just keep going straight yet.” “I don’t think that’s right, Jennifer.” “Will you trust me? I’m looking right at the map.” “Well look up a minute.” “What? Oh.” And I was staring at a dead end that ran into a cornfield. “See, just go straight, it has to be better than Oxford!”

Needless to say, we survived. Fastforward past our perfect little wedding with just our parents and my brothers, a glorious honeymoon at Biltmore (our first and only vacation to date), our first child being weeks premature and all those scary NICU weeks, and our commitment to each other and our growing family that we’d add a new staple to our diet each year from our farm, until we were raising 100% of our food. Lee quit his job at Carriage Hill to farm with little Lucy in the backpack while I taught at Wayne – our plan was for me to keep teaching and carrying the insurance at least until she was ready for first grade, while Lee built up our farm and business.

When Lee, Lucy and I visited a beautiful farm tour in Bellefontaine of full-time farmers nearing retirement age who would become dear friends in the future, the wife candidly talked of how little they made farming – it was hard, yes they loved it, but they made it work grossing $11,000 a year because they had no children. She said, “You could never live this lifestyle farming full time with children.” Yes, my competitive, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer side came out because I whispered to Lee, “Oh yes we can!” And we did.

On my first day back from six weeks of maternity leave with our son, Baby #2, I got home and said to Lee, “So I walked into the teacher’s lounge at lunch to find the RIF list and saw that I’ve been cut. Yes, I’m Terminated. Yes that’s how I found out. No, no one let me know. Yes, all the students knew all morning and I wondered why they were acting so weird (on their best behavior). Yes, we’ll lose our insurance this summer. No, Darling, there’s no explanation why I was “cut” and not the people lower on the seniority list than me. No, the union is not willing to step in, and do we actually want to fight this so I can continue working away from home at a place we both hate? No! God is giving us more than a nudge and we’re going to listen. Honey, we’re Farmers!”