Archive for March, 2010

This week I’m attending a Transition Assistance Program class, a program sponsored and presented by the Department of Labor with the intention of ensuring a successful transition from military service to civilian employment for servicemembers leaving active duty.

We’re actually required to go through this training, and are encouraged to attend at least a year before separation, but you can go earlier.  Many people put it off until they’re within 6 – 8 months of retiring from the service, staring their transition right in the face.  I’ve got 19 months left.  Quite a difference, and a decided advantage, in many respects.  I’ve always heard people say they wished they’d gone to this transition seminar earlier, that the information would have done them more good had they had more time to do something with it before their exit date.  So I’m going now, and it’s a good thing.

The curriculum covers a lot of territory, including an in-depth discussion of VA benefits and retirement planning; but it’s mainly a crash course in How to Find a Job in The Civilian World.   Personal skills assessment, interview and networking techniques, and resume writing are the main focus. 

I’m an anomaly in this class, the only attendee that is not planning on going to work for someone else when they retire.  This surprised me a little bit, but I’m getting used to being the oddball.  Agrarians among warriors are few. 

As we went around the room introducing ourselves the first day, everyone was asked to give a brief description of what type of job they are doing now, as military professionals, and what career field they intend to transition to as civilians.  Nearly all of this group of soon-to-be retired senior officers and senior enlisted folks mentioned looking for jobs in the Defense Industry, as contractors or civil service employees, working at the senior executive level. 

When it came my turn, I got a lot of smiles when I told them I was going to be a farmer, starting my own pastured livestock farm business.  I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t tell them that along with all the other myriad enterprises that will eventually comprise Bear and Thistle Farm, this will be my life’s work.  Just kept it simple and businesslike.

As the class progressed, I realized that all the information on resume writing and how to dress for and do well at an job interview was not specifically useful to me, at least not without a little filtering.  So I took the suggestions and applied them to the kinds of interviews and networking I’ll be doing:  meeting with loan officers for business financing, contacting potential customers, and building relationships with suppliers, fellow farmers, and other professionals. 

Another useful concept I garnered from this training was something called an informational interview.  In job search lingo, this is a technique used to gain knowledge of and establish contact with a company, under the rubrik of conducting “research,” without appearing to be overtly looking for employment.   The idea is to get a 20-minute interview to learn about the industry and company without pressuring the person for employment, all the while building a relationship and getting a non-threatening foot in the door.  I see the potential to use this technique doing market research and establishing networks and liaisons with fellow farmers, as I continue to craft my business plan.

Yesterday we prepared our “30-second commercial” which is another term for an “elevator speech,” that verbal snapshot anyone trying to connect in business will have at the ready should an opportunity for networking arise.  Of course the outline in the workbook was built on questions related to someone trying to get a job, introducing themselves and their experiences and strengths to a potential employer, whereas mine will introduce my farm enterprise to potential customers and other interested persons.

Speaking of interviews, I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview a week ago about my farm plans with Sylvia Burgos Toftness, an Acres USA grazing school classmate who is also starting a grass-fed grazing operation with her husband in Wisconsin.  Sylvia is combining her talents and long experience as a communications professional with a love of food and a passion for grass-based farming to foster a network of like-minded people through her website and blog, Bronx to Barn.  Listen to the podcast of our conversation here.

Like I said at the end of our interview, I’m thankful for the lead time I have, these 19 months before the big moving truck comes to take me and my tools and things out to Kentucky, to start this farming in earnest.  I have a lot of work and planning to do, and much to learn.  But the transition from warrior to farmer has definitely begun.


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I’m not the only one building things around here, as it turns out.

Just six feet from the sliding glass door on our back patio, a hummingbird has chosen to construct her nest atop a very small wind chime, hanging under the eaves next to the house wall.

And at the edge of the patio, just 12 feet or so from the door, the birdhouse hung under the shade roof eaves is hosting the pair of canyon wrens for the second year in a row.  Construction is in full swing on both nests, despite my constant presence and movement in the yard as I continue to work on terracing the back hill.

I’m delighted, and honored, to have them both here.  It seems a little close to our bumbling human activity, but who am I to judge?  Birds know what birds need.  Neither species seems to be excessively bothered by our presence, carrying on with their nest-building right in front of us; we do, however, give them the courtesy of quieting down our movements when they’re up at their nests or moving to and fro. 

The canyon wrens are now at the small twig stage, having started last week with large (for them) branches, tugged into the small hole, to fill the bottom of the box.  Now they’re just bringing in short, slender twigs, I presume to finish off the inside of the nest.  Every now and then though, one of them will try to cram in a branchy twig that gets caught on the front of the birdhouse, and it’s rather comical to see how many times they’ll try to push it in against all odds.  Persistent builders, these birds.

I had to research the habits of nesting hummingbirds a bit, to find out how many eggs they lay, how long it takes to hatch them, and when the youngsters fledge.  Turns out it’s two eggs that take 16 – 18 days to hatch, and a couple more weeks for the naked hummer babies to grow feathers and figure out how to fly.  It’ll be interesting to watch, if Mrs. Hummer decides her nest location is safe enough where it is to go through with the whole process.

Last spring, just after I got back from Africa, the wrens were furiously feeding four clamerous chicks and after a few weeks, Bear and I were treated to the brief performance of the youngsters flying out of the nest box, one morning when we happened to be out on the patio at just the right moment.  It was very cool to watch.

My building project is moving along, one shovelful of excavated dirt at a time.  Update for y’all tomorrow, perhaps; the afternoon is slipping away and I must get back at it.

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We returned from Kentucky to a persistently rainy February in the Golden State.  Total precip was only 2.25″, but it rained 20 days out of the month.  Great for gardens and filling reservoirs, not so good for wall-builders. 

Then March arrived with a hint of lamb, beautiful, warm and sunny, promising weeks of perfect projecting weather.  That all changed the next day.

So it goes.  Of the last 8 weekends, we’ve had rainstorms during six.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little rain in southern California – water being the precious, disappearing resource that it is here – but damnit, Jim, I wish it would pour during the work week, so all us movers of soil can get something done on our few days off.

Even so, despite the weather I’ve made slow, steady progress on the back hill terrace building since we returned from the Farm, mostly in the hour or so of daylight after work, since the weekends have been wet, very wet.  As you can see, the second wall’s done, but the hard part of building the second terrace is still ahead.  There’s still an awful lot of ice plant to pull out and shred, and the hill is steeper here than at the bottom, which means there’s more soil to remove. 

I’m slowly working away at both.  With the help of my trusty Troy-bilt chipper-shredder, Chewie (named after the Star Wars Chewbaca), I am turning tons of overgrown ice plant into shredded mulch and building compost piles, lots of them.  I’m not sure how I would accomplish this project without the ability to convert this enormous volume of plant material into something useable, as there is so much of it, and the backyard is very small.  Disposing of garden trimmings here in suburbia usually means leaving bins out curbside for the collection trucks, but with Chewie at my service I’ve never had to let a single branch or pile of leaves go to waste.  This project is, however, the most he’s had to contend with, and it’s slow going, feeding the tangled, fleshy vines and old roots through.  But we’re getting there.

Moving the dirt is slow work, too.  Like the Incas building their high mountain terrace gardens in the Andes, I am carving out and hauling away the overburden by hand, in trugs, some of it going downhill to widen and level out the bottom edge, but most of it will have to be walked up the steps to the top of the yard, and piled somewhere until I figure out how much I will need for fill and what will be excess to give away.  The few inches of topsoil is getting peeled off before digging out the decomposed granite, to add to my stockpile of topsoil for the growing areas once construction is done.  

So the routine has been going like this:  I escape the squadron as early as I reasonably can, drive 40 minutes home through freeway traffic, and head straight out back for an hour or so of work before daylight is gone.  Once it gets dark, it’s time to make dinner, wash up dishes, and drag myself to bed.  Every little bit helps, believe me – last night I carved out  another four feet at the curved corner, and I’m hoping to get enough of the second bed leveled this week to have room to stack the next order of blocks on Monday.  This weekend is Drill Weekend for the Reservists, so we’ll work straight through.  It’ll probably be beautiful and sunny, too!  Just my luck.

But every morning I take a cup of coffee down to the first level and sit to watch the dawn break over the canyon, and listen to the  birds start to wake up and begin their songs, and I’m newly energized to do whatever little bit I can do that day, even if it’s just a few loads of dirt or a couple of trugs filled with ice plant hiked up the hill.  Because I can see the finished project in my mind’s eye, and remember what the hill looked like before I started, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the process of transforming the one thing into the other.  I could pay someone to do this, but it wouldn’t be the same.

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