A Farm Boy Grown Up: Congratulations to Conner Smith!

As I sat in an interview last week with the magazine Edible Indy, I enjoyed reflecting on experiences and influences from the past and the present. The article was being written on food and family connections. One question I was asked (a question I often get during interviews) is what motivated or influenced the start of This Old Farm. The answer sits wearing a batman shirt at the bottom of the homepage of our website.

The timing of this question is of importance, as it is with great joy that I address graduation announcements for Conner Smith, the eldest of the 5 Smith children. Conner is graduating from Purdue University with a degree in Economics this month. He was accepted into the Ph. D. program in the same department, which he will begin in just a few short weeks. The accomplishment is impressive, as he has graduated with his Bachelor’s before the age of 19, when most are just graduating from high school. As I look back on his life, I can see the mentors and influences that helped shape him into the strong young man he is today. Some of the influences were deliberate and some of them were by happenstance. At the same time, I see how he has shaped and influenced his mother and thus the family business you support.

When I graduated from college it was with just one goal: to be the best mother I could be, and thus give back to the world I lived in. I worked in Chemistry for a short while until I was blessed with that first son. At that time in life, I was a vegetarian, as I had a mistrust of how confinement meat was raised. I wanted to save the world by eating lower on the food chain. Yet now I had a son and family to feed. I approached this job just like my schooling had taught me: research each subject thoroughly, develop theories, test them, and draw a conclusion. Poor Conner was indeed my guinea pig. The conclusions I drew shaped the lifestyle I chose. Children needed to learn how to use their hands and not rely solely on their minds. Children needed to learn the lessons of hard work at an early age. Children needed access to the best food possible. Children needed to be connected to the earth by helping raise their food. Children needed more family time and less school time. As a result of these conclusions, we bought a farm, and began a farming and homeschooling lifestyle.

As a new homeschooling mother, I was guided only by what my child could learn. I had little knowledge of what was expected from modern-day education. I taught based on what Conner could absorb. I remember a visit from my Grandma Baker in those early days. Conner and I were standing in the kitchen memorizing the bones of the body. As a young boy he learned best when standing, running, or after doing jumping jacks. He was 5. My grandmother asked why in the world I would teach him this way and I responded only because he could learn sooooo much at this age. His mind was an open sponge ready to absorb anything and everything. The gift of teaching someone to read and thus teaching him how to gain knowledge is so powerful. These were some of my favorite moments. It was so much fun to learn alongside him. Throughout his schooling, we spent three hours each day doing book studies and the rest of the day growing our food and making our homestead. Grandpa Smith loved to fill in teaching Japanese and tractor driving. Grandma would make everyone who was working outside ham sandwiches for lunch and we would sit around the table together. By the age of 8 or 9, Conner had spent hours weeding the garden. He could herd sheep, feed hogs, move pastured poultry, bring in dairy cows, or on Sundays get his sisters dressed for church while we milked dairy cows. Remembering those days brings great joy. If we could enjoy this life so much, why not make a jump from a homestead or hobby farm to a full time family operation? Is more better? These are questions I ask our alliance farmers or beginning farmers I now consult for. Having a handle on one’s visions, goals, and dreams is so important. It is easy to have the events of life pull one from the original vision, especially if those family goals were never written down. Life happens. Fathers and brothers get sick. Loved ones pass on. Family has needs. And fires occur.

It wasn’t but a year after making the commitment to expand our business and make it a full time operation without other income that a fire occurred at our processing facilities, wiping out all of the hard earned investment. The rebuilding of the facilities took all our energies, including that of our then 13-year-old son, Conner. I remember walking into the facility as it was being rebuilt and asking the butchers-turned-electricians how things were going when only Conner responded, saying, “I got this, Mom. I know where all the wires are supposed to run.” He in his tool belt worked alongside grown men to rewire as the frame was erected. In June of 2011, the night before the first load of livestock was due to arrive since the fire, that he worked all night alongside his dad to install the hoists needed on the slaughter floor. At 2 am, when all of Erick’s strength was gone from his months of 16 hour days, it was Conner who gave the final push to lift the hoists 40 feet in the air, saying, “Papa, we can do this.”

The years that followed were filled with sheer force of will to see things grow to support a growing family and the other families that counted on This Old Farm. Long days, no garden, expanded needs of growing children and aging parents. Homeschooling turned from joy to an overwhelming task. It was in those years that I came to fully understand that it takes a village to raise a child. People from all walks of life stepped in to mentor and teach. I was no longer the center of the educational effort, but instead looked on to see the growth possible apart from Mom while Mom grew a business. Conner continued to expand his writing skills as he wrote the This Old Farm newsletter. He learned his first accounting skills by reconciling the This Old Farm bank statements. A few years ago, Conner broke away from the farm and family business to expand and grow as a college student. He put the lessons learned on-farm to work during long nights of studying and learning. He tackled the subject that stumped him most as a high-school sophomore, algebra, and now graduates with a mathematical focus in Economics from Purdue University. It is at this time that I ask, “did the farm business grow a fine young man, or did the fine young man inspire and help grow a business that far exceeds what I could have ever imagined as a new mother just shy of 19 years ago?”

In concluding the interview, I shared, as I often do, that the path God has for us is at times hard to understand. While I never knew I would run an agricultural company with 20 employees that has written checks to well over 100 farm families while raising my children, I can now step back and see an overflowing number of blessings. As the days of a young business with long hours have settled down, I can now look around and see those blessings. At the top of the list is knowing the first inspirational Smith is out of the nest and into the big wide world. May Conner take in stride the lessons learned from a childhood of love and hard work. May he balance those lessons with his own discoveries through higher education. And most importantly, may he continue to accept God’s path for him despite the many struggles and hurdles he will have to overcome in his own life.

I thank each and everyone of you who support This Old Farm, which in turn supports not only the original farm family, but the families of dedicated employees and a farmer base. This support will reach into the future to rejuvenate the land one farm at a time.

Jessica
This Old Farm
Raising and Processing the Food you Desire

3 Comments

  1. Mindy Hitchcock

    What a great letter, Jessica! I homeschooled my four children as well (but only up to high school), so I could relate to your experiences. My own daughter graduated from Purdue the day before she turned 21. Congratulations on all you have overcome and achieved. And may God bless you on your journey!

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  2. Barb Darnell

    Quite a tribute to Conner and the young man he has become. Are proud of him.

    Reply
  3. Rex Bontrager

    I first met Jessica before Conner was born and before This Old Farm existed. We attended a few of the same Small Farm Conferences years ago. I also raised two children during this time period, so I can feel the tears of joy and of fulfillment that I know that Jessica must have shed while writing this article. Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your life and your heart with us.

    Reply

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