Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Sweet Providence" - by Beth Macy

Roanoke Times, The (VA) - November 23, 2006
Author: Beth Macy beth . macy 981-3435

"Laborare Est Orare."

(Work is prayer ) Latin sign found in an old Rockbridge Mill and replicated on the wall of Sweet Providence Farm Market

"Outhouse Rules: Shut Door So Chickens Can't Get In."

-- sign in Sweet Providence bathroom

Is this reality or some kind of Norman Rockwell mirage?

People who stop in to shop at the Sweet Providence Farm Market -- a cross between Fresh Market and a country store -- are never quite sure.

Witness the cacophony of food prep and farm chores on a recent weekday, all of it choreographed by two parents and pulled off by a team of seven children, 125 free-range turkeys, 2,000 chickens and a pet milk cow named Luisa:

n Eighteen-year-old Ann Houston sets bread dough in the warmer to rise, then mixes a batch of lemon biscotti.

n In the shed out back, 8-year-old Mary cleans chicken gizzards. Three-year-old Henry helps his dad stack the bananas, one of the few ingredients sold here that's not regionally grown, while 12-year-old Cora -- who can "gut a chicken like it's a work of art," according to her dad -- tends the cash register.

n Five-year-old Catherine watches Henry, and 10-year-old Thomas helps 16-year-old John William with "chicken killing," which is usually performed to the soundtrack of Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5."

The question isn't so much why did John Paul Houston, at the age of 41, chuck a cushy paycheck and a career in sales to become a sustainable agriculture pioneer, but how did he pull it off? And how do they all work together without driving one another crazy?

"John Paul is almost a 'Green Acres' kind of deal, and yet he's innovative at the same time," said George Slusher, a Floyd insurance agent and longtime friend.

"Some of the old-timers laughed at him at first" and criticized his natural farming methods. "But you watch, in five or 10 years, that's where local agriculture will be headed."

Stuff doesn't equal happiness

Eight years ago, the Houstons lived in a four-bedroom Cape Cod-style home, with 5 acres and a creek out back. The master bedroom had 21 cubic feet of closet space alone.

Out of 22 Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance offices, John Paul ran the most profitable agency in the company. But he worked long weeks and traveled constantly.

Even then, his wife, Rainey, says, he was cheap. He never ordered an L.L. Bean sweater if he could buy a used one at Goodwill. He eschewed car payments, driving old beater cars and trucks with 150,000-plus miles. "He never let us spend money," Rainey recalled. "Even his business cars were used."

That's because he had a plan. John Paul dreamed of buying a farm : He'd have Christmas trees, some beef cattle, maybe some chickens and eggs. To pull it off, he knew the family would have to live beneath its means.

"I had clients who were making $200,000 a year but they were dead-busted broke," he said. "They had three car payments and a boat payment, and I realized: All that stuff doesn't give you happiness; it gives you stress.

"It hit me that the people who had a lot of money tended to zip it up in the pocket of their Pointer bibbed overalls."

Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska's "Simple Living" convinced him he was on the right track; it reaffirmed that having more wasn't a solution to anything. A business book, called "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't," taught him that a person's true calling lies at the intersection of three traits: passion, money-making ability and natural talent.

"If the most important thing I have to do in my life is to glorify God -- and I think it is -- then I had to ask myself, how?" said John Paul, a Baptist.

"What could I do that would incorporate the things I love and have a passion for with the gifts God's given me: my family?"

What the Lord gave him: seven children, a natural talent for sales and a willingness to take risks.

"Anybody can make good money on insurance," John Paul reasoned. "But trying to raise seven kids on a farm ? Now that would be a challenge."

Trial by fire

Eight years ago, the Houstons bought a 70-acre farm with a 1,700-square-foot farmhouse. Their closet space shrank from 21 feet across to four. When life felt too austere, they reminded themselves that the first farmer to live in the house raised 12 children in it.

Quiet time is so rare, according to Ann, that "if I ever am alone, it feels really eerie."

The first summer, the family raised 25 chickens and sold eggs from the back porch. But farming wasn't the natural fit they'd imagined.

Rainey was on her way to a ballet recital with the kids when she noticed that a dog had gotten into the chickens. John Paul was flying in from Mississippi on a business trip, and she didn't know what to do.

"Do I butcher them? What do I do? I had no clue!" she recalled. She wrapped the injured chickens up in towels, put them in the bathtub -- and went to the ballet.

When John Paul arrived home, he went to the bathroom and was greeted by ... a tub full of dead chickens in towels. "We were so stupid about things; we didn't know anything," Rainey said. "But you just have to learn. You just have to put your feet in and do it."

To learn the art of Christmas-tree trimming and cutting, John Paul worked alongside a crew of Mexican farm workers on a nearby tree farm . ("They make those axes sing," he marvels.) As his interest in sustainable agriculture grew, so did his ability to keep the dogs away from the chickens. He constructed a portable device that cooped up the chickens and allowed them to fertilize the pasture at the same time.

In order to make a comfortable living farming, he realized he needed to net more than the average farmer, who earns 18 cents for every $1 of product sold. "It just makes more sense to me that if you sell it directly to the customer, you eliminate the middle man."

Selling locally grown produce and meat directly to the customer flies in the face of standard agricultural practice: The average number of miles your food travels to reach the dinner plate is 1,500 miles and generally was picked five to seven days before you bought it, according to organic-farming experts, including writer Barbara Kingsolver, who's writing a book on the topic.

"We've learned that people want to know the people who grow their food," John Paul said. During the recent E. coli-contaminated spinach scare, Sweet Providence sold out of its Floyd -grown spinach, grown organically by nearby Waterbear Mountain Farm . "I know the guy who grows it and bags it; I've seen his operation, it's clean, and people around here know and trust him, too."

The Houstons also know the growers of the four varieties of Floyd apples they sell -- at 59 cents a pound, about half the supermarket cost -- just as they know the nearby farmers who grow their leeks, peppers and squash. Sweet Providence even has its own coffee label, imported by a Grayson County roasting company.

While area growers supply vegetables and packaged items such as local honey and jam, daughter Ann provides the bakery goods. She became the inspiration, in fact, behind her parents' decision to expand the store beyond the planned metal shed when she asked if she could go to culinary school last year.

"Why?" her dad asked her.

"Because I love to bake," she said.

"Why don't I build you a bakery instead?" John Paul said, and the store concept was born.

Overcoming fears

Two years ago, John Paul finally took the plunge and quit his Farm Bureau job -- "the scariest day of our lives" Rainey said. With the help of friends and neighbors, they spent the past year building the red-roofed, timber-frame store , which opened in August. Sixteen-year-old John William knew the ins and outs of construction from the year he spent, at age 14, helping the family's pastor build a house.

"You can do things like that when you're home schooling," John Paul said. "We figured he could make up what he was missing from school later, but that opportunity would only come along once."

Another homebuilder friend just happened to stop by the day the Houstons were about to assemble part of the frame -- the wrong way. "Every time we messed up, somebody would show up to help us before it got too bad," John Paul said.

"Some we paid and some we didn't. It was like God was saying, 'I'm not going to let you mess up too bad.' "

The name of the store came to the family one night during the dinner prayer .

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord, for your sweet providence,' and we all just looked at each other like, well, that's it. That really says it all," John Paul said.

From Roanoke to Grayson County, about 125 Providence shoppers are sitting down today to pre-ordered, free-range turkeys raised at the farm . There's not a bird among the group that wasn't personally tended by the Houston kids.

When the Houstons sit down at their own table, they won't lament the missed vacation to El Salvador for a relative's wedding, or the fact that it takes John Paul a week to earn what he used to earn in a single morning, or the 401(k) he cashed in to pay for the store . He's grateful beyond measure.

"You'd either say of me, 'He's the luckiest person in the world' or 'God has blessed him,' depending on your perspective," he insists.

"But you'd have to say one of those two things."

John Paul Houston's spending rules

n Avoid debt. "If you don't have debt, it takes the pressure off your income. You can live just fine on $35,000 a year if you don't have any debt."

n Live beneath your means.

n Avoid car loans.

n Never finance a vacation on credit. "Just don't go. It's better to save up and go on a doozy vacation next year."

n "Don't buy into the notion that if you spend more money or have more material things, you'll be happier or more fulfilled."

n Adds wife Rainey Houston: "Sometimes you just have to jump out without your parachute on and trust that God will take you where he wants you to go."

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