Friday, January 22, 2016

Life's Work

It seems like it has been forever since I posted, or was it yesterday?  To say that we have been caught up in something of a whirlwind is probably an understatement.  Just 4 days after my last post, on 24 September 2015, my now former employer made a public release, "BUILDING FOR A STRONGER FUTURE, CATERPILLAR ANNOUNCES RESTRUCTURING AND COST REDUCTION PLANS."  Some of us have felt that tightening in the gut that follows showing up at the job only to find out that your badge does not work!  Typically the cause has nothing to do with an end to employment, rather it is a system malfunction of some sort, or you kept your badge to close to your cell phone, or another of the innumerable and perfectly innocuous possible causes.  Am I a part of the "stronger future,"  or am I a part of "cost reduction?"  Warranted or no, the guts tighten up a bit until the matter is resolved, or at least understood.  So it was on the morning of 24 September.

Fortunately, this time, we were ready.  And, that had more than a little to do with what we have been up to on the homestead since about six months before I wrote my first blog post on 18 February 2014, "Spring 2013, In the Beginning..."  It is not that we all of sudden had made the homestead productive enough to meet our needs entirely, or that we are even approaching self-sufficiency.  Rather, I would say the biggest change has been in our heads, or perhaps more accurately, in my head.  It took some time, the better part of a month, to sort through the what and how of the "restructuring and cost reduction," and to fully understand the impact on us.  Still, it must be said, after learning that my age cohort was part of the plans for "cost reduction" as opposed to the "stronger future," I did not for a moment consider staying at Caterpillar, nor did I consider looking for another employer.  Caterpillar had put together a package of incentives to encourage some folks, several thousand in the United States alone, including me, to leave the company voluntarily.  That was the carrot.  The stick was that there would be involuntary layoffs following the voluntary departures, to achieve the cost reduction targets.  It seemed like a no-brainer.

Within about three weeks all of the details had become clear, or at least clear enough, and on 13 Oct I applied for the package, which led to my "retirement" from Caterpillar on 31 December 2015.  The word "retirement" is used loosely here, because I will receive no retirement benefits, no medical, no "defined benefit" retirement income; nothing of the sort.  Like a lot of people, I was an "at will 1" employee, and portable; by portable I mean that my retirement accounts could be taken with me from employer to employer, or be rolled over into an IRA, and that there was no promise that at some point in the future I would qualify for defined retirement income.  Beyond that, I cannot even imagine what retirement looks like at this stage of the game; I am too young, and there is too much left to do.  So, the decision having been made, then what was left a myriad of details that required my attention to put the decision into effect.  The details were sorted, and all required paperwork was completed before we left for Christmas vacation, on 19 December.  At that point, for all intents and purposes, I was done with Caterpillar, and God willing and the creek don't rise, done working for "the man."

As to Caterpillar as a company, to quote Richard Nixon, "let me just say this about that;"  Caterpillar is a great company, with rock solid leadership, that came into my life at a time when I was in desperate need of some stability.  My leaders worked with me and offered a flexibility in working hours that served me greatly, and that I would have found difficult to replicate elsewhere.  I met and was surrounded by great people, and I will cherish the friendships that were built over the years.  The "restructuring and cost reduction" was handled professionally, and the company was as generous as I could have realistically hoped for; it was a blessing in disguise, and again the timing could hardly have been more perfect.  I have no complaints.

So, what next?  I will start with where we are right now, and then go back to how we got to here from there.  Geri and I are starting a business, which will be comprised of three subsidiaries.  The name of the parent business is "Primal Woods."

Primal Woods and subsidiaries
The "Sawyers" business will start as a portable sawmill services business.  Basically this means that the mill will be taken to customers who have logs, and the logs will be milled at the customer location.  As I have learned first hand, moving big logs around requires heavy equipment, and it is expensive relatively speaking, especially if the quantity is small. Customers can be, but are not limited to, farmers, artisans, tree service companies, etc.  Eventually I expect this business to incorporate a stationary mill, kiln drying, and planing services.  In keeping with Permaculture principles though, specifically "use small and slow solutions 2," we will start small, and learn.  I have apprenticed with another local sawyer, Jim Hoover of Hoover's Mill, and I spent a full day with Jim Birkemeier at Timber Green Forestry in Spring Green, WI. (Also, have a look at Spring Green Timber Growers Store, and their store on Etsy,  Jim is a wealth of information; in the Wood-Mizer "2014 Business Best" competition, Jim and his team won 1st Place in the Hydraulic Sawmills category. Timber Green Forestry has also won awards as a family and sustainable business from the state of Wisconsin.  Training is great, and necessary; still, the learning curve will be steep.

Wood-Mizer LT40 Hydraulic
My tool of choice for the sawyer business is a Wood-Mizer LT40HDG35 Hydraulic; it is probably safe to say that this is the industry standard, and Wood-Mizer invented the portable sawmill in 1982.  The mill includes several optional features, and is powered by a 35 hp Kohler engine.  I will be picking it up in early March.

The "Sugarers" business will start by producing Pure Maple Syrup; there are other maple products, including maple sugar and other confections, and as with the Sawyers business we will start small and learn.  In the spring of 2016 we will put taps in 100 trees, which by rule of thumb, one quart per tap, should yield about 400 cups of syrup.  The plan is to scale up year by year, to 1,000 taps for the spring of 2019.  We have hobbied at maple syruping the past two years, starting with 13 taps in 2014 and 19 taps in 2015.  We are self-taught, of course we have taken full advantage of books, on-line resources on the subject and seminars.  You can check out previous posts on the subject at

Leader Half Pint
The tool of choice for making syrup in year one of the ramp-up, and potentially in year two, is the Leader Half-Pint with the "Supreme" pan.  This is a wood-fired evaporator.  Leader now makes an extension kit for the Half Pint, which is why I say that it might take us through year two of the ramp-up to 1,000 taps.  Also, the "Supreme" pan, not shown, increases capacity significantly from the advertised 15-50 taps.

And finally, the "Soapers" business.  This will start small and simple, as with the others, and include a line of men's soap products, including bar soap, liquid soap, and shaving soap.  Perhaps others.  When I say that these soaps will be made "from scratch," I mean it, we will even be producing our own lye.  They will be naturally scent free, which the hunters among us will enjoy.  Of the three businesses, this one is the least capital intensive, and frankly, the least well-defined at this point.  Geri and I took a course in soap-making at Tillers International, which by the way, is a real gift to homesteaders and DIY'ers.  Tillers is also an organization that does good; I highly recommend exploring what they have to offer, especially if you live within a few hours of Scotts, MI, which is just southeast of Kalamazoo.  Accommodations are available on-site, so you can stay overnight, as I did for the Blacksmithing I course.  In what may be a sign of things to come, I am currently signed up for the Draft Animal Logging course in 2016.

Primal Woods is a vehicle of sorts, a vehicle for achieving "The Purpose."  The Purpose is something that Geri and I developed before Caterpillar made its announcement.  Future businesses were in mind even at that point, which was after two years on the property, in June of 2015.  Admittedly, "The Purpose" is aspirational, and that is okay; it is what we will hold ourselves accountable to, and it is the framework inside which we are making our decisions.

The Purpose
So, how did we get here from there, "there" being 30-plus years on the corporate ladder, leading the stereotypical "American dream" more or less, and yet being unfulfilled in work?  (I am speaking for myself now, not necessarily for Geri.)  For the most part, I suppose I have followed my gut throughout my career, and I do not have regrets in that regard, I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to acquire the homestead property.  Opportunities presented themselves and I took advantage.  The only exception to following my gut was my employment with Caterpillar; I took that on for family-related reasons.  By then I knew that long term, big companies and I were not a perfect fit.

Then in 2012-2013, Geri and I went to visit friends Jim & Bobbie Sauter in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan.  Almost immediately I began looking for what I envisioned as a vacation and retirement property, and specifically I began looking for property in the U.P.  Pretty soon though it became clear, that at 6.5 or 7 hours from our home in Illinois, the U.P. was something that we would not be able to take full advantage of while I was still working.  I refined our search parameters, with Geri's agreement, to include only areas within 2-4 hours by car of our then home base, Naperville, IL.  I ruled out Illinois, simply because it is a fiscal disaster area, in my opinion, and sooner or later that will come home to roost in a bad way, on its residents.  It has already come home to roost on those that are dependent on government services, the disabled for example.  Ruling out Illinois left southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, northeast Missouri, north and west Indiana, and southwest Michigan.  It did not take long before we focused the search in southwest Michigan, because there is an abundance of water in that area, and one of our criteria was that we be on water, and preferably a lake.  (If you are interested in undertaking such a search, I highly recommend  Geri and I went back and forth over the course of a couple of months, and had it narrowed down to six or eight properties before I contacted a real estate agent.  He then added a couple more, and in the spring of 2013, we drove over to South Haven, MI, and  on a Saturday looked at 10 properties.  The homestead was number six on that list, and as soon as we left the property I told Geri that it would be ours.  I was looking for raw land, perhaps developed, but not built out.  Geri on the other hand was looking for a 2nd home.  I insisted that we not take on a 2nd 1st mortgage, that is a 1st mortgage in addition to the Naperville home.  Needless to say, we ended up with a 2nd 1st mortgage, and I could not be happier!

We closed on the homestead property in July 2013, and at that point, from pretty much the first day, a switch flipped in my mind, and the pull towards the property, and the life, only became stronger and stronger over the course of the ensuing two plus years to date.  Less than 12 months later we sold the Naperville property, a home that Geri had put her indelible stamp on, and a home that we loved dearly.  In my adult life I have moved often, this time was different.  Having spent 9 years in Naperville, and it our home there, it has been an emotional departure.

I remember the first weekend we had guests to the homestead, this was maybe two weeks after we closed the deal, and we discussed buying firewood.  Even then I just about came unhinged; there was no way that I was going to buy firewood while sitting on 69 acres of woods.  It wasn't long after, a few months at most, and Geri desired hardwood floors.  Well, we still do not have them, but when we do they will be felled, milled, kiln dried, planed, installed, and finished, by us, beginning with Sugar Maples from our woods.  It does not get better than that.  As I was investigating this process though, we had the maples (and beech for that matter, and red oak), I knew that much, and I began to research the "how" of getting those maples on our floor; this led to an awareness of the portable sawmill service, and ultimately, to the decision to take on a portable sawmill service as a business.  At first I only thought of getting a low-end used sawmill to mill our logs for the floor, to be used infrequently, but one thing led to another and here we are.

As for maple sugaring, frankly I do not know what prompted us to tap trees that first spring.  I think it probably had something to do with the study of Permaculture, with its heavy emphasis on tree crops. What an amazing time we have had making maple syrup in our first two springs.  I read something in recent days, I do not have a citation at hand, but the article was about a farm, and the owner drew a distinction between "commodity farming," and "community farming."  Maple sugaring has been a community-builder for us, and as Primal Woods Sugarers, the business will build community; that is in keeping with "The Purpose."

And finally, as "soapers."  We took the class, yes, but that does not explain it.  It was actually Geri's idea to take the class, and she asked me to tag along.  We had an interest in our health, and in not bathing ourselves in a bunch of chemicals, which frankly is what most modern day soaps are.  Modern day soaps are mostly not soap at all.  What then is the connection between sawyers and sugarers and soapers?  It is all about the woods, and the wood.  Obviously the Sugar Maples can be felled, more likely they just fall in the woods, and we harvest them for wood products.  Equally as obvious perhaps, the Sugar Maples can be tapped, resulting in maple syrup.  Perhaps not as obvious is the connection between the first two and soaping.  And again, do not bother to ask how the connection was made, because I do not know; it is amazing how the mind works when you have a burning desire to do or be something, connections appear where none were apparent before.  The connection is in the lye used in soap-making.  Today lye is made in factories, and is sodium hydroxide, NaOH.  "Back in the day" however, as early as when soap was discovered, and subsequently when soap was made in colonial days, the lye used in soaps was potassium hydroxide, KOH.  Guess where that comes from?  That comes by leaching water through hardwood ashes if you can believe it; hardwood ashes being a waste product of both heating our home, and firing the maple sap evaporator.  Waste not, want not.

So there you have it, we have come full circle, and in doing so used waste from the sawmill (cants, waste from the milling process) to fire the evaporator, and waste from the evaporator (ash) to make lye, to use in the making of soap.  'Tis a beautiful thing.

Nothing is certain of course.  Failure is indeed an option.  But I know we are on the path.  It might not look exactly like what is in my mind's eye, and I'm okay with that, even if it does bring on some anxiety.

Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please "follow" the blog.

-- John & Geri, 22 January 2016

1 At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish "just cause" for termination), and without warning.
Wikipedia contributors, "At-will employment," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 21, 2016).

2 Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978.
Wikipedia contributors, "Permaculture," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 21, 2016).