Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I don’t know about you, but I have always been confused about that notion of a calling—you know, our society’s continued preoccupation with occupation.
“What are you gonna be when you grow up?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Do you think that could be your calling?”
Maybe people in urban America keep the conversation focused on careers. But in rural communities,especially those where you’re part of a local family that has lived nearby “forever,” the question of your calling comes up repeatedly. You see the same people again and again, at the baseball field or the gas station or the library fundraiser dinner. They remember you going through school, getting good grades, heading off to college. They wonder why you were gone for a while and then they wonder how you were able to move back home. And then, when they finally get around to it, they ask about your career. Your calling.
You see, this topic opens up a can of worms in small towns. When you’re a college-bound kid, you get celebrated by the locals. They want to send you off to make something of yourself. The grand narrative is that you need to go out there and make money and get the kind of career you can’t have back home. Go be a big-hitting lawyer or maybe a doctor. Go be a businessman of some kind. Be an engineer. Join the upper middle class and its trappings. Be part of the mobile class of professionals.
I guess I can be a bit contrary on many subjects, although I do know when to smile and keep my mouth shut. But on this matter, I find myself getting into long conversations with lots of questions and few answers for people. That’s because I don’t have a conventional career. I have tried my hardest not to live under the nine-to-five curse. I do a lot of different things for money. I do a lot of different things for pleasure. I do a lot of different things for family obligations. I do a lot of different things for community service.
So here we are, deep in the muck of one of life’s big questions, and all I want to do is throw you a list of what happened the past couple of weeks in our town. You might start to understand why I have shunned the security and health clubs of professional America to be an official member of the Oates Clan of Bates County, Missouri. (And by using the word “clan,” I’m carefully trying to retake the word for its biological and local community roots. Not the disgusting history of the racist terrorists that populated the South and lower Midwest a couple of generations ago). So, here goes.
Adrian, Missouri, our little town of 1,700 people, threw an amazing Fourth of July celebration this past Saturday. The local Optimist Club had around 100 volunteers—I was one, my Grandpa Pat being one of the founders—that put on a great parade, barbecue contest, horseshoe-pitching and volleyball tourneys, magic workshop for kids, fireworks display, live music celebration, and more. There was a water park erected in the local park. There was good food and water-balloon fights. All of this was done with volunteer labor and donations. And it all took place in the local park that was built by volunteer labor and donations. Sounds fun, huh?
Adrian also hosts the annual West Missouri Antique Tractor and Steam Engine Show at the Antique Village. Again, about 100 volunteers throw this event that draws several thousand visitors every June. The facility, again put together with donations of time and labor and resources, is right next to the city park. The event is a big deal, an economic engine for our town—and something of a marvel when you consider it’s all done with volunteer labor.
At this year’s Antique Village show, my six-year-old son, Wynne, won the pedal pull. He’s a wiry little guy. And strong as an ox.
My wife organizes a local garden and art camp for kids, right there at the Antique Village. Her campers learn gardening and farming skills, and they make artwork and learn about local history and culture. She calls it the Hedgeapple Garden Camp, and about 20 kids participate. They eat kale and kohlrabi. They learn to cook. They get to use knives. Kudos to Jenny for trying to bring a little healthy eating and gardening to the locals.
We just completed the baseball season here, as well. Adrian’s baseball teams populate the local park all throughout May and June. There’s great participation. And once again, all of the time and effort it takes to organize and manage the events are done with volunteer labor and time and resources.
The boys are also on the local AquaBears Swim Team. My nine-year-old, Henry, is tearing up the circuit. We swim against bigger towns to the north, in suburban Kansas City. Henry is a force in the backstroke, butterfly, and individual medley and regularly scores the most points for the team. Again, swim meets and events are coordinated with volunteer labor and resources. Are you catching the drift here?
Henry won a national contest recently, too. He’s the Missouri champ of the Kids Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. The contest is an annual event in which one chef-in-training from each state is selected to attend the Kids’ State Dinner at the White House, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. The event is sponsored by the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative and the website Epicurious, among others. More than 1,300 entries were submitted this year. The panel of judges included Let’s Move! executive director and White House assistant chef Sam Kass; Epicurious editor-in-chief Tanya Steel; representatives from the USDA and the Department of Education; two children who recently graduated from Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program; and D.C. Central Kitchen’s Michael F. Curtin Jr., whose organization prepared the food for tasting.
Henry’s recipe, Peanut Ginger Party Pasta, was a hit with the judges for balancing good flavor, nutrition, and simple preparation. The Kids’ State Dinner will be held July 9 at the White House. Last year President Obama attended the event. Henry will get a personal tour of the White House grounds by the First Lady and the White House chef. My wife, Jenny, gets to accompany Henry on the trip.
So there you have it: a long list of events that came flying at us here in small-town West Missouri. All that goes on, along with the farming work. It’s haying season here on the Oates place, and my organic produce is booming. Goats are getting ready to have babies. The county fair is on its way. And we’re still building our house.
What’s my calling? I’d say it’s pretty clear: being a member of the Oates Clan of Adrian. Bates County. West Missouri. USA. Being a community volunteer. Doing what needs to be done. Trying to stay sane in the modern world. Trying to be happy and healthy. Trying to find meaning and substance amidst the busy-ness.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises, including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility, and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, a local food store that operates a weekly produce subscription program called the Missouri Bounty Box. Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.