A work in progress

Retirement is a relatively modern concept. Prior to the late 1800s, except for the privileged few, most folks who wanted to keep eating had to keep working. Although family ties might sustain those who had lost their ability to look after themselves.

According to an article in the Seattle Times, “In 1880, when half of Americans worked on a farm, 78 percent of American men worked past age 65.” Of course, one must keep in mind that the average life expectancy back then for a white male was just under 50 years. Today it’s closer to 80.

Things changed with the industrial age. Unions negotiated healthy pension benefits. Eventually governments tried to make room in the workforce for the next generation by encouraging retirement at a set age (a trend currently in reverse). A culture obsessed with youthfulness also became fixated on retiring early. “Freedom 55” caught on as a popular mantra while North Americans planned their savings and investments to accommodate a certain lifestyle when working days had ended.

While the idea sounds attractive, early retirement doesn’t suit everyone, especially those with a good deal of energy and a love for their work (90 percent of the Dutch people I know). I am married to someone like that. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever really “retire” as long as I have Jack.

But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances. When arthritis made Jack’s life as a farmer painfully challenging, we decided to sell our family farm, give up our broiler chickens and mover to a quieter place. Neither of us had real retirement in mind, but it seemed wise to dial things back a notch or two. Jack would continue planting field crops on a smaller scale and we would try to make wise investments to put the remaining capital to work. While we were still in the moving process he said to me, “We can always build a small chicken barn someday.”

I laughed at him.

Happy whirlwind
Apparently only risky investments pay well these days. It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride where the tracks keep disappearing underneath you. You’re told that if you stay on board, you’ll probably make it safely through. Neither of us has the stomach for that. And the idea of chipping away at our savings when we could live for another 25 years or more, Lord willing, was equally scary.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when one day Jack turned to me and said, “I seriously think we should consider building a barn.” A week later we were buying quota. I couldn’t argue with providence when exactly the amount of quota we needed became available at precisely the time we needed it. Who’s laughing now?

And so the next big adventure began. It’s about something more than making a living. We visited the type of barn that we wanted to put up. As I stood there looking around, I felt surprisingly excited at the prospect of raising birds again. In April we visited the Poultry Show in London, and it was like going home. The logistics behind a project like this are enormous, let alone the bureaucratic hoops one has to jump through at various levels. But step by step things fell into place for us. Through it all, we have the distinct impression that this is what the Lord has in mind for us to live quietly, mind our business and work with our hands (I Thess. 4).

As I write, construction is in the final stages. The new barn is smaller and more modern than those we left behind and should be more manageable. If all goes well, we will ship our first flock about a year after the last birds went out from our other farm. Jack calls it the sabbatical. It’s been more like a whirlwind, but a happy one.

Our daughter, Stephanie, drove onto the yard the other day and looked at the new barn. “Maybe it sounds strange,” she said, “but seeing the barn there makes it feel ‘right’ somehow, like it really is where you and Dad belong.”

I agree. Never mind retirement for now. Life is a work in progress. 

  • Heidi VanderSlikke lives on a farm in Mapleton Township with her husband Jack. They share their home with a gigantic Golden Retriever named Norton, who thinks he's a lap dog. Heidi and Jack have three happily married children and seven delightful grandkids.

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