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Better know a commenter: Farmhand

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The latest installment has us speaking with Royals Review member since the initial Royals Authority/Royals Review merger, Farmhand.

Fountains in Manila
Fountains in Manila
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

This time around we figuratively sit down with resident agrarian geologist, Farmhand, as he regales us with his unique family history and happily wedded farm life.

Standard dating profile questions: Age? Sex? Height? Hair color? Marital status? Kids? Where do you live now, and where did you grow up?

I was raised in rural western NY, though my family had no roots there. Our deepest American ties are in northern Minnesota and southern Mississippi, though we also have a four-generation history in the Philippines, where both my parents grew up and met. After living in a variety of states pursuing various degrees and jobs, I now live with my wife on a diverse farm in rural central Missouri. I’m mid-30s, a tall thin drink of water with a beard and glasses, looking a lot like the farmer/timber manager/geologist/writer that I am.

That's an interesting background. Any particular towns in northern Minnesota and southern Mississippi?

You're from Minnesota, ever been to the Soudan mine way up north? If not, Google it, it's a preserved underground iron mine that's a fascinating place to visit. My Norwegian ancestors worked that mine and my great-grandfather ran a store in nearby Tower. The Mississippi folks were standard-issue Scotch-Irish Appalachian folk from Kentucky. Great-grandad was a religious fella who objected to farming tobacco and corn (because it was made into likker), so he packed his young family's worldly belongings on a boxcar and shipped everything and everyone down to southern Mississippi where he bought a worn-out cotton farm and restored it with cattle. Still in the extended family four generations later, I took Mrs Farmhand down there a few winters ago. All of the above is the maternal side, the paternal side was already well-established overseas.

I've not been Soudan or Tower, but I'm familiar with the area. That. Is. Remote. Kind of in keeping with where you call home. Given your surname, can I assume missionary work took your ancestors to the Philippines at least initially?

My name itself is a story; it's not my birth name, but rather my wife's name which I adopted upon our marriage. An interesting form of reverse gender discrimination, that, as in most states the woman can change her name with one line on the marriage certificate, but the man has to do a full-on court appearance for a legal name change. It's still assumed that women will assume the man's identity upon marriage. Cost us a lot of money and time, but sharing the same name was very important to us. Her professional career at the time involved more academic publications than mine did, a strong reason to keep one's own name to avoid confusion, and I am much closer to her family than my own (deceased) father's. Her name meant more to me than my own, as did she herself. So I changed it with no second thoughts.

You're right that I'm not ethnically Filipino (Scotch-Irish-Norwegian). The family history there begins after the Spanish-American war, when the US "liberated" the Philippines from the Spanish with promises of independence to the people, which were promptly broken, resulting in a bitter and bloody insurgency to which many historians have drawn parallels with the second Iraq War. Except in this case the occupied country eventually settled down and came to love America and Americans, especially during and after WWII when the brutal Japanese occupation was the alternative. Perhaps IS is playing the role of the Japanese this time?

My paternal side moved to the islands shortly after the initial American takeover (1898) as merchants and stayed there ever since. My maternal side moved there as missionaries after WWII; my parents met in high school in Manila, though my mother grew up in the rural south-central islands and my father grew up in privileged expatriate community of Manila. Thus, though my paternal side has a much longer history there, I've gained most of my Filipino cultural heritage (cooking, etc.) from my mother as she grew up immersed in the culture rather than set apart from it.

Describe yourself in three sentences or less.

Given that I’m working on my resume right now, describing myself pithily is quite topical. I’ve accumulated diverse experience as a field geologist, science interpreter & educator, farmer, home cook, traveler, writer, and public speaker. A voracious reader, I’m particularly interested in economics, politics, transportation, history, and environmental issues. I am an avid birder who also enjoys exploring back roads and the outdoors, building things (from ship models to barns), baseball, and cooking.

What Royals Reviewer would you be most interested to meet in person? Why?

I would most like to meet Scott McKinney because I too love to discuss & debate diverse issues. His rational analytical approach is similar to my own, though our politics seem to differ somewhat, meaning hours of interesting conversation. Not sure how one block-quotes in person, though. Maybe a digital recorder with playback?

We all have a long list of stupid shit that we've done. What's the dumbest thing you've done?

The stupidest shit I've done I don't want to talk about on the internet, even anonymously. It could have changed my life forever and it scared me so deeply that I changed course significantly in a positive way.

So we'll assume that's drug muling. What's the next dumbest thing?

There was the time in high school a few friends and I were in the back woods shooting off my .22 and started looking for interesting targets. We hit in the bright idea of old model railroad equipment. It was quite fun to watch plastic boxcars explode. Then we decided to try a locomotive, which instead of exploding produced a PING while only rocking slightly. An investigation turned up a dimple in the heavy lead weights centering the locomotive; a friend then noticed the .22-sized hole in his jacket sleeve. Instant physics lesson. At least shoot at an angle other than 90 degrees.

What's the best thing you've read in recent memory? Describe it as though you were trying to convince someone else that they should read it.

The best book I've read in recent memory actually encompasses two related books, both involving Alexandre Dumas. The Black Count is a previously untold history of Dumas' father, the mixed-race son of a Haitian slave woman who rose to be one of Napoleon's best generals in semi-race-blind Revolutionary France. His subsequent betrayal, imprisonment, disappearance, and abandonment became the model for The Count of Monte Cristo. The author draws heavily upon obscure French documents, never translated and mostly forgotten, to tell the fascinating story of race relations, class struggle, and egalitarianism in a culture & period most of us know little about.

black count

After reading this, of course, I had to tackle The Count of Monte Cristo. Large books have never daunted me, and I adore period English authors like Dickens and Austen, but I’d never read the French equivalents like Dumas or Hugo. The tome is not for everyone, with the pacing and detail of two 19th century Tom Clancy opuses back to back. I found it a fascinating and refreshingly patient story of betrayal, love, and revenge, content to let its story ripple through many corners of French culture and society of the time, teaching the reader far more than an equivalent history textbook ever could. Like many classics, it feels familiar because it’s been copied so often, but also fresh because it’s done so well. There are sections I would trim, but many more in which the author steadily draws together threads of narrative and emotion that have been woven far ahead of time into an ever-tightening web of tension and feeling that the reader can’t escape and can hardly bear. I experienced this as an audiobook, which prevented my common affliction of reading too fast and missing some detail, while the measured cadence of the narrator forced me to experience the life of Dumas’ characters at the pace he intended. It was a fascinating experience for me.

What is your educational background/area of study?

My academic background is in geomorphology (the study of landscapes from a geologic perspective) and science education. I also studied German and Russian and am conversant in both with some practice. I started college intending to pursue International Relations and go into the foreign service (not the first in my family) with a focus on Islam, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Republics. When I had an epiphany midway through college and switched majors entirely, I was about to start studying Arabic as well. With a graduation date in May 2001, one can only imagine what my life would have been like with that academic background shortly before 9/11. As it was, I was outdoors on a graduate geology field course when the F-16s of the Vermont Air National Guard screamed low overhead on full afterburner, heading for New York City. My life has had many significant inflection points (join the Navy or go to college; ask Mrs Farmhand for a date or move to New Mexico with a friend; will I recover from a serious neck injury or not), but I think about that one the most.

As the nephew of two former Ambassador foreign service officers, I too pondered entrance into that field, going so far as to take a foreign service exam for which I did not study. Have you thought about turning back to such endeavors? An interest in International Relations implies an interest in the rest of the world. Have those interests taken you abroad in your travels?

I'm very interested in the rest of the world and am a devout reader of The Economist among other international sources. I don't foresee any career movement back in the foreign-service direction. It would be incompatible with our current situation and life goals as a couple. I've accepted being educated as a substitute for being experienced in that regard. International travel holds the same restrictions; though it highly appeals to both of us, we are not in a life or financial situation to undertake that. I've been to the Philippines, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, years ago. I speak reasonable German and Russian and would love to visit those two countries. We do travel as often as we can; I've been to every state and province except Hawaii by road (i.e. not an airport stopover or something) and we've done a lot of really neat backcountry and remote exploration together. But beyond the US gets much trickier. We also both hate flying, not the act itself but the demeaning treatment by airlines and government and the sheer awfulness of the experience. Neither of us have been on a plane in something like a decade, and we've not missed it. But we've taken train and vehicle all over the country.

On the Foreign Service front, my paternal aunt and husband worked in the US Embassy during the 1991 Moscow coup. They had front row seats, my uncle even going out to mingle with the tank crews who defected from the coup organizers and set up to protect the crowds ringing the Russian White House instead. A strong influence on my decision to study Russian and be interested in the wider world.

One of my uncles was in both Nepal and Fiji during coups. Wild, scary times.

While many choose not to define themselves by their job, what do you do to make ends meet? For how long have you been plying that trade?

I've always been someone who has a hard time separating work and identity. Mrs. Farmhand and I share a deep interest in food and cooking, having both grown up in rural families with large gardens, and we gradually developed a passion for sustainable agriculture and independence that led us to leave our scientific careers behind and start the diversified farm we've run since 2006. What we do here allows us to pursue a lot of interesting hands-on citizen science of a kind ignored by research institutions, while working together in a healthy setting. We're not the kind of couple who enjoys separation of any kind.

You mention scientific careers that you left for farm life. What was it that you and the little lady did before jumping into sustainable agriculture?

We're both geologists by training, with a strong emphasis on science education and public outreach on my side as well. I worked for three National Park Service units, while she was employed twice by the US Geologic Survey, among other more minor pursuits.

Where did you do take care of your higher education?

Undergrad, Beloit College, WI. Graduate, University of Vermont.

With the understanding that obviously baseball and the Royals are an area of interest for you, what other hobbies and interests do you have?

Unfortunately, it's also been difficult financially, especially as farms like ours don't get the kind of Federal subsidies commodity farms do and operate entirely on the free market. Eight years of running our own business has taught us to hate the government, and the ACA has been a particularly acute form of stress. 2014 was an especially stressful and difficult year for many reasons, and we made a decision by the end of the year that we needed to change course. In 2015 we're backing away from the full-time farm, though still raising a few cash crops and the majority of our own food supply, and turning to some free-lance writing projects that have been lurking for years. We're both good writers who have sold occasional articles in the past when we've had time and are excited to pursue the possibilities inherent in our diverse backgrounds and skill sets on a more regular basis. It's not clear what this will mean yet for my involvement in Royals Review in the coming year, as I'll be doing a lot more computer work already and RR may now conflict with that instead of giving me a break from outdoors work.

While we're all much more than just being Royals fans, it is the tie that binds us. What brought you to the Royals' front stoop knocking on the door to be let in? Perhaps more importantly, why did you stay?

After moving to central Missouri, I had to choose between the Royals and the Cardinals for my baseball fix. Mrs Farmhand and I were pretty neutral on the two cities upon arrival, but quickly found that we far preferred visiting KC to STL for all sorts of reasons. I also liked the K better than Busch, and the more laid-back underdog feel of the Royals appealed to the former Cubs and Expos follower in me. The Cardinals and their stadium felt too soulless and corporate. The Royals felt like home, and I never looked back. Discovering, and becoming involved in, the online community of fans absolutely cemented the loyalty.

What have I missed? What would you like to put out there for the world to digest?

I've had a real interesting and diverse life. More stories than many people have by age 80, and I'm grateful for it. My family history is colorful and instructive, my own has many more twists and turns that we've covered. I guess it comes through in my Royals fandom, I like becoming a part of the places I live, perhaps because I don't have deep roots of my own. The Royals are a way to connect to a region in which I'm an outsider, and something to balance the long, hot Missouri summers that can wear down anyone who works outdoors.

Thanks a bunch, Farmhand! Everyone needs to drive out to his farm and buy up his produce.