Beginnings – Do Great Things

family reunion at Pilgrim Pines

the old homestead

It’s easy to let the things we care about become blurred by things we don’t. We’re at a critical point with Joy Lane Farm. It’s doing well and we keep saying, “It’s working, it’s working!” Of course, there have been plenty of times when we asked each other, “Do you think this will work?” and in a place we kept buried deep inside us, we suspected it wouldn’t. But we were not as vulnerable then as we are now.

As we fill orders, launch products, upgrade equipment, and tackle day-to-day opportunities and crisis, it’s easy to forget why we started. So much is at stake if we do. This is the first of three entries called, “Beginnings,” which explore our mantra, “Live Joyfully. Do Great Things. Celebrate Family.” Our mantra is where we started. As I write, there’s soaps to wrap and product samples to ship. However, nothing is more important than sitting with my cup of coffee listening to the pitter-patter of the rain and reflecting deeply on why we do this.

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Katy and I decided to take on Joy Lane Farm while we were working at an orphanage in Ukraine. We weren’t starting it really. My mom and dad had always called our small, family property with its smattering of chickens, pigs, and horses, Joy Lane Farm. The lane was the long stretch of unpaved driveway that meandered through our woods and the joy was our family adventures.

My favorite adventure was damming a stream deep in our woods into a small pond where I punted around on a raft built with duct tape, wood, and soda bottles. I loved the gurgle and splash of falling water (even now we chose an apartment next to a brook so we could fall asleep to that sound).

Our driveway also went over a stream. There was a large culvert my sister and I as kids could walk through crouching and one year a beaver made this culvert and our driveway into his own nearly ready-made dam. My eldest sister had kids by then and it became the legend of “Grandpa vs. the Beaver.” There was dad on one side humanely dismantling the dam over and over; the beaver on the other rebuilding it stronger and faster each night. At stake was the only entrance to our farm and the beaver’s imagined paradise. In the end, the beaver lost.

To be fair, my Dad didn’t want to kill the beaver. I was almost on the beaver’s side. Damming the culvert—so simple, so efficient, and it would have made such a great pond for punting. We all took solace in my dad presenting my mother with a soft beaver pelt, a reference to our childhood favorite, “How the West was Won” and the scene where Linus Rawlings gives Lily Prescott a beaver pelt and love is in the air. Ironically, the Prescotts were punting down a river on a raft at the time.

You might not have guessed it by her affection for the beaver pelt, but my mom loved animals fiercely. Even the soap part of Joy Lane Farm was more about the animals than the soap. She began making it because she was looking for a use for all our extra goat milk. Our herd started with three goats (a personable Nubian named Jube, an Oberhasli and an Alpine) and at its peak reached twenty-two. When we spent a summer in Ghana teaching English, they thought we were rich because of the size of our goat herd.

As a kid, I was fond of counting how many animals we had. It was hard to do. We had the parakeets and the mice and the hamsters, lots of chickens, a fire-breathing dwarf goat named Sophie, the pigs and the horses, which came and went, our beloved yellow lab, Sengo, and our lion-hearted, miniature Chihuahua, Rascal. Somewhere in the mix was a double yellow-headed amazon parrot that wandered into my aunt’s coworker’s garage and ended up in our living room because we were “animal people.” His name was Larry and he liked to say, “Pickle, pickle, pickle” and, “Help! Help!” whenever company was over. It could get us into trouble, like the time the guy refilling our oil tank thought my mom was ignoring us while we were crying frantically. The older I grow the more I realize how lucky we were.

A few years into our marriage, my wife and I moved to Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, to work at an orphanage. It was called orphanage #3 in that colorful way post-Soviet countries have of naming their institutions. Not far away, we rented an apartment on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator.  The stairwell was poorly lit and a stray cat lived in a hole in the concrete wall. It was dank and cold. Our bed was a couch that folded out into three uneven sections, which each waged war on our backs in their own way and together made us unusually passionate advocates of good mattresses.

We worked with graduates from the orphanage who were transitioning into trade school. Often, they roamed the streets having not eaten all day or having spent the night in internet cafes with no sleep. They would arrive at our apartment hours before we got back from errands, their hands shaking with cold, as we made them tea and gave them snacks. It was hard to know if we were helping. We let them use the wireless internet and tried to build relationships, but each action felt, as they say, like drops in a bucket and we weren’t sure our drops were landing in any bucket at all.

kids going to trade school

younger kids at orphanage #3

Years later the statistics are panning out the way we heard they would, but hoped they wouldn’t. Our hearts break when we find out a boy we knew took his life or one went to prison and it solidifies for us that the American Dream cannot be our dream.

While we resonate deeply with the ideals of hard work, equality, liberty, ambition, pursuing happiness and even prosperity, we believe these serve as means, not ends. Like Uncle Ben, Jesus, and Voltaire, we believe, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Grieved by our desire to change the world and our lack of knack for non-profit work, we set out to build a company with an aim of “doing great things” on behalf of the global poor. As a baseline, we give 1% of our sales to efforts alleviating the pains of poverty in third world countries. The 1% is only a piece of what we hope to do, but it gives us a concrete, measurable starting point. It’s the number we care about with every purchase order.

Although we admire businesses that rescue dogs and solve environmental issues, our efforts will always be towards making a tangible difference on behalf of the poor. For us, it is about the other side of the Blue. Even though we are small, we are proud that last year Joy Lane Farm paid for a chunk of my parent’s work in Madagascar. Working with an organization called Mercy Ships, my mom is an outpatient nurse treating burn victims and my dad fixes toilets, builds walkers out of PVC for Malagasy children, and coordinates onshore operations.

Every day Katy and I feel the tug of exposed beams and stainless steel appliances, of land and a house, but our dreams are of the difference we can make over our lifetime if we build a company that holds the international poor in high esteem.  This is our pledge, our ambition, our dream.

mom and dad

one of the girls with her new walker
photo by Justine Forrest