Innovate & Diversify

I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes and close my eyes. I’ve been graced with a rare moment devoid of multiple engines howling at once. A thirty-foot auger, a John Deere 4020, and a Chevy tandem grain truck have steadied the flow of oats from field to storage for the last six hours, and finally, at 3:30 in the morning I’m caught up before yet another load rolls its way into the farmyard.

If the saying goes, “make hay while the sun shines”, then our current literal interpretation is, “harvest oats while the wind blows.” With a pending snowfall teasing, my siblings and I are in the midst of an all night, old fashioned oil-burning session. Again, in the most literal sense. 

It’s been six years since I’ve been able to lend a hand taking the family crop off. As the torch was (reluctantly) passed in the succession of our operation, I was released of my childhood/adolescent/adult duties to contribute to its financial well-being, and gained a genuine support for a full-time commitment to my art. As it would play out, harvest across Western Canada was also prime touring season, when I’d be squeezing out the final benefits of the summer months before the cold worked against free-flowing finances funnelling in my direction. I’ve developed a loyal fanbase, but even the best of them would favour staring blankly at their devices in the comfort of their homes when up against a deep-freeze commute at forty below to hear me ramble onstage for the night. 

I’ll credit my Catholic roots for a profound sense of guilt every year; as the combines were being serviced and I was preparing one last big push for the following year’s operating budget, an internal weight would settle in. I could remain a phone call away for both my brother and sister, but for nothing more than moral support and encouragement. Everyone would make it through, everyone would make adjustments, and everyone would make a go. Myself? I was always forced to sow my proverbial winter wheat.

Yet again this fall, as I went from Montana to Illinois, Kentucky to Missouri, Saskatchewan to Texas, my phone line was running hot as the clouds spilled rain, the rain turning to snow. Peas down, barley down, oats down, wet, wet. I understood, having just played to five people at Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky. “We play the average,” my wife encouraged. “You play the average,” I would tell my brother. 

The weather was drastically ever-changing in Texas from one day to the next, as it was back at home, and with my plane touching down I was reminded of the might that a southern Sask wind carries. And boy, she howled. Two nights in my own bed, I cast my vote in the federal election at 7:30 in the morning and hit the 48 Highway to a drying southeast. 

It’s been a week of keeping two combines on the go at all times, or at least operating within the parameters of moisture tests and tough stalks. This would usually have us out the door at daybreak and back in bed well into late night hours. Where I would hire a utility player to bounce from one instrument to the next, my siblings had me. Transporting and maintaining equipment, operating the fuel truck, innovating the grain drying system, and uncle-ing the energy of three nephews, the work offering more clarity and rejuvenation than “resting” in the city.  

I have yet to find myself in an environment as conducive to thought than that of being alone in the middle of a prairie night; a darkness that hides the hand in front of your face and a juxtaposed sky filled with light, stars scattered like spilled grain. In the spring of 2013, amidst an ongoing and vicious battle with anxiety, it was this environment that ushered its cure. Now, facing the end of a three-year album cycle with a few hundred thousand kilometres and a similar mental strain to show for it, I’m back alone with my thoughts. 

My wife had made the comment in the past that we must view the investment and growth of our careers akin to that of a farmer. The metaphor rings obvious at its most basic; planting seeds, awaiting growth and harvesting results. However, dig a layer deeper into the understanding of ag-management and a world of insight presents itself to be replicated for music industry advancement, with credence to the parallels between a family-owned farming operation and an independent musician’s business model. The decision-makers in each field develop a skillset rooted in tenacity, resilience, and frankly, blind faith. 

A growing season that lacks profit hardly justifies the decision for a year off, in fact, the opposite. You owe it to the knowledge gained through sweat equity to double down. Granted farming expenses usually exceed that of a touring musician, but a $30,000 record is a $30,000 record. Throw in equal amounts fuel, and the fees of a publicist full of excuses and you too begin to wonder if you can put next year’s crop in. 

What about the Unforeseen? Whether you are a chicken picker or a canola roller, an act of God knows no difference. The toughest pill to swallow is leaning on the knowledge acquired from past mistakes or a strong intuition, and the outcome leaves you bust. With my first American tour taking shape in 2017, I was on the hunt for an upgraded van, with a solid diesel engine (I am my father’s son) and enough room to carry the wares of a full piece honky tonk outfit. A purchase took place eight hundred kilometres away, two days before leaving. Priced at 10 grand, I offered slightly less, signed the bill of sale and then watched the fuel needle move at a similar speed to the minute hand of a clock as I began my return home. Frustrated, I could still budget for a guzzler as long as it was reliable, but with a misfire outside of Dallas and a prayer to start in Austin, mechanic’s bills were soon to pass another $4000, and the guzzler would have to remain sitting in a parking stall in Saskatchewan. A lemon. The only choice? Double down. Hit the road. Do it all again with a farmer’s resilience. 

Blind-faith is only a coping mechanism until you embrace it, then you just call it faith and use it as a compass. There are no failed investments in this intertwined chaos of coincidence; as the payoff might not be financial momentarily, you begin recognizing a ‘loss’ for what is gained, and begin innovating and diversifying.

My family farm is changing hands, and therein lies more game changers. Innovation and diversification are two integral catalysts in ag-growth, and who could adopt the concepts more readily than musicians in a time of dwindling album sales, a convoluted market, an increased lack of value for art, and an expected production of content and product? The industry has drastically changed, as must we.

Any farmer worth half his weight in flaxseed would have an overview of all the dripping taps of income trickling in. They would understand a fluctuating market to influence decisions. Open discussion among fellow farmers is key; who’s doing what, and how’s it working? My father put a crop in every year, but always alongside ranching cattle, breeding horses, selling baler twine, blowing snow in the oilfield…the list goes on. Innovation and diversification. 

My alarm wakes me from my 10-minute power nap as my brother is lining up the grain cart to unload into the truck. I fire up the auger, cut the silence, and now I’m back to breathing in chop dust and exhaust. It feels good, working through the night in a solid push of what’s going to become the last forty hours of harvest. Yet another metaphor I’m working at incorporating into my musical advancement, when to buckle down and crush out a task before the powers that be make it impossible to do so.  

The work is the journey is the lifestyle. 

At the 25th hour we call it and return to his ranch house for bacon, eggs, and coffee, followed by a shower and an alarm set for two hours. I’m awakened by nephews, excited to have their Uncle Blake at the farm for one more day, completely carefree and innocent. My brother’s workload balanced by family, inspiring the changes to continue providing. 

As we head out into a light snowfall to put the final, slightly moist kernels into the bin, he’s already talking about his shift in direction. Acting on what did and didn’t work and where the focus will land. He asks me what I have to do once I get back to the city.

Innovate and diversify.