Failing is Just as Important

Orren Fox

Orren Fox › I'm 15, my name is Orren Fox. I have 38 chickens, 4 ducks and four hives of my own ...

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I was really lucky to be invited to speak at the DoLectures this September in Hopland, CA. It is a weekend of “Inspiring talks from people who are changing the world.” I am 100% sure I am not changing the world, nor do I think my talk was so inspiring, but it was super fun to get up in front of about 150 people and talk to them about taking risks, failure, the feeling of success, responsibility and oh, about raising chickens and keeping bees.

There were so many amazing people speaking:

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
Brenda Chapman, director of Brave
Charlie Engle, featured in Running the Sahara
Maggie Doyne and her daughter Anjali from Kopila Valley and BlinkNow
Chief Arvol Looking Horse
Sean Baker, executive chef and co-owner of Gather restaurant
Meredy Benson, Oak Grove School
James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
Adam Stofsky, founder of the New Media Advocacy Project
John Andreliunas, president of Quoddy
Catherine Biley and Robin Petravic owners of Heath Ceramics
Melinda Kramer, founder of Women’s Earth Alliance
Alessandra Lariu, co-founder of SheSays
Ken Boek, gardener (I want to be Ken when I grow up)

I made a short video with Michael Piazza and working with him was amazing. We made the film to share with the people at the DoLectures and let them know what it is like to be near bees, what they sound like and how exciting it is to pull a frame out that is filled with honey! Michael is an amazing person, very gentle and really interested in what I was doing. He came to the hives 3 times and during one visit he set up a little ‘recording studio’ in our kitchen to record my voice.

(Click on the image above to play the video.)

Here is the gist of the talk I gave:

I became interested in hens when I was 9. I just woke up one morning and was fascinated by them. I’m not exactly sure what it was, but I thought they were amazing. Luckily, we live near a bunch of farms and I started volunteering at one of them for an awesome farmer named Julie. She was tough and expected a lot. I swept the barn, fed her birds and goats, and carried 50 bags of feed and shavings. After having been there about a year she said, “you should have your own hens.” I practically burst into tears I was so happy. Then the responsibility really began. I had 12 hens that I had to tend to everyday after school. Paprika, Plum, Cheesecake, and Alice taught me a lot, primarily about responsibility. When it was 19 degrees below zero and dark, I had to go and clean their water bowls, put Vaseline on their combs… make sure they were okay. It was often hard and even though I cared about my hens, I didn’t really want to go out to the barn… but there is no room for “I don’t want to go.” Sometimes I couldn’t go to sleep in the middle of the winter because I was thinking about them.

My hens taught me not to be overwhelmed by “what ifs”. What if they die, what if they get sick, or what if you don’t know what your are doing?  I had no idea what I was doing, really. It can be humbling and even scary, but so what? Limits are in your head. Don’t let being a beginner prevent you from doing something you are excited about. Everyone starts out as a beginner. Actually, I hope I never become an expert because being a beginner means you can make tons of mistakes and you can ask a ton of questions. I always want to be a beginner. There will always be “what ifs” even when you have a bunch of experience, the questions are just different.

I decided to start a blog (really an online journal). I just put random stuff up on it. It was only for me, so I would remember things and could compare information from one year to another. What I soon realized was that people were actually reading it. In 5th grade we had to do a year-long project. Mine was on chickens and while doing the research I discovered factory farming. I wasn’t ok with it. The way they treat the hens is torture. My family became vegetarians because I was so upset about it, I think you can taste the torture. (I am no longer a vegetarian, it is all bacon’s fault…it’s a gateway drug.) I posted my research paper on factory farming and how horrific it is to my blog. A few hours after posting, the head of the Poultry Division from Canada responded to my paper. He thought I had a few things “wrong” and he wanted to correct them. I wasn’t wrong, I was just 10 and had articulated them in a quirky way. People were reading my blog. I didn’t have any idea where this was going, I just kept writing.

Actually it ended up in The White House. All I did was write this crazy blog and I ended up at the White House. The Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan invited me for an event this past May in support of Know Your Farmer Know Your Food initiative from the USDA. It was awesome. Sam Kaas, Michelle Obama’s food advisor, was there and asked to speak to the 15-year-old beekeeper… yikes, that was me. I mouthed off that my honey was “pretty delicious” and he said, “Send some and we will compare your honey to the White House honey.” So, we sent off 6 jars.

I’m also really into bees right now. I have 4 hives at home and 3 at school. Bees are fascinating. One of the hives at school is really radical. Mostly my hives are mellow, chill hives… this one at school is crazy. On one trip to visit them I was about 1/2 mile away from the hives when they found me and I ended up in the school Health Center with 8 stings. Every time I open that hive I feel a little uncertain. I don’t really care about stings; in fact I tend to my bees in bare feet. People ask why I do this… trust. I figure I will wear the veil because they are curious creatures and I don’t want them crawling in my nose, but I also want to signal to them that we are a team. I trust them and they should trust me.

Working with bees smells good, sounds great, tastes amazing and is just a little dangerous (which is totally great for a 15 year old, right?). I have mostly failed with beekeeping. Many of my hives haven’t made it through the winter, queens who didn’t do their job, and I haven’t been able to identify pests to keep the hives safe or I put the mouse guard in too late. Despite all that, it has been just awesome. I have harvested honey, I have spent countless hours hanging out in a field listening to bees and I find them fascinating. So, what else would I be doing if not that?

That is where I am with the bees at the moment. I enjoy working with them and enjoy what they have taught me about honey, building a thriving hive and the power of a community. To me, doing what you are interested in is really important. You can’t be afraid to try new things. People might think what you are doing is crazy or weird, but if you are excited about the possibilities, just go for it. And failing is just as important and interesting as succeeding. All my attempts at beekeeping and caring for chickens having been the amazing.

I have probably failed more than I have succeeded, but what is the alternative? I don’t want to find out. Don’t say no just because you are uncomfortable.

THE FILMMAKER: Michael Piazza is a Boston-based photographer who specializes in food and food producers with an eye that is both honest and strong as well as delicate and subtle. He is the principle photographer for Edible Boston Magazine and is a regular contributor to Yankee and Boston magazines. (from Michael Piazza Photography)

Photo Credit: HappyChickens.com