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Musician and creator of Farmer Foot Drums, Pete Farmer, wrote an essay on how he created his unique business, and on finding new inspirations in life while revisiting passions of the past.

I keenly recall the kitchen I was standing in with my friend during that summer of 2006 in Bellingham, Washington. We were having one of those conversations that, even at the time, seemed like it was going to be pivotal. At that moment, I was coming off a decade of scraping by as a substitute school teacher, balancing grand adventures and collecting post graduate degrees in the hopes of launching my career as a high school history teacher. I was also a hobby musician, busking on the streets or playing an occasional open mic. My parents might have likened it to panhandling if they saw me, but I think it was more about practicing music out in the open and seeing what took hold. It was also during this time that I was flirting with building a percussion instrument to add to my guitar playing, one that had no predecessors or parameters of design. It was something that lived in my head, and on my bedroom floor being tinkered, cobbled, assembled, dismantled, fixed, tweaked, and cajoled into being for no other reason then I had an itch to create something, and if lucky, maybe help my musical act. Within that year I started learning to play an instrument that was no longer being incubated, but a creation that would transform my life.

The fork in the road being discussed with my friend that summer evening was whether I should do the obvious; apply for a high school teaching job that would put my years of experience and schooling to good use and leverage myself out of the debt created by those choices; or do the complete opposite and create a job from scratch building a newly invented instrument with limited skills, cash, or tools. While I had some good eye coordination and a tactile feel for how things could be worked into being, one of the few tools I owned in that rented unheated garage was a “table saw” that was literally just a Skil Saw bolted upside down inside a pallet on saw horses. It was going to be a mountain to climb, my friend said, but he and I both knew that it would be a noble quest. 

I have always had a buzz of physical energy that creeps around inside me and wants to get out. Luckily, I found running at an early age and it presented a nice match for this restlessness. This repetitive movement of arms and legs interlocked in a rhythmic dance comforted and consumed me for a number of years. As those years wore on, I transitioned from that rhythmic dance for another by picking up more musical instruments, not one at a time, but as many as I could muster playing simultaneously so that I could sound like a full band without having to navigate other people’s ideas of what music should be. When I concluded that night that I should climb that mountain and create this “thing,” it was partially to honor the part of me that needed to find an outlet for my fidgety body and partially to see how far I could get with the concept of selling analog instruments for the one man bands of the world. If I fell off the mountain, I could always go back to teaching.   

My first stop was to find a mentor. Lucky for me I found three right off the bat. One was in the form of a stacked floor-to-ceiling hardware store staffed by knowledgeable folks right next door to the house I was living in at the time. Without that giant library of fasteners and dohickeys, I don’t think I would have been where I am now. The other break I stumbled upon was a man with a heart of gold and a fully outfitted fabrication shop near me. He could help make anything I dreamed up, and as luck would have it, he was also looking for a business pivot after a Chinese company had recently swooped in and undercut his tap handle sales. My other guide owned a music store in downtown Seattle, and was a self described “One Man Band” who completely understood what I was up against. He would often tell me to raid his drum hardware bins or just hand me a roll of gaffer tape—just in case. Between those lucky breaks, steady encouragement from my girlfriend and parents, and a brother who knew how to design websites, I was up and running quicker than I probably should have been given I still knew next to nothing about what this would all take to come together as a successful venture. 

In the intervening years, I designed or invented another half dozen instruments to round out the classic one-man-band gear and stake my claim on the niche: the classic backpack played drum kit, harmonica holders, percussion pedals, etc. Soon enough, customers and word of mouth spread amongst this worldwide tribe of musicians on the internet, and I could start weaning myself off of the part-time teaching gigs once and for all. Also gone were the hair rubber bands, toilet gaskets, and wire spring parts that filled their roles on my rather cheaply sold early incarnations. This period of time crackled with “ah-ha” moments of creation that were born out of everything from taking long walks in the middle of the night to unknot ideas, and requests from customers. Up until this point in my life, I had not envisioned a livelihood for myself that could have offered up these little packages of joy at such a rapid rate. Unlike teaching, this kind of occupation has tangible problems that can be solved with tangible answers. With unmarshalled time to twist and turn incremental improvements through their paces, the solution and subsequent elation would present themselves and offer all the payment I would really need to keep moving things forward.

This autumn marks 17 years in business and our 10th year since moving to Michigan. That year coincided with the difficult birth of our twin girls, the polar vortex, and having my now wife, Kate, working alongside me to help grow the business and establish new musical connections in our area. Some of the newly formed roots in Michigan were planted years prior in the form of talented customers whom we had kept up regular contact with, some were made when they wandered into our booth at the Bliss Music Festival through the years, or the curious minded who heard what we were doing and came to the workshop for a first hand look. One of my favorite customers came down from Petoskey with his wife, having just retired and now affording himself this new freedom to devote himself to playing music.

But the main thrust of making connections here in Northern Michigan has been through creating music with and amongst other adventurous souls. On a few occasions a year we highlight this by hosting “Shop Shows” in our backyard, or on a stage I built into the folds of the shop to celebrate live music amongst friends and acquaintances. If anything, they are great reminders to me and the Farmer crew of our mission to spur music creation and revel in the glow of a community gathered to hear it. I have been slowly turning one of our garage bays into a cozy music studio filled with instruments and contraptions that I’ve collected over the years. I encourage circles of musicians I fall in with to make use of it for recording, rehearsing, or as a comfortable waypost between gigs. The life of a working musician can be a grind and if we are able to ease that life just a little with the instruments we make or the support we can offer locally, payment in smiles is about all I need to balance out the work.

Even after all these years, there is no rest to be had in a job like this. There are always ideas to bring to life and improvements to be made. While I no longer spend the cracks of my life thinking about fasteners or staying up through the night seeing an idea through, the drive to push forward and step into the role of creating something larger than myself is always present. One may think it a poor choice to ship these one-of- a-kind instruments without directions or tutorials, but I believe our customers are a certain type of person who, like me, would rather jump into an adventure full of unknown possibilities than stick to a well navigated path. Like many types of art, I feel some are best experienced on one’s own terms, without interpretations, or boundaries. While the climb has been steep and difficult to navigate, I can only be grateful for where it has brought me. On my better days, I can appreciate that my efforts, when paired with kindred musical spirits who aren’t afraid of a risky internet purchase, have resulted in new music being created, shared, and enjoyed in more backyards, cozy stages, and concert halls.  

Bio: Pete Farmer has been lucky to live life with his wife Kate, and raise three children George, Ramona, and Lucy, overlooking cherry orchards and distant blue waters. He can be found on hikes, lakes, and traveling about in search of things old and new.

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