Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1, Part 1

If you are just here for pretty pictures of cows, cats and pigs I’m afraid this isn’t the post for you. Well, maybe just one for clicks.


On the other hand, if you are here to learn something cool, and if you haven’t yet, go to Amazon and order yourself a copy or three of The Farming Ladder. (Go ahead. Click the link. I live in The People’s Republic of Illinois so Amazon won’t pay me for linking to them.) Odds are you’ll have a tough time finding a copy of the second book Henderson wrote, Farmer’s Progress. It is out of print and isn’t currently available anywhere unless you find a copy used somewhere (I currently see one for $63 and one for $80). I paid through the nose for my copy…and it was well worth it. I would like to share a little of it with you.

Our country suffers sadly, and in many ways, from its amateur farmers, men who may have brought capital, but nothing else, into the industry. A whole mass of agricultural legislation could have been avoided by a simple Act requiring that a prospective tenant or occupier of an agricultural holding should bring proof that he had served his time, in service or apprenticeship, under an experienced and capable farmer. We take it that no man may hold command of a vessel carrying goods to and from our shores without a master’s ticket, which cannot be acquired in less than twelve years’ service at sea. Why, then, do we let loose any ex-hairdresser or haberdasher, who may have money to burn, on our priceless heritage, the soil? But take heart from this, there is an opportunity in every difficulty. They are often the people to follow in farming. One shrewd farmer, born on the farm where I now live, had one golden rule, ‘Always take over a farm from a gentleman farmer, always give up a farm to a gentleman farmer.’ He had twenty-two farms in his time, started with practically nothing and left over £40,000 in a time when that was a lot of money. You can often get in very cheaply when an amateur farmer is anxious to get out. You can sell out very well when the hobby farmer is keen to get in. It is such tips as this, scattered throughout the book, which give such excellent value for the modest sum my philanthropically-minded publishers charge for it!

I’m not in favor of ongoing licensing from government agencies but he kind of makes a point. Then backs it up. Then goes on full attack against me personally from his vantage point 65 years ago. I have worked for and with a number of farmers but I’m a city kid and most of what I think I know I learned from reading books. Worse, I have a city job to support my farming hobby. (To be fair, Mr. Henderson repeatedly says a farmer should take advantage of every opportunity to make a little money. He wrote articles for travel magazines while on vacation. So maybe he wouldn’t be against me subsidizing my farm with off-farm income…in the early stages anyway.) If you saw this year’s taxes you would know that our farm is a losing venture…and we’re losing badly…primarily because we are making large infrastructure investments. How much more leisure time would I have if we had just stayed in the suburbs?

But we weren’t happy there. And, though we work hard (and stay skinny), we are happy. The kids can run and explore and learn. 60 acres of playground. Houses, barns, livestock. Reproduction. Birth. Life. Death. Finance. Budgeting. Planning. No holds barred. No questions off-limits.

But it’s more than just our freedom. There’s a longing that is satisfied here. Even when we feel somewhat shackled down it feels….right. The work is rewarding and sometimes even fun. Like I’m doing my part to make the world a better place. I’ll let Mr. Henderson take the microphone for a minute (emphasis mine):

…for throughout his life a farmer is always having to forgo his personal pleasures for the sake of his farm. If you are well suited to the life you will seldom miss them; for the enjoyment of living comes from having a purpose in life, and amusements and so-called pleasure are merely the means by which many people escape for a few hours from the fact that they have no aim or purpose in life. It is true that some farmers play golf, hunt and shoot, but it is very seldom done by men who have made their own way in the industry. They are too happy and absorved in their work – they live to farm, while the others farm to live.

But even in farming you need not make a martyr of yourself. Work is sometimes to be enjoyed; and all around you are the wonders of nature, ready to make the world a perpetual source of interest and delight.

Chew on that.

He goes on to say that you, as a productive farmer, will notice things, learn things and invent things and will teach them and share them with others. You know, like with a blog.

This is a fascinating and life-changing book! I have said that before about other books. In fact, I say that quite frequently. And I’m not alone:

Some years ago Julie, Dad and I read Les Miserables. I was forever changed. Julius Caesar? Forever changed. The Virginian? Forever changed. In some cases I fought and clawed my way through books but most of the time I just read as fast as I could turn the pages. I would hate to guess how many books I have read in the last 10 years. But I would point to one that made them all more meaningful. One with a strange title: How to Read a Book. Adler showed us the difference between reading for entertainment, reading for information and reading for enlightenment and worked with other professors to put together a collection (The Great Books of the Western World) with the following criteria:

  • a book must be relevant to contemporary issues, and not only important in its historical context
  • it must reward rereading
  • and it must be a part of “the great conversation about the great ideas”

Though Adler may find the subject matter unimportant, the Farming Ladder and Farmer’s Progress are both worthy of the kind of study required by Adler…to really grok the author, to understand him…to wrestle with his ideas. They are certainly relevant to modern agriculture, they are certainly worth rereading. And if food isn’t a great idea, I don’t know what is.

George Henderson has written a couple of real agricultural classics. I hope to discuss Farmer’s Progress as George and I wrestle it out. So far in Chapter 1 George has taken me to task. My real regret is that I didn’t read them sooner. Do yourself a favor. Go find copies of each and read them now. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200…er £200.

I’ll continue with chapter one in my next post. Mr. Henderson takes on agricultural colleges and it isn’t pretty.

9 thoughts on “Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1, Part 1

  1. Good thoughts.I will have to try and find this book. We are in the midst of a family change and moving into farming of sorts. More subsistence than profit. The idea of for profit farming has been tempered the more we read. We are too old as per Salatin, but still have the enthusiasm. So growing food for us and slowly branching out is our plan, even bartering our work and money with a young farmer to expand their efforts. We will get knowledge along the way.

    This book seems another we will have to read.


    • You plant corn to grow more corn. If your corn doesn’t yield you have done something wrong. Gardening at any scale is all about increase. Surplus. Profit. Taking something of lesser value (seeds, manure, water, time) and turning them into an abundance of greater value (salsa!). Even if you don’t convert that surplus to Washingtons, Harrisons or Benjamins.

      You aren’t too old. You just need to partner with youth (as do I). That’s different that being defeated by time.

  2. I’m envious – I have not read Farmer’s Progress, and as you say, getting hold of a copy for a reasonable sum is a bit tricky. Glad I managed to acquire a copy of Farming Ladder years ago.

    “The enjoyment of living comes from having a purpose in life”. Amen to that.

    I don’t think George would be adverse to someone having a day job and farming around that – I think what he’s against is waste – of effort, time, money, soil, fertility, genetics, materials.

  3. Had George’s informal decree that farmers should have proof of qualified agricultural experience been enforced in the early 1900’s, it may have changed Canadian history of one of the largest group settlements in 1903 – the Barr Colonist.

    The Cdn gov’t wanted EXPERIENCED farmers to settle and prove up on 160 acres on the Cdn Prairies. A previous Presbyterian minister Rev Barr started a campaign of “Canada for the British”. In my much younger years I worked at the Barr Colony museum and will summarize their story with excerpts from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

    “But in Britain, there were thousands of people who wanted to start a new life: soldiers home from the Boer War; farmers unable to own the land they worked; butchers and bank clerks facing a lifetime empty of adventure. What better place to start anew than the senior Dominion of the British Empire? “

    …“But Barr was in charge when, on March 31, 1903, the S.S. Lake Manitoba sailed from Liverpool. The former troop ship had been built to carry 700 soldiers; now 1960 men, women and children crammed themselves on board with an enormous amount of luggage including sewing machines, pianos, china, carpets and whatever else green Englishmen deemed necessary for survival
    And green they were. Though Barr had promised that the majority of his colonists would be farmers, only about 400 really were. The rest were townsfolk: warehousemen, dressmakers, jewellers, furnacemen, caterers. When they left the train that had brought them across the country from the docks of Saint John to the shacks of Saskatoon, many of them had never driven a horse let alone harnessed one to a plow.
    Their transformation into farmers began on the 320-kilometre” (200 miles) “trek north and west to colony headquarters. They learned to pitch tents, dig for potable water, cook bannock over a campfire, battle mosquitoes and rescue oxen and horses from the mire of one slough after another. Steeply sided creek beds and raging prairie fires did not stop them. Through scarlet fever, diarrhea and the birth of babies – the All-British Colony persevered.“
    Most of these inexperienced farmers stayed with farming and proved up their homestead. They muddled through and learned by doing along with the educational phamphlets and few books that people brought over with them. Sadly I think in this day and age it is hard to get an apprenticeship position with a small farmer for the length of time George would be satisfied with and I think quite a few current successful and developing small farmers would not have begun faced with this requirement. Next best thing– all hail great books/blogs/mentors – “scientia potentia est” (latin for knowledge is power)! I think George would be much happier in this day to see small farmers read his books and others to gain the knowledge and get started rather than see more land be added to a traditional mono culture GMO chemical dependent farm. That’s my Book Club feedback – lol !

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