Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1 Part 2

In my last post I wandered a bit. We are, in our home, big fans of books. George Henderson’s books are so in our wheelhouse I got a little excited and ran off on a wild tangent about my nomination of Henderson’s works into our informal list of agricultural classics. A list that includes Pastured Poultry Profits, Contrary Farmer, Grassfed Cattle, Comeback Farms, Our Farm of Four Acres and Harris on the Pig…and many others. In fact, look for a post or page on this topic soon. Henderson warns the reader against farmers who don’t read (kind of funny, that) and against writers who don’t farm…especially college professors who teach agriculture and have never farmed. And don’t forget legislators who have never farmed. I’ll let him tell you.

Books are useful, they are sometimes our only contact with great minds, but make them your servants and not your masters. To many reading is a drug. This book is of no use whatever unless you put into practice something you learn from it.

An hour spent in serious reading, each night, will give you all the scientific knowledge you require and is probably as much as the human brain can carry.

Skipping ahead a bit:

How seldom do we see the college-trained man applying his knowledge! Every student is taught that liquid manure contains the most valuable plant foods, yet how many store and use it to the best advantage when they start farming? Probably not one in a hundred; yet ninety-nine out of a hundred French or German peasants make provision to return every drop to the land.

And skipping again:

Scientific knowledge has its value, but to go far in farming you must train your mind and body to be the servant of your will.


All this book learnin’ is only a portion of the work required. There is also hands-on. And travel…time for observation. I have spent at least an hour a day for at least 10 years reading a wide variety of farming books and I feel like I am only just beginning. I have only lived on this farm for a little over four years and I can tell you, I’m still at the bottom of a big hill. But we are climbing. I am on what you might consider the self-study track to farming and I can tell you it is an expensive way to learn. But we are learning. Slowly. And we are investing that in our children. If things work out, one or more will take the reins from us soon and they’ll have a running start. With land that is ready, cows that are successful on grass, SOPs, training and experimentation out of the way, they’ll just focus intently on marketing product rather than paying for school. And I’ll just clean the toilets. But right now, it’s an expensive way to go.

Henderson strongly emphasizes that farming should be learned from an efficient farmer…one who has his ducks in a row and is actively looking for help, not some guy who is kind and willing but has no idea what to do with you. Further, he strongly suggests that I, as a farming father, send my kids to other farms to learn and see how they do things. But, again, Henderson is quite precise about what kind of learning is going on.

It should be made quite clear that there is a big difference between learning to be a farm worker and learning to be a farmer. Much of your time will be spent in doing the same work, but in the first case you gain only the skill which will enable you to earn perhaps £250 a year maximum; whereas, if you are a farm student, the farmer shares his knowledge and experience…and there will be no limit to your earning capacity…

And a little later:

I said earlier, you must study the farmer. Find out to what he attributes his success, and also form your own judgement on this. Listen patiently to all he has to say, even if he often repeats himself, and most farmers do, and gather those pearls of wisdom which are handed on from generation to generation.

Listen also to the farm workers. You will find they have three main topics of conversation – beer, women and the Boss. You need not pay much attention to the first two, that is usually dull repetition, but their constant criticisms of the management will bear careful study.

I am quoting Mr. Henderson quite extensively here (maybe even beginning to talk like him (isn’t that lovely?)) and I want to be careful not to relieve you of the desire to buy the book…if you can find it. I also need to stay in the fuzzy bounds of fair use as I quote from his book. There is so much in the passages above that is applicable outside of farming I have to talk about it. My dad sometimes asks me how someone can learn to do what I do for a living. How does somebody get into my real profession…my day job? For those who haven’t met me, I’m sort of a programmer…except I’m not. I can write in modern programming languages and have an elementary understanding of OOP principles but that’s not what I do. Well-written applications are a good thing…and God bless. Success breeds success and at some point, that success becomes a big mess. My job is to bring order to chaos. I act as a kind of steward over data collected by applications making sure it is secure, recoverable and easy to look through. It sounds easy enough but it is sort of like solving abstract puzzles all day with no right answers…and no answer sheet…and no instructor…and you have to use ink. For clarity, if you think I can fix your computer you are mistaken. Julie likes to say that I work on computers the way the UPS guy works on a truck. So, please don’t invite me to a social event then corner me with tech questions.

“Merry Christmas, Grandma!”

“Merry Christmas, Christopher” (kiss) “Can you take a look at my computer. It has been acting up.”

“…well…I was kind of hoping to visit with family tonight…”

“Oh, it will just take you a minute. Here’s a cookie.”

True story. I’m not a tech guy, I just play one on TV. If the anecdote below looks too long to bother with, know that I have been in front of a computer every day for 30 years (before the Google, before the age of AOL, beyond the birth of Microsoft Windows…since the days of the 5 1/4 floppy disk.) and have studied them in detail…with a very specific focus.


Click Image for Source

Click Image for Source

Dad’s question is, “How did I learn to do this?” Well, dad, you bought a Commodore 64 when I was 8. Then you bought a 386 and I took a typing class. Then my sister married a computer genius who did some of the most amazing hacks I have ever seen…and did them 20 years ago (before Google). Then I started taking computers apart, upgrading memory, crashing Mack OS 8 (Windows blue-screened, Mac bombed), building PCs for friends, modifying PC boot menus to preserve upper memory (when memory was still $100/MB) and building networks so friends and I could all play Doom together. Having always been around them, constantly breaking and fixing things, I was very comfortable with the machines…that got me my first job. Networking experience and long hours of study got me my first Microsoft certification in the late ’90’s and launched me to a much better job.

Hard work, dedication, long hours and evenings spent studying and working on extra, side projects not only got me the next job (in the current career) but actually made me pretty good at it. Beyond the hard work I have two experienced mentors who were very patient teachers and to this day tolerate and encourage me (Thanks Mike and Devi!). And I still have to spend spare time reading blogs and books, attending training, teaching training, talking to other professionals and listening to podcasts to stay afloat in my field. In short, it took me 30 years to learn how to do my job…and because tech is always changing the value of my knowledge is always eroding away. Look at the pattern above. There is all kinds of hands-on experience in my youth but that wasn’t enough. So I started reading everything I could put my hands on related to my career path. Then I sought out experienced mentors, kept reading and kept doing…inside and outside of my real job. Paid or not. I kept my head in the game. The thing I did was the thing I did. Compare that to my time as a fast food employee. I was there to get paid. When I was off-duty I wasn’t trying to get better at my job. I was skating with my friends.


That is exactly what Mr. Henderson is talking about. Farmhands are farmhands because they only apply themselves when they are paid to. Farmers own farms because they continue working outside of hours. Bill Bonner talked about this quite a bit in his book Family Fortunes. The fortune founder needs to put in 12 hour days so he or she will have 6 years of experience for every 4 years worked. I work full-time in tech, learn everything I can during the day and during the drive then work full-time on the farm 4-5 hours every day (total of morning and evening work time) and 10-12 hour days on the weekends. And on my vacation time I do consulting work related to my primary vocation. And that, apparently, is how one gets ahead in life. It’s not luck. (Not that we are particularly ahead right now…)

But before I break my arm patting myself on the back for my years of hard work and dedication, I should read more of Mr. Henderson. That man was an animal. Short of the fact that I have nearly 17 consecutive years of marriage to the same woman and four awesome children, he puts me to shame. Not only could he work me under the table, he was thoughtful and efficient about it.

There is no virtue in getting up early unless you make good use of the time it puts at your disposal. How often you hear a farmer say that it is no use his getting up early because his men do not start until seven o’clock. One presumes he has to stop at 5 p.m. for the same reason. Yet is is before and after normal working hours that a farmer can often make the best use of his time; if it is only filling up tractors so that his men go out to work as soon as they arrive. If all the book-keeping, planning and organizing is done, then you can give your whole mind to the work in hand and enjoy a happy day on the land.

And later (hang on to your hat)

On the subject of sleep, it is well to remember that it is the quality and not the quantity that matters.

In some of the happiest years of my life I went to bed at 10 p.m. and got up at 3:30 a.m., seven days a week. Others may manage on less, but I found a tendency to lose weight if I cut my sleep down too far when working sixteen hours a day. One of the great secrets of success in farming is to train yourself to work long hours, with a high output, and without physical strain.

I don’t know if I’m there with Mr. Henderson. In fact, this is further evidence of the gulf between us. I appreciate – even treasure – time spent sleeping. A nap on a Sunday afternoon. The alarm clock set for 5:11 so I can have that satisfied feeling of sleeping late…even though I’m usually looking at the alarm clock at 5:04. But you can’t take over the world if you’re asleep. You also can’t take over the world if you are eating junk food…it takes a lot of energy to stay active all day.

And I find life is less satisfying when Julie is not right beside me…so I have to make time for her. And for the kids. So unlike Mr. Henderson, I include my family in my to-do list. Just the 6 of us…and the dog. We need time to chill. No books. No manure. No feed sacks, firewood or fence. No phone, no email, no text messages. Family takes work too. Long hours of reading aloud, playing board games, putting on puppet shows, teaching guitar, throwing the sport ball and just goofing around. That investment pays off later and with unpredictable results. With all of that going on I’m spread a little thin. Sometimes I wear through at the edges. I can’t imagine how Mr. Henderson did it – and wrote a book about it – but I hope you are enjoying reading him with me. He covered a lot of ground in one chapter.

Let me know your thoughts in comments. Have you found a copy of this book yet?

25 thoughts on “Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1 Part 2

  1. Just bought a copy off ebay for $30 USD, including shipping from Great Britain. More than I would have liked to spend but better than $60 or $75 off amazon! I really enjoyed reading The Farming Ladder so I’m sure this will be great as well. I think this makes the 4 or 5th book I’ve bought on your recommendation. I’ve not been disappointed yet! No pressure…
    Just kidding. If I don’t have a least two books going all the time I feel lost, like I’m missing out on some new information that could be changing my life!

    • I’m glad you are finding interesting recommendations. I’m putting together a book list page and I’m waiting for recommendations from friends, mentors and authors I admire before publishing. But maybe I should just go ahead and publish it and make amendments as they come along.

      I found myself dragging through the end of The Farming Ladder a few days ago…trying to make it last. I reluctantly turn each page of Farmer’s Progress wondering what I have missed. Maybe that’s taking it too far…but I am taking my time with it.

  2. Great points. I’m looking for the books and will probably get “The Farming Ladder” first.

    Your story reminds me of the 10,000 hours I read about in one of Gladwell’s books. We need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to become proficient or even expert at something. I know I’ve spent that much time on a baseball field, but I’m still learning.

    • Right. I have read several making that same point. It’s a life changing concept but, really there is nothing groundbreaking about it. If you want to play guitar you have to play guitar. 30 minutes/day is more effective practice than 200 minutes one day per week. Remove “guitar” and plug in “farming” or “baseball” or whatever. There are things you have to do every day to get big muscles like Thor. There are things you have to do every day to stay married. That last one is tough sometimes. But if you want something you have to do it. You have to pay your dues. Put in your time.

      I guess I never really wanted to be a champion ping-pong player bad enough.

  3. George married late in life, to a girl who basically chose him, rather than the other way around – she was an intern on his farm. He clearly honoured and cherished her, yet he equally clearly put his family second behind the farm. There is no mention of the children helping on the farm, or of family holidays, or even an afternoon at the beach. He relied heavily on first his mother/sister feeding and nurturing interns, and later his wife. He didn’t put the time into the off hours aspect of mentoring them himself. All of which is to say that it worries me slightly just how intense he was about his farming vocation. At first I thought it was just because he was laying it all out in a book, but a chance book I read written by one of his former interns inferred that he was exactly as he portrayed himself in the book. If you do a lot of searching on the interwebs, it is very difficult to come up with much about him beyond his books. Try searching his farm. If it was so successful for so long, shouldn’t there be reference to it? You get glimpses in stock lines occasionally, and a year or so ago, one of his descendants was in a news story – a single parent on hard times, though I don’t think that was the point of the story. His brother Frank seems to have diverged some energy into a mechanics business. My point is that the farm is gone. All that work, drive, passion for efficiency – what did it translate into?
    I think he knew about this shortcoming in his character – he alludes to it when mentioning his wife, and how much he relied on her. And the world needs driven souls to get certain things accomplished. But….
    Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s one of the most important farming authors of the 20th century. He had a lot to give. He was an amazing example of so many aspects of successful farming. I was one of the people harping at you to read his stuff, and I would still be harping if you hadn’t caught the bug. But he didn’t get it all right.
    I mean, was he doing all that farming for his own sake or the sake of his family? Or for the future of farming? Because what’s left? Was it worth it?
    Balance. I think he lacked it. He knew about the importance of balance in so many aspects of farming but I think he didn’t realize it’s importance in all of living.

    • Ah, the librarian chimes in with another book to read.

      I can’t live my life that way. 17 years married to Julie. I would trade the farm for her, not the other way around. No doubt about it.

      But he really nails some creativity and efficiency goals and I think that is worth emulating. I thought I said as much in the post but maybe not clearly enough.

    • That is sad that George threw his life into the farm and his work and now it is gone – the mortality of a farm you never consider once the steward is gone…

      What is the name of the book the former intern wrote? Was it good?

      Did you know that you can ILLO the Farmer’s Progress online from a library in Australia? When I first found this site I thought it would only be available to Aussies. Second time I came across it I thought maybe I can get my brother who lives in Australia to get access for me. Not needed at all. All you have to do is fill in your name and email address. Next screen asks you to become a member – Cdn is about $15, BUT you do not have to join or pay and still get access to the book for 30 days. No advertising, no spam just access to some great old agriculture books that are out of print, including both of George’s books. Warning – you can only borrow an item for 30 days and cannot renew or borrow again later so make sure you have time to read a book before downloading. I am not sure if you can get a book a second time by using a dif name and email address – I never tested that yet. Check it out at:

      • You know, I think you mentioned that once before – I went and had a look but didn’t follow through. Definitely gotta do that. The cool thing about downloadables is you can’t get overdue fines….

        • Well what do you know – the officer in charge of the Soil and Health Library is none other than Steve Solomon – you know, author of Vegetable Gardening West of the Cascades? Wait, you’re all east of the Rockies. Never mind, he’s relatively well known on my side of the divide. Matron likes him. He moved to Tasmania years ago and began all over again. Turns out he founded this particular online library, though it is now run by someone else.
          That library is CHOCK FULL of interesting stuff. I do not have 30 days to spare just now to sit at my computer and read, it will have to wait for winter, sadly, but it’s a comfort to know it’s there. Very, very cool. Thanks, Kari!

          • I did read about Steve – bless him for starting that library! I hear you on saving this for winter – a person could hibernate and get lost in that library for quite a while! It is snowing here in Sask right now and I have 4 ILLO’s that came in all at the same time from my local library so I am still in winter marathon reading mode. Snow forecast for Tue – I think ugh but try to turn that frown upside down and think of getting more reading time! If you think of the name of the book by George’s intern send it on – could be interesting…

  4. No, I think you were clear enough, I think I just picked up on the bits that speak to where my own life is…and don’t we all do that? That’s why, in a year or so, when you re-read George, you’ll find something different in what he has to say. You’re quite right, the point really is that you have to DO this stuff. Do it a lot. That’s how you learn, that’s how you get better at it, that’s how it gets done. And you have to keep doing it.

    The book by the former intern is a nice gentle read, but more like a biography than a farming book, and no longer in print. Faber and Faber in England published many many back to the land books in the late 50’s and up to the early ’70s; this was one of those. I liked it because it described a hill farm in Wales, not far from the region my father was raised in, and she got into breeding Welsh ponies, also dear to my heart, but otherwise not really on the how-to’s of farming. Place of Stones by Janette Ruck.

      • HFS – Except you have to click further to find out where you can buy it, and then it shoots up to 5 pounds plus shipping. It’s not worth that much. If only Henderson’s books were that price…

        K – Pullein-Thompsons – yes! I had a shelf full at one point. I was in fact a pony clubber for a decade. Just had a conversation about these books with another blogger actually – Dark Creek Farm (author of a series of kids books about horses, Nikki Tate).

        Saskatchewan winter – sorry :). But 4 illo’s….wonderful.

        Sorry HFS for hijacking your blog. I think this is called galloping off in all directions…

  5. This one was one of your best. I wish I could write like you do. My wife says I can run my mouth for days (even over power a conversation sometimes….sometimes.) But I not only lack the skills, but also the desire, to learn how to convey my thoughts like you do. You have a gift.

    When it comes to “work” my idea has always been my pay for less hours… I have no problem reading, studying, planning, projecting and implementing. But when it comes to actual physical labor I want to “labor” for the least and most efficient amount of time. And actual prefer to have someone else do it….lol.

    To be honest I think it comes from hours and hours of pointless “busy work” in the military. Whether it’s filling sand bags, digging “fighting positions”, 20 mile humps or “field days” that last 6 hours. To me it always seemed over extended and pointless. But when your dealing with a general IQ pool of around 80 “idle hands are the work of the devil” I guess? Anyways, I truly enjoy my leisure time.

    • LOL Charles. First, thank you for the compliment. I try to average writing 1,000 words/day but lately I have been tending more toward 3,000. Most of that goes unpublished in journals I keep and long, apologetic emails to my wife (lol). I hope that practice will help me get better at writing. It’s pretty unnerving sometimes to hit Publish. If you want to do something you just have to do it.

      Mr. Henderson has quite a bit to say about helping the unemployed and working with veterans in The Farming Ladder. In short, he found they were trained to take orders so they wait for orders. He wanted farm hands who could see the work and take the initiative so he hired and trained teens.

  6. Yeah right! I spent as many hours as you did in front of the Commodore and the 386 and I can barely turn it on. There is more to it than time spent with it, you might have a gift. As for the rest of us, take the cookie and make my computer find the inter web.

    • lol

      Well, my only superpower is finding the longest checkout lane at the grocery store.

      You spent a lot of time on the machine too. But I spent a lot of time on the machine every day. You had a job. I had a desperate desire to make Warcraft work on a 486SX Windows machine with 4MB of memory. It took some serious work to make a menu-based autoexec.bat. Not so much of a gift as finding someone who understood my question and could help me find an answer…then remembering the answer so I could build on that knowledge later. Less about gifts, more about mentors, creativity and sticktoitiveness. More hard-headed than smart sometimes…as you well know.

  7. Thanks for the lead on Contrary Farmer. My wife (of 40 years!) and I are both enjoying it. I would nominate both One Straw Revolution and Agricultural Testament to the list of must-haves for all of us contrarian farmers.

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