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.
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?