Farmer’s Progress Chapter 2: The Practical Approach

I continue reading Henderson’s Farmer’s Progress in this post. I’ll quote him only as often as I need to. There is so much to this chapter I can only hit the high points and I have to stay within the vague bounds of fair use. Again, if you like what you see here, pull out all the stops. Go find yourself a copy of this book.


In this chapter Mr. Henderson is giving practical advice on how to gain a foundation of knowledge and experience before taking on a farm of your own. The chapter starts with advice on making a good impression when applying to learn under an established farmer and detail on what to look for when evaluating the farmer for yourself…interviews go both ways. Does the farmer smoke? Is the farm in good repair? Will you be staying with the farmer or with the workers? You need to be in the middle of it to learn the business of farming, not staying with the workers and just learning the work. And you need to be both serious and respectful. In short, shut yer yapper other than to ask questions to clarify your role on the farm. You are here to learn both the business of farming and the practical work.

A farm is very different from a school… A schoolmaster tends to become childish through constantly associating with children – every schoolboy is familiar with the feeble jokes at which he is expected to laugh, for example; but a farmer’s life is too hard for childishness, and he expects a sense of responsibility to be rapidly developed, as indeed it must, when you will soon be working with valuable animals and machinery.

From here he devolves a little into a “back in my day” anecdote but I think he is right. School teachers will give you the same information over and over but a farmer expects you to remember after one telling. On the farm, lives and livelihoods depend on your memory. And you never know when you will need to recall that odd detail you were shown or told some time ago.

…no matter what goes wrong the farm has to go on. If the farmer dies, if war is declared, or the buildings burned down, the cows still have to be milked, the poultry shut up to protect them from foxes, and the hundred and one routine jobs to go on day in and day out.

We don’t get the luxury of sick days. We are constantly working to cross-train each other and the children to do every task on the farm…working to make sure everyone understands the cattle rotation, the pig chores, the chicken work. Handing off responsibility as the kids become old enough to handle it. Replacing our infrastructure with new equipment that more is easily portable so any age can move it. We are not often sick and when we are it is usually the kind of thing we can work through but I do get called away from the farm from time to time. The work continues with or without me.

We spend a lot of time with our children reviewing our personal callings and our family vision. One child wants to be a baker. One wants to be an engineer. One wants to be a church pastor. One hopes to stay home and help us run the farm (we’ll help her run the farm instead). But the overall vision is that the farm is the center. It is home. When all else fails, when the villagers are marching with torches and pitchforks, when the chips are down the farm is a safe haven. If my children (even generations from now) are struggling with addiction, need a fresh start or even just a place to sit quietly and read or write a book…this is the place. Everything else we do from leading the lost to the Lord to building an award-winning, fantastic new geegaw to baking the best cake ever centers here. We produce. We make a positive contribution to our economy, our ecology, our community…we invest in human and intellectual capital, we raise up successive generations of inspired visionaries to carry on the tradition. And this is the place it all starts from. This is home. Even the cemetery is out back. That’s the vision.

How often I have noticed that the best-tempered men are the best workers, that the busy people are the happy ones, because they are going somewhere. A man who is able to employ himself innocently and usefully is never miserable.

It is an undoubted truth that the less one has to do the less time one has to do it in, and the less joy one finds in doing it. Those who have a great deal to do must buckle to, and usually make time in which to do it. People who have seen a lot of life will tell you that success is due less to ability, talent and opportunity than to zeal, concentration and perseverance. Those who achieve happiness through work do at least deserve it.

Have you met me? I’m a very average person. Average height. Average build. Average (or below) looks. I got average grades. My folks are pretty normal folks…well, abnormal in that they stayed married and their children shared a common father. But otherwise, there is nothing special about us. Whatever I have I have because I worked for it. And worked my tail off.

And it has been a lot of fun. I wrote recently about how tired we were after a day of processing chickens. Tired to the bone. I could list for you on one hand the number of places on my body that were not sore. The kids were tired and fussy. But during the actual work we were joking and playing around. Everybody was having fun. The weather was beautiful and the youngest kept asking “how many birds are left?” not so she could be done working but because we always do the chicken dance when the last chicken is in the kill cone.

But it is work and it does require perseverance. We have had to find ways to inspire our children and each other. “Julie, we just have to do this. After today we’ll be done. We can do it. You can do it. Our customers will be happy, we’ll replenish our depleted farm account and we’ll keep things moving forward. And I’ll make dinner. OK?”

For a couple of years we were trying to swim or skate on the pond every month of the year. That has since tapered off but there have been some cold days of swimming. We stand at the edge of the pond with our shoes off daring each other to go first. Punching each other in the arm. “Go ahead! Prove you are tough!” Somebody will finally just take the plunge off of the dock, come up screaming, run for a towel and the rest of us are shamed into at least going knee-deep. Then we all come home shivering with blue lips to stand around the fire and drink hot cocoa. This may not make sense to the uninitiated but sometimes the whole farm works that way. Sometimes we have to goad each other into it. “OK Julie. The hail has stopped and the lightening seems to have abated. Put on your raincoat and let’s go check the chickens. We also need to see if the creek is coming out. You go first. No, seriously. I’m right behind you. I mean it this time. Really. No, really.” or “Julie, it’s 4:30. We have to get the eggs packed for today’s orders but the sink is full of dishes. Before I go to work we need to move the cows, move the chicken tractors, open the nest boxes, water everything, put bedding down for the pigs and I’ll need to shower while you pack my lunch. But the house feels cold. You go light the fire while I lay here a moment longer. Come on. I did it last week. It’s your turn again…again. Come on Julie. Those cows are counting on you.”


Swimming 4/21/14

We have so much to do each morning before I can go to work. This morning my oldest and I knocked out all the chores in a record 13 minutes while Julie finished packing the egg orders for today. Are we happy? Well, it’s certainly hard work. And we somehow have time to get it all done. My worst days are always the days with little work to do. I very quickly go stir crazy. I don’t like to sit around. Somehow it is easier for me to do my reading while walking to and from a chore on the farm. It is easier for me to digest what I have read while trying to make a dead tree fall a certain direction or stack the hay wagon so it is all tied in and won’t fall off on a slope. Years ago dad ran a bulldozer with a broken foot. At the same time I ran a chainsaw with a broken wrist. It’s hard for us to just sit around. And no amount of sneezing or coughing can keep me in from the field. Funakoshi wrote that he worked through illness and fever by practicing karate forms until he sweated it out. I guess we do the same. I can sustain a high heart rate doing my farm chores. It doesn’t take long to break a sweat and cough out whatever needs to be coughed out. Seems better to me than shivering under a blanket watching old episodes of Newhart on TV (but I do enjoy watching Newhart).

Back to the book, Mr. Henderson goes on to extol the virtues of sound nutrition and regular habits. We grow an ever-increasing portion of our food…food of a higher quality than we could find elsewhere.

If you ever feel overtired it is probably due to error in diet rather than to hard work or long hours.

We probably should not have had the banana bread muffins on Thursday. We also ate a lot of junk on Easter Sunday leaving me feeling lazy. Mr. Henderson includes this little poem that sums the idea up nicely:

Better to hunt in fields, for health unbought,
Than fee the doctor for a nouseous draught.
The wise, for cure, on exercise depend,
God never made his work, for man to mend.

Remember what I wrote about checking livestock when a raging storm weakens? That, as Mr. Henderson points out, is one of the times you should remember that little poem. Or when checking the cows in an ice storm. He then goes on to talk about the importance of working efficiently. If you allot an hour of time to cleaning a stall but finish early, apply your extra time toward another, smaller task. The ultimate goal is to free up your schedule so you can spend more time observing your stock and the weather.

The rest of the chapter is focused on making yourself the best farm hand you can be as you turn yourself, slowly, into the best farmer you can be. I’m going to share a couple of quotes that affect me personally.

Hundreds of workers have become farmers, but getting a little land, keeping a few pigs or poultry, and reinvesting the profits in more stock, while continuing to work for another. It may require a special effort to do this before and after a full day’s work elsewhere, but the knowledge and experience thus gained will better equip a man to be a farmer than a degree in agriculture, however well merited.

That pretty much sums it up for me, though my day job does not reinforce my ongoing farming education. He goes on to share a story of a young man who worked and saved and bought a small farm. Then he worked and saved again, bought larger and, ultimately owned a large farm free and clear at the age of 30. He was young, worked hard, saved every penny and put in his time learning on a successful farm. He was able to capitalize on that education in combination with hard work to make a success of himself. Contrast that to this:

…many who wish to enter the farming industry later in life….Their way is difficult indeed. If they bring capital, they often spend a lot in bitter experience, for lack of knowledge. Without capital they often find the way too hard, with their preconceived notions of farming and high standards of living. They often think they cannot afford to spend the time to learn the trade; for them there comes a rude awakening when it is too late.

Well, every bit of that hurts. Difficult indeed. Bitter experience indeed. Lack of knowledge indeed. High standards of living…well, not so much. We are pretty content. Well, I say that but the money all gets spent somehow. I am, however, spending the time to learn the trade. I observe. I read. I discuss. I question. I share. Hopefully, the education I am paying for now is being absorbed by my children and will launch them into their own successes.

Mr. Henderson ends the chapter with this word of encouragement:

But for all who would enter farming, and I know of no easy way, it is necessary to be sure in their own minds what they want to achieve, to be prepared to pay the price in time, labour and study to achieve it, and to be satisfied with it as their ultimate aim and goal.

I have only brushed the high points of this chapter. I know this book is hard to find but I really think it is worth the effort involved. I left so much out of this chapter it is almost shameful. But that last sentence sums things up nicely. It ain’t easy. Work hard, study and find your satisfaction in the work. I used to work for a man named Norm who owned and ran a manufacturing plant in a nearby town. I asked Norm, in a personal conversation, what he liked to do for fun. He, being of few words, said, “I own a bass boat but have never used it.” I chewed on that statement for 10 years before I really understood what he said. Norm can do anything he wants to do with his time. He even has a bass boat. He chooses to make stuff out of metal for fun.

After seeking success in life as a husband and a father, I want to look at my cows. I am willing to do whatever I have to do to make that happen. I don’t even need to own an unused bass boat.

5 thoughts on “Farmer’s Progress Chapter 2: The Practical Approach

  1. “After seeking success in life as a husband and a father, I want to look at my cows. I am willing to do whatever I have to do to make that happen. I don’t even need to own an unused bass boat.”


    • Norm is a real treasure and he is one of several of the same generation of local business owners who have employed and mentored me over the years. When I was a kid I really, really screwed a couple of things up working for Norm. He didn’t yell. He didn’t even look angry. He made the issue clear, fixed the problem and moved on. Great guy.

  2. I followed you here from Throwback at Trapper Creek and really enjoyed this post (not to mention found yet another book I *need* to buy!). My husband and I are in the transition stages of moving into part-time (as in, before/after ‘regular’ job) farming. We have alfalfa and grass hay going this year and hope to get cattle going by next. One of the major driving forces for us is exactly what you said about this being the best place for your children. We have noticed such a difference in children raised on farm living and those not. This is a generalization, of course, but in so many farm children we find a calmness, a sense of purpose. When there is always work to be done, spending hours on video games and/or 500 texts a month just doesn’t happen. And work that’s done together, as a family, cannot be beat for developing that family’s strength — both physically and emotionally. Not to mention the incredible value of everyone being outdoors more. Farming kids are the ones who lower my panic level about the next generation taking over — they can do it!

    Sorry ’bout this book. It’s an occupational hazard when you’re a writing teacher (guilty). Thanks again for a blog I’ll return to often!


    • Thank you for the comment Kristin. It is interesting to look at the hiring practices of several local companies and their preference for farm kids.

      I don’t know what it was but we didn’t fit in the suburbs. Not at all. I don’t think it’s the farm that makes the difference. It’s the family culture. The farm just gives us wings. We think we would have still been “us” in town, just less so…if that makes sense.

      Julie and I need pedometers. I was looking at buying a pair of Basis fitness trackers for us to wear. We each cover the farm on foot several times each day. The kids run, play, explore, fish, build, climb, jump and dig and go to bed on time without complaint. It would be interesting to see what our normal activity and sleep patterns are and to map that over time. But the activity and regular sleep are only made possible by diet…and I need to work on that. A tired Chris is a weak-willed Chris…and with all the snacks around Easter, Chris has been weak…which is hurting my sleep…which is hurting my work…and spiraling me toward snacks again.

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