Farmer’s Progress: Chapter 3 Ways and Means

This chapter is titled Ways and Means. The first chapter was all about getting yourself ready physically and mentally to become a farmer. The second chapter gave solid, practical steps for gaining your training and experience. In chapter 3, Mr. Henderson talks about the nuts and bolts…the finances, the land, the livestock. I might suggest he uses too many words to describe too few ideas – a crime I am guilty of myself – but 30 pages is a lot for me to cut through in a summary post. Worse, the chapter meanders across an evolving theme, covering many of the same points repeatedly but with changing emphasis. This may be a bit of a jumbled post but I am writing about a decidedly non-linear chapter. I’m going to attempt to break up his notes into a few distinct topics that I find particularly interesting but I’m really not able to do this chapter justice. You’ll just have to find a copy of Farmer’s Progress for yourself.

FarmersProgress

Remember as you read both of these books that Mr. Henderson’s goal is to maintain a heavily stocked diversified farm that will weather any storm. You will be frugal in good times, persistent in hard times, always looking for the opportunity and always increasing soil fertility to build a brighter tomorrow. This chapter is all about finding and buying a place to call your own.

Buying a Farm:

Mr. Henderson kicks things off by suggesting a monetary figure for establishing a farm including land and livestock acquisition, how to buy a farm and why a small farm is better than a large farm for you and for everybody. The number is not small and he takes another stab at me by saying:

No wonder the ex-bookmakers, butchers and bakers think they can buy their way into farming.

Contrast that to an established, successful farmer setting up his children for success:

I know one farmer who has never farmed more than 100 acres, yet his four sons, between them, have taken over 1,000 acres in recent years, and are all farming successfully.

The home farm was heavily stocked, so that when another farm was taken a whole generation of pigs, calves and lambs could be spared. The young farmer would live cheaply, possibly still at home; he would be helped by his brothers, so that there would be no heavy outgoings on labour. Implements would be shared, and in a comparatively short time the new farm would be well established, and yet another son could be started off.

This is not unlike the arrangement briefly described in the book Better Off. The writer spent a year living on a farm rented from an Amish farmer…a farm the farmer had purchased for one of his children. Gordon Hazard also wrote of something similar, buying each of his children a small farm and setting them up raising stockers early on in their adulthood. Henderson suggests that family farms are persistent farms. Continual reinvestment of labor and capital keep the wheels greased. Also, as Bill Bonner pointed out in Family Fortunes, a lifetime spent living and working in one place build an emotional bond with the place itself. More on this in a bit.

Government Experts and Office Workers:

Mr. Henderson rails repeatedly against his own country’s alphabet soup agencies and the representatives who work for them. In short, anybody who knows anything about farming wouldn’t be sitting at a desk making a small portion of the income he could earn from a farm (that may not be true anymore). Here is the most colorful version of that repeated sentiment:

The man in agriculture who tells you he does not want to farm is like the child who says he does not want to play; he is either sick or bitter against the others who do. It is easy to dismiss the officials with a shrug of the shoulders, as many farmers do; but I at least do care, and would rather see them happily and usefully employed in farming.

I think that pretty well covers the topic, though the author feels it necessary to poke at that wound several more times, just as he continues to poke at farmers who buy their way in late in life. Above all he extols the virtues of hard work as he disparages the desk job.

…knowing how much better [farm labor] has been than lounging in too great comfort, and utter boredom, in some city office.

Well, now. I have a few things to say about that. In no way do I wish to imply that I am too comfortable at my desk. Nor do I wish to imply that I am bored. Not at all. But there are any number of desk-bound jobs that I don’t think I would be willing to do at any price…jobs I have seen my lovely bride suffer through.

There are days it is absolute torture to endure parking my tookus in a chair knowing how much work still needs to be done at home but then there are the months of July, August and September. July temps in Oxford don’t get much above 70. July temps here don’t get much below 90. Maybe I’m just a wimp but I like me some comfort in the heat of the day.

Finding a Spouse:

He goes on to talk about the level of sacrifices necessary in farming. Look, anything you do comes at the expense of something else. You can’t do it all. If you are in the barn keeping watch over an expectant ewe, you can’t be meeting that special someone…unless they wander into your barn by accident. Those first few years are hard…working to establish the farm and get things rolling. But a wife, in Henderson’s estimation is an economic necessity. So how does one go about it?

My experience of life has taught me that if you dedicate yourself to some worth-while objective, however humble, the Almighty, in His infinite wisdom and in His own good time, provides all that is requisite and necessary for the fulfilment [sic] of that purpose. If a man has faith in the land and himself, he will appeal to some good woman, able to share his ideals and be the mother of his children; and there is probably no greater pleasure on a farm than in rearing fine, healthy children. And what better place could you find in which to rear them?

If you have read my blog for any length of time at all you have probably read some sappy declaration of love for Julie. I love her. A lot. My love for her has nothing to do with her economic contribution though she most certainly does contribute to the family economy. In fact, her contribution may be greater than my own…if you measure what it would cost for me to adopt 4 children, provide care and education for them, prepare meals, keep up with the housework AND keep the farm running while I am away. While I do value her economic contribution that’s not why I stay married to her. Marriage can be really, really hard. I have been chasing Julie in earnest since 1994 and married since 1997. I don’t know why I waited so long to marry her! And I don’t say that thinking, “Gosh, if we would have gotten married when we were 17 we could have saved a lot of money.” I love Julie for reasons I don’t fully understand. And I can’t begin to tell you what the key to a successful marriage is…short of these two rules:

  • Make a daily decision to love each other.
  • Don’t go to bed angry. Stay up and fight!

But I am certain I didn’t marry Julie because it made economic sense. Heck, the rock on her finger doesn’t even make economic sense. But it’s not about making sense is it? It’s about growing. And we have grown. Changed. I am a better human because of Julie. And, really, our finances are only useful in developing our intellectual and human capital…because, after a point, do you really need more stuff? Can you ever know enough? Are you ever fully developed as a person? Can that development be taxed? Julie, over the course of the last 17 years, has worked to turn a boy into a man as she also leaves childhood behind. The value of our marriage is not economic. The value of our relationship is simply the becoming.

Mr. Henderson makes light of this subject later on in the chapter. First he illustrates the difference between a boss and a landlord comparing the employee’s feeling of drudgery and hopelessness to the “sturdy independence” of the man in business for himself…though the situation is similar either way. Then he delivers this absolute gem:

If you want a woman to look after your house, in which are provided all the labour-saving devices, and arrange for short hours, light work, regular holidays and good pay – that is domestic service, and no one will do it. On the other hand, if you ask some woman to share your life, in an awkward and inconvenient old farmhouse, in which there will be no labour-saving devices, and you will also want her to look after the poultry, help milk the cows, do the farm books, breed and rear your children, and perhaps manage on very little money – then, by the alchemy of love, that which would be drudgery anywhere else becomes fulfilment.

Milking

I certainly agree that the man who can keep his head in the game and is willing to get up in the morning and to work hard all day to make the world a better place (even by a small amount) is an ideal I admire. I don’t understand Julie at all but it seems she appreciates that ideal as well. And I hope my daughters snag a fella who shows a measure of self-assurance and certainty that sowing leads to reaping and that my sons find wives who will encourage and enhance those attributes in them.

He sums up this portion of the chapter simply enough.

…when you find the right farm, take it. When you find the right girl, marry her.

I did and I did. Thank God.

The Value of Hard Work:

Mr. Henderson has much more to say about hard work.

Hard work – and liking it – is said to be an old fashioned recipe for happiness…

According to our family cookbook (being republished soon (contact mom (Caretaker) if you are interested in a copy)) Uncle Jack attributes a similar quote to grandpa Tom. This is important to me because I deal with depression and it can get pretty gritty. There are things I can do to manage the intensity of my funk varying from diet to light cycles to just plain old work. To put a fine point on it, if I want to really hate myself all I have to do is sit inside for a couple of days drinking soda and eating junk food (like when I do consulting in Florida). To counter that feeling I work and clean up my diet. I have always found great satisfaction in running a chainsaw for hours on end. As a pathetic, rejected and hurt teen, at the ridiculous bitter end of an immature dating relationship, I busied myself cutting firewood every spare moment. My grades were never better. Because of the noise I can truly be alone. Because of the danger I have to focus on the work…not my emotional state or the nonsense that results from it. It’s hard work. It’s outdoors. In the winter I can keep a little fire burning nearby for warmth. And I find the work and the fire do more than just warm my body. It warms my spirits. I come in from a day of work exhausted and dirty. I shower to get the grime off and find that the emotional weight is gone too. I did something useful with my day and have a pile of logs or firewood or some reclaimed ground to show for it. I sleep well. The work and rest make the whole world seem different when, really, it is only my perception of self that has changed. I often write that we were happy in the suburbs but living out here makes us more “us” and that’s what I’m talking about. Suburban neighbors quickly tire of hearing the chainsaw or table saw running for days on end…or of watching me jog past their house carrying a log on my shoulder (true story). I had a cop neighbor who mowed his grass almost every day to relieve work stress. I have had a couple of those actually. They might have been happier with a few cows to move.

Back to the book, he goes on to say that hard work, though good, is not a recipe for material success. Though he doesn’t say it plainly, there is also an element of risk and skill involved. There are any number of things you can spin your wheels doing on the farm showing the fallacy of Adam Smith’s Labor Theory of Value. It’s not the amount of work that goes into something that gives its value. Value is derived from the marginal utility of the good. Success comes not from keeping busy, it comes from fulfilling a need. And working on a farm is not the same as putting your fortune on the line to own a farm as any number of farm workers will tell you…some of whom are much better off, financially, than the farmers they work for. Mr. Henderson details a farmer who had made a success of himself in the face of disaster several times over…a description of an English Job in many ways including the loss of his young family. But the man continued working out of spite and without joy.

He was a highly skilled craftsman with a high output of work, who could turn his hand to anything on the land, yet had no illusions about farming, found little pleasure in it, and was determined that his children should not follow him. Life had been too hard; he could only take a grim satisfaction in beating it, and had not the confidence which begins with hope and is strengthened with experience, and which I believe to be the true farming philosophy.

I’ll end this topic by repeating a quote Mr. Henderson included in his book from an unknown source.

To-day only two kinds of people settle happily in the country – those that know no better and those that know best. Only the latter will remain.

Work is Good but it’s Not Enough:

It is that marriage of enjoying the work, taking calculated risks and working to increase skill that make material success possible. When I was a kid I watched my parents fret and pray as they considered buying their farm. They consulted any number of advisers, bankers and elders. It was a scary time. Nobody wanted farmland…so it was on sale at clearance prices. Mayer Rothschild said to “Buy when there is blood in the streets.” That’s sound advice (even if Rothschild never really said it) but it would be a shame to add your own blood to the gutter. Julie and I took on debt to buy our small farm. I could tell you all about stress but instead I’ll let Mr. Henderson put you slightly at ease.

There are farmers who say ‘Never buy bricks and mortar,’ but they never go far in farming. The most valuable land is that which a farmer occupies himself, but few farmers who have bought land over the last five or even fifty years could fail to sell out at a substantial profit to-day. A lot of sympathy was given farmers who had to buy their farms at the inflated prices after the first world war; if they held on, those farms became even more valuable in recent years. On the other hand, many tenant farmers have paid away far more than freehold value of their farms in rent, and are no nearer owning them, while they have never had the incentive of the owner-occupier to bring about improvements which increase the earning capacity of the farm.

From time to time you’ll have to regroup and lick your wounds and you should always make an effort to be attentive to those around you and learning from their mistakes as well. But that’s life. And you can’t let the bad things in life steal your joy or let the fear of them steal your future. Lots of people go broke farming. Folks go broke in any business. Henderson is suggesting that you’ll give better care for something you own than something you can pay to use and can be easily separated from. What are you going to plant on rented ground: corn or an apple orchard? To help with ownership he says by being willing to do that little something extra…working for another farmer to expand your knowledge, taking a little extra time to find a secure footing, hustling a little more in the evenings instead of going down to the pub…you are sowing more seeds than you would otherwise, leading to a bigger harvest in the future.

When to Buy:

Maybe Mr. Rothschild is wrong. Maybe we don’t need blood in the streets before we can buy. Mr. Henderson addresses this topic by discussing the right time to buy a farm. Should you wait until it is cheap to start but hard to make money or when the money is flowing but the price is high?

The answer is to start when the opportunity occurs and you are qualified to do so, both by experience and capital.

That answer suits me. I paid nearly 10x what my father paid for the land next door. Granted, my property came with a few improvements (that need to be improved) but still…I don’t earn 10x what my father earned! We moved to the farm to rent the farmhouse when grandma moved to assisted living. We didn’t unpack for at least a year thinking we would find something closer to civilization. But, like Bono, we still haven’t found what we were looking for. We rented and thought, heck, we have a big yard. Let’s get started. So we got a few layers. Then 150 broilers. Then a goat. Then we went ahead and bought 20 acres…then another 40. We had a special situation where we could buy segments of the farm but believe me, price was not negotiable…in large part because I was more concerned with family thinking I was trying to rip off my grandmother than I was with the possibility of defaulting on a loan. I still stand by that position. So, in a way, we unwittingly followed Henderson’s suggestion. We had an opportunity. We gained experience, we saved and were soon qualified to follow through. And now, continuing the theme,  we work to improve the land for the next farmer.

Is this farm perfect? No. It’s far from civilization and covered in thorny things, cow paths and erosion. It is in a tax-hungry state. But it has one shining attribute that more than makes up for any shortcomings. This farm is next to my parents’ farm. Remember earlier where he discusses farm families taking on more land by keeping their home place heavily stocked and sharing equipment? Well, dad and I share a lot of resources. He has horses, I have the stalls and the bedding. He has the tractor I have the shed space. He has the baler, I bring the labor. I hope nobody is getting a favor here, we can both hold our heads up. But even beyond the equipment, my parents are here for me. A couple of years ago when the plucker failed and the cows escaped and ran down the road and we were still packaging birds up at 2 in the morning dad was there with us the whole time. Just as I can’t place an economic value on Julie I also can’t place an economic value on the emotional support I receive from my parents. They don’t always understand why I do what I do but they have my back. And I support their computers…even if reluctantly.

But OK. Not everybody has parents anymore. Or has parents who live on a farm. Or has parents who would live on a farm. Mr. Henderson’s answers stands. Buy when you are ready. You will never find the perfect place at the perfect price at the perfect time. It’s up to you to make it work. He does, however, offer this bit of caution:

…you do want a farm on which you can visualize spending your whole life; for if as a young man or woman you are going to spend the best years of your strength on it, you will need to plan and organize it in such a way that it will provide for you, if necessary, when you are no longer physically able to achieve results in a way that was possible in earlier years.

I hate to admit how much Julie and I can relate to that. I can feel that capacity for work slipping away and Julie is slightly more delicate than she was a decade ago. Maybe it’s not the years. Maybe it’s the accumulation of damage…”the mileage” as Indiana Jones said. But it’s real. We need to be serious about establishing zones of productivity around the house…and probably not this house. “…no longer physically able to achieve results…” Oh, golly.

Small Farms Feed the World:

Remember that idea I have of owning a single herd of 5,000 cattle? That will have to happen sooner rather than later but before it can happen at all I have to comprehend what Mr. Henderson has to say about it. He goes to considerable length to disabuse the reader of the notion that large farms are more efficient. The main point he makes here is that large farms require more capital outlay to properly stock them. And large herds and flocks require more manpower. And, really, that manpower could be more efficiently applied on a smaller farm…one with a smaller initial capital outlay. In fact, smaller areas run independently by more farmers leads to increased productivity per acre. There is nothing groundbreaking in this idea. This kind of thinking is all the rage with the young permaculturists today. You don’t need more land per permaculturist, you need more permaculturists for the land. The way to scale up is to reproduce your system with another farmer on similar ground. Heck, I should just get out of Mr. Henderson’s way here.

It has always been deemed a worthy aim to grow two blades of grass and two ears of corn where only one grew before, and that will be achieved if two farmers flourish where only one lived before.

Nearly a third of the chapter is given to his argument that smaller farms are not only more productive but, also, more profitable. My dream herd of 5,000 cows spread across 15,000 acres in Arkansas or Oklahoma would be nice but how much more could I handle? Would I have time in my day to manage the cattle and a flock of chickens to follow them? A flock of 30,000 chickens? A flock of 30,000 chickens laying 24,000 eggs every day? Eggs that have to be washed, sorted, packed and sold? Layers that need to be aged out, replaced and turned into cat food or soup that has to be sold. What about pigs? I mean, we’re talking a diversified farm here. Pigs would have to be included. Maybe sheep. Maybe game animals and leased hunting ground. Maybe some crop land too. Should that 15,000 acres be divided between 150 employees to help manage it? Earlier in the chapter Mr. Henderson was talking about the difference in work ethic between an owner and an employee or the difference between a hired housekeeper and a wife. Same thing applies. Should that imaginary 15,000 acres be divided into 150 smaller plots and rented or leased or otherwise made available to 150 independent farmers instead of 150 employees?

What would 150 independent farmers envision for their own land? Look, man, all I have time to do is move cows. I can’t propagate, plant and prune trees and harvest fruit, nuts and berries…let alone process, can or otherwise prepare them for sale. I can’t grow an herb garden. I can’t buy logs from my neighbors to saw. I can’t turn that lumber into useful products. I can only move cows at this scale. No eggs. No pigs. No dairy. No goats. No sheep. No wheat. No art or poetry. No guiding hunters. Just me and a camper and a big ol’ herd of moo cows. I can only do so much in a day but I can stack many smaller enterprises on a smaller farm which will help to insulate me from a failure in any one other enterprise. That big cow herd I run alone could be a major liability if the cattle market turns down. It would be nice add in a pecan harvest on the same ground…but I can only do that if I’m on a small enough farm.

The same thinking applies to failed enterprises also applies to failed farms. Big farm failure is a big problem. Lots of assets need to be liquidated and it takes a lot of buying power to buy the whole shebang. Most of the big farms around us have reclaimed the home site for farmland. Houses just disappear…along with heirloom varieties of trees and flowers. How much better if these were smaller parcels of land, each with a house and their own flocks and herds and trees and iris. A farm worker, Henderson points out, has little chance of taking ownership of a large farm with his wages but, if the countryside is dominated by small farms his chances go up.

Clearly I didn’t have enough children. Fortunately I only have 60 acres. Mr. Henderson would applaud the reality I live in but would, I think, admonish me for my vision…unless I can expand it to include many, many other people.

I’m north of 4,000 words writing about chapter 3. If you made it this far, please come back soon and I’ll try to sum up chapter 4.

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