Farmer’s Progress Chapter 4: The Art of Farming

Today I continue reading George Henderson’s book, Farmer’s Progress. I am working to use only as many of Mr. Henderson’s words as I have to to relate the information I want to discuss and share, not to reprint an unfair portion of the book (however much I think it should be reprinted).


FarmersProgressAs I was beginning to form this post a friend sent me the following bit of humor:

Science and art need to mesh more – sure you can make a baby in a petri dish, but the other way is much more fun.

And with that in mind we will invite Mr. Henderson to tell us all about the art of farming. The overarching goal of a farmer must be to

leave the land for which they are responsible far better than they found it.

No problem. He points out that success in achieving this goal leads, necessarily, to finding prosperity as well as serving your fellow man. How about that? You live with purpose, you have meaningful work, you eat well and everybody is better for it…even if there will be bad days. Clearly Mr. Henderson is more poetic about this but you see what he’s saying. I have grass where there were only thorns and weeds before. What did it cost me? All of my mornings, evenings and weekends. A week of tube-feeding a baby goat only to have it die in my wife’s arms. (Poor Shivers.) Long nights sleeping in the field, waiting for that stinking skunk to return…praying I can find where he is getting in the fence before he eats yet another bird. Standing in the rain hoping to find the short in the fence so I can go back inside and thaw. Packing and labeling chickens until 2 in the morning and going to the office after 3 hours of sleep. I would be afraid to total the dollar investment we have made in our farm…but be sure that we have put in more than we have taken out. Someday that will change. Someday. For now, we are healthy. We have purpose. We are united by a common vision. We chip away each day, as a family, to help carve a rough lump of land into something beautiful.

There are bad days…just not all of them. There are good days too. And within the framework of good days and bad there is an opportunity for expression of self…of style. There is an art to doing this. Part of that expression is found in the method of implementation. To move this post along I am going to quote myself…because a man can only be so modest.

…you have to increase stocking density (animal units per grazing area) before you can increase stocking rate (animal units on the farm).

The statement above is not rocket science. I have read it so many places I couldn’t begin to know who to attribute it to. Maybe Greg Judy presented it to me first. Whatever the case, it leads us directly into Mr. Henderson’s book. As the chapter continues he is emphasizing the need to maintain a diversified farm…to avoid specialization…keep things balanced. Grow some crops in rotation. Raise a variety of livestock. Each will carry the other through low points. Then he delivers this on the subject of stocking rate and if this isn’t an example of graceful elevation in farming I don’t know what is.

A hundred-acre farm, with a proper proportion of arable as indicated, would carry and be nearly self-supporting for twenty-four cows and their followers. The same land could carry half the number of cattle, forty breeding ewes, a dozen sows, and three or four hundred head of poultry. This would yield a far greater financial return, spread over the peak of labour which pure dairy farming involves night and morning, and divide the risks inevitable in more specialized production. At the same time this would give far greater scope for expansion, for with the building up of fertility by pigs and poultry, which also within reasonable limits can increase, the time would come when the full stock of dairy cattle normal to the size of the farm would be carried. In other words, the farmer would have a pig, poultry and dairy farm on the same acreage.

So he is suggesting we increase diversity AND density before we increase the stocking rate. I would love to get a few hair sheep! I have no idea how we would manage them. How we would fence them! What a pain to have to fence them separately from the cows. How frustrating it would be to succeed in fencing them behind a couple of wires only to have them killed by coyotes in the night! But moving netting around the farm on a daily basis in August sounds like a bad idea for team morale…and a big dog to protect so few animals seems like a financial blunder. Chickens and pigs? No problem…except I have to increase my marketing reach. He is raising his pigs in total confinement though and mixing the liquid manure with peat before spreading it on his fields. I wouldn’t be entirely against raising pigs on deep bedding in a hoop shelter with outdoor access. In fact, I find that to be an entirely appropriate solution, especially in seasons when the pasture conditions and animal health will suffer by keeping the animals outdoors.

I tend to overlook his emphasis on crop production. I have considered it. Rip a little soil here, drill a few seeds there and before you know it I could be a real farmer! It would be no big deal to plant an acre or three of wheat in the fall. Might even be a good idea. But then what? In the next summer I would need to harvest it but it’s hardly worth anyone’s time to bring their combine out to harvest 3 acres. Wheat isn’t worth much but I could feed it to the chickens I guess. I would end up with a mountain of straw…especially if I plant an older-style wheat that grows a long stem. OK. That sounds like a plan.

What about corn? I could have my cows trample in a dense planting of corn for grazing this summer. Or I could follow behind my herd with a drill…except my herd of 11 animals hardly grazes enough in a day to make it worthwhile to drag a drill out. But I could do it and it might be worth it to have a trusted source of non-GMO grain. But corn isn’t enough. I would need something growing under the corn to feed the grazing animals after the crop comes out. Oh, and somebody would have to get the crop out. I guess I would put my corn in the bin but…would I really get enough to fill my bin? I’m not going to plant 50 acres…more like 5. If we got a little rain and I used tons and tons of manure I might end up with 1,000 bushels…that I would have to pick by hand. I can hear the children’s excitement now. It all sounds like work.

…what could be achieved if we were all prepared to work as our grandfathers did, if we put in the man-hours with the machinery now at our disposal!

Mr. Henderson is talking later about the difference between a device that saves labor (electric butter churn) and a device that makes a farm more efficient (chainsaw). It would be hard to justify owning a combine that only worked at the same pace as a man. But a combine works many, many times faster than a person could. The next hurdle to overcome is the purchase price and the cost of ownership. If I buy a combine it will be an old one. No matter how cheap it is to buy, how easy it is to maintain, how easily it fits into the existing buildings, it has to be paid for by increased efficiency. Could I cut an acre of wheat by hand? Yes…but it wouldn’t be any fun. Could I justify owning a combine I use for 15 minutes each year to cut 1 acre of wheat? Geez.

I am reluctant to quote the book so heavily but Mr. Henderson goes on the attack against government oversight and limitations…especially as exercised in a time of war. Much of this chapter is about exercising our freedom of expression…our freedom to do what we feel must be done on land that we own. Our ability to create something beautiful out here is constrained only by our freedom or lack thereof. I can’t pass this quote by without highlighting it:

Countries are well cultivated, not as they are fertile, but as they are free. Holland, Denmark and Switzerland are shining examples of this, and only in countries free from control can you eat well to-day…To have freedom is only to have that which is absolutely necessary to enable us to do what we ought to do, and to possess what we ought to possess, and among these things I include freedom to stock and crop a farm as it should be stocked and cropped, for here the national and the farmer’s interests are identical. The more we produce the better it will pay us, and if our farms are self-supporting we shall have less need to buy.

That last little bit there he is talking “we” as in “Britain”. Throughout the book he is concerned about the financial dominance his country has lost and the trade power they are losing because they are too inefficient to raise their own food. They buy it from elsewhere (probably Spain). Later he …

The farmer does nearly all the thinking for everyone on the farm, and a great deal for all humanity, for the greater part of it would have long since starved to death but for the foresight of those who plan a rotation, plant potatoes after a year in which their unwanted stocks would have rotted in the clamps had they not utilized them for stockfeeding; the stock to consume them only being available through defying the edicts of short-sighted politicians and technical advisers in their recommendations to scrap pigs and poultry at the outbreak of war.

Mr. Henderson said in The Farming Ladder that he needed his farm fully stocked, even in times of war, to maintain a high level of grain production. Grains are easy to transport and keep well so the Allies were using grains to feed their armies. But Henderson’s assertion was that the civilians needed sources of fat to maintain energy levels…that the Germans lost, in part, because they could not maintain production of bacon and cream. Grain was rationed but potatoes were not…so his pigs ate potatoes. And when the war ended he was well-stocked and ready to supply the needs of the market…either other producers seeking breeding stock or consumers who wanted bacon. It doesn’t do much good to win the war if you don’t have any food. Ask Sparta about the Peloponnesian war.

I think Mr. Henderson has made his position on personal liberty clear in this book so far. Also his opinion of government “experts”. He closes out the chapter by saluting the nobility of all who practice farming, hoping us the very best because, at least in his mind, the world is depending on us to solve problems on our own farms and, by so doing, solve the world’s problems. Sweep in front of our own door. Remove the log from our own eye first.

3 thoughts on “Farmer’s Progress Chapter 4: The Art of Farming

  1. Wartime Farm. The BBC TV series, you know, same team that did Edwardian and Victorian. It really sheds a lot of light on the impact the War Ag Commission had on farming during and after the war. And it’s true – the UK had not been producing the majority of their own grain since the end of the 19th century – about the time that North America got good at shipping it to them. They went into a flat panic in the years leading up to the war, waking up to their vulnerability as an island nation. There’s a lot in this post of yours, I’m going to have to go back and read again. What about hiring a combine, instead of owning it?

    • There is a lot in each chapter. Were you able to get the book from that Australian site?

      Neighbors have big equipment. I have little fields. Hard to make it worth the trip out if you don’t even fill a hopper with grain, let alone figuring out how to turn around. Who knows though. Still playing with the idea.

      • If the weather weren’t so great, maybe I’d go get it from the Aussie site, but the weather is pretty good, so it’s not happening. Probably not till winter now. I’m enjoying it immensely through your quotes though. I’m one person who hasn’t minded the long quotes at all 🙂

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