Farmer’s Progress Chapter 5: Farming as a Craft

I continue reading and reflecting on George Henderson’s book Farmer’s Progress. This book is out of print but not out of copyright so I am trying to make the best use of a few selected quotes to share my thoughts on each chapter. I know the book is hard to find and a little pricey but compare the used purchase price to the price of any used college textbook. Just buy it.

It’s all about efficiency of movement and you’ll wear out your body trying to figure it out on your own. Years ago we took a couple of classes with local weightlifting coaches to learn to deadlift and clean efficiently and correctly. There are a lot of things we tend to do incorrectly out of ignorance that injure our bodies over time. The key things for me to remember when deadlifting are head up, chest out, butt back and the bar against my legs. But there is more. I need to set up with the right hand and foot positions and keep the weight on my heels. It all adds up to a long list of little things I wouldn’t know if Coach Kenney or Coach Rut hadn’t told me. He gave me a shortcut to efficiency. You might think deadlift and clean are useless in this discussion but think again next time you pick up a box and put it on a shelf. A little coaching goes a long way.

Mr. Henderson points out that you can’t learn to swim by reading a book so he jokes that he is writing a book that can’t teach you anything. Instead, he’s pointing out some ideas that you can keep in mind as you are learning from an experienced farmer. If you are going to put in long, hard days for decades on end you need to learn to work with your body without damaging it. Here is an early example from the chapter:

The secret of work is well-arranged time and the saving of unnecessary effort. Watch the amateur farmer fetching a barrow load of mangels from the camp. He loads it up and then turns it round loaded – extra effort for no purpose.

Know your body. Julie has a long torso and proportionally shorter legs compared to me. There are differences that we need to account for when buying a bicycle. Those differences also need to be accounted for in our farm chores.

Why does the experienced worker carry a sack of corn across his shoulders instead of down his back? He is using his bony framework instead of his muscles. A man is a triangle, broad shoulders, narrow hips with heels close together; quite different from a woman, whose wide hips make her egg-shaped; and for that reason she should not carry sacks in that manner; her limit is about half the 18 stone a nine-stone man can carry…

Certainly there are exceptions. I have known some VERY strong women. Leave out any perceived sexism in Mr. Henderson’s writing and think about two people with differently designed bodies. They each need to determine how best to leverage that design in accomplishing their task. If you do what you are not designed to do, things will begin to break down…as Julie would tell you.

My oldest son and I are designed very similarly…in fact, we are frequently mistaken for each other from a distance. He can’t split firewood to save his life (sorry, son). I can swing the maul with a rhythm for a long time before I am winded. There are a hundred things I know about splitting wood that I haven’t successfully taught him yet. Aim here, not there. Look for the checks. This kind of wood requires this kind of force. Watch for this or that. To him, it’s all just wood. You swing at it until it chips apart. For me, it’s a game. I swing only where I have to and the wood flies apart…most of the time. But I have a lot of years of splitting wood under my belt. A lot of years of watching my dad or my father in law split wood. (BTW, I try not to split wood unless I have to. I prefer to cut 6″ or smaller logs and just burn them whole.)

So much can be learned by watching others. Thank God for Youtube. We would never have learned to butcher chickens if David Schafer hadn’t posted this video.

But along with seeking mechanical efficiency you have to burn the right fuel. You won’t get very far putting the wrong fuel in your tractor. Your body is no different.

As in animals the basis of health in man is sound diet. The decline in physical energy has coincided with the introduction of white flour; if only all farming folk would eat wholemeal home-baked bread, from freshly ground, home-grown wheat, they could work like our ancestors…

Well. I don’t know about the wheat thing but I am sure he is right. No matter how mechanically sound my motions are, I can’t perform them for long if I’m all filled up on junk food. The point of the whole book is to inspire us to do 40 years of farming in 20 years…a feat we can’t accomplish without the right fuel.

But I also want to make mention of the home-baked and home-grown ideas. Certainly there is more work involved in making your own food from your own ingredients. But you are certain of what that food contains. Further, you haven’t paid tax on the income of farm products so you can pay tax on goods purchased off-farm. You just grow it and eat it. Currently there is no tax assessed on that. Currently…

Much of the rest of the chapter is example after example of the value of mastery and efficiency. There are a full two pages given to a description of how to efficiently milk a cow and that’s worth your time as well as a discussion of what he has learned from other farmers about grazing livestock. This quote seems to sum it up well enough:

…the knowledge of which is passed on from generation to generation, and remember that the oral wisdom of the countryside is of no less value than that which is found within the covers of a book, or told so glibly from the platform of the lecture hall. Wisdom will carry a man farther than knowledge; opinion may be formed without a grasp of the facts, while propaganda is the language of the devil, when it is applied to farming.

This next quote seems a little out of place in the chapter but I agree with it so completely I am going to quote it as well.

Apart from the knowledge which comes from experience, everyone should on a farm learn elementary first-aid, not only for the animals, but for human beings as well, for you are often far from professional aid…

I could show you my scars. Julie showed a scar off on a recent blog post. We cut ourselves when butchering animals. It happens. The kids have bicycle accidents. We had a goat that kept bleeding days after being dehorned. We have to know first aid. Have to. Have to. Have to. I recently got AED certification. We know CPR. My goodness. Why bother canning up a year’s worth of peaches if you’re going to allow yourself to bleed to death when a mason jar breaks in your hand.

He ends the chapter covering why I blog and read other farmer’s blogs. We are sharing what little we have learned and making a positive contribution to the pool of available knowledge.

In an age of self-interest, cynicism, and despair, remember there are others who will be glad to learn from you; you need not hide your knowledge…

I hope you are enjoying Mr. Henderson’s books as much as we are. Have you read this chapter? What did you get out of it?

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7 thoughts on “Farmer’s Progress Chapter 5: Farming as a Craft

  1. Speaking as a 18 year “medical professional” as both a US Navy Hosptial Corpsman combat veteran and current Paramedic (see what I just did there….lol). AEDs are almost pointless (for any applicaiton) and far too expensive to justify for an average person. Plus in a trauma situation are literally worthless.

    Sorry, I’ve had nothing to comment on in your last few posts because they are spot on. So I had to nit pick to let you know I’m still here….lol.

    • Doc, I don’t own one, just went through the training as our offices each have several. I learned an awful lot in that training about legal issues. “Are you choking?” needs to be followed with “Do you want help?” before you begin helping, otherwise it’s assault. lol

      Looks to me like AEDs are all about timing. “When the first AED shock was delivered [less than] 3 minutes from time of collapse, the hospital discharge survival rate was 74%; it was only 49% when the shock was given [greater than] 3 minutes after collapse (P = 0.02).”

  2. When I was on my first trades course in the Navy, my chief told us as the first class of seagoing females going through the Comm school, we would be up against an entire Navy’s worth of men who believed we wouldn’t have what it takes physically to handle the job at sea. And he said that would be true – one girl compared to one guy hauling on a hoist is going to lose the race every time. He also said, cautioning the guys in the class (we were 6 and 6), that we girls were highly motivated to succeed since we were basically pioneers, and we would work much smarter than the guys who would tend to use their brawn before their brains. And it turned out to be true. He was an incredibly wise chief in his time.

    I totally endorse the need for first aid training. My own expired last year, and I plan to get it renewed in the fall. Both my girls are current. AEDs are a thing here too, and there’s a lot of concern among first aid trainers and emergency responders as to the dangers of the untrained using them. I have to wonder, why do we suddenly need them all over the place? Are there more cardiac arrests happening in stores/libraries/parks?

    White flour. I know, in our age of gluten-free, any flour can be considered “bad”. I think there might be a case to be made that the wheat varieties we use today are what’s causing our issues with gluten nowadays…that and the quantity consumed. Maybe how it’s used in processed food as well. But to look back through history – a millennia of humans in Europe relied on grain to survive – oats, barley, wheat. Gruel. Bread. Porridge. Beer – before the 20th century was basically yeast, barley and hops. Everyone of all ages drank it. It provided some needed nutrients and minerals. When tea came along as an affordable beverage, and the temperance leagues started to make headway, there was serious malnutrition in the lower classes in England, as the beer left their diet. Did the grain varieties of 200 years ago and more have different nutrient ratios? How much does the method of cooking/processing affect the nutrients? We know for example that sprouted grains are more digestible, etc. Could it be that ingesting most of our grain as gruel (soaked and simmered grain) or beer (soaked and fermented) meant that we could benefit from it in a way back then that we can’t today through baking processes?

    Home made and home grown. Yup. I totally believe that people would eat a lot healthier if that was the main way they got their meals. About 5 years ago, I decreed that the girls were old enough to bake whenever I wasn’t around, they knew the safety rules, could clean up the kitchen themselves, etc. So, I said, this means if you want cookies for school lunches or snacks, you can make them yourselves. And I stopped buying store bought cookies. Cold turkey. We eat a lot less cookies now. Some, certainly. And it’s possible we enjoy them all the more.

    • I really tried in my post to make it less about differences between sexes and more about differences between people. Sometimes I look around a crowded room and ask myself, “Which of these people are capable of carrying me out of a burning building?” Very few people. What’s worse is knowing there is little I can do to carry someone in excess of 300 pounds. How many of those can I identify in a given place?

      Beyond varieties and soil health, another possibility I have heard mentioned is the amount of time required for harvesting. When wheat was bundled in the field after harvest there was an opportunity for grains to sprout in the moisture instead of being harvested very efficiently by the combine and kept bone dry until use…well, until portions of it are used when milling is completed.

      • That makes sense about the harvesting time. Interesting.
        I agree, gender aside, different body types abound in any given group of people. I made it about gender because that’s my experience.

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