Reading Journal 2015 Week 15

Res Rusticae.

I read the first book in this series this week. What a treasure. Before I dive in and begin quoting, I want to pause. I wish I could read Latin and Greek. This translation was enjoyable but I have to wonder what I’m missing. Let me give you an example. “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? He didn’t have the guts.” Now let’s imagine the punchline in translation. “Because he lacked the intestinal fortitude.” The joke falls flat.

I can’t imagine hearing Shakespeare in its original Klingon. Much ado about Nothing….or Noting. Play on words. Does that work in translation? Dunno. Am I missing anything by reading ancient books in translation? Dunno.

Drives me bananas.

With that out of the way, let’s start in the middle.

In the first place, agriculture is not only an art but an art which is as useful as it is important. It is furthermore a science, which teaches how every kind of land should be planted and cultivated, and how to know what kind of land will produce the largest crops for the longest time.

It’s fun to read the agricultural works of empires past. The Romans, just as the British, recognized the need for order but also made allowances for variation based on climate and conditions. Fences vary between regions in Italy. Look at the regional differences between hedge laying across England. Heck, Henderson drew a line from Somerset to York saying if you lived north and west of that line, raise livestock. If you live South and East, raise crops. Henderson’s words were probably not so cut and dry but that’s basically what he said. Even within that oversimplification of Henderson’s words there was some gray area but it’s a guideline for assistance in determining where you should buy land for the type of crops you want to grow.

Books bring the past to the present. Books are created by people with wealth and resources and sometimes even by people with knowledge. A key to enlightenment, I think, is being able to say, “I don’t know.” It appears that the current culture is afraid of variation. Afraid of regional differences and leaving out artistry and judgement. “Just put your cows out on grass and move them around each day” is terrible advice. “Add chickens to boost fertility. Dig swales, plant trees on contour.” But that’s how we do everything. Democrats and Republicans. Cardinals and Cubs. No middle ground. Nobody saying, “You know, tetanus vaccines make a lot of sense but maybe there’s room to question the efficacy of flu vaccines.” Nope. Now I’m anti-vax. Similarly, “Never, never, never use chemical herbicides. Those are 100% pure evil.”

Maybe they are evil. Maybe you could change the world putting pigs on pasture in November. You might change the world. You might. Maybe for the worse. Res Rusticae is written as a transcription of a group discussion of agriculture and a survey of prior literature on the topic. There are allowances made for regional differences. The writers are willing to say, “This may not work here.” And that’s OK. The writers were willing to discuss and think. I also think they were willing to be wrong and to cut their losses when they made a mistake.

The farm which is healthiest is the most valuable, for there the profit is certain. On the other hand, on an unhealthy farm, however fertile it may be, misfortune dogs the steps of the farmer. For where the struggle is against Death, there not only is the profit uncertain, but one’s very existence is constantly at risk: and so agriculture becomes a gamble in which the farmer hazards both his life and his fortune.

They go on later to write that if your land is unhealthy you should sell it and get out. If you can’t sell it, give it away.

I made an emotional decision when I bought my land. I was not rational. I made a mistake. That’s hard for me to admit. I’m too far from my customer base. My land is marginal at best. My slopes primarily face north and are far too steep to be useful. The second story windows on our house leak when it rains, the septic tank smells and it’s impossible to heat the house. I have too many buildings, all in disrepair and, as the book points out, those repairs come out of the profits. But it’s my family land. I just wanted it. That’s bad business. And, let me tell you, it affects morale.

A better business decision may have been to just stay in town and replace my burning bush with blueberries. Plant productive plants in place of ornamentals. Sell surplus produce from my yard. That would have been so much easier! And with faster internet!

“Is not Italy so covered with fruit trees that it seems one vast orchard?”

If only Illinois were so planted! But I wasn’t happy with a quarter of an acre. I wanted 60 acres. I can’t plant 60 acres. I spend my days working to pay for 60 acres. There just isn’t time to manage it too. Let’s listen to our author on this topic:

The Italian farmer looks chiefly for two things in consideration of a farm, whether it will yield a harvest proportioned to the capital and labour he must invest, and whether the location is healthy. Whoever neglects either of these considerations and despite them proposes to carry on a farm, is a fool and should be taken in charge by a committee of his relatives. For no sane man is willing to spend on an agricultural operation time and money which he knows he cannot recoup, nor even if he sees a likely profit, if it must be at the risk of losing all by an evil climate.

How’s that sitting? Illinois climate is good. But the business climate is questionable. I have a variable interest rate. Things could go south quickly. Is my family more healthy running over the hills, swimming in the ponds, working side by side? Absolutely. But are we stressed by the pressures and the distance from work and church and customers? Absolutely.

I should be taken in charge by a committee of my relatives.

They tried.

Again, I made an emotional decision. We ***WANTED*** a farm. Wanted. Didn’t need. When we lived in town I was able to save nearly half of every paycheck. I had free time galore. We could read, walk, visit, participate in activities around town. Now? Not at all. The money is all gone. The time is all gone. We are skinny and strong and tired…and maybe that’s good but, well, we’re tired.

The purposes of agriculture are profit and pleasure.

I think it’s safe to say we are having fun out here. I sound a little down in the paragraphs above. But doing my taxes this spring was a slap in the face…as it is every year. Some friends from church came over yesterday to help us butcher 100 broilers. That was a fun day. Really. I’m tired and sore but everybody had a chance to do every step along the way. We had some laughs. We had time to chat and visit. We got the work done and sent our friends home with a load of chickens for themselves. We profited by our association with them. I hope they profited by their association with us. I hope everybody came out ahead. But financially? If I had to butcher and market chickens every day? I don’t think so. Not at $3/pound.

And maybe that’s a good summary of my frustrations. Low interest rates have driven up asset values. Market intervention has driven down food prices. I have to pay too much for land and charge too little for produce. I’m goosed at both ends by a system I can’t control. And I live an hour from my primary customer base.

The current financial market has to be weighed along with other factors when choosing the right land for your profit and pleasure and health. Emotions are poor counselors.

Do you really want a farm? Or do you want productive land where you can be happy? Maybe the latter option is in your own back yard. Maybe you need to move to a healthier environment. But don’t let your emotions carry you away. Farmers in the ’80’s were driven by fear to buy more and more land at seemingly any price because, “They aren’t making any more of it”. What is driving you?

Update:

Julie and I were discussing and I’m worried that I sound regretful in this post. I am not regretful. I’m happy to have the farm. Given the choice, I would almost certainly do it again. Our farm income situation is largely a result of our laziness and lack of experience and marketing reach. My goal in this post was to reflect on my motivations and to measure to what extent I have achieved success toward our goals. It’s fun to read Romans talking about what defines a Roman…and to strive to adhere to Roman ideals. What defines a Jordan? Are we emotional or reasoning or prayerful? Are we regretful? Filled with self-doubt? Or are we confident and able to continue striving forward whatever the obstacle? Well, maybe I’m not the man I would like to be. Maybe I have doubts. Maybe that’s OK.

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4 thoughts on “Reading Journal 2015 Week 15

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful honest evaluation of farming. The Roman thoughts of the health of land and emotions seems a good way to think of this. I think of life before “retirement” with more money and some more time. We could go places, but were we healthier? Don’t know, but I do like hanging out in my gardens picking weeds and produce. The chickens greet me much more than students. That is health I think.

  2. Umm, I don’t think lazy is a word that describes yourself or Julie.

    Latin is actually pretty easy to learn if you know Spanish or French. I did four years of Latin in three years in high school, and loved it. Could be a fun hobby in your spare time 🙂

    What do they mean by an unhealthy farm? Apparently it’s not about the fertility, so what is it about? Surely plenty of Roman farmers were farming land their families had passed down to them? Unless they were farming in conquered territories, I guess…

    I really liked your comment about the way our culture fears regional variation – phrases like “one size fits all” or “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” come to mind We seem to be increasingly committed as a society to creating rules and regulations that are guaranteed to destroy regionality, individual specialization etc.

    I’m glad you added your update, because I thought the first time I read through this post that you were pretty beaten down by all this.

    • The broiler harvest is moving along nicely. The grass is coming on slowly. I’m wearing myself out worrying that we won’t get the birds in the freezer or that customers won’t show up and terrified of running out of grass and worried that I did this wrong and that wrong and I’m a total screw up.

      Then I take a breath.

      I pause and look back at what I’ve been eating recently. How have I been sleeping? What am I doing to my body that I’m reacting so poorly to stress?

      I’m OK. Birds are selling. Grass is growing. I love Julie. My kids are healthy and we love them. Our taxes are done. I have a great job. Everything is fine.

      But sometimes it weighs on me.

    • “If the farm is unhealthy by reason of the plight of the land itself, or of the water supply, or is exposed to the miasma which breeds in some localities, or if the farm is too hot on account of the climate, or is exposed to mischievous winds, these discomforts can be mitigated by one who knows what to do and is willing to spend some money. What is of the greatest importance in this respect is the situation of the farm buildings, their plan and convenience, and what is the aspect of their doors and gates and windows.”

      Can you block a harsh wind? Can you grow shade? Yes. It may be cost-prohibitive or take a lot of time though. Can you make it warm on a north-facing slope? In some cases, it might be better for you to simply move.

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