Chapter 1: Teaching Farm Work
Q: Why are we doing this?
A: Well, to make money. To pay our taxes and buy new shoes.
That, my friends, is not an inspiring answer.
Have I oversimplified the big picture? Did I make an assumption? I thought everybody knew. Henderson is laying out his class syllabus in this chapter but I was entirely struck by the big picture…and its implications. As we read chapter 1, Henderson shares a list of ways he evaluates potential employees. He watches to see if they are working and then says:
The ability to judge distance, detail and object, are very important factors which can make all the difference in mastering a craft.
I obviously want to focus today’s post on the object of the operation.
…can he explain the reason for the operation – which is to give every plant the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number which must be left to ensure an adequate yield from a given acreage.
My kids, I’m afraid, can not explain the object. In their minds we have cows because dad wants to have cows. While that is not entirely incorrect, there is more to it. We have a given amount of meadow. I can spend a huge amount of time keeping it mowed or I can mow it with cows. Cows, like any other mower, require maintenance. But they also reproduce themselves and taste great. So our object, using Henderson’s framework, is to give every cow the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. Where Henderson requires judgement of plant spacing, we require judgement of daily grazing allotment.
But that still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter because we could have a very nice house in town if we wanted. Instead we have a not very nice house way, way out of town. Way out of town. Like way out.
Why? And why cows and not sheep?
Maybe the question should be changed from “Why are we doing this” to “Why are we doing this?”
For a couple of reasons. First, cows make good economic use of our land. As long as we get rain and sunshine we will have grass. It’s pretty cheap and the cows like it. Add in a little bit of management and you win. The second reason is not about cows. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, deep down.
Our well went out at the barn two days ago. Right now we are hauling water from my house to the barn using the tractor. This is in no way an ideal situation and uses a lot of time. In the near future dad and I (or maybe just dad) will replace the well pump. It will be a cold winter day. Screws won’t turn, plastic will be brittle, old wiring will fail. But we will soon have it fixed. Then something else will break. That’s how it goes.
Will we break too? I hope not. I hope we are able to stand against the tyranny of our 40 year old infrastructure, becoming stronger and more resilient with each problem. Cue the fife and drum because we are part of a brotherhood of American farmers!
I guess, in a way, we have cows because I want to have cows. Because, like Oliver, I am not content to sit in my city apartment between sessions at my job. I want more! I want fresh air, hard work, strength, fitness along with cold toes and crushed fingernails! I don’t feel that these things make me more of a man than you. I don’t compare myself to you. I compare myself to me. I think these things make me more of me!
But I have gone astray. I’m reading a book, not delivering an Oliver speech.
Oliver is, I think, useful in discussing the book. If you are familiar, Oliver approached farming with books. His neighbors farmed because that’s what they had. They knew what they knew and did what they did, shaking their heads at Oliver’s “modern, scientific” farming. In the show, the two rarely got together and that, Henderson points out, is a mistake.
To acquire any skill expert demonstration and supervision is essential right from the start, and the object should be accuracy, correctness, ease of movement and then speed. All skills need time to be assimilated, and are the better for it. A few days of good training in one season will put you far ahead in the next year.
Rather than ask his neighbors, Oliver put his nose in books and leaflets. Only once in a great while did he bother to look elsewhere, usually to the clouds. Some years ago a real farmer friend set me straight on this very topic. I read a lot of books. A lot of books. But I had very little experience to back up my book learnin’. In conversation with Dave I could only contribute what I had read and I had read a book on any topic we could discuss. Now, Dave is a reader too. But Dave is a real farmer and at the time I was not. He pointed this distinction out. “I read a book! I read a book! I read a book! Well, Mr. Book, can you butcher a hog?”
Well, Dave, I read about it in a book. But it turns out that there isn’t a book on butchering that will teach you what you can learn from Dave in about 20 minutes. And, as Henderson pointed out above, that experience with Dave has percolated over the years. It gave me a solid foundation of learning upon which to build. That first pig was a slow process on a cold day. Now we go much faster.
Since the focus of this chapter is about teaching, not learning, I should point out some things about the way Dave taught me. Dave shot and stuck three pigs in succession then hung them from the loader bucket to bleed out. I watched (somewhat horrified). Three pigs. Dave worked on one, explaining what he was doing. Dave’s son worked on another, explaining nothing. The third pig was mine. I got a lot of help.
What a happy memory. It was so cold! We let the pigs hang overnight and packaged the meat in the morning. The kind of cold that makes your knuckles ache (Henderson has some advice about cold weather in this chapter too). But happy work with people we love.
A happy man is more an halfway to being healthy. Happiness is as good an indication of mental health, as a thermometer is of physical health. A happy worker has no worries, for he is far too busy to worry about problems which do not concern him directly. An unhappy worker magnifies his grievances, and their poisons settle in his muscles to add to his troubles.
Again, this is a chapter about teaching farm work. I suspect Henderson is including this detail in an effort to help you evaluate potential farm help. In a similar way, our pastor, when we were kids, told us to be sure to marry a happy person. And I found, during the lengthy interview process involving numerous candidates, Julie to be a happy person. So I hired her. And it seems to be working out pretty well. And we are, together (mostly Julie) teaching our children to be happy people…who will marry happy people.
We are nearing the end of the chapter and I guess it’s time for me to answer my own question. Why are we doing this?
The greatest service we can render anyone is to teach him to love his work, and to find in it contentment and happiness. … No farmer could spend time better than in devoting ten minutes a day, on his daily rounds, to stimulating each worker to the desire for knowledge by arousing his curiosity and interest in the things about him.
I seek to stimulate my children’s minds – and to engage my own – all while doing work we love surrounded by nature’s beauty. That is why we are doing this…which is to give every child the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. It is important to remember this when the well pump breaks…or when other things go wrong.
My experience convinces me that very few boys, and even fewer girls, know their own ability. It is something you have to teach them. It surprises many of them, and with delight, to learn how capable they are. But they must be given carefully graduated responsibility at first to see they do not fall down on the job in the early stages. Later they may blame themselves bitterly for the things that go wrong, then we have to help and comfort.
Yeah. Well, maybe I won’t screw up my grandchildren. I have a lot to learn on this topic. Fortunately, I have a better resource than Oliver, Henderson or Dave at my disposal. I have my dad who tolerates my ridiculous notions. I hope the final quote for this chapter is soothing to him.
But how worthwhile it all is, to earn the friendship, the affection and the respect of the young. To have the privilege of listening to the younger generation telling us how they hope to put the world and farming right. Few will dispute it has often gone wrong. It is a tremendous thrill to share with youth their passionate desire to make the world a better place, both for themselves and those who will follow after them. They will not fail if they only pass on the message that work is something to be enjoyed, that work is good for you.