Literally a Broken Record

Remember records? Not like a record for underwater pogo jumps but records…music…needles. Skip, repeat, skip, repeat. I have a nice copy of Led Zeppelin 4 in my attic on LP. Somewhere a twenty-something is looking this up on Wikipedia. Next they will look up Led Zeppelin.

The repeating theme I know you have read before is: This farming stuff is hard.

It’s hard.

No, like, really hard.

No. I still don’t think you get it. I’ll say it in teenspeak. It is like literally hard to even. Literally.

Near as I can tell, May (dairy cow #2) is cycling right now so her udder may be a little…sensitive (all the lady readers say “Hey!”). I attached a cup, she kicked it off. I attached it again, she kicked it off again. I attached to the rear first, she kicked me (not intentionally but literally. Like even). Sigh.

And so it goes.

Dream that dream. Go ahead. It’s awesome when that calf is born or that chicken you didn’t know was missing returns with a hatch of chicks trailing behind her.

ChicksBut there are not awesome days too. Days when you forget to put the milk away and there is no chicken feed in your warehouse and that project you’ve been working on gets delayed and your spouse gets sick and the house is a mess and the cow like literally kicks your butt. Try not to smile as the cow’s tail hits your face (happened). Don’t inhale a bug when you laugh your way through the pasture (happened). Be polite to the internet company when they say it will take 4 days to fix their service (but you’ll be billed for the whole month). Even if you didn’t have the cows things would go wrong. That’s life.

Fairy tales end with “…and they lived happily ever after.” I call BS. They moved into a cold, drafty old house, the roof leaked and they literally had some bad days and some good days ever after. But it required a lot of sacrifice and it turns out Prince Charming snores. OMG!

So. Pick your poison. Do you want the bad things in life to happen in suburbia or do you want to take them out in the stix? I think we are literally better off out here in the stix. But it’s literally hard to even. You know?

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Farmer’s Progress Chapter 7: The Management of a Farm

The first rule is that you must have sufficient capital, land and stock to ensure you will be profitably and fully occupied. If you have not, then you must arrange to work for others part-time, as a contractor or otherwise. Do not be tempted to think you can supplement your earnings by literary efforts, at least not in the agricultural sphere, for, by the queer contrariness of this world, that is reserved for those who have already earned their money in farming…

Well, so much for that plan. OK. I don’t have any real money to speak of, I don’t have much in the way of cattle or chickens and I’m currently out of pigs but I have a good amount of land. It gets worse.

…do not waste what should be productive farming hours on telling other people how to do it! Plenty of time for that when you retire.

Well. I…um. I really only do this when it’s dark out. Most often in the early morning…if the dishes are done. So. (This is embarrassing…) I try not to tell you, dear reader, how to farm. I just read, research, discuss, try things and write about the good and the bad. Not how-to, just the how-we.

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That’s how it’s been reading Mr. Henderson’s books. I read. I learn. I accept correction. Some years ago dad and I read Marcus Aurelius. On the very first page he dives into his appreciation for things he has learned from others. (I’m quoting from my Loeb, not the link.)

From my Grandfather’s Father, to dispense with attendance at public schools, and to enjoy good teachers at home, and to recognize that on such things money should be eagerly spent.

I finished public school 20 years ago and have been practicing at learning ever since. Julie thinks I’m a little too eager to spend money on yet another book, electronic or paper. The closest thing I can do to inviting Mr. Henderson into my home to teach me is to buy his books and pay close attention to his writing. I’m not writing this series to rob you of the need to read Henderson’s works for yourself. I’m writing to record my notes and thoughts as I explore these books for the first time. And if I am choosing to invite Mr. Henderson to instruct me, I have to accept correction from him.

There is a difference, Mortimer Adler taught me, between reading for entertainment, reading for information and reading for enlightenment. I may be trying to get too much from my initial reading of Henderson’s works but I doubt I’m reaching the enlightenment stage. To get there I need to fully grok Henderson’s reasoning, be able to present his arguments and to respond to them. I can’t do that…yet but you know I’m going to try anyway.

If you are here seeking enlightenment I’ll let you down. I may have a little information but, really, the best you should hope for is to be entertaining as we talk about farm management. You know, ’cause farm management is such an exciting topic.

I have already noted Mr. Henderson expressed concern that I am wasting my time writing this post so let’s begin, instead, with the lack of capital. He suggests

where capital is limited, …keep as many poultry as the reserves of feeding-stuffs will maintain

Well. OK. But. You know. Then what? I mean, George, we have chickens. Lots of chickens. Feeding them isn’t our problem. Marketing them is. It’s not like I can take all the eggs to Mr. Olson’s store and trade for a plow, a few yards of gingham and a poke of salt. What do I do with all the eggs? Right now we are have long days, and lots of interesting things in the pastures for the chickens to eat and good weather so the girls are laying like gangbusters. Way, WAY more eggs than our regular customers need. But soon the summer heat will set in and laying will back off. Then we’ll transition to the new flock and be covered up in pullet eggs until we butcher the older birds. Hopefully, the new flock will lay enough eggs to get our regular customers through the winter…until we are flooded with eggs again next spring. We are selling our eggs right now but we also get a percentage of eggs that are stained, cracked or checked and can’t be sold. We can’t eat them all. What do we do with the extra?

Feed them to pigs…the next operation he suggests when you are starting out and money is tight. And I find that I agree with him. If I could have only one type of animal I would have a pig. Pigs cover all the bases. Meat and manure, they cycle nutrients like nothing else, if you need to dig a hole, get a pig. There’s bacon at the end of that rainbow! Henderson spends a fair amount of time in both books discussing the utility and value of pig manure over cow manure. But beyond any of that, I just like pigs. They are inquisitive and intelligent animals. When they are small, they are quite pleasant. There has to be some allotment for enhanced quality of life when evaluating choice of livestock. It’s not all marketability and utility.

Skipping ahead a bit, he suggests that we, as small farmers, consider pedigree livestock. Just a small herd of cows, for example, all related and purchased all at once can, over time, build to a consistent and improved herd. He emphasizes the need for patience, for culling and for more patience and more culling. Don’t go out and buy more cows. Just get that initial group of moderate animals, breed two generations to the same bull then change bulls (there is a whole chapter dedicated to this later). He was, apparently, very concerned about disease but the general outline I shared is basically the model he used to build his Jersey herd in his previous work, The Farming Ladder.

The first essential is not money but a love and understanding of good stock; and once you have set your heart on it, you will find the ways and means to buy that old cow, who can be the mother, suitably mated, of a great herd. A pedigree gilt, or a few registered ewes, may cost you little more than the commercial price, but you have the raw material. After all, it is not the buying of the paint and canvas that makes an artist, it is what he does with it.

There are only three cows in our beef herd that matter. Three didn’t breed and will be sold for beef. One heifer is a cull, the other is marginal. (I didn’t use any sense when I bought those two) and that’s where Mr. Henderson spends a lot of time. Be picky about your initial stock. Buy related animals that can be improved…quality animals but not show stock. Be picky.

To have to feed and water for two or three years an animal which is developing some fault is to learn a lesson which may never be acquired in a hundred visits to the show ring.

…management is all-important, for nine-tenths of the improvement in livestock comes from this source, since nearly all reasonably well-bred stock has the inherent capacity to produce, and it is management which brings it out.

It’s not all about livestock. You have to feed your animals too. He lays out directions and warnings for feeding your animals properly without overfeeding them as overfeeding both harms the development of the animal and the pocketbook. He gives directions for how many acres of root and grain crops are needed per head as well as suggestions on how to make the best use of waste potatoes. We don’t grow many potatoes. Not many at all. Maybe that’s something we should revisit on our farm. We do grow a lot of grass.

But of all the crops the stockbreeder grows, grass is the most important and the one which is most neglected and abused. …Any one pasture plant can be encouraged or reduced by over- or understocking at certain seasons of the year. …Poultry are the greatest improvers of a permanent pasture that I know. Stock it evenly at the rate of a hundred birds to the acre, and if it is also regularly grazed by sheep and cattle it will improve out of all recognition.

I have to say I agree. I can’t seem to get Julie excited at the prospect of keeping sheep but where we ran goats, cattle and chickens in rotation our pastures are dense, thick and healthy and the soil is soft. To the east where cattle were allowed year-round non-stop access to the pastures the grass is sparse, the soil is hard and the ground is covered in moss. Once we get the layer flock out there we’ll start adding in serious amounts of manure as well as scratching out the moss and making a nice seed bed. 100 per acre? 6,000 birds!?!? Geez.

He goes into several pages of detail about crops and crop rotations but the most important part (as of this reading) was this:

Chemical analysis gives no indication of the capacity of the land to produce. Samples taken from this farm, which has been worked on the market-garden level of 10 tons of muck to the acre per annum for a long time, show no significant difference from adjoining fields which have not seen a muck cart for a hundred years, but we will grow a better crop, with no additional manuring, than the other will with the recommended dressing. Chemical analysis shows the chemicals lying in that soil, but the humus content is so deficient that it does not hold sufficient moisture to enable the plants to take it up.

And that’s just what we need. I have slopes that have lost all topsoil, just brick-hard clay on top. I need to add organic material to that in the form of plant roots and with thin, regular layers of compost. I can tell from the grazing habits of the cattle that the grass there is poor. I would guess the base minerals exist in the soil but there is insufficient support for the transport mechanisms. I would bet the brix is lower in those grasses. The cows are very, very picky in the east pasture. It looks like a wavy sea of fescue. The grass itself is only 4-6″ tall, it’s just the seed head that stands up high. It may not look like it, but there are lots of places out there you could set a softball down without touching a plant.

EastPastureFescue

But it’s not what they want to eat. Mostly they eat the white clover and plantain, leaving the fescue to do its thing. The cows grazed between the wavy fescue and the thistle forest, mostly knocking things over as they passed.

GrazedAndUngrazed

Henderson would set to work immediately improving these soils to improve the forage. He would probably also remove the fence that encourages and allows the thistle stand between the pasture and the alfalfa field…but only so he could till the flat areas of the pasture in rotation. Whatever he would do with my farm, he would have a plan.

The balance of stock and crop not only enables the farmer to make the best use of his land but to organize his labour to the best advantage. …The farm that can keep everyone usefully and profitably employed day in and day out is the farm that is going ahead.

The planning of the work is very important, and the getting in hand of supplies necessary for the work in slack seasons: gravel for concreting, wood and nails, paint and spare machine parts. The most tiring job I know on a farm is trying to fill in time.

I would quote the rest of the chapter if I could. You get to know the rhythm of your farm over time so you know how much light is left, what seasons are appropriate for what work and when you can count on rain and dry. The last two paragraphs are especially valuable as he deals with how the farmer himself should plan his time, not doing regular chores but filling in and helping out where needed. I think Julie and I succeed at this in the home but not as well in the field. The kids rotate chores on a weekly basis. Everybody knows their set of jobs. For example, when it is your week to wash dishes it is also your week to help make meals. We rotate through the entire house and the kids learn to manage the whole home without the burden of managing the whole thing alone. Julie and I don’t have regular house chores. And our focus is not on correction when the kids are slacking. We just roll up our sleeves and get the dishes caught up or help fold towels. Everybody lives here. Everybody works. Mom and dad keep it running. Henderson says the farm should be the same way. Our farmhands should be cross-trained and have regular work while we pitch in where needed. I’m afraid I keep an awful lot of the farm work to myself…some of that because the kids are still young, some because I’m something a perfectionist…and can be very critical. Very. I need to chillax and encourage the kids to step it up in age-appropriate areas so Julie and I can spend more time measuring and monitoring, less time on routine chores.

Henderson closes the chapter with this summary:

There are farms where all seems to go well, keeping time with the inevitable passage of the seasons, steadily going on, undisturbed by the distant mutterings of an unhappy world. Such farms are something to pray for, but are brought about chiefly by good organization, and are the product of the farmer’s own initiative, good example, enterprise, grasp of essentials, and long-term policy.

Long-term policy. Long-term. If things go according to plan, I will drop my silly title and hand it to a son, daughter, niece or nephew. Then…maybe then I can focus on cutting firewood and not worry if the chickens have food and water and if the eggs need to be collected or if the cows have fresh pasture, water and shade or if we have enough hog feed on hand to last the week or if the forecast will allow us to cut hay or…

You know what I really want to do? What I really, really, really want to do more than anything else in the world? I want to sit. I want to sit and listen actively and attentively to my wife. Offer her affirmation but not advice. Just the two of us. Then lean back in the recliner together and close our eyes and take a nap. Doesn’t that sound nice? It doesn’t happen. There isn’t time. There isn’t time because I need to improve my management ability. Mr. Henderson gave me a number of suggestions for just how to get it done.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 6: Farming as a Business

I don’t know how many of you are reading through Farmer’s Progress with me. The book is out of print and a little hard to find but I think it’s worth the effort. Today Mr. Henderson reminds us that a farm is not just a dream or a tax shelter, it is a business. I am not trying to distill each chapter down to a few bullet points. I am also not trying to republish his work. I am giving you a glimpse into Mr. Henderson’s wonderful book, encouraging you to find a copy and sharing a few anecdotes and thoughts of my own along the way.

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On this topic, Ethan Book released a podcast last week about financing a farm. Each episode of the podcast features a hard lesson learned (or not yet learned) segment. This week’s Ethan suggested that he bought his farm to satisfy a dream rather than to fulfill a business goal. At one point he asks how ridiculous would it be for him to buy a restaurant with zero experience in the restaurant business. That’s exactly the point Mr. Henderson is making as he corrects me once again. We arrived with business in mind but zero experience. We quickly overcame the early (and low) hurdles of efficient livestock production but, as Bruce King pointed out, how do you sell that 300 pigs once you raise them? We were ready to raise chickens. We were somewhat ready to kill chickens. But we were not ready for a freezer full of chickens. I guess we thought it would be Field of Dreams…if we grow it, they will come. They didn’t come. They won’t come. Our farm “business” has to be about 10% production time and 90% marketing time. I don’t know if Mr. Henderson would approve but that’s what it takes to move a chicken.

In earlier chapters he wants the reader to define a clear vision, gain experience, work and save your nickels, understand the world around you and your place in it, and make a study of the efficient application of labor. In chapter 6 we are faced with the grim reality of the market. Scarcity will place farms in the hands of those who can produce most efficiently and strip it from those who just tread water.

To farm a farm as it has been farmed before is to obtain nothing more than a bare living from it, for the great weakness in British agriculture lies in seeking a  stable rather than a progressive industry, and a farm should always be planned on the assumption of steadily rising costs which will have to be met by greater efficiency and a higher output.

The early part of the chapter is given to a reminder that farming is a business. A business! Henderson says we are going to stack multiple enterprises on the same bit of land. He talks about having a poultry farm, a cattle farm and a pig farm all on the same land, each enhancing the other, each carrying the other through price downturns and building the farm up over time. But it isn’t as simple as buying a variety of livestock (and planting a variety of grain). He wants you to turn your money frequently. You down? Economists talk about the “Velocity” of money. There could be $1,000,000 of currency in the economy doing $1,000,000,000 worth of work. It just has to move quickly. Think of it this way, if you can make 10% on every transaction you won’t earn a 10% annual return. You’ll compound your return every time. So Mr. Henderson wants us to buy some ram lambs, some pigs and some pullets. By the time the pullets are ready to lay the ram lambs will be ready for market. We can take the proceeds from the ram lamb sale and put it toward the next set of lambs AND some chicken feed. When the pigs ship we buy replacement stock, spread the manure on the fields (to increase the carrying capacity of our pastures or grow more grain for chicken feed) and buy the feed required for the next batch of pigs. You get the idea. Our money is always invested where it is growing and in a variety of places. The faster we can release that capital, reinvest and realize profits, the faster we can move the farm forward.

That’s why Julie and I never have two nickels to rub together. It all goes back into the farm (and then some!). Well, that and we aren’t very good at turning our inventory. Look at the annual statement of any publicly traded company. Any of them. Compare the two major retailers if you want. You need to see two figures. You just need to divide the cost of goods sold by the average inventory for the period. No big whoop. That will indicate to you which competitors are using resources more efficiently. If Business A turns inventory every 3 days and Business B turns inventory every 5 days and Business C is turning inventory every 20 days…well, you can probably make a few assumptions about the management of Business C.

Let’s do it this way. How many people in your community buy milk? Does the grocer keep that much milk in stock at all times? You’ll find out next time there’s an ice storm. The grocer needs to maximize the utility of his refrigerator case, maximize the return on his inventory purchases and still meet your needs. If he is efficient about it, he is buying and selling milk frequently.

All of that to say, how efficient are you about turning your farm inventory? I bring a calf into the world, put labor, grass, nutrients, and improvements into the calf and, over the span of 6-8 months create a finished product…a weaned calf. I get one crop of calves each year. It takes me a long time to turn my money over with cattle. But I could manage my operation differently. I could lamb 3 times in two years. I could pig (verb) two or three times each year. I could do a Bud Williams Sell/Buy operation where I’m always looking out for the relatively undervalued class of stock immediately after selling the relatively overvalued class of stock. I could turn my money over monthly. Calves this month, open cull cows next month, sheep the month after that…always looking to keep my money in motion…to increase the velocity. To make my percentage over and over and over quickly. Eggs bring in cash every day but after 5-6 months of raising the birds to point of lay you have to pay off their housing, fencing and feed with egg sales. Broilers give a return in about 2 months(if you have done your marketing). Feeder pigs give a return in 4-5 months (again, marketing). Corn needs a summer season before you see your investment again (and corn in the bin is money in the bank). You need 4 calves to break even on the development of a heifer. It’s only the cows that wean a calf every year for 5 or more years that make you any money. That’s slow turning, though fairly reliable.

We’re talking about rapid ROI here and it’s a difficult and sobering conversation. Land costs money…a frightening amount of money. You can lower the land resource cost of each operation by adding additional profitable enterprises. Remember, Mr. Henderson wants a balanced mix of arable land and livestock. The livestock pay the fertilizer bill, the arable land pays the feed bill and everything grown is of the highest quality from the registered stock to the seed corn he harvests. To balance production requires investment in buildings. Where most farmers of the time valued a farm primarily on the amount of arable land, Henderson considered the improvements.

…the value of a farm is not the market price or the rent you are asked for it, but what you intend to do with it. … After all, piped water, a good cowshed, dairy, piggery, and Dutch barn make all the difference between being compelled to depend on arable farming and having a fully balanced system building up stock and fertility.

Mine was a mixed farm from its inception. The yellow house, at the center of a 60, has two barns, a hog floor, a grain bin, a machine shed, a pond, a pig nursery and a corral. There is a road that makes it easy to move equipment to each of the buildings. Water lines are buried everywhere (and are in need of replacement), power runs overhead and underground, the head stalls for the milk cows are still functional. The farm is set up for livestock. Even with termite damage in the barn and roofing blowing off and trees growing up besides buildings and walls pushed out by livestock and leaky water lines that we have shut off until we can replace them…even with all the repairs we need to do the farm layout makes working here more pleasant and saves me from having to figure out how to lay out a farm on my own. This must have made a real difference to my ancestors when they farmed with horses…moving wagons by team. That planning continues to make a positive impact today but I have to amplify it. Remember the first quote I used about always assuming we have to meet steadily rising costs with increased productivity?

…it is no use producing more unless you produce it cheaper; it is of no value to produce cheaper unless the labour you save is devoted to further production. The people of this world have either to reduce population, to increase production, or starve. Let us take the middle course – it is by far the most comfortable and interesting!

He goes further than that. It is not only important that we lay out the farm in an efficient manner and work in an efficient way, not so we can goof off more, but so we can produce more, it is important that we design to be inclusive.

The saving of human effort is also important, for we are not all built for heavy work, and nowadays, when some of the best and most conscientious workers are women, it is a pity to have to retain anyone whose only qualification is brute strength.

I need to design with Julie in mind. Why is she carrying that bucket? Can I put a spigot there? What will cost more: the spigot or back surgery? This also counts for the kids. What can I do to make things easier on the kiddos so they can handle a greater portion of the now easier workload?

From here Mr. Henderson goes into the need for proper bookkeeping. Peppered into each chapter are lengthy sections describing methods of making work more efficient and he does not disappoint here. While describing his bookkeeping method he also teaches about pulping roots for fodder then he transitions to the need for business-mindedness and delivers this gem:

Many farmers, still dreaming of the golden age of the 1870’s when their grandfathers lived like gentlemen, and hoping those days will come again, despise the tradesman; but there is a great deal they could learn from him. The ex-shopkeeper often does well in farming simply because he is used to thinking in terms of pennies as the profit on an article, and he will be quite happy to sell even a bale of straw retail if the opportunity occurs.

He then goes into the reluctance many farmers feel not just about selling retail but about selling at all. If you need a bale of straw he’ll extract a favor rather than money. If you need to borrow some of his workers, just pay their wages…never demanding a little bit for organizing and training the crew or to compensate you for the work they won’t get done while they are on his place.

This, I suppose, originated in the hoary old tradition that farmers never make a profit anyway!

I was thinking about my great-grandpa Charlie yesterday. He was born 101 years before me. He built the big white barn 100 years ago this year – when he was just about my age – at a time of great agricultural prosperity. I don’t know how he lived. I don’t know if he ever laughed. I see the old family picture of stern looking people and know the stories of how they suffered and worked and look at the house I live in, the barn we use, the ruined old yellow house…My goodness! I really do appreciate what they did for my generation. I believe they lived well for their time. But I wouldn’t trade places with any of them for a second. It would be cool to see 14 Jersey and Guernsey cows lined up in the head stalls and to hear the pail sing with each squirt of milk from my great-grandpa’s, my grandpa’s and my great-aunt’s effort. What did they do with the milk? How did they account for the costs? Was it a business? Was it a lifestyle? I know they were a prosperous people…but did they know it?

As grandpa lay in his hospital bed in the room where I am typing, he expressed concern for grandma’s future without him. He owed a little money on 80 acres down the road. He feared debt. I have no idea what my great-grandpa Charlie was like but I remember my grandpa Tom well and my great-aunt is very similar. Grandpa was always on the lookout for a deal. Not so he could profit from another’s error but so he could facilitate one guy in moving something and another in buying it. He would always take odd routes, often stopping to chat about a baler or a bull or …who knows what else. Dad says grandpa would bring a baler home and just when they got it timed and working well grandpa would sell it. Make a little profit. Turn that money. A bull, a cow, a pig. Improve the breeding stock. Improve the land and water systems. Make the workload more efficient. Profit by making other farmers more efficient. Profit by making sure everybody came out a winner.

I would like to say that’s where Henderson ends the chapter, teaching us to go ahead and reap where we have sown, to take a little reward for risks taken. But he closes out the chapter railing against the injustices of the British tax officials of the time. Not that it appears Henderson is against paying taxes but, instead, he is against the injustice of the system that makes no concession for error and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a refund for overpayment.

It is even said that as much revenue is obtained from payments in error as is lost by evasion of payment. What a comment on the ethics of the Civil Service! In the great majority of cases a farmer must employ someone whose business it is to see that he does not pay too much.

I made the mistake of moving here thinking I could raise a few birds, milk a few cows and fatten a few pigs and everything would just turn out peachy keen. Fattening stock is easy. Ridiculously easy. The hard part is marketing our goods, calculating profit percentages, growing our money and reinvesting in infrastructure. We came here to raise animals and succeeded. I was utterly unprepared to be in business. Mr. Henderson drove that home in this chapter.

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?

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.

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.

How to Fix a Cat

Well, the answer to the flash title is…you pay the vet $80.

But the better question is, “Why do I have cats to fix anyway?”

Ah. That’s the right question. I will accept several answers.

  1. Some [Content Edited] got tired of the litterbox, couldn’t bear to have it euthanized and dumped their kitty out in the stix and it wandered here. (Happens all the time.)
  2. Some irresponsible idiot didn’t get their cat fixed…then dumped it in the stix when it showed up pregnant. (awesome.)
  3. Feral cats found out there was food here and started showing up, we made it a point to tame their kittens. Now we need to take the proper steps with those grown kittens. (Feral cats really don’t last long against the food chain. Tame cats run to us when they are in trouble.)

We do what we can to keep the cat herd numbers down in a humane manner. Unfortunately, lots of cats just disappear during the winter. Coyotes, owls, cars…who knows. Sometimes they bed down in the straw under the horses or cows and are stepped on or suffocated. If cat numbers get high enough disease spreads through them and knocks the population back a bit. It saddens us to just find a dead cat laying by the pond or something…no obvious injuries, no sign of starvation. Just a dead cat laying in a field. None of these are desirable outcomes. Especially for Bubba.

Kitty

When they were smaller, Bubba and her siblings used to ride on our shoulders as we did chores around the yard. I guess it felt nice to have their paws somewhere warm on a cold winter day. Obviously I fee some level of affection for Bubba but I don’t want baby Bubbas. At all. Ever. So we sent Bubba to the vet for $80. (That is the same amount of money he charged me to preg-check my heifers.)

So what happens when Bubba gets hit by a car on the road or killed by a raccoon? Was that a waste of $80? Well? I don’t know. But I have solved the kitten problem…just in case she lives a long, healthy life with us. And that’s the outcome we desire the most.

I’m not complaining about the $80. I am describing what is. Cats show up. Cats are handy to have on a farm. We take responsibility for them. I hate finding dead cats…even feral cats. Kittens are fun but I have had enough kitten fun to last me a lifetime. Cats multiply like rabbits…then they eat all of the rabbits. And wild birds.

Have you taken responsibility for your animals?

If you even think about taking them to the farm to run and live their life…well, you will be on my bad side. And it’s really not about the $80. It’s about you being a cruel, irresponsible person. You can find a home for an unwanted cat. If not, you can put your grown-up pants on and make a grown-up decision about your animal’s life. Dumping them is worse than euthanizing them…except you don’t have to see it happen. Coyote jaws are less than humane. Ever sleep with your windows open in the fall and hear a coyote catch a rabbit?

Do the right thing. Get your pets fixed.

If you want your kids to learn about the miracle of life get rabbits. Then teach them about the miracle of baked rabbit and bacon.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 2: The Practical Approach

I continue reading Henderson’s Farmer’s Progress in this post. I’ll quote him only as often as I need to. There is so much to this chapter I can only hit the high points and I have to stay within the vague bounds of fair use. Again, if you like what you see here, pull out all the stops. Go find yourself a copy of this book.

FarmersProgress

In this chapter Mr. Henderson is giving practical advice on how to gain a foundation of knowledge and experience before taking on a farm of your own. The chapter starts with advice on making a good impression when applying to learn under an established farmer and detail on what to look for when evaluating the farmer for yourself…interviews go both ways. Does the farmer smoke? Is the farm in good repair? Will you be staying with the farmer or with the workers? You need to be in the middle of it to learn the business of farming, not staying with the workers and just learning the work. And you need to be both serious and respectful. In short, shut yer yapper other than to ask questions to clarify your role on the farm. You are here to learn both the business of farming and the practical work.

A farm is very different from a school… A schoolmaster tends to become childish through constantly associating with children – every schoolboy is familiar with the feeble jokes at which he is expected to laugh, for example; but a farmer’s life is too hard for childishness, and he expects a sense of responsibility to be rapidly developed, as indeed it must, when you will soon be working with valuable animals and machinery.

From here he devolves a little into a “back in my day” anecdote but I think he is right. School teachers will give you the same information over and over but a farmer expects you to remember after one telling. On the farm, lives and livelihoods depend on your memory. And you never know when you will need to recall that odd detail you were shown or told some time ago.

…no matter what goes wrong the farm has to go on. If the farmer dies, if war is declared, or the buildings burned down, the cows still have to be milked, the poultry shut up to protect them from foxes, and the hundred and one routine jobs to go on day in and day out.

We don’t get the luxury of sick days. We are constantly working to cross-train each other and the children to do every task on the farm…working to make sure everyone understands the cattle rotation, the pig chores, the chicken work. Handing off responsibility as the kids become old enough to handle it. Replacing our infrastructure with new equipment that more is easily portable so any age can move it. We are not often sick and when we are it is usually the kind of thing we can work through but I do get called away from the farm from time to time. The work continues with or without me.

We spend a lot of time with our children reviewing our personal callings and our family vision. One child wants to be a baker. One wants to be an engineer. One wants to be a church pastor. One hopes to stay home and help us run the farm (we’ll help her run the farm instead). But the overall vision is that the farm is the center. It is home. When all else fails, when the villagers are marching with torches and pitchforks, when the chips are down the farm is a safe haven. If my children (even generations from now) are struggling with addiction, need a fresh start or even just a place to sit quietly and read or write a book…this is the place. Everything else we do from leading the lost to the Lord to building an award-winning, fantastic new geegaw to baking the best cake ever centers here. We produce. We make a positive contribution to our economy, our ecology, our community…we invest in human and intellectual capital, we raise up successive generations of inspired visionaries to carry on the tradition. And this is the place it all starts from. This is home. Even the cemetery is out back. That’s the vision.

How often I have noticed that the best-tempered men are the best workers, that the busy people are the happy ones, because they are going somewhere. A man who is able to employ himself innocently and usefully is never miserable.

It is an undoubted truth that the less one has to do the less time one has to do it in, and the less joy one finds in doing it. Those who have a great deal to do must buckle to, and usually make time in which to do it. People who have seen a lot of life will tell you that success is due less to ability, talent and opportunity than to zeal, concentration and perseverance. Those who achieve happiness through work do at least deserve it.

Have you met me? I’m a very average person. Average height. Average build. Average (or below) looks. I got average grades. My folks are pretty normal folks…well, abnormal in that they stayed married and their children shared a common father. But otherwise, there is nothing special about us. Whatever I have I have because I worked for it. And worked my tail off.

And it has been a lot of fun. I wrote recently about how tired we were after a day of processing chickens. Tired to the bone. I could list for you on one hand the number of places on my body that were not sore. The kids were tired and fussy. But during the actual work we were joking and playing around. Everybody was having fun. The weather was beautiful and the youngest kept asking “how many birds are left?” not so she could be done working but because we always do the chicken dance when the last chicken is in the kill cone.

But it is work and it does require perseverance. We have had to find ways to inspire our children and each other. “Julie, we just have to do this. After today we’ll be done. We can do it. You can do it. Our customers will be happy, we’ll replenish our depleted farm account and we’ll keep things moving forward. And I’ll make dinner. OK?”

For a couple of years we were trying to swim or skate on the pond every month of the year. That has since tapered off but there have been some cold days of swimming. We stand at the edge of the pond with our shoes off daring each other to go first. Punching each other in the arm. “Go ahead! Prove you are tough!” Somebody will finally just take the plunge off of the dock, come up screaming, run for a towel and the rest of us are shamed into at least going knee-deep. Then we all come home shivering with blue lips to stand around the fire and drink hot cocoa. This may not make sense to the uninitiated but sometimes the whole farm works that way. Sometimes we have to goad each other into it. “OK Julie. The hail has stopped and the lightening seems to have abated. Put on your raincoat and let’s go check the chickens. We also need to see if the creek is coming out. You go first. No, seriously. I’m right behind you. I mean it this time. Really. No, really.” or “Julie, it’s 4:30. We have to get the eggs packed for today’s orders but the sink is full of dishes. Before I go to work we need to move the cows, move the chicken tractors, open the nest boxes, water everything, put bedding down for the pigs and I’ll need to shower while you pack my lunch. But the house feels cold. You go light the fire while I lay here a moment longer. Come on. I did it last week. It’s your turn again…again. Come on Julie. Those cows are counting on you.”

Swimming

Swimming 4/21/14

We have so much to do each morning before I can go to work. This morning my oldest and I knocked out all the chores in a record 13 minutes while Julie finished packing the egg orders for today. Are we happy? Well, it’s certainly hard work. And we somehow have time to get it all done. My worst days are always the days with little work to do. I very quickly go stir crazy. I don’t like to sit around. Somehow it is easier for me to do my reading while walking to and from a chore on the farm. It is easier for me to digest what I have read while trying to make a dead tree fall a certain direction or stack the hay wagon so it is all tied in and won’t fall off on a slope. Years ago dad ran a bulldozer with a broken foot. At the same time I ran a chainsaw with a broken wrist. It’s hard for us to just sit around. And no amount of sneezing or coughing can keep me in from the field. Funakoshi wrote that he worked through illness and fever by practicing karate forms until he sweated it out. I guess we do the same. I can sustain a high heart rate doing my farm chores. It doesn’t take long to break a sweat and cough out whatever needs to be coughed out. Seems better to me than shivering under a blanket watching old episodes of Newhart on TV (but I do enjoy watching Newhart).

Back to the book, Mr. Henderson goes on to extol the virtues of sound nutrition and regular habits. We grow an ever-increasing portion of our food…food of a higher quality than we could find elsewhere.

If you ever feel overtired it is probably due to error in diet rather than to hard work or long hours.

We probably should not have had the banana bread muffins on Thursday. We also ate a lot of junk on Easter Sunday leaving me feeling lazy. Mr. Henderson includes this little poem that sums the idea up nicely:

Better to hunt in fields, for health unbought,
Than fee the doctor for a nouseous draught.
The wise, for cure, on exercise depend,
God never made his work, for man to mend.

Remember what I wrote about checking livestock when a raging storm weakens? That, as Mr. Henderson points out, is one of the times you should remember that little poem. Or when checking the cows in an ice storm. He then goes on to talk about the importance of working efficiently. If you allot an hour of time to cleaning a stall but finish early, apply your extra time toward another, smaller task. The ultimate goal is to free up your schedule so you can spend more time observing your stock and the weather.

The rest of the chapter is focused on making yourself the best farm hand you can be as you turn yourself, slowly, into the best farmer you can be. I’m going to share a couple of quotes that affect me personally.

Hundreds of workers have become farmers, but getting a little land, keeping a few pigs or poultry, and reinvesting the profits in more stock, while continuing to work for another. It may require a special effort to do this before and after a full day’s work elsewhere, but the knowledge and experience thus gained will better equip a man to be a farmer than a degree in agriculture, however well merited.

That pretty much sums it up for me, though my day job does not reinforce my ongoing farming education. He goes on to share a story of a young man who worked and saved and bought a small farm. Then he worked and saved again, bought larger and, ultimately owned a large farm free and clear at the age of 30. He was young, worked hard, saved every penny and put in his time learning on a successful farm. He was able to capitalize on that education in combination with hard work to make a success of himself. Contrast that to this:

…many who wish to enter the farming industry later in life….Their way is difficult indeed. If they bring capital, they often spend a lot in bitter experience, for lack of knowledge. Without capital they often find the way too hard, with their preconceived notions of farming and high standards of living. They often think they cannot afford to spend the time to learn the trade; for them there comes a rude awakening when it is too late.

Well, every bit of that hurts. Difficult indeed. Bitter experience indeed. Lack of knowledge indeed. High standards of living…well, not so much. We are pretty content. Well, I say that but the money all gets spent somehow. I am, however, spending the time to learn the trade. I observe. I read. I discuss. I question. I share. Hopefully, the education I am paying for now is being absorbed by my children and will launch them into their own successes.

Mr. Henderson ends the chapter with this word of encouragement:

But for all who would enter farming, and I know of no easy way, it is necessary to be sure in their own minds what they want to achieve, to be prepared to pay the price in time, labour and study to achieve it, and to be satisfied with it as their ultimate aim and goal.

I have only brushed the high points of this chapter. I know this book is hard to find but I really think it is worth the effort involved. I left so much out of this chapter it is almost shameful. But that last sentence sums things up nicely. It ain’t easy. Work hard, study and find your satisfaction in the work. I used to work for a man named Norm who owned and ran a manufacturing plant in a nearby town. I asked Norm, in a personal conversation, what he liked to do for fun. He, being of few words, said, “I own a bass boat but have never used it.” I chewed on that statement for 10 years before I really understood what he said. Norm can do anything he wants to do with his time. He even has a bass boat. He chooses to make stuff out of metal for fun.

After seeking success in life as a husband and a father, I want to look at my cows. I am willing to do whatever I have to do to make that happen. I don’t even need to own an unused bass boat.

Where Did the Week Go? or Broiler Blues. Two Posts in One.

The last week in short:

  • Taxes? Done. (grumble)
  • Chickens? Sold or in the freezer.
  • Cows? Fat.
  • Marriage? Intact…barely.
  • Feeling? Tired. Sore.
  • Pullet chicks? Safe in the brooder.
  • Blog? Unattended.

So. Yeah. All the work got done but the night before we butchered birds Julie turns to me and says, “I feel like we are a little distant” or some such statement…apparently I wasn’t listening to her. Point taken.

But the taxes got done on time. We lost so much money on the farm everything turned out OK. How about that? I really don’t remember much else of my week. I know Julie spent the early part of the week on the phone with the tax office and working on spreadsheets for hours on end.

Kids

I took Thursday off of work to butcher the first 200 broilers. We wanted to have birds to customers in time for Easter weekend which proved to be a good choice. I have a lot to say about this spring’s batch of broilers but let’s start with butcher day. Then we’ll go back in time a little bit.

Thursday started Wednesday night. The layers needed to go to fresh pasture before they began protesting. We also needed to pull the feeders out of the chicken tractors so the broilers digestive tracts would be clean for butcher day. Just like every night, we all come in the house hungry and tired around 8:15. Supper…brush teeth…bedtime. Julie wonders if we are losing our closeness. I don’t know. I haven’t noticed anything wrong.

The plan was to start butchering at 8:00 sharp. My biological alarm clock wakes me up at 4:00. Time to make the donuts. I filled the scalder, washed up some equipment, sharpened knives and washed dishes. Julie stayed in bed. She later told me I left the bathroom light on as my way, in her words, of “giving a not-so-subtle hint that she needed to get up too”. Julie and I wanted to give the kids a treat for breakfast and, since we had a surplus of brown bananas, we decided on banana bread muffins. With the scalder warming, the dishes washed, the paper trash burned, the buckets ready, the knives sharp and breakfast and coffee delivered to my belly and muffins cooling on the counter it was time to go check the animals.

Julie opened the nest boxes, I loaded up the crates on the trailer. The kids attended to other chores. Everybody met up again at the brooder. There was about a 30% chance the new layer pullets would arrive Thursday morning and I wasn’t ready. I spread out the remaining bedding, added fresh and got everything warm and ready. It is always better to give chicks warm water when they arrive so we like to have the water in place well in advance.

Then the kids and I went out to move the cows and catch the broilers. The youngest son rolled up the fencing to allow the cows access to fresh grazing. Pretty cool that a 9 year old can manage a herd of cattle. The rest of us crated up the first 50 birds and took them home. Julie had returned home to wash and sanitize the surfaces.

It’s funny how time flies. We missed out 8:00 start time…by 90 minutes.

But everybody had eaten a banana bread muffin, tied on their aprons and decided what job they were going to do today. I always kill/scald/pluck and remove the heads. Always. That is the worst and most demanding job. To cover all three jobs I have to move around a lot, lift and control flapping birds and spend the whole day covered in a delicious mixture of blood and chicken manure. The best is when the back end of a bird ejects liquid in your face like a squirt gun. So I do that job.

The girls check the birds for feathers that were missed by the plucker (usually the tail feathers or under the wings) and the oldest girl removes the feet and slides the bird to the oldest boy. His job is to slice through the skin just above the breast then loosen the crop, esophagus and trachea. Then he delivers the birds to the shackles where Julie finishes the evisceration. The youngest boy then does final inspection, removes lungs, bits of liver and sprays the birds out before putting them in the first rinse water tank.

That’s the first half of the process. I believe each bird gets about a minute of work from crate to chill tank. When packaging we see each bird for about another minute. Really, we just do a quick inspection, final feather check then pop each into a bag, clamp the bag shut and weigh, price and label the bird before escorting them to the freezer.

It has to go fast and the whole process can be thrown out of whack by a bad scald. So that’s where we’re going to start.

So now let’s go back in time. Things that could have gone better with the Broilers:

The scalder:
Longtime readers know I have a love/hate thing with my scalder. I have moved it inside, out of the wind. I have blocked a portion of the chimney to help it retain heat. I have removed the (broken) thermocouple and piped the burner directly to the propane tank giving me complete control over the flame. I have done everything I can think of to make it more efficient short of coating the outside of it with spray foam and it still can’t keep up with me. It just can’t. Either it needs two burners or I need two scalders. I’m going to suggest that the scalder is limited to about 50 birds/hour on a 60 degree day with no wind. I can work twice as fast as that so I end up frustrated when the volume of chickens passing through the scalder exceeds the scalder’s ability to generate and retain heat. It reaches a point where we just have to call a stop for 15 minutes or so. The solution may be to box up 50 birds at a time, run those birds through then cover the top of the scalder while going back to the field for more birds.

Chicken Tractors:
This is totally on me. We lost a lot of birds. Normally we see a less than 5% death loss on birds from the time they exit the shipping box to the time they crate up on butcher day. One exception to this was an unexpected and cold rainstorm that came through 2 days after we moved chicks to chicken tractors a few years back. We lost a bunch of birds that night but this year we seemed to lose one or two every night totaling 15% of the crop. We put 300 chicks in the brooder and brought 296 out three and a half weeks later. The first few weeks on pasture were fine…then the loses started mounting up. So here was the problem: I concentrated small birds into fewer chicken tractors. My tractors allow us to keep 50 grown broilers comfortably. When they are small, though, I prefer to keep them in larger groups. More manure, less work. That is a mistake. I need to split the birds up early. As soon as we got them back down to appropriate numbers we stopped finding dead birds. You really have to respect that 2 sq. ft. per bird ratio. A bird just needs room to get away.

Seasons:
Our chicks arrive on or shortly after Valentines day. We do this so we can hit the market with birds early. Usually, in Illinois, the weather breaks just as the birds are ready for pasture. This year the pasture was a little behind the birds. That was hard on the birds and it was hard on the farmers. But if we delay by two weeks we will have to save birds from clouds of buffalo gnats at the end of April. Or we, ourselves, will be suffering from mouthfuls of gnats and itchy stings while butchering the birds. So we could delay even longer so the chicks are in the brooder when the gnats emerge. That means we aren’t on pasture until the middle of May and don’t butcher until July. July seems to be the beginning of the real, searing heat. July 4 is a popular time to BBQ chicken but after that, nobody wants to cook. We have carried full freezers through 107 degree days in July and August. No fun. So, when is the best time to raise birds? I think we’re doing the right thing getting chicks on Valentines day and hitting the early market. This year worked out very well making fresh birds available for Easter weekend. But we may push off a week or so next year to give the grass a little more time. It’s hard to get this stuff right.

Marketing:
60% of the birds should be sold before we even buy the chicks. It’s not hard to sell chicken. Not at all. But it is hard to sell 300 chickens one at a time. Not only do we need to continue following up with existing customers, we need to work to penetrate new markets and encourage buyers to stock up for the year. We do broilers spring and fall. How many birds do you need to make them stretch between batches? What can I do to convince you to use the whole bird so I don’t have to cut them up?

Julie:
Julie always tears a fingernail off when eviscerating. Always. She doesn’t enjoy the work. It makes her sore and tired and leads to days worth of discussions of the value of driving our chickens 4 hours each way to a processor and changing our license type. I can certainly see the merit of this idea but I think the better solution would be to make sure we have rubber gloves for her to wear or, better yet, rearrange things so I am doing the evisceration. Maybe our oldest can kill/scald/pluck and I can just take it from there. He may be slow enough for the scalder for a while.

Too Many Birds:
200 is a lot of birds to do in a day. No matter how many birds we process we have to clean and sterilize all of our equipment before and after. That work takes about an hour total. 50 birds realistically take us about an hour (because of the scalder). Packaging 50 birds takes us about an hour. How many hours do we want to work in a day? It might be better for Julie to get everything ready to process 50 birds each night after I get home from work. She could clean and prep the work area, the kids can help catch the birds. With supper in a crock pot, we could start as soon as I get home and wrap up before bedtime.

Not Saturday or Sunday:
After work or on a vacation day…anything is better than butchering on a weekend. We need to respect our family time. The kids need daylight hours where dad isn’t hustling to get some chore done. Beyond butchering birds I am scrambling to finish collecting wood I have been cutting since March for next year’s wood pile. I need to get this done before the grass hides the wood from me and before it gets so hot out I won’t want to do the work. I get focused on my work. I need to make it a real point to chill out. Just play with the kids. If I get a free moment I put my nose in a book or take a short nap. My free moments need to be spared for my children…and for my wife…

We Feel Distant:
…because my wife is my favorite person. There is no other person I want to be with. For the rest of my life, better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health until death. She is with me when we do morning chores. We wash dishes, we wash and pack eggs, we move chicken tractors, check the brooder, move the cows, check the pigs then race home where she packs a breakfast and lunch for me. Soon we will include milking in our morning routine. We stick together…and do so very purposefully. But being together is, apparently, not the same is being close…emotionally. We talk. We hold hands. We kiss. But she feels that we are lacking some level of closeness that goes beyond just the chore list. I have to tell you, I have a hard time even understanding what she is talking about. Apparently, the thing to do is to just sit with her, maybe read the Bible together and …um…not…work. Talk. Just talk and listen. No agenda beyond letting it happen. Girls are so weird. But if that’s what she needs, well, she puts up with a lot from me. It seems like I have to relearn this lesson every so many months. It takes a lot of work for me to not work. I’ll have to work on that.

I’m sure there are more lessons we can glean from this year’s spring broiler crop but that’s enough for today. If you have experiences managing family, marriage and business please share something in comments. Marriage and family are much more difficult than the brochure indicates.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1 Part 2

In my last post I wandered a bit. We are, in our home, big fans of books. George Henderson’s books are so in our wheelhouse I got a little excited and ran off on a wild tangent about my nomination of Henderson’s works into our informal list of agricultural classics. A list that includes Pastured Poultry Profits, Contrary Farmer, Grassfed Cattle, Comeback Farms, Our Farm of Four Acres and Harris on the Pig…and many others. In fact, look for a post or page on this topic soon. Henderson warns the reader against farmers who don’t read (kind of funny, that) and against writers who don’t farm…especially college professors who teach agriculture and have never farmed. And don’t forget legislators who have never farmed. I’ll let him tell you.

Books are useful, they are sometimes our only contact with great minds, but make them your servants and not your masters. To many reading is a drug. This book is of no use whatever unless you put into practice something you learn from it.

An hour spent in serious reading, each night, will give you all the scientific knowledge you require and is probably as much as the human brain can carry.

Skipping ahead a bit:

How seldom do we see the college-trained man applying his knowledge! Every student is taught that liquid manure contains the most valuable plant foods, yet how many store and use it to the best advantage when they start farming? Probably not one in a hundred; yet ninety-nine out of a hundred French or German peasants make provision to return every drop to the land.

And skipping again:

Scientific knowledge has its value, but to go far in farming you must train your mind and body to be the servant of your will.

FarmersProgress

All this book learnin’ is only a portion of the work required. There is also hands-on. And travel…time for observation. I have spent at least an hour a day for at least 10 years reading a wide variety of farming books and I feel like I am only just beginning. I have only lived on this farm for a little over four years and I can tell you, I’m still at the bottom of a big hill. But we are climbing. I am on what you might consider the self-study track to farming and I can tell you it is an expensive way to learn. But we are learning. Slowly. And we are investing that in our children. If things work out, one or more will take the reins from us soon and they’ll have a running start. With land that is ready, cows that are successful on grass, SOPs, training and experimentation out of the way, they’ll just focus intently on marketing product rather than paying for school. And I’ll just clean the toilets. But right now, it’s an expensive way to go.

Henderson strongly emphasizes that farming should be learned from an efficient farmer…one who has his ducks in a row and is actively looking for help, not some guy who is kind and willing but has no idea what to do with you. Further, he strongly suggests that I, as a farming father, send my kids to other farms to learn and see how they do things. But, again, Henderson is quite precise about what kind of learning is going on.

It should be made quite clear that there is a big difference between learning to be a farm worker and learning to be a farmer. Much of your time will be spent in doing the same work, but in the first case you gain only the skill which will enable you to earn perhaps £250 a year maximum; whereas, if you are a farm student, the farmer shares his knowledge and experience…and there will be no limit to your earning capacity…

And a little later:

I said earlier, you must study the farmer. Find out to what he attributes his success, and also form your own judgement on this. Listen patiently to all he has to say, even if he often repeats himself, and most farmers do, and gather those pearls of wisdom which are handed on from generation to generation.

Listen also to the farm workers. You will find they have three main topics of conversation – beer, women and the Boss. You need not pay much attention to the first two, that is usually dull repetition, but their constant criticisms of the management will bear careful study.

I am quoting Mr. Henderson quite extensively here (maybe even beginning to talk like him (isn’t that lovely?)) and I want to be careful not to relieve you of the desire to buy the book…if you can find it. I also need to stay in the fuzzy bounds of fair use as I quote from his book. There is so much in the passages above that is applicable outside of farming I have to talk about it. My dad sometimes asks me how someone can learn to do what I do for a living. How does somebody get into my real profession…my day job? For those who haven’t met me, I’m sort of a programmer…except I’m not. I can write in modern programming languages and have an elementary understanding of OOP principles but that’s not what I do. Well-written applications are a good thing…and God bless. Success breeds success and at some point, that success becomes a big mess. My job is to bring order to chaos. I act as a kind of steward over data collected by applications making sure it is secure, recoverable and easy to look through. It sounds easy enough but it is sort of like solving abstract puzzles all day with no right answers…and no answer sheet…and no instructor…and you have to use ink. For clarity, if you think I can fix your computer you are mistaken. Julie likes to say that I work on computers the way the UPS guy works on a truck. So, please don’t invite me to a social event then corner me with tech questions.

“Merry Christmas, Grandma!”

“Merry Christmas, Christopher” (kiss) “Can you take a look at my computer. It has been acting up.”

“…well…I was kind of hoping to visit with family tonight…”

“Oh, it will just take you a minute. Here’s a cookie.”

True story. I’m not a tech guy, I just play one on TV. If the anecdote below looks too long to bother with, know that I have been in front of a computer every day for 30 years (before the Google, before the age of AOL, beyond the birth of Microsoft Windows…since the days of the 5 1/4 floppy disk.) and have studied them in detail…with a very specific focus.

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Click Image for Source

Click Image for Source

Dad’s question is, “How did I learn to do this?” Well, dad, you bought a Commodore 64 when I was 8. Then you bought a 386 and I took a typing class. Then my sister married a computer genius who did some of the most amazing hacks I have ever seen…and did them 20 years ago (before Google). Then I started taking computers apart, upgrading memory, crashing Mack OS 8 (Windows blue-screened, Mac bombed), building PCs for friends, modifying PC boot menus to preserve upper memory (when memory was still $100/MB) and building networks so friends and I could all play Doom together. Having always been around them, constantly breaking and fixing things, I was very comfortable with the machines…that got me my first job. Networking experience and long hours of study got me my first Microsoft certification in the late ’90’s and launched me to a much better job.

Hard work, dedication, long hours and evenings spent studying and working on extra, side projects not only got me the next job (in the current career) but actually made me pretty good at it. Beyond the hard work I have two experienced mentors who were very patient teachers and to this day tolerate and encourage me (Thanks Mike and Devi!). And I still have to spend spare time reading blogs and books, attending training, teaching training, talking to other professionals and listening to podcasts to stay afloat in my field. In short, it took me 30 years to learn how to do my job…and because tech is always changing the value of my knowledge is always eroding away. Look at the pattern above. There is all kinds of hands-on experience in my youth but that wasn’t enough. So I started reading everything I could put my hands on related to my career path. Then I sought out experienced mentors, kept reading and kept doing…inside and outside of my real job. Paid or not. I kept my head in the game. The thing I did was the thing I did. Compare that to my time as a fast food employee. I was there to get paid. When I was off-duty I wasn’t trying to get better at my job. I was skating with my friends.

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That is exactly what Mr. Henderson is talking about. Farmhands are farmhands because they only apply themselves when they are paid to. Farmers own farms because they continue working outside of hours. Bill Bonner talked about this quite a bit in his book Family Fortunes. The fortune founder needs to put in 12 hour days so he or she will have 6 years of experience for every 4 years worked. I work full-time in tech, learn everything I can during the day and during the drive then work full-time on the farm 4-5 hours every day (total of morning and evening work time) and 10-12 hour days on the weekends. And on my vacation time I do consulting work related to my primary vocation. And that, apparently, is how one gets ahead in life. It’s not luck. (Not that we are particularly ahead right now…)

But before I break my arm patting myself on the back for my years of hard work and dedication, I should read more of Mr. Henderson. That man was an animal. Short of the fact that I have nearly 17 consecutive years of marriage to the same woman and four awesome children, he puts me to shame. Not only could he work me under the table, he was thoughtful and efficient about it.

There is no virtue in getting up early unless you make good use of the time it puts at your disposal. How often you hear a farmer say that it is no use his getting up early because his men do not start until seven o’clock. One presumes he has to stop at 5 p.m. for the same reason. Yet is is before and after normal working hours that a farmer can often make the best use of his time; if it is only filling up tractors so that his men go out to work as soon as they arrive. If all the book-keeping, planning and organizing is done, then you can give your whole mind to the work in hand and enjoy a happy day on the land.

And later (hang on to your hat)

On the subject of sleep, it is well to remember that it is the quality and not the quantity that matters.

In some of the happiest years of my life I went to bed at 10 p.m. and got up at 3:30 a.m., seven days a week. Others may manage on less, but I found a tendency to lose weight if I cut my sleep down too far when working sixteen hours a day. One of the great secrets of success in farming is to train yourself to work long hours, with a high output, and without physical strain.

I don’t know if I’m there with Mr. Henderson. In fact, this is further evidence of the gulf between us. I appreciate – even treasure – time spent sleeping. A nap on a Sunday afternoon. The alarm clock set for 5:11 so I can have that satisfied feeling of sleeping late…even though I’m usually looking at the alarm clock at 5:04. But you can’t take over the world if you’re asleep. You also can’t take over the world if you are eating junk food…it takes a lot of energy to stay active all day.

And I find life is less satisfying when Julie is not right beside me…so I have to make time for her. And for the kids. So unlike Mr. Henderson, I include my family in my to-do list. Just the 6 of us…and the dog. We need time to chill. No books. No manure. No feed sacks, firewood or fence. No phone, no email, no text messages. Family takes work too. Long hours of reading aloud, playing board games, putting on puppet shows, teaching guitar, throwing the sport ball and just goofing around. That investment pays off later and with unpredictable results. With all of that going on I’m spread a little thin. Sometimes I wear through at the edges. I can’t imagine how Mr. Henderson did it – and wrote a book about it – but I hope you are enjoying reading him with me. He covered a lot of ground in one chapter.

Let me know your thoughts in comments. Have you found a copy of this book yet?