The Farming Manual: Rick Building and Thatching


I’m afraid this chapter has little to offer me unless I look at the pattern exposed by the chapter. Let me start at the middle of the chapter

There is a big difference between building with 6-ft. wheat sheaves, and little, short, round barley sheaves.

The world has changed, Mr. Henderson. We no longer value straw. We have, in the modern era, moved to shorter wheat. I have never been lost in a wheat field. So I cannot build the rick you are describing. Even if you watch BBCs Victorian Farm you see short sheaves.

Some years ago I asked an elderly neighbor (when his combine was plugged up with wet wheat) if he could make a sheaf. He laughed, said yes and then said no. He could but he wouldn’t. He began twisting wheat to bind the sheaf and then he stopped saying he would never do that again…that there was no need.

He passed away a few years ago. That knowledge went with him.

Mr. Henderson spends the entire chapter cautioning us against common errors. Lay sheaves with the knots up. Build on a flat spot. The rick should be slightly larger at the top than at the bottom. Pages and pages of things to do and things to avoid so you will have a successful threshing 10 or so days later.

…a Cotswold farmer, with a rick big enough to hold a day’s threshing, will like his oats to ‘Hear the church bells twice’ in the field…

And then they thresh the wheat. There are still threshing machines around. You will see collections of antique equipment at shows in nearby towns. Groups of belt-driven and steam-powered equipment operated and maintained by older gentlemen who may or may not have both of their hands.

The next part of the chapter covers thatching and I feel that this paragraph is key:

About 2 cwt. of straw is required for each square of thatching. A ton should be kept back for every day’s threshing anticipated. Ideally, it should be hand-threshed with a flail, and grown without the aid of artificial fertilizers – although the farmer who can supply that today can sell every handful at a high price for house thatching. Straw that has been combine-harvested, baled or threshed with a fast-moving peg drum, is useless for thatching. In the West of England there are a few special threshing machines designed for the preparation of thatching straw, but require about five men to take the straw off.

This continues for a few pages. Please allow me to summarize. Even in Henderson’s time it was hard to find suitable straw for house thatching. That means I’m never going to thatch my house.

Look, I know. Those are difficult words to read. We love the Earth and want a biodegradable roof…as long as it doesn’t biodegrade today. And we have all seen The Quiet Man and want a cottage in Ireland with a thatched roof and a green door. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But just like a prepper with a Red Dawn fantasy, we have to be more honest about our motivations. You don’t prep because you fear Russian invasion, you prep because unemployment lasts longer if you don’t have to buy food when you are unemployed. Chances are, you don’t want a thatched roof because it is practical either.

But let’s say you are not convinced. Good for you. Can you learn to thatch a roof by reading Henderson’s 6 pages? No. He is looking to improve the worker who is already familiar with the process. Can you learn to thatch by watching Tales from the Green Valley? No. But you can get an overview of the process.

Most of the skill in thatching comes from practice, well-prepared straw, carefully drawn yelms, and good organization of the work – the correct number of yelms in a jack to do one strip of the roof, the ladder in just the right place, and so on.

I seriously doubt that I will ever rip my soil to plant an antique variety of wheat. Further, I seriously doubt I will walk out to my fields with a sharpened scythe to harvest my wheat, then bind it by hand into sheaves, then stack it in ricks, thresh it by hand, pile and wet the straw and thatch a building. I might decide to do that one summer but I have serious doubts.

So the value of this chapter comes from the quote above. Most of the skill on my farm comes from practice, quality materials and good organization. However, Henderson spends page after page giving pointers. In real life that doesn’t work well.

Go ahead. Approach your spouse and list, in one long monologue, all of the things they can do to be a better person today. Let me know how that works out.

Henderson had to do that. It is a book, not a relationship. But in coaching my children or helping my wife I have to reserve comment from time to time. If I dare to open my yap I offer one pointer…not so much that they are confused by my instruction, just enough that they can make a small course adjustment and practice more effectively today.

So that’s the one small adjustment I have gained from this chapter today. I can give thought to organizing our labor. I can ensure that we have what we need to do the job right. And I can help everyone practice more effectively by saying less at once.

The Farming Manual: Hedges


I have my days. Sometimes I sit, misty-eyed, looking at my fields dreaming of hedges following the contours of the landscape, providing shelter for wildlife, wind protection for the herds, cow protection for the cars driving past…sigh…

I should take a moment to be clear on this topic. What is a “hedge”? Hedges are not something we see outside of gardens in this country. This video is quite lengthy but covers the whole shebang from a how-to perspective.

And here is a later video of the same hedge discussing the results.

So we are talking about planting and training a fence. You typically want a plant species that will coppice well, something that will respond positively to being stressed, something that will grow in close quarters and, usually, something with thorns. You know what will coppice well, grow in close quarters and has thorns? Osage Orange.

Some years ago I read the book Hedges, Windbreaks, Shelters and Live Fences by E. P. Powell dated 1900. He is against using Osage Orange. While they fit most of the criteria, they tend to grow out as much as they grow up and you have to, according to Powell, trim them three times each summer. Worse, you have to lay the hedge at some point. Osage Orange typically has 1″ thorns spaced 1″ apart along the entire length of young growth. How on Earth would you weave those together as in the video above?

Rather than review Powell’s book I’ll continue with Henderson’s species recommendations.

In hedge laying every effort should be made to preserve the hawthorn, which is the hedging material par excellence, it gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hedge thorn’. If there is any choice, the hazel, elder, maple, privet, spindlewood, wayfarer, guilder, and briar should be cut out, a rapid-growing, large-leafed species is the enemy of the thorn.

We have hawthorn on the farm and, BOY!, does it succumb to fire blight. I suppose I could try to bring a blight-resistant species onto the farm or, over the long years, attempt to breed a more resistant strain of my own.


Hazel isn’t exactly common in my area. Elder grows everywhere but is, in my opinion, not a worthwhile wood to cultivate. Maple sneaks in where it can. Same with black raspberry…and poison ivy. And rather than deal with a thorny, tangled mess intertwined with poison ivy, modern farmers tend to put up barbed wire or high-tensile fence and keep the fence clean with round-up. Or, if they have a line of trees (not a hedge) they just try to cut them back every so often.

High-tensile electric works pretty well. But that’s not what Julie and I are after. We need wind protection. We need wildlife habitat. We need food production. We need coppiced wood. We need a barrier to smaller animals. And to get this I have to grow appropriate species to my climate and lay them in a woven, living mesh, not just chop them back every so often.

Hedge cropping, the mere cutting back of growth, is not so effective, as the hedge tends to get thin at the bottom and gaps appear through which stock may escape, while a really well-laid hedge is hen proof.

And, later:

Hundreds of farmers no longer keep sheep because their hedges will no longer confine them. On many farms all the stock roam over too wide an area for want of efficient hedging. On such farms it is difficult to think of a more profitable investment for time, money, and effort, than in putting all the hedges in order.

From here, Henderson begins on dry stone walling. My enthusiasm for hedging is, I believe, obvious. My lack of enthusiasm on the subject of dry-stone walling may be similarly obvious. We do not grow rocks where I live. I suppose there are rocks down there somewhere but not like they are a few hours to the north. I have driven past fields in Wisconsin where there are piles of stones that must grow like potatoes in the soil each winter for harvest each spring. The few we have were carried by glacial action or by my vacationing grandparents. But he does talk a little about contour here, something we missed in the section about hedges

Where boundaries run up hill, the wall should be built horizontally, and not up the slope. Heading stones should be supported by a large block occasionally, or made to lean uphill, so that if a lower stone is removed accidentally the others do not fall like a pack of cards.

Contour is important for other reasons though. We want to slow down the flow of water so we can store as much as possible and settle out any sediment the flowing water has picked up as it passes over and through our farm. Our creeks should be wide. Our ponds should be many. And our hills should focus the flow of water to the ridges while slowing the passage of water downhill. The top of the hill is the place to store water. But sometimes hills cannot be avoided and for those moments it is appropriate to remember that water flows through plants too. Sap goes up the stem of the plant. Cut your pleaches so your hedge grows up hill to retain the flow of sap. It’s too much to ask a tree to grow upside-down.

Henderson ends the chapter talking about sheep hurdles. “Hurdles” are wooden sections of temporary fence. This is wood craft. Coppiced wood (probably hazel) made into a kind of wicker fence section.

That’s not for me either. But there is some detail here that pertains to us. We use temporary electric fencing and that requires some level of planning.

A very important aspect is in planning the number of daily pens in a given field inch a way as to give the sheep the food they require, and at the same time ensure the minimum of effort for the land covered, and to never the finish at the week-end with all the additional labour of moving to the next field. The old shepherds were always very cunning in having it all worked out. Many of them never set a hurdle after mid-day, but spent their spare time ‘looking at the sheep’, while lesser men would strive all day to catch up. In the old days it was reckoned one man could set for 400 sheep grazing roots, or half that number if he was grinding (pulping) the roots by hand. It was equivalent to having 1,000 sheep on each acre per day, no wonder the Golden Age of British farming was based upon them.

That is to say, if we are attentive to what we are doing we can be more efficient about it. There is a real difference in the amount of time and energy I spend building fence compared to the time Julie spends on the same task. But this isn’t a chapter about rotational grazing. It’s a chapter about restraining livestock.

The hedge is of interest to me. I have allowed a few black locust trees to sprout up here and there intending to pull them with the tractor and put them all in a row. I think this is the year. Mulberry would work well too. No thorns to mess with. Hawthorn may be the gold-standard but I can’t seem to get ahead of the fire blight. Osage Orange is only in Illinois because it was believed to be the best option in North America. Who am I to argue with that? I’ll argue anyway though. I hate Osage Orange. Hate.

What is the best option where you live? Probably high-tensile electric. But are you adventurous or dumb enough to hedge? Skilled enough to build a dry stone wall? Silly enough to make wooden hurdles in an era of electric netting?

Maybe it’s not dumb or silly. Maybe it’s the right thing to do in any economy. I don’t know.

The Farming Manual: Farm Tools


Henderson spends a lot of time in this chapter describing a world I have only read about. I realize the traditional tools used in York differ from those used in Cornwall but I may be in the minority of Americans who can point to York and Cornwall on a map…let alone understand that there are differences between racial or cultural subgroups living within Cornwall.

It is in the shovel that we see the racial choice most strongly marked, the so-called Devon or Welsh socket shovel is used wherever you find Celtic people, in Cornwall, Wales, the west of Ireland, up the west coast of Scotland, and of course in the Western Isles.

What a diverse world! It is all but gone in America’s Midwest. There are only a few tokens of my ancestry laying around the old farm house. Stories mostly along with a few food items and family values. But really, the whole thing has gone the way of the shovel. No real variety. The industrial age standardized the shovel into a horrible thing that breaks upon use. There is one design available at multiple price points in every hardware store in America.

This chapter describes the different tools in use by farmers from different counties. Changes depend on the size of the people in the county, the variety of plants available and just plain old user preference. It’s kind of amazing. Tools with enough variety to meet the needs of the farmer. Tools that farmer will use for his lifetime.

I can’t imagine. I recently bought a new hatchet. I didn’t need a new hatchet. I didn’t particularly want a new hatchet. Especially not the toy steel hatchet I bought. But I spent about 5 minutes looking at the grain of the handles in the store and found one with straight grain pointed in the right direction. I bought it. It is nearly impossible to find tool handles with the right grain orientation, let alone one that will hold an edge or is the right weight. I suppose that’s why there are so many of those horrible tools with fiberglass handles. Yuk.

So here I am, living in a world of stamped, pre-broken round point shovels and cross-grain handled axes and hatchets reading about a world of quality hand-made tools in large varieties. Different shovels for different soil types, scaled down for users under a certain weight (14 stone). I can’t imagine.

And it is probably my fault. I don’t want to pay $100 for a spade. I want to buy a $20 shovel and use it like a spade, then complain loudly on the internet when it breaks.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know about you but I could do a better job of caring for my tools. I could take time to clean my unbroken shovel and wipe the blade with an oil rag. I could keep the edge sharp. I could rub a little linseed oil on the handles of my tools. I could do a better job of keeping them put away (following behind my children…). Even my horrible post-industrial tools would be better if I would care for them a little better.

But it can’t just stop there. There are tools I use regularly and for hours on end. And I’m not talking about my chainsaw. We butcher chickens with hand tools. My best knives were given to me by an elderly man. His father was a butcher. My new knives don’t compare to those old ones. I prefer a high-carbon steel blade to a stainless steel blade. By that I mean I prefer working to sharpening. And in this case, I can buy near replacements of my old tools cheaper than their modern, stainless alternatives.

So where does this chapter leave us?

It may be as simple as this: Make an honest evaluation of your land, your size, your strength, your ability and your preferences. What are your needs? Now, what tools best fit your needs? Maybe you do need that $100 spade to help you double-dig your garden beds. Or maybe you don’t need to double-dig your garden beds. Maybe you need to mound up layers and layers of compost instead. That’s a different job, requiring a different tool. One sized to fit your body mechanics. One that does not overextend your reach or overtax your strength. One that makes work easy. Fun even.

How much is that tool worth? How many junk shovels and sore backs do you want to buy? Can you do a better job of deploying your resources? I’m sure Mr. Henderson would say something about Scottish opinions on relative scarcity.

The Farming Manual: Studying Farm Work

TheFarmingManualThere is no limit to the work that needs to be done. Reducing the effort involved in one task means I am free to pursue another task…not that I will ever be out of work. Less time spent caring for cattle each year means more time sitting on the couch with my family reading books. Or more time throwing stuff away. Or more time reading books about throwing stuff away.

So how do we reduce the effort involved? It is more, Henderson suggests, than merely the application of common sense in an organized way.

…with livestock something more is involved than the dumping of a certain quantity of food in the right place at the correct time.

It is possible to devise dry-mash hoppers and automatic water troughs for pigs which only need attention once a week. By their adoption it might be possible to reduce the labour charge from 365 hours to sixty-five in the feeding of 365 pigs annually. But if the system permitted each pig to waste 2 oz. of food daily, either down its throat or on the floor, the saving would be entirely wiped out. Also if the man failed to notice a bunch of pigs which were off their food in time to isolate them and prevent an outbreak of disease it might be calamitous. On the other hand, if a little reorganization of the work did give him time in which to study the pigs no time could be better spent.

That is a much longer quote than I normally share and may be more than is fair to Henderson. I can’t reprint the book. However, that quote sums up what we need to discuss today…with this slight change. Henderson later says,

The ultimate test is not the time or mileage saved, it is the stock units which can be efficiently managed.

Well, yes. But no. The ultimate goal is not more animals. The ultimate goal is not more money. The ultimate goal would be more like safe and efficient management of animals we enjoy utilizing our land, earning us enough return that we can spend time with those we love most. Don’t get me wrong, I like money. But, given the choice, I would pick more time with Julie and the kids. And if I didn’t like the animals I wouldn’t have them.

And in achieving these goals we may find our infrastructure is not what we need. That our fixed, specialized buildings should be replaced with general-purpose, portable structures.

We are all too familiar with the ranges of brick and tile pig-sties of an earlier generation, which seem a sin to destroy, but are quite out-moded.

That applies directly to me. What can I do with my hog floor besides keep hogs there? And I really can’t keep hogs there efficiently. Not efficiently enough to make it worth doing. (Look for a post in the near future).

Julie and I waste a huge amount of time dragging and draining hoses to water stock. We should have spigots everywhere. Lighting everywhere. Solid roads everywhere. We put hay in the loft of one barn just to spend the winter throwing it down and hauling it to another barn to feed the cattle. What is the sense in that?

A careful analysis is then made on the basis of: Why is it necessary, Where should it be done? When should it be done? Who should do it? and What is the best way to do it?

I like square bales of hay. I hate loading them into the loft. How could I keep hay at the cattle barn? I could put a loft back in that barn but, again, I hate loading hay into the loft. What if I kept bales at ground level under a portion of the roof? The building is not set up for that. What would it take to correct the setup? How much easier would feeding the cattle be if we could carry a bale no more than 15 or 20 feet?

Henderson spends the rest of the chapter illustrating his efficient building design and farm layout, discussing the merits of his approach with an emphasis on designing routes for harvest equipment or manure delivery to any field. In an earlier book he says they try to haul 600 loads of manure and spread it across the entire farm.

I have a lot of manure to haul and I have a number of fields I can’t begin to hope to cover with manure from the barn.

While I may have given the reader the impression that we are a horribly inefficient operation and feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson the truth is we are a horribly inefficient operation and I feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson. And, while I would love to tell you more about it, the sun is coming up and I have to take a bucket of water to the chickens in the greenhouse, walk to the cows and evaluate the remaining pasture, open the chicken house (next to the cows), give the chickens a half of a bucket of water from the cow’s trough, walk to the pigs (quite near the cows) carrying a bucket of water from the cow tank, feed the pigs, walk to the barn to feed the milk cow, drop a fresh bale for the calves in the calf pen across the way, stop at the grain bin for a bag of chicken feed that I will then carry on my shoulder 1/4 mile back to the greenhouse where I started.

Could that be better? Yes. But not a whole lot. Not on foot when the well is broken anyway.

But today the well gets fixed. And that will save all of us a lot of time.

The Farming Manual: The Mechanics of Labor


Some years ago when I thought I was an athlete I made a day trip to Kansas City to visit Coach Rutt. Coach had several programs that utilized bodyweight and, otherwise, minimal equipment: pull-up bar, rings and sand. The “Rutman mile” was popular in CrossFit circles for a while (10 years ago) and it was simply this: Carry your bodyweight in sand for a mile in under 15 minutes.

I came close.

In this chapter Henderson discusses the capability of the human body, its often untapped potential and ways we limit our capacity by lack of training. What is possible?

…the very experienced stacker [of wheat sacks] …can carry at least three times his own weight without difficulty. The world record is 1 ton 18 cwt.

A sack of wheat, Henderson says, is 18 stone…252 pounds.

In the old days, the carrying of a sack of wheat up the granary stairs was the qualifying task by which a youth was entitled to consider himself a man.

Well, let’s see…39 years old, 175 pounds and can’t imagine carrying the equivalent of 5 feed sacks at once…not a man by that measure.

I struggled to carry a single hundredweight in my first week on the farm. I studied those who could, and within twelve months my master would set me to carry all the grain from the threshing machine in the standard four-bushel sacks, and which in the case of beans, peas or vetches would be 19 stone – in those days approaching two and a half times my own weight.

Most of the athletes who journaled their attempts at the Rutman mile (Kelly Moore comes to mind) found it almost impossible to lift the sandbag from the ground. Henderson suggests it is better if you receive the bag from a starting position around shoulder-height.

Think of an athlete preparing to perform a squat. Head up. Chest out. Core muscles tightened. Squeeze your cheeks. You lift the bar with your shoulders. These are things you will remember hearing from your coach. “Knees shoulder width.” Your coach will explain the physical motion and will correct your motion to prevent injury as you train for higher weight.

Let’s hear from Coach Henderson:

It is sometimes necessary to take a sack from a height from which it is not possible to take it across the shoulders, and in which case it must be carried down the back, and can be done in perfect safety providing the knees are close together and the stomach muscles are contracted before taking the weight. To have the legs wide apart and the body muscles slack is to court an injury either to the back or stomach.

Notice his emphasis on the core. Keep your back and stomach tight throughout the motion. Henderson is writing this chapter to train farm athletes. I have joked about CrossFarm many times. This is why. Farming for a high level of output is an athletic endeavor. Every morning is a foot race to feed, water and add bedding. Then there are other chores. Put up hay in time to shower and go to a social gathering, slaughter 300 chickens before customers arrive. Cut, split and stack that tree before the next storm arrives. These are very much similar to CrossFit’s idea of timed workouts. How much work can you perform safely in a given period of time? But instead of making metal go up and down we are making cows happy, customers happy or keeping the wood stove going.

But it all hinges on safety and technique…not just strength or size or weight.

Hi. My name is Chris. I am 39 years old. I am 6′ tall, weigh 175 and don’t have an ounce of fat on my body. I can easily deadlift 300 pounds. I commonly carry two feed sacks at once.

Let me introduce you to my lovely bride. She is not 39. She is 5’9″ and weighs significantly less than me. She couldn’t deadlift 300 pounds to save her life. She irritates an injury in her right shoulder if she even thinks about carrying a single feed sack or a half-filled bucket of water.

What is the difference between Julie and me? When dealing with a 50 pound sack our weight, height and age difference don’t enter the equation. Julie carries it incorrectly.

You may have balked when I said that but let me suggest you think again. Julie is under more muscular strain carrying a basket of wet towels to the clothesline than when she carries a feed sack on her shoulder. It’s not weight. It’s technique. Normally she carries the basket in front of her body, pushing her center of balance way out in front, leaning back to compensate. And you should weigh a basket of wet towels sometime. You might be surprised what you are doing to your back.

Julie carries a feed sack on her right shoulder. Every time. She leans way to her left. Every time.

I either carry a sack on each shoulder or I alternate the shoulder I carry the sack on.

But Henderson says this is incorrect. I should center the sack across both shoulders. Maybe that’s a way I can help Julie.

And I need to help Julie. I need to coach Julie and our children…training them to be farming athletes. And if you are concerned that Julie can’t keep up with me physically:

Manure loading is considered to be one of the heaviest jobs in farm work, but with a little study it is no more than a physical effort which can be enjoyed. During the war, farmers were warned that they should not expect land girls to load manure. With suitable training a woman can compete quite easily with a man of similar weight. Intelligent application, as any woman can demonstrate, can compete with brute force in nearly all farm work.

This is a chapter on coaching. Coaching body mechanics, coaching technique and coaching tool selection (shovels shovel, spades dig). Work can be fun. It is always work but it should never hurt. If you are hurt, focus on healing and while you heal up, try to analyze what caused your injury. Are you lifting or carrying incorrectly? Are you using the wrong tool? Do you sit with bad posture at your desk job for hours on end?

I have some room for improvement. How about you?

The Farming Manual: The Reason For The Work


Chapter 1: Teaching Farm Work

Q: Why are we doing this?

A: Well, to make money. To pay our taxes and buy new shoes.

That, my friends, is not an inspiring answer.

Have I oversimplified the big picture? Did I make an assumption? I thought everybody knew. Henderson is laying out his class syllabus in this chapter but I was entirely struck by the big picture…and its implications. As we read chapter 1, Henderson shares a list of ways he evaluates potential employees. He watches to see if they are working and then says:

The ability to judge distance, detail and object, are very important factors which can make all the difference in mastering a craft.

I obviously want to focus today’s post on the object of the operation.

…can he explain the reason for the operation – which is to give every plant the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number which must be left to ensure an adequate yield from a given acreage.

My kids, I’m afraid, can not explain the object. In their minds we have cows because dad wants to have cows. While that is not entirely incorrect, there is more to it. We have a given amount of meadow. I can spend a huge amount of time keeping it mowed or I can mow it with cows. Cows, like any other mower, require maintenance. But they also reproduce themselves and taste great. So our object, using Henderson’s framework, is to give every cow the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. Where Henderson requires judgement of plant spacing, we require judgement of daily grazing allotment.

But that still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter because we could have a very nice house in town if we wanted. Instead we have a not very nice house way, way out of town. Way out of town. Like way out.

Why? And why cows and not sheep?

Maybe the question should be changed from “Why are we doing this” to “Why are we doing this?”

For a couple of reasons. First, cows make good economic use of our land. As long as we get rain and sunshine we will have grass. It’s pretty cheap and the cows like it. Add in a little bit of management and you win. The second reason is not about cows. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, deep down.

Our well went out at the barn two days ago. Right now we are hauling water from my house to the barn using the tractor. This is in no way an ideal situation and uses a lot of time. In the near future dad and I (or maybe just dad) will replace the well pump. It will be a cold winter day. Screws won’t turn, plastic will be brittle, old wiring will fail. But we will soon have it fixed. Then something else will break. That’s how it goes.

Will we break too? I hope not. I hope we are able to stand against the tyranny of our 40 year old infrastructure, becoming stronger and more resilient with each problem. Cue the fife and drum because we are part of a brotherhood of American farmers!

I guess, in a way, we have cows because I want to have cows. Because, like Oliver, I am not content to sit in my city apartment between sessions at my job. I want more! I want fresh air, hard work, strength, fitness along with cold toes and crushed fingernails! I don’t feel that these things make me more of a man than you. I don’t compare myself to you. I compare myself to me. I think these things make me more of me!

But I have gone astray. I’m reading a book, not delivering an Oliver speech.

Oliver is, I think, useful in discussing the book. If you are familiar, Oliver approached farming with books. His neighbors farmed because that’s what they had. They knew what they knew and did what they did, shaking their heads at Oliver’s “modern, scientific” farming. In the show, the two rarely got together and that, Henderson points out, is a mistake.

To acquire any skill expert demonstration and supervision is essential right from the start, and the object should be accuracy, correctness, ease of movement and then speed. All skills need time to be assimilated, and are the better for it. A few days of good training in one season will put you far ahead in the next year.

Rather than ask his neighbors, Oliver put his nose in books and leaflets. Only once in a great while did he bother to look elsewhere, usually to the clouds. Some years ago a real farmer friend set me straight on this very topic. I read a lot of books. A lot of books. But I had very little experience to back up my book learnin’. In conversation with Dave I could only contribute what I had read and I had read a book on any topic we could discuss. Now, Dave is a reader too. But Dave is a real farmer and at the time I was not. He pointed this distinction out. “I read a book! I read a book! I read a book! Well, Mr. Book, can you butcher a hog?”

Well, Dave, I read about it in a book. But it turns out that there isn’t a book on butchering that will teach you what you can learn from Dave in about 20 minutes. And, as Henderson pointed out above, that experience with Dave has percolated over the years. It gave me a solid foundation of learning upon which to build. That first pig was a slow process on a cold day. Now we go much faster.

Since the focus of this chapter is about teaching, not learning, I should point out some things about the way Dave taught me. Dave shot and stuck three pigs in succession then hung them from the loader bucket to bleed out. I watched (somewhat horrified). Three pigs. Dave worked on one, explaining what he was doing. Dave’s son worked on another, explaining nothing. The third pig was mine. I got a lot of help.

What a happy memory. It was so cold! We let the pigs hang overnight and packaged the meat in the morning. The kind of cold that makes your knuckles ache (Henderson has some advice about cold weather in this chapter too). But happy work with people we love.

A happy man is more an halfway to being healthy. Happiness is as good an indication of mental health, as a thermometer is of physical health. A happy worker has no worries, for he is far too busy to worry about problems which do not concern him directly. An unhappy worker magnifies his grievances, and their poisons settle in his muscles to add to his troubles.

Again, this is a chapter about teaching farm work. I suspect Henderson is including this detail in an effort to help you evaluate potential farm help. In a similar way, our pastor, when we were kids, told us to be sure to marry a happy person. And I found, during the lengthy interview process involving numerous candidates, Julie to be a happy person. So I hired her. And it seems to be working out pretty well. And we are, together (mostly Julie) teaching our children to be happy people…who will marry happy people.

We are nearing the end of the chapter and I guess it’s time for me to answer my own question. Why are we doing this?

The greatest service we can render anyone is to teach him to love his work, and to find in it contentment and happiness. … No farmer could spend time better than in devoting ten minutes a day, on his daily rounds, to stimulating each worker to the desire for knowledge by arousing his curiosity and interest in the things about him.

I seek to stimulate my children’s minds – and to engage my own – all while doing work we love surrounded by nature’s beauty. That is why we are doing this…which is to give every child the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. It is important to remember this when the well pump breaks…or when other things go wrong.

My experience convinces me that very few boys, and even fewer girls, know their own ability. It is something you have to teach them. It surprises many of them, and with delight, to learn how capable they are. But they must be given carefully graduated responsibility at first to see they do not fall down on the job in the early stages. Later they may blame themselves bitterly for the things that go wrong, then we have to help and comfort.

Yeah. Well, maybe I won’t screw up my grandchildren. I have a lot to learn on this topic. Fortunately, I have a better resource than Oliver, Henderson or Dave at my disposal. I have my dad who tolerates my ridiculous notions. I hope the final quote for this chapter is soothing to him.

But how worthwhile it all is, to earn the friendship, the affection and the respect of the young. To have the privilege of listening to the younger generation telling us how they hope to put the world and farming right. Few will dispute it has often gone wrong. It is a tremendous thrill to share with youth their passionate desire to make the world a better place, both for themselves and those who will follow after them. They will not fail if they only pass on the message that work is something to be enjoyed, that work is good for you.

Henderson’s Farming Manual: Preface


Ah, that old book smell. The smell of a book that has been gathering dust for decades. Dust in little balls across the top of pages. You scrape it off before you open the book, hearing the binding crack as you do…wondering if you are making a mistake waking this old book from its sleep…hoping the pages won’t crumble as you turn them.

This book is not one of those in part because it has been preserved chemically. Do you remember the smell of mimeograph paper? Libraries tend to use some sort of disinfectant or bug spray or something that smells like a mix of mimeograph and moth balls. Our friends at Frinton-On-Sea apparently love the stuff. I get a strong whiff with every turn of the page. Maybe a headache too.


I would love to invite you to read this book with me but it’s a little hard to find. There are a few online libraries that offer it or you can find it on several online retailers. It isn’t cheap. I’m too embarrassed to remember what I paid for my copy but at the beginning of January, 2016 there is one on Amazon for $114.

In a way, I’m reviewing this for you to save you from a $114 mistake. On the other hand, I really don’t do book reviews. I share with you as books change me. Both of Mr. Henderson’s prior works are still working on me and I have high hopes for this book as well. This book may contain one idea that is well worth $114. If so, it is money well spent.

Henderson spells out his reasons for writing in the first paragraph of the preface:

I will try and explain the bare mechanics of the process [of farming]. Not in the sense of mechanized farming, but of the human machine on the land and its application to work.

He further justifies the work by lamenting the loss of labor on the farm saying work is being completed by children and elderly men. If you can find anybody to do the skilled work it is likely they are “an elderly man with his best years behind him.”



Three generations of Jordan spent four hours shoveling manure prior to a heavy rainstorm at Christmas. Dad drove the loader tractor. I worked, directed and instructed as the children helped. Henderson laments in the preface that he sees young men driving the tractor while old men are doing the heavier work. So far so good. But then he lays it all  out.

Management also is passing into the hands of college-trained men who have no manual skill with which to instruct those who serve under them, and to inspire them with a joy in work which makes hours, wages and conditions of secondary importance to the pleasure and interest which may be found in the work.

The pleasure of shoveling manure. Yes, pleasure. I know exactly what he is talking about. Nobody wants to shovel manure for the sake of shoveling manure. When was the last time you jumped for joy that you could clean a litter box? But I want to keep livestock. I enjoy our livestock. And this is the price. I want happy, healthy, clean, dry livestock. This is the price. I shovel manure and bedding. I try to find efficient and effective ways to accomplish this work but I also try to just stand there in the barn and enjoy the cattle. I don’t look forward to completing the work. I look forward to having healthy livestock. See the difference?

The tragedy of it all is that given the skill, and the high output which comes from skill, agriculture is the happiest and pleasantest of all occupations, performed under conditions of fresh air and sunshine, and with proper direction and efficiency it should be possible to find in it a reward comparable with anything which can be earned in industry.

Well, now, Mr. Henderson. Things may have changed. Generally, I agree with what you are saying…hence the farm. But not entirely. I am in little danger of losing a limb at the office. There is little chance that an agitated co-worker will crush me at my desk as I sit in a squishy chair and air conditioning. But I have less chance of catching a communicable disease on the farm than I do in the office, a point you made earlier in the preface. There are no free lunches. But I do agree, generally, that farm work is pleasant and fulfilling. Database optimization is less so.

Farm work is something to be enjoyed…because it is creative. There is so much scope for initiative, pride and interest that we…never give up or think of retiring.

I agree. So does Gene Logsdon as he wrote in The Mother of All Arts. But I can say that of all of the jobs I have had since I left food service behind in my youth. Construction? Creative. Training? Creative. Server administration? Totally creative. And that’s a big part of what draws me into each of those and away from changing tires on tractor-trailers. I don’t do well with mundane and routine. I would die on an assembly line. Heck, I have a farm and a job that both leverage my creativity and still I blog as a creative outlet.

But he finishes the above paragraph by pointing out that it is soothing to perform farm tasks we have mastered when our soul is troubled. And I agree. Julie and I have been through some stuff this fall. There is something entirely therapeutic about getting up early and doing chores. Hello chickens. Hello pigs. Hello cows. Check water, check feed. Count heads. Look at eyes, ears and noses. That part is the same every day and those simple actions pulled us through some hard times. Though I enjoy my job in town I found the servers I work with to be unsympathetic and uninspiring on our bad days.

He finishes up by admitting that it is ambitious of him to attempt to teach farm work with a book. But even if he only accomplishes helping the reader find a starting point…

Julie’s right shoulder is always sore. Is she carrying a bucket incorrectly? Probably. A bale of hay? A sack of feed? Is this an issue of technique or just a lack of strength and conditioning? Maybe both. But I hope we gain some insights into how to address the issue by reading this book. I don’t mind rubbing my wife’s shoulders but I do mind a lifestyle that is damaging to her body.

And that is exactly the problem this book sets out to solve.

I hope you can find a way to read and discuss it with me. I’ll do my best to make it meaningful in case you can’t find a copy.

Reading Journal 2015 Week 6

So what’s the deal? What’s with all the books?

Some years ago (maybe 2006?) Pastor Mark used a Charlie “Tremendous” Jones quote in a sermon. I’ll just let Mr. Jones tell you in a couple of clips.

Here is the quote pastor Mark shared:

That’s what it’s all about. I would encourage you to find more of his materials and give them a look. Apparently he had a spare house to hold his library. Julie just rolled her eyes.

I’m making a few formatting changes each week trying to make this more of what I want it to be. I don’t think I need to publish an in-depth review of everything. Sometimes I just want a record of what I have read.

This coming week I plan to read Malabar Farm. A friend sent me a spare copy she had. I’ll be pressed to get through that book as it looks meaty and Spring is upon us. Chicks will arrive on the 17th. I still don’t have pigs. We are putting garden in a greenhouse but otherwise we are a little behind on our work list. My reading time is suffering.

Farming Manual by George Henderson

What is the book about?
How to get it done by the man who got it done. The Farming Ladder is Henderson’s overall farming philosophy wrapped up in a neat little package. The Farmer’s Progress is more detail focusing on getting young farmers started. This book is more about Henderson as an older farmer passing on hard-won experience. He is detailing everything from training youth to work efficiently to training us in hedge laying. There are things that just don’t transfer well via text but I’ll save my criticism for later in the post.

Is it a classic?
Yes. All three of his books. I don’t care how many aluminum cans you have to pick up to pay for these books. Buy them. Read them. Treasure them. Not kidding.

Will you read it again?
Oh, yes. Several times.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
Get the other two books first. A reader linked me to a .pdf of this book but the file was structured so facing pages were presented both at once. There may be a way to present single pages but it was beyond me…and beyond frustrating. I couldn’t read the .pdf on the screen of my phone. So I bought the book. And it wasn’t cheap. So my long-winded answer is that I didn’t find the .pdf readable so I had to get a physical copy to read. And it will now live on my bookshelf forever. Your shelf? How much of a completionist are you?

Can you relate a favorite passage?
Well, let’s start at the beginning.

Start at five o’clock and do an hour’s work until breakfast time. An hour for breakfast and start again at seven o’clock. A twenty minute break mid-morning with a  glass of milk, fruit or a scone. A good meal at midday and a rest until one o’clock. Half an hour for tea at four-thirty. Another two hours’ work, followed by a light meal will complete the day without any sense of exhaustion at any time. If one rests on Sundays between the mid-morning break and tea time, it gives you a seventy-two-hour week, and if every hour is properly planned and organized the output of work will justify the effort involved and will leave a sense of quiet satisfaction and achievement. The work must also be planned to give variety and interest, one would not want to hoe sugar beet for seventy-two hours. From labour health, from health contentment springs.

Well, that certainly fits with last week’s ideas from Elon Musk but I like his notion that you need a variety of work throughout the day. There are certainly seasons when it is appropriate to work 10 hours on a single task but every day for a few months? No thanks.

The habit of reading, and deriving knowledge from books, is essential for any young man who wishes to go far in farming. It is worth studying how to read quickly. A practiced reader will read the introduction carefully, which should describe the purpose of the book, and then flip quickly through and make brief notes on the sections which will merit closer study. In some books there are whole chapters which may be skipped altogether. The skill in quick reading lies in directing the eyes between the lines, and it will be found that whole phrases instead of individual words are being taken in at a glance.

But all you read are mere theories until we have tried them out in practice. Whatever comes to us, good or bad, is usually the result of our own action or lack of action.

So work hard and read a lot.

At a later point in the book he is talking about seeking maximum efficiency as we move toward mechanization on the farm. He points out that it costs

£4 to the acre for custom combining, often leaving a lot of grain behind on the ground (one grain to the square foot is 4 lb. to the acre), and then a further charge for baling the straw – if weather permits.

And later,

Nine-tenths of the crops we grow are cashed in through animals.

You know what I want? I want an hour to drink coffee with George Henderson. I know he is frugal but he’s suggesting we build a rick with our grains. Why? Because that’s a cheap way to store it. Sure, why not. But then what? Well, you have to thresh it. OK. So what if you have to combine 3,000 acres of wheat? Well then, we’ll use a machine and leave some on the ground.

Have you ever seen a corn field in the fall? Around here they get the corn (maize) out in September most years. We get a warming spell in October and the fields that haven’t been plowed will look like they have been replanted with corn. Not just the end rows where the corn head knocked the stalks down leaving whole ears in place, the whole field. Terribly wasteful. But it makes more economic sense than putting an army of people to work gathering $3 corn out of the stubble.

And if 90% of the grain goes to livestock anyway, why not let the livestock glean the fields? They’ll add fertilizer while they are there.

So, Mr. Henderson, I await your answer. In the meantime I’ll try a few things out on my own. I understand it is easier to transport one pound of pork than to transport three pounds of corn. That’s why so many farmers around here have confinement hogs. I get it.

After a lengthy chapter on human anatomy to help us understand and observe why we need to work certain ways he closes by saying,

A person who would take exercise in preparing for farm work will find there is nothing to equal walking with a good posture.

I think that’s pretty good advice. Go take a walk. It’s February 8th today and the weather is particularly spring-like. In fact, I may have entirely missed the maple sap. We spent the entire day outside yesterday and it was great. We walked to the woods in the corner of our property, cutting thorny sprouts along the way, hoping to find deer sheds (too early). But all six of us, my brother in law and my two nephews were out in the mud, climbing on hay bales, crushing ice under boots and having a good time. Go for a walk. Even if you’re not a farmer.

Who should read this book?
Read through the table of contents in the .pdf. The book is honest about the subjects it covers. If you want to read Henderson’s detail on hedging, feel free to read what he has to say. If you want to learn about hedging though, this book won’t get it done. Watching YouTube might get you a little closer. But you’ll probably have to find somebody to work with for some time to really get it down. Reading this book was, for me, less about the content and more about gaining a better understanding of George Henderson.

Take home messages:
Mr. Henderson read everything he could and, as this book shows, worked to bring it all together. It’s not enough to read for entertainment. It’s not enough to read for information. You have to, as Mortimer Adler points out, read for understanding. Henderson understood.

I think that’s the message to get here. Read beyond the borders of your specific interest. See what else is out there, see how it relates to what you already know and get a better picture of the whole. I think Henderson could see a bigger world than I can at the present time. But I’m working on it.

Article of the Week

I don’t like the “X of the Week” subtitle. I’ll work on that.

Julie and I have subscribed to Graze for several years now. Our friend with the dairy, Steve, recommended it and said he easily recovers the cost of the publication each year. So we did. And I agree.

This month’s issue (Volume 22, No. 2) has an article by Gabe Brown detailing his transition away from a high-maintenance, high-cost of maintenance herd to a low-maintenance, grass-based herd. Basically, Gabe pulled the plug on the herd and kept the survivors. I highly encourage you to read it. In fact, I make it a point to read anything of Gabe’s, though I don’t hold his word up as gospel. He just seems to say interesting and thought-provoking things.

Anyway, he pulled the plug. I’ll quote a little bit here but I want you to make it a point to read the article…somehow. OK? Promise? Pinky-swear? OK.

You have to decide what’s not necessary to your operation. In ours it was all vaccines, de-wormers, pour-ons, grain supplementation and as much hay as we could eliminate in our environment. We got rid of all of them cold turkey, all at the same time.

OK. Great. Now, skip forward.

I’m not going to kid you: That first year, the conception rate averaged less than 50%, which tells you just how wrong our cattle were for what we wanted to do.


But here’s what the article doesn’t tell me…and it’s important. He lost 50%…of how many? A few weeks ago I read the King Ranch book. He talked about keeping 6 heifers out of 1000, culling the rest. Similarly, Phil Rutter talks about hoping to keep 8 of the first 5,000 hazels he plants. So I might suggest that Brown wasn’t aggressive enough. But I might also suggest HOLY TOLEDO! Half of his herd!?!?!?!?

Let’s play with that for a minute. Just a minute, I know you have other things to do with your day. I have 13 cows. Next year, following this plan, I would have 6…plus 3 heifers. What’s the cull rate on the second generation? Was I lucky enough to stop at 50% the first year? Maybe if I had cattle numbered in the hundreds or thousands…I don’t know.

It does seem that this is the time to take my medicine. But I have heard Ian Mitchel-Innes say that you need 300 cows before you close your herd. So what do I do between now and then?

The best I can.

I have to raise my cattle to the best of my ability, selecting bulls with a background on grass. I may even need to cross-breed my herd to increase the value of my calf crop, bring up fertility and take my herd closer to grass. Whatever I do, I think it’s a hoot. And I’m glad you are here with me. Let me know if you are taking the same medicine.

BTW, I recently (within the last 4 months) read Man, Cattle and Veld. Zietsman had very similar feelings but would keep non-performing heifers in his herd to keep mob numbers up. He just wouldn’t keep their offspring for breeding. That’s the approach I’m taking. I don’t like Snowball. Mrs. White and 27 didn’t breed until they were 3. I’m happy to have their calves but I won’t be selecting future bull calves from them because they were late to mature…mostly because they are so danged tall. But this year 70 is going to have to go. She appears to be a non-breeder.

Let’s talk a little more about my cow herd in my post about reading books. I want small cows. I want small cows. I want small cows. Small cows. Not short cows. Not tiny cows. Small. At least in the eyes of my neighbors. Small. There is some concern that if you breed heifers too early you’ll stunt their growth. So what? Why do we care if my cow weighs 1,000 pounds and is frame 4 instead of 1300 pounds and frame 5? We haven’t changed the genetic potential of her offspring, just the expression of her own genetics. So I raise my replacement heifers on grass and they do appear to be a little smaller than other heifers I bought last summer with similar birth dates…but those similar heifers were given corn.

Why does this matter at all? Because every day a cow eats a percentage of her body weight. The more they weigh the more they have to eat. Mrs. White eats a lot. By shrinking my cows I will need less grass to maintain my herd lowering my production costs and, potentially, increasing my output…I just have to make sure my calves have the potential to be everything the market demands in terms of size and weight.

And I think that’s just the kind of change Mr. Brown was talking about.

Please give me some feedback on this post. I read a lot. Like, a lot, lot. I like to share with my readers when I find a book that helps a farmer out. But I also like to be entertained so I include links to movies and music. Fun books too. Please let me know if there are questions I can answer for you or if you have any suggestions to help make this format more meaningful.

Also, let me know if you are doing any of the reading with me…even if you are running behind. Share your favorite quotes. Tell me if I missed the point.

Click here to see all entries in my reading journal.