The Best Kept Secret Part 1
Surely the best kept secret in the U.S. today is the wonderful way of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place. If more people understood the opportunities for Faith, freedom, responsibility, health and education that good farming can provide, our rural areas might be repopulated and the self-destructive course of our society reversed. This timeless activity is so much more than just a way of making a living or accumulating an estate–it is in fact the Middle Path described in the Buddha’s teachings and the object of St. Thomas’ words: “The kingdom of heaven surrounds you, but you see it not.”
Almost everyone, no matter what their occupation or status, has at least some tiny spark of fascination with an aspect of farming–caring for animals; watching the new grass emerge from the ground in spring; work in the fresh air and sunshine; the inescapable mysteries of birth and death; or perhaps the movement of a good harvest from the fields to the safety of the barn. But the whole that constitutes good farming–much greater than the sum of the parts–remains a mystery; invisible, unknown and unknowable in a society that uses everything and takes care of nothing; one that depends for its very existence on the daily exploitation of people and natural resources. And this is why the secret is likely to be kept awhile longer.
It has been my great privilege, despite having very little to start with and many setbacks, to have started on the path of farming when I was a teenager, to give up doing all other work when I was 37, and to reach my mid-40’s with the prospect of continuing for the remainder of my life. There was nothing to do with farming in my upbringing, so I had to struggle from the beginning to seek out and learn the most basic things. And like a person carrying one tiny candle and trying to find his way in a vast underground cavern, I needed all my faculties to find the fight course and put the pieces together into a harmonious whole.
We all have to struggle with our lives, but at this point I consider farming, thoroughly learned and in tune with nature and the passage of time, to be a very easy, endlessly satisfying and interesting way of life–a priceless education that never ends. In fact, in the early days when I was just starting and full of youthful over-exuberance, I had absolutely no concept of the great sense of ease and comfort I feel now–even when confronted with extremely trying circumstances. It was difficult for me to get to this point though, and I had to learn everything the hard way. This is being written in hopes that it can make things easier for you.
If it had been my good fortune to be married, or my misfortune to inherit money, I might have been drawn into general fanning, market gardening or dairying. But I always had a special interest in honeybees and so, from a small beginning, built up my present apiary of 300 honey producing colonies, plus the bees and equipment needed to propagate queen bees and nucleus colonies. Beekeeping is a unique occupation–a vital part of the farming world, but with a point of view quite different from the other creative farming trades. With most farms, the attention is focused on one particular piece of land. But with the bees spread out in many locations, all needing attention throughout the year; and with the honey crop coming up out of the ground wherever cattle and clover are thriving, the beekeeper takes a keen interest in the methods and fortunes of many farms. He watches them all progress through the seasons and make their crops through every kind of weather, and with varying degrees of success. This is a natural adjunct of being out and about doing the apiary work, and for me it has become a fascinating hobby, yielding all kinds of insights and ideas which would be hard to come by while focusing on any one individual farm. Getting to know the good people (mostly farmers) who let me keep bees on their property has also been a great education, and helped me expand my perspective on farming here in Addison County and beyond.
This is a beautiful dairy farming valley, wedged in between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. Visually, it resembles Wisconsin more than it does any other part of New England. There are some exceptions on properties owned by the most recent farming immigrants from Quebec and Holland, but most buildings and farmyards are quite dilapidated by Midwestern standards. Still, most visitors (including farmers) are carried away by the beauty of the place: The lush pastures and gently rolling fields of corn, alfalfa and grass hay–with the lake, the Green Mountains of the Adirondacks always somewhere in the background. And the herds of lovely Holstein and Jersey cattle which can hold their own with dairy cattle anywhere. It really is beautiful, and nature here can still inspire us with awe and wonder; bringing the crops forth from the ground and transforming them into such lovely and useful animals.
Most of the time, driving out on my rounds, I feel fortunate to be in such a place. But scratch below the surface at any point–especially near the houses and barns–and a very different picture emerges. Think for a moment about the history of these farms, where they have been and how they are facing up to the future. Suddenly, the bucolic and romantic notions are shattered, and the scene becomes one of confusion and disarray; self-destruction and approaching disaster. It’s the same story being played out all over the U.S., and spreading over the whole world, as everyone tries to embrace our predatory way of life. The people are gone from the land, driven off by their own machinery and an economic system that would instantly grind to a halt without a steady stream of natural resources and people to exploit and abuse. The few people remaining spend most of their time operating huge equipment that now does most of the work. Farms keep getting bigger and consume each other like bass in a small pond. The cattle wander around on cement inside huge sheds more like airplane hangers than barns. The yards full of rusting machinery, mountains of old tires and silage plastic, and flocks of grackles feeding on bakery waste make these places look more like unregulated landfills than farms. Economically, with huge operating expenses and small or non-existent net incomes, they function primarily as money laundering rackets for banks and corporations selling machinery and ag chemicals. And everywhere the sounds of the countryside are drowned out by diesel engines, and the smells of living earth are obscured by those disgusting manure lagoons and the ubiquitous liquid manure spreaders.
Watching all this, I had to ask “Is this what farming really is?” And now, without hesitation the answer must be “No!” So then… what is farming, really? I thought about this for years before I finally had to agree with Mr. Fukuoka* (*Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming) when he said: “Farming is really the cultivation of better human beings.” After learning more about the proper use of time and the life span of a farm, I arrived at my current definition of Successful Farming: a way of life based on the cultivation of better human beings, which is actively being passed from one generation to the next. From now on this is what I’m referring to whenever farming is mentioned. We still have agriculture here in Vermont, but farming has almost completely disappeared.
In the search for good farming mentors, sooner or later our attention must come to rest upon the Anabaptist communities–especially the Old Order Mennonites and the Amish. Though there are inspiring examples among farmers of all backgrounds, these may be the only people in North America succeeding in farming as a group; and through their group success have created a kind of community stability and resilience unknown to the rest of us. In the Middlebury College library I found two additions of John Hostetler’s most interesting book: Amish Society. Mr. Hostetler himself grew up in an Old Order Amish household. At the last minute, he decided not to join his family’s church and instead became a member of the nearby Mennonite congregation. This choice enabled him to go to college later on, and devote his career to the study of the various Anabaptist groups. His books are a fascinating took at these societies, viewed from both the inside and outside. In the 1963 edition of Amish Society, he predicted that this group would eventually disappear and be absorbed into the Mennonite Church the same way the original congregations in Switzerland and France were. But by 1993, his new edition pointed out how wrong he had been, and documented the expansion of Amish settlements and population. Up until the 1970’s -80’s, the allure of American society had caused many young Amish to leave their church and the traditional way of life. But as modern America has become more chaotic, predatory and abusive, more and more of their young people are choosing to stay with the Amish church and traditional farming way of life. No one can deny their success any longer. They have problems just like all people do, but their settlements are expanding and they are colonizing new land in at least a dozen states. By focusing on the community of Faith, a simple life, and basic good fanning, these people, who don’t go to school after the 8th grade, are establishing vital rural communities on land ruined and abandoned by a greedy “modern” agriculture that tries to support chemical, machinery and insurance companies instead of farmers and their families. In the midst of the confusion which modern industrial society has brought to agriculture and all of society’s arenas, the Amish provide clear evidence of something better to strive for; a refuge at least partially within the grasp of many of us.
What are the characteristics of Amish society and farming that have helped them to succeed and quietly persist through so many generations? Here is a partial list:
1. Faith and community life are inseparable from their farming.
2. Other occupations are pursued if necessary to make a living or save money, but full-time farming is considered to be the best way of life.
3. Traditional families form the basic social unit, and special consideration is given to the size of farm a family can care for properly.
4. If a settlement is successful, the number of farms grows, but their average size stays the same or decreases; as each generation matures, new farms are spun off rather than expanding existing ones.
5. Skills and resources are held as a community and actively passed from one generation to another. The domestic arts and a proper division of labor have been carefully preserved.
6. Separation from the larger society is considered vital, including termination of formal schooling as soon as legally possible.
7. Economics is based on self-sufficiency and saving rather than spending and borrowing.
8. Limited use is made of industrial machinery and centrally distributed sources of energy; in some cases, these are almost entirely absent.
9. Locations for settlement are carefully chosen, and they will move from even their oldest settlements if necessary to preserve their way of life.
Frankly, anyone with a strong attachment to the Gospels and the heartfelt belief in farming as the proper way of life, should at least investigate the possibility of joining an Amish or Old Order Mennonite church and community. The power of joining together all the elements of good farming within a community of Faith creates something unattainable in the divisive and confused world of “the English”. There’s certainly a much greater chance of having a quiet and useful life in farming within the Amish society than there is on the outside. But this is a road that only a few among “the English” can follow.
The characteristics of good farming embodied by the Amish are the very same ones we all must pursue in order to succeed. It is ironic however, that within Amish society it’s the most conforming and home-loving members who can most easily embrace them, but elsewhere in America today it’s only the most determined individuals and mavericks who have taken these same simple guidelines and made a success of farming. And once again we’ve run up against the best kept secret and the difficulty of getting the truth out in the sun where we all can benefit from it.
The real difficulties of starting, persevering and succeeding in farming have very little to do with learning the skills, finding the information, being strong enough to do the work, or even accumulating the necessary land and equipment. The place where even the most determined and skillful people stumble and fall is when they encounter the full force of isolation caused by trying to live a farming lifestyle within an industrial society. And those few who seem to have transcended this problem often fail the final test when their children move away and take up other occupations.
Farming is a creative process, with a deep grounding in faith and a requirement to face directly all the realities of life and death. Farming must of course survive and make economic progress through the energy of the sun and skillful husbandry. But the real profit lies in actually doing the work, and watching another generation accepting the skills and wisdom passed through us from the great farmers lost in the past. This work is measured in days, weeks, seasons, years and lifetimes. A farming career, even if pursued from birth to death, is just a small part of a long continuum; an underground river of time flowing out of the remotest antiquity, bursting out of the ground at this moment, and then disappearing into the sky and the unknown future. While timeless and all-embracing, farming is always a work in progress, never to be completed as long as people must share this world with plants and animals.
All of these things are in direct contradiction to the guiding principles of modern society. Where good farming is always a creative and compassionate occupation, we are surrounded and constantly besieged by the sight, smell and sound of a people who live by the plunder of natural resources; and eventually, when enough of those resources have been used up, by preying upon each other. Aside from this underlying tendency to use everything and take care of nothing, the most damaging aspect of modern society may be the horrible distortion of the human spirit and the compression of time wrought by electronics and power mechanics. These “advances” have always been hailed as ways to “save time”, but in the end the effect has been just the opposite, and now we’ve reached the absurd situation where most people don’t even have enough time to take proper care of their own children. The very pace and rhythm of modern society make it very difficult to cultivate the patience, creative thinking and correct use of time required for developing small farms and passing the way of life on to the next generation.
In some of the Amish groups, if a member leaves the church or marries into an “English” family, a funeral is held for him or her and there is supposed to be no more contact with that individual–not even between parents and children. This seems harsh to us, but it can be argued that this practice has been absolutely necessary in maintaining the integrity of their farming communities and their success over the long haul. Among the Anabaptist communities, the farther they distance themselves from this practice, the farther removed they are from successful farming. Whether overly harsh or not, this situation clearly illustrates the incompatibility of farming and modem society. Success in farming requires at least some degree of isolation and separation from the larger society. And for most of us, who have no roots in a community devoted to farming, this can be the saddest and most draining element in a life which has so much promise otherwise. Evidence of suffering and dissipation of energy caused by this isolation appears on almost every page of this remarkable journal.
This publication also shows how timeless and powerful is the attraction people feel for the farming life. It reaches into households of every sort, making people wonder whether they have chosen their life’s work correctly and whether they have the courage, ability and time to change. It’s usually a fairly simple matter to add some elements of husbandry into almost any established household situation–garden, raising a few animals, or doing odd jobs with a horse on the weekends. This is good, and where it has to start for most people. But moving into full-time farming is a much more serious matter–not a decision to be taken lightly by anyone; no matter what their economic status. And it’s not something to be considered at all unless all members of the household are fully in agreement. People whose notions of security include regular incomes large enough to support bankers, insurance companies, institutes of “higher” learning, automobile companies, stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers and politicians–in addition to their own basic needs and those of the farm–will never be happy in farming today. Better stay where they are. But if enough of the true pioneering types can revive farming now, the children and grandchildren of these others may be able to join in the future.
I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience the loneliness and isolation I have often had to face in order to pursue my life as a beekeeper. These experiences have given me at least some understanding of why so many people are content to live like a bunch of comfort-seeking but otherwise miserable sheep–effortlessly herded this way and that by anyone with a little power or influence. At least they have lots of company. But when I’m forced to come down on this issue and look at all that’s involved in being alive, I have to admit that I don’t have a clue why anyone would do anything else for a living if they could farm or keep bees. The obstacles seem so daunting when viewed from inside the modem industrial way of life. But if you can step outside, a whole new world emerges, and St. Thomas’ words come to life in everything around you.
There may in fact be only a relative few who can step outside this way and make a real success of farming, but because of this, it seems vital at this point that those who can really must. The signs of collapse in our economic and social system have become impossible to ignore, and farming is at once the best place of refuge and the antidote. We may still have the best land-based, economic and constitutional resources for real farming of any country in the world, and those who can succeed now will make it so much easier for others to follow. Even with all the difficulties and setbacks I’ve had to face, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to say that it all has been worthwhile and I’d gladly do it over again. I suspect most people who looked closely at my life and what has been accomplished would agree that my success has been an extremely modest one. Still, I am happy with what I’ve done and hope to be able to continue through a normal working lifetime. But if I had a better grasp of the basics when I was in my 20’s, I could have progressed much more quickly and easily. And I know others could do much better than I have. There are many skills to be learned in farming, but the hardest and the most important part lies in getting a grasp of this nebulous thing of putting the parts together into a harmonious whole.
Despite the piles of books and magazines devoted to farming and gardening, it’s very difficult to find in any one place a clear discussion of the most basic and fundamental elements of successful farming and how they are related to each other. Most of these things are so simple that one feels embarrassed to even bring them up. I think this comes from our own highly overeducated state where, while consuming more and more useless information, we lose sight of the simple elements of wisdom that could restore meaning and balance to our lives. In a rush to find something new we bypass that which is timeless and has been offered to us again and again by the great teachers throughout the ages.
Books can, however, bring to us wisdom accumulated and preserved over the centuries, and the company of truly great hearts and minds. The elements of good farming are set out there for us, but they are scattered throughout, and rarely brought together in one place and presented as a whole. The situation with regard to living mentors is even worse.
In the Amish communities the living chain connecting the good farming of the past, present and future is strong and unbroken. But elsewhere this chain is thin, weak, and in danger of pulling apart at any moment. The Amish have so thoroughly absorbed the fundamentals of good farming into their lives that these are now more a part of their actions than of their thoughts . As David Kline (an Amish farmer and amateur naturalist) says in the introduction to his book, Great Possessions: “To write about Amish agriculture is to write about traditional agriculture, an agriculture dating back to eighteenth-century Europe, handed down from generation to generation and yet with innovations and improvements constantly added along the way … Amish farming is sometimes best looked at by someone outside the community, for many of our practices are so traditional, having been handed down from parents to children for so many generations, that the reasons are almost forgotten…”
This forms the very starkest contrast to most of us, who had to start learning as adults and think and consider constantly every step of the way. In our confused and chaotic situation, the weakest link in the chain of good farming is the lack of living mentors who have lived out the fundamentals through all the stages of life, and provide good guidance for younger people. You have to hunt for them, but there are still some great people out there who can teach many of the skills and attitudes we need. But to find all the fundamentals pulled together into a harmonious, stable and resilient whole is today the rarest of all things–with one possible exception. It’s the simplest things that are really the most important. Why are they so hard for us to grasp?
In Leo Tolstoy’s great book, Anna Karenina, there’s a most interesting passage (Chapter 25), where Konstantine Levin is on a trip to visit another wealthy landowner and spend a few days hunting. Levin is young, well educated, has traveled abroad, and has been devoting most of his considerable energy and enthusiasm to the improvement of farming on his vast estate. In fact, he is writing a book about his work. At great expense, he has imported modern plowing and threshing machines from western Europe and also improved varieties of wheat and cattle to use for breeding stock. But the actual farm work is always more or less in a muddle. The projects are too ambitious for the amount of labor available. His peasants are not interested in the new machines which constantly break down. The new wheat seed is stored in a shoddy fashion, and much of it spoils before it can be planted. And though he is thrilled by the sight of some of the crops grown by new methods, he later discovers that the expenses have not been justified by the final results. Then, on his way to go hunting, he stops for the night at the house of some free peasants who have been farming on their own for many years. He’s astounded to find the crops immaculate and weeks ahead of his own. The barn is full of hay and oats–with more than enough extra for any chance travelers like himself. The men come in from the fields laughing and joking, and in just a few minutes the horses are all tended to and everything made ready for the next day’s work. Inside, the women are just as relaxed and cheerful, but have spared no effort in having good food ready when the men and their guest come in. Levin questions the farmer about his work and thinks hard about what he has seen and heard, but when he leaves next morning, and forever afterward, the real basis of the free peasant’s success remains a mystery to him.
These people were thriving because of their Faith and devotion, their freedom, and an understanding of how small tasks, expertly performed, add up to a whole much larger than the sum of its parts. They also had the courage to live this way, surrounded by a society based in the exploitation of many for the benefit of a few. This is nothing more or less than we are searching for when we try to achieve success in farming now.
In trying to string together the basic elements that form the foundation of successful farming, Faith has to come at the beginning. Moving across this threshold is what makes it possible to live through husbandry, even surrounded by a society determined to destroy it. All the great teachers have brought us the same message–people should live through generosity, humility, honesty and non-possession. Devotion to these things reveals to us the true meaning of happiness; and more important, they start to spread to others around us, transforming families and eventually societies. This process and farming become metaphors for each other: the cultivation of better human beings.
E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and himself a devout Roman Catholic, wrote of being haunted for most of his life by the question of why there were so many religions. But then he finally realized that this was so that everyone could worship. I think he found the right attitude. Let’s not waste our energy judging the source of others’ inspiration–it has so often led to pointless conflicts, and violates the real intent of all the prophets. Let’s focus instead on learning how to bring these elements of devotion to life–to have them move from our hearts and minds, through the rest of our bodies and from there out into the world. Who really knows how to do this in a skillful way? Perhaps none of us; but we are aware that the way to learn is by farming; caring for the earth–and everything else–in that way.
My own inspiration came, to my great surprise, from the teachings of the Buddha. And I had to take refuge there in order to learn how the bees could provide for a way of life separate from the need for other employment. More recently, though my economic success would seem marginal or non-existent to many Americans, it has attracted attention from some of those working in agriculture and who know how hard it can be to save any money this way. But so often, the notion of success is something that trails along after some money appears. That money is actually a by-product of putting other things before yourself and then learning how to act out of this stance in an aware and wise fashion. I also learned that, while a community of faith may have many advantages, the power of Faith is not diminished in any way just because someone is alone. In fact the potential for inspiring individual artistry may be much greater in people who are to some degree isolated; and the resulting creativity may be just as important for the future of farming as the traditional skills and wisdom carefully preserved for centuries. Indeed, both were necessary for the success of my apiary. It’s worth the effort to draw on both, if you can.
Another place where modern society and farming come into direct conflict is in the conception and proper use of time. This is one of the most neglected and misunderstood aspects of farming, when viewed from the standpoint of someone who grew up in a “modern” setting. The use of time and information is completely different in farming and in a wage and job based technological society. When people are constantly around computers and television–where most stories are portrayed, from beginning to end, in an hour or less–how are they going to appreciate the patience required to build up a good herd of dairy cattle or improve a stand of timber in the woodlot? I have some friends in West Virginia who live near a Mennonite community and wished to send their children to the Mennonite school. Though not church members themselves, the children were welcome at the school as long as one condition was met: there must be no television set in the children’s home. This is wisdom. With most children now incarcerated in central schools almost as soon as they can walk, and spending many hours a day watching television and computers, they are thoroughly at home with society’s pace and rhythm before they reach high school. It’s only the rare individual who can step back from this later and really embrace the long-term thinking and commitments involved in farming. Other people may be able to separate various aspects of their lives better than I can, but to me farming and watching television are completely incompatible. Here again, we’re depending on the mavericks to leap across the gap between these two worlds, but a society will be unable to return to farming until this dependence on electronics breaks down and dissipates. Most farm families I know do in fact have elements of both good husbandry and mass media in their households. In every case the elements of husbandry are being gradually eroded and displaced.
Almost all of the important jobs on the farm require planning, learning, thought and action over a long period– planting, tending and putting up crops; caring for animals and guiding the herd through many generations; putting up buildings or making other improvements. Any one of these projects can easily have the planning stage going on years before any visible progress is made. All farms have several of these enterprises going on simultaneously, each at a different stage of completion. The farmer who really understands how all these endeavors function together and support one another is the true master of his craft and is just as highly skilled and educated as any doctor or head of state. This is the most difficult of all the farming skills, and the hardest to come by–even with excellent examples to observe and follow. It must be one of the areas where some people are born to farming and others are not. But when time is considered in proper relation to Nature’s pace and rhythm, and the life spans of people and farms; many of the difficulties disappear.
Farming is also something that requires more than one lifetime in order to record any real progress. The younger generation must always depend on the older for the education and some of the resources to get started; and the older people depend on young folks to help maintain their life’s work and supply the energy they no longer have in later years. Even the farms that are out of debt and have accumulated large savings on the owner’s death or retirement have failed the last and best test of success if the livestock and equipment are auctioned off and dispersed, and a new farm family, related or otherwise, forced to start again on the same property. On all successful farms, that livestock and machinery are much more valuable- -to the family and society–if they stay where they are and continue to function as an evolving system. In my county, where the farms have become way too big, any number of them could split into smaller farms for two or three generations and support 4 or 5 times the number of owner/operators than they do now. But many of them have sold their development rights to the Vermont Land Trust in order to get cash for debt repayment or whatever. Under the current rules, these properties can never be broken up into smaller farms. Thus, under the guise of “saving farmland” it’s becoming illegal for truly healthy and successful farming to re-emerge.
But a different course is still possible–especially for those who are young, can get good training, and carefully choose a location with potential for small farming. We can, thankfully, find exceptions to the following rule, but the fact remains: those who can start to seriously pursue this life while in their early 20’s will have a much better chance of success and a comfortable life than those who start later. Progress on even the most successful farms seem glacially slow in a society based on the plunder of natural resources. But it’s the slow and steady accumulation of equipment, livestock and capital that makes a successful life in farming, and those who are able to start early can use all of the stages of life to best advantage and avoid much of the strain. It’s quite normal for good farmers to go through the first half of their career without accumulating much of any savings. Even those with the best training depend on simple living, self-sufficiency and hard work during the early years in order to pay for land and build up a base of equipment and income-producing livestock. During the years when the children are born, most of the income is usually invested back into the farm, and this is when frugality, physical stamina and long-term vision must all be present at the same time.
But sometime in the middle years of the farmer’s life, a watershed occurs. The farm is finally stocked to capacity, and any debts have been paid off. Extra money and a large fund of personal experience are available together for the first time and the farmer uses them to increase productivity and income potential still further. The children are old enough to help and may even be on the verge of being able to farm on their own. At this point the farm income is still rising, but the expenses have dropped off dramatically. Most people wouldn’t believe how much money is sometimes saved on a farm like this over the second half of a working lifetime–especially if the children decide to continue on, and not waste their time going to college. Such a farm has a stability and resilience that is virtually unstoppable as long as the family remains devoted to farming. But as soon as they step outside into the useless wants and imaginary needs of the modern world, the whole thing is gone in a few short years. On the successful farms, money accumulated during middle age is carefully invested in passing the property and way of life on to the next generation. An entire lifetime, at the very least, is required to make real progress in farming. It’s important to reach that watershed where savings can accumulate as early as possible–so that a decent retirement can be a part of handing the torch to those who follow. Starting early is most important in getting time to work with us, instead of against us.
The correct use of time in farming is closely related to a proper conception of economics. Despite the artistic basis of farming, there’s no way it can survive without an iron grip on the principles of economics and how these effect the farming life. Or as George Henderson put it so well in The Farming Ladder: “Money may not be the principle object of farming, but we have never yet learned how to farm without it.”
Just as the use of time must be different in farming than in other occupations, our conception of economics must be different as well. What passes for an “economy” in this country is sometimes called a “welfare state”, but in reality is nothing more than a giant pyramid scheme. It still functions at all because most people at every level feel like they’re getting a share of the profits from those below them and don’t mind working to support those above. The right to have unearned income is an idea that permeates our society from the corporate board rooms to the shoe-shine boxes at the railway station. It’s astounding to me that almost every American is counting on unearned income for some kind of major, real or imagined, need in his or her life. Where do you think that money actually comes from? Do you really think it originated out of your brain by being smart enough to buy something that was rising in value? Look hard and honestly–follow that money back to its original source and see what you find there. Then you might agree with me that we should earn our own living if we can.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA estimated that the average Russian citizen was half as economically productive as an average American. But when the Soviet system collapsed and our boys rushed in to view the wreckage, they realized this measure was inaccurate, and decided that Russians were only 1/4 as productive as their American counterparts. Then later, after having time to study the situation thoroughly, they declared that our old adversaries had actually always been only 1/8 as productive as Americans. All this was pointed out to show how completely the Soviet system had failed and how destitute the people were. Both of these points may have been correct, but this analysis illustrates something else as well: A Russian’s average productivity was equivalent to an American going to work for 3 days out of very month. Yet, in Russia they don’t live in trees or holes in the ground–they live in heated homes, in a climate more like Canada’s than our own. They have food to eat, basic medical care, and everyone learns to read and write. Many people have no cars, but there are roads, bridges and railway lines extending across eleven time zones; and a military arsenal big enough to keep the lights on all night in the Pentagon for decades. You have to ask why so many Americans work all the time and still feel in danger of losing their basic needs. If it should only take 1/8 of our working time to have a place to live, clothes, food, some infrastructure, education and basic medical care, then where is the other 7/8 of our productivity going? Do we really need to have so many cars, such big houses, endless arrays of electronic junk, and enough weapons to destroy the world several times over? Do we really need to support so many banks, insurance companies, government workers and multi-national corporations? In the greed and insanity of our present society, we’ve lost grip on the very most basic things.
Accumulated wealth in an industrial society comes originally from mining natural resources and employing other people for wages lower than you would accept yourself. Thus, from the word go, it is a destructive process and violates the golden rule of “Do unto others…” If time has become the measure of how fast we can deplete our remaining natural resources, then those funny looking greenbacks with pictures of Andrew Jackson and Ben Franklin on them have become the papers documenting the destruction of the earth.
In good farming we do have to deal with money, but wealth is rarely accumulated beyond the basic needs of the family and much of the farm’s stability and resilience is accumulated and stored in the farm itself–in the ground, in the livestock and in the people themselves. Farming is a most basic and creative function. It generates new wealth by helping the sun, the earth, the air and the water to create useful plants and animals. Even good farming, when viewed from the outside by an American, often appears as a vow of poverty. To a poor person from India or Malaysia, the same farm might look like a sure way to make a fortune. But farming is neither of these things. In the Buddha’s words, farming is the same in economics as it is spiritually–the Middle Path, insulated from both the wants and deprivation of poverty on the one side, and the excesses of greed and abuse on the other.
Good farming on a small place, in a suitable location, will still support the ownership of land, the accumulation of tools and livestock, the construction of simple buildings and the other basics of family living. It will still pay for taxes and some insurance. But when you start to add on the extra burdens of large interest and insurance payments, “higher” education, and the most ridiculous and expensive system of health “care” imaginable, real farming comes under a great strain and starts to break down. The energy from the sun, and the honest work of the farmer can’t, and should never be expected to, pay for these legalized forms of extortion.
One of the reasons why self-sufficiency, in as many areas as possible, is so important on the farm today is because wages and prices for everything have been driven up so high by our system of insurance, education and health care. Everyone has been convinced they have to participate in these rackets, and have to pay for them somehow, and so the prices for labor and commodities are inflated beyond what the regenerative power of earth, air, sun and water can pay. Our society’s need for cheap food to feed the teeming proletarian masses, also exacerbate this problem. There’s no way around it–for the foreseeable future, our government and the corporations that control the government and employ so many people are going to do everything they can to keep food prices low compared to other commodities. Just like all farmers, I’d like to see higher prices for the products I produce, but I have to admit I’m not as rabid on this issue as some. The price of food in the market should never be the overriding concern of the farmer. That energy should instead be focused on eliminating the middleman and finding ways to function without supporting all the banks, insurance companies, machinery manufacturers and other parasites who usually end up with most of the farmer’s gross income. It’s not the low price of farm products that’s strangling farmers–it’s the high cost of production caused by trying to make the farm support so many people and industries that have nothing to do with good farming. With the price of food commodities relatively low, it forces us to focus on the basics of good husbandry, family life and self-sufficiency in order to survive and succeed. When prices rise unnaturally high, it’s easy for a small farm to be drawn into the black hole of expansion, borrowing and over-use of technology. When prices fall again, these things are no longer economic and the farm either starts to fail or opts for a slow and lingering death by continued borrowing and expansion in an attempt to catch up with expenses. On healthy and vigorous farms, money is carefully saved during periods of high prices, and any actual expansion goes on during low price intervals. Instead of adding to the original farm, new ones are spun off for children or apprentices.
About 15 years ago, I decided it was the right time to start working seriously on an apiary focused on selecting honeybee breeding stock and raising queen bees in the northern U.S. Now, I can’t come close to supplying the demand for my bees, and any competition I might have is still struggling to get off the ground. I’ve never harnessed, ridden or driven a horse in my life, but even I can see perfectly well that right now is the right time for young people to start farming with horses, and raise and train extra horses as a sideline, Rural America is largely deserted today because so many farmers were literally driven off the farms by their machinery. Gasoline is at record low prices, but the total cost of power mechanics is rising so fast that even Ronald Reagan’s economists (may they rest in peace) would have trouble painting a rosy picture for its future. It is still possible to make a living from good farming with tractors. This often involves making full use of a relatively few pieces of equipment, buying it used and becoming quite skillful as a mechanic. But the handwriting is on the wall, and the cost of used equipment will inevitably rise as new equipment goes through the roof. Any margins that currently exist on tractor farming will surely shrink over the next 20 years. And this says nothing about the vulnerability of the present system. Addison County, Vermont, where I live, must be near the top in New England for percentage of land farmed and total value of agriculture products. But if the supply of petroleum were interrupted, hardly a wheel would turn in the entire county–no furrows would be plowed, com planted or hay harvested. If fuel and electricity failed at the same time, the cattle would go dry and become vulnerable to mastitis infections–there would be no way to milk them all. Many cattle perished this way on a few farms with no back-up generators during the ice storm of January 1998. Thus, even on farms with all the latest equipment and gross incomes way up in the 6-figure range, there’s little of the stability and resilience found on Amish farms using horses and no centrally distributed electricity. There is a good margin today where people who know what they are doing farm with horses. As the cost of power mechanics goes completely out of control, this margin will grow, and more opportunities for horse farming will appear. Fifteen or twenty years from now, there won’t be enough horses to supply the demand.
In beekeeping, the ratio of income to assets has always been more favorable than in most other kinds of farming. It’s likely that during my lifetime it will always be more profitable for a family to use trucks and modern extractors to produce bees and honey. But if I was 15 or 20 years younger, I would seriously consider having an even smaller apiary tended by horse and wagon. The beekeeping literature from before 1920 is an almost continuous testimonial to this unique way of life, thriving in the horse and buggy days. For the right people in the right location, the opportunity is out there once again–another part of the best kept secret.
But I have strayed somewhat from my final points on economics: the importance of starting out on the right foot, and the difficulties of obtaining capital and experience at the same time.
One of the serious mistakes I made early on, which I was lucky to recover from, was to focus too much on my conception of the finished apiary rather than on a stable base that could grow and evolve gradually as more experience, equipment and money became available. In this case I tried to establish, from the beginning, an apiary that sold only queen bees–a high value but perishable commodity with no existing marketing outlet. Turns out that honey production was the base required for successful queen rearing. Bulk honey is a low value commodity, but is not perishable and can always find a market here. The margin on this honey is smaller, but more reliable; and the honey producing colonies gradually produced the breeding stock, the extra bees and the time required to build a stable market for queens and eventually nucleus colonies as well. Now, with all three of these products (honey, queen bees and nucleus colonies) working together as a system, the wages earned per hour are quite high for agriculture. But it was all made possible by working out of the small margin provided by the honey, and the time freed up by giving up all other work and learning to live in a simple and low cost fashion. This is the problem with many of the farm tours and other short-term visits to successful farms: we are usually viewing a somewhat finished and highly evolved stage of the farm’s life, and it’s difficult to get a good idea of the early years when things were built up step by step out of very limited resources.
It’s so important to start off at the very beginning with good, efficient husbandry that produces a steady source of income above expenses. Our success in farming depends on how much delight we take in, and how skillful we become at converting sunlight into useful plants and animals, while improving our soils at the same time. The patterns that are established at the beginning often carry through for a lifetime. A farm based on borrowing and spending to support inefficient or marginal production in the beginning will very likely never recover and sooner or later will be awaiting a new owner with a better grasp of the fundamentals. A farm that begins with just one beehive, one dairy cow, six sheep, or 500 square feet of garden crops, managed efficiently while working at another job and saving money, will have a much better chance of success in the long run. Almost all of us had to save and then invest money earned in other occupations in order to start farming. But right from the beginning, the crops and livestock must pay for themselves and their own expansion. If you can’t generate surplus income with the first small piece of land or group of animals, there’s not enough potential to justify continuing. You must learn to do better, switch to another commodity or move to a more suitable location.
I used to think that beekeeping was unique in the way that it could function economically at almost any size–where a full-time livelihood could be built up and paid for from the smallest beginnings. But I’ve seen it happen even in the gloom and doom arena of dairy farming and high land prices we see around here. Many have fallen by the wayside, but there are good dairy herds here now that were started from calves bought for very little during a time of low milk prices, and raised to maturity under any available roof while the owners worked at other jobs. The herds were built up debt-free from the offspring of the original group of calves and eventually paid cash for good farm equipment, and finally started making mortgage payments on our overpriced real estate. The secrets in this area have been finding a good rental situation and the switch to grass-based seasonal milk production; which produces more income per dollar invested than the old year-round corn silage and alfalfa system. Land is expensive to buy here, but $500-$800.00 of milk can be produced during the summer on an acre of grass rented for $30.00, so there is some serious potential to work with in a good rental situation. The few people I know who are currently making a really good living in dairy farming are all renting.
In the early years of developing a farm, when one or more family members may be working at other jobs, progress is measured by how much the re-investment of farm profits increases the net farm income. In the long run, economic reality demands that we become very skillful and efficient at producing crops for sale, and at the same time increase stability and resilience by driving down expenses and improving the self-sufficiency aspects. Striking the right balance between these two is the measure of a successful small farm today. When prices are high, more energy can be put into the income producing side to build up cash reserves. When prices are low, the focus shifts back to low expenses and home-produced “goods and services”. Large and heavily indebted farms are unable to take advantage of this principle.
One of my favorite beekeeping books was written in England during the Second World War: Honey Farming by R.O.B. Manley. In this he describes his own struggle to switch from general farming to commercial beekeeping, and the trials and tribulations of others trying to get started. Finally he points out that, while everyone learns that both capital and experience are necessary to make a start in farming, many fail to grasp the more important point–you must have both of them at the same time. How right he was. And here we are up against one of the most daunting of all problems in farming today: how can people learn all the skills required while they are still young enough, and at the same time acquire the unencumbered capital required to make a start?
In the Amish world this problem, like so many others, was thoroughly worked out long ago. They don’t waste their time and money supporting the social security system, insurance companies, universities, ministers, lawyers etc., and so are able to save money steadily to help the next generation buy farms of their own. By growing up in a society devoted to farming, young people are fully trained by the time they are 20 or even earlier. Livestock and tools are donated to young farmers, or sold at low prices to help them get started. Thus, many young farmers are out of debt when still in their 20’s, and the process of saving begins again.
But for most of us growing up amid the confusion, haste and anxiety of modern life, this problem often seems insurmountable. The problem of where in the world to get good training is daunting enough–there aren’t near enough good mentors available, even with the small number of young people currently entering farming. Ideally, it should be possible to work on farms and save money at the same time, thus gaining experience and capital at the same time. There are some situations where this pathway is still open, but this is rare. As long as our system keeps farm commodity prices low, wages paid to farm workers will remain low as well. And unfortunately, most farms are no longer a good place to learn the kind of good farming I have been trying to describe here. Most people must learn and practice another trade in order to save enough money to start farming. Their agricultural education is obtained after hours; during holidays and other “sabbaticals”; by reading and visiting, and by slowly expanding their initial backyard flocks and gardens. It’s hard to get a really thorough training this way and still have enough time and energy to bring a farm to some state of maturity. But it’s not impossible and many have done it. It seems best here not to lay down too many rules. If you seek out some of the people who have successfully followed this road, you will be amazed at the creativity and ingenuity they brought to their struggles, and the convoluted paths that eventually led them to success. Today, it’s only those with an above-average store of patience and determination who can walk this road to the end. It’s important to do everything we can to help this determined minority–the universal need for all people to live close to nature and the soil will never be met in the future unless these mavericks can succeed today. The best advice I can come up with for young or old people who wish to pursue farming is to think hard about what success in farming really is, and then spare no effort in seeking out those who embody your definition. Learn all you can there, working and living with them if possible.
You would think that people who inherited money or otherwise had plenty of capital to invest would be in the best position to move into farming if the fancy should strike them. After all, they can concentrate on acquiring the skills, without the need to be earning money at the same time. But in almost every case, what made it seem easy for them to start, makes it next to impossible for them to achieve real success in the long run.
Let’s return for a minute to Konstantine Levin in Anna
Karenina. Despite his wealth, intelligence, energy, devotion to his farm and some isolated successes, the real essence of farming still eludes him. He’s keenly aware of this, but no matter how hard he tries, is unable to break through this barrier. As he becomes convinced that his own peasants do in fact embody this essence in their lives and work, he starts spending increasing amounts of time with them. As he grows more and more desperate, he even considers renouncing his inheritance, marrying a peasant girl and joining completely in that life. But finally the chasm between these two worlds proves too wide for him to cross. Soon he marries a woman of his own class, and takes on the traditional role of one in that situation. As always, the real farming remains in the hands of those whose whole lives and fortunes are dependent upon it.
And so the story is played out over and over again from that day to this. Here in Vermont you can watch the whole drama from any hilltop with a good view. This state is literally crawling with people bringing their money from elsewhere and investing it in some kind of a “back to the land” venture. So much so that the extension service is now openly developing more programs to serve these “investment” farms. I have to say right up front that, in general, these people are some of the nicest and most well intentioned folk you will meet anywhere, and if I had been in their position, I no doubt would be doing exactly the same thing. They have perhaps temporarily preserved some land that would have been developed. But, considering the bigger picture, their main contribution has been the very patriotic one deemed essential to democracy by Jefferson and Madison–dispersing the fortunes accumulated by the previous generation so that succeeding generations can rise according to their own merits. Or, as they say around here: “The only way to make a small fortune from farming in Vermont is to start with a large one.” Thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule, and this is a good sign. It means that real farming has an even greater chance of success in other places where the price of land has not been driven up so high by capital moving in from the cities.
We keep returning to the same place: Farming is not compatible with a society based on exploitation, unearned income and accumulation beyond a modest level. These two never occupy the same space for very long. People fortunate or unfortunate enough to inherit money or make big gains in business can own farms, work hard and perhaps have comfortable lives around plants and animals. But they are usually denied access to the timeless continuum that farming really is. If you don’t understand through your own experience just what’s involved in earning and spending wisely that first money required to start farming, it’s almost impossible to learn it later on or teach it to your children. The most common mistake I have seen along these lines is the investment of too much capital before obtaining thorough training and experience. This leads to poor choice of location and other basic mistakes that are never overcome. It seems to be a rule that successful farms must have, at least in the early years, a high output per dollar and per hour invested. Without good training, the more money available, the farther away we move from this basic principle. Capital is necessary in farming, but patience and determination are always the most valuable assets.
Aside from the lucky ones who grew up on or around good small farms, and those who are employed there, I think inspired people who have made their own way in the skilled trades have the best chance of switching to successful farming. They already own tools and have learned how important it is to work skillfully and efficiently in order to save money. They can often make good wages anywhere, working either part or full-time; and skills like welding and carpentry are highly useful on the farm. If all family members are united in the sincere desire to farm and can get some good guidance in putting the pieces together, there’s definitely plenty of room for them to succeed in North America today.
All of the first 3 pillars of successful farming, Faith, proper use of time, and a pastoral economics must be brought together in the family to make a sound foundation for any real progress. When these things are the focus of family life, the ease and abundance of farming appear like the sun burning off the fog, and start to dominate our lives. But if any of the fundamentals are neglected in the home, no amount of good work on the land will enable the farm to survive for very long. The family home is the center point and the origin of all real farming progress.
The change that families have undergone while trying to adapt to the speed, waste and confusion of an over-technical world, is truly heartbreaking to watch. Sometimes it seems as if there are no real marriages or families anymore–just S-corporations where the partners sleep together and run daycare centers in the evenings and on weekends. Anyone old enough to have a view of just two generations can clearly see the incredible speed at which this most basic social institution is breaking down. And the poor children–so many of them grow up now without either parent at home during the day, or in single parent homes. We add on a sentence of 12-20 years in schools, and then wonder what went wrong when they turn to drugs or violence in an attempt to deal with their frustration. Farm families with children in the public schools and parents trying to earn enough money for an “American” way of life are just as caught up in these trends as families in cities or suburbs.
As well as the children, the rapid changes and self-destructive tendencies of modern society have been especially hard on women. After all, men can still pursue “careers” and have the satisfaction of being a “breadwinner” in somewhat the same manner as they always have. But women have had the ground ripped right out from under them–both physically and emotionally–and have gotten used to fighting tooth and nail to survive and somehow regain their self-respect. By nature, women are more creative, careful and caring than men, and these qualities are constantly pushed into the background in the mad race to destroy the earth and ourselves as well. No one can blame women for responding the way they have, but it’s unbearably sad to see so many of them determined to make the same stupid mistakes that men have made.
In the modern world, men and women are no longer able to cooperate and take care of each other, and things in general, in the way required for success in farming. Here again, these two worlds are almost completely separate from each other, and we must recognize the wisdom exhibited by the Amish in keeping them that way. Farming is indeed based on a few simple fundamentals, but the day to day work and decision making requires constant attention to so many details that a strict division of labor and responsibility in the family is absolutely vital. A person never succeeds in farming–only a family can do it. The wants of the individual must give way to the needs of the family and the farm. This process is part of the revival of Faith necessary for most Americans to return to farming. In its wake follow all the missing elements of commitment, honesty, tolerance, devotion and generosity that make a genuine and happy life for all.
The traditional woman’s role of caring for the children and preparing food for the family is absolutely essential for farming to succeed. When combined with gardening and caring for the family’s personal livestock, the job requires as much knowledge, skill and good judgment as any other–probably more. It’s more important than any other because the home is the meeting point of all that goes on outside, the place where children are educated and the place where new farmers are forged. Many of the intangible things that make up good farming can only be absorbed and transmitted by families being at home together. A farm house with a woman who loves to cook and knows how important it is, has the best chance of being a happy home, and a place where good citizens and new farmers can grow.
And so now you know why I have a post office box in one town, but live in another. Often to even mention these things in the presence of women under 50 is to put life and limb seriously at risk. Soon after the conversation starts, a glazed look comes over their eyes and they start to straighten up, like fighting chickens who know an adversary is nearby and that duty calls. Soon they are rummaging absentmindedly through drawers looking for a knife, a letter opener or any sort of a semi-sharp object just to cut out your liver on the spot and throw it to the dogs…
But, joking aside, you’ll just have to put me on the record with regard to traditional women’s roles: Farming will never, ever revive without them. And I’d like to offer my own heartfelt encouragement and thanks to all the women who have been able to maintain their vital role in the family and on the farm and those who would like to return to it. In any case, men must figure out how to make women feel safe and secure in these roles once again. With this as a basis, there’s still plenty of room for flexibility and creativity in dividing up the responsibilities among family members. Each person should have appropriate tasks to do, and be able to perform them at the right time, without conflicting with other ongoing projects. Everyone should have both indoor and outdoor jobs to do, so they can stay healthy, and work steadily through any weather conditions that come along.
When all family members spend most of their time on the farm, and all of the work is skillfully done and carefully coordinated, they begin to enter that hard-to-define space where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. I’ll say it again: this is the mark of those who have mastered their craft, and much of the farms’ stability and resilience is built up in this way. And herein lies the major flaw with part-time farming as a final goal. Gene Logsdon, who I have admired for decades, has written extensively and extremely well about the viability of part-time farming. But on this one point I have to disagree with him. I certainly don’t intend to discourage anyone who wants to farm part-time, but I think the goal should be full-time farming. The situation in society has become dire enough–it’s time to focus our energies on transcending the current system rather than being content with some sort of marginal co-existence.
When some family members work on the farm, and others on the outside, the conflict and inefficiency of trying to mix the two incompatible worlds usually prevents the farm from becoming truly successful. Most of us needed to work at other jobs in order to get started, but full-time farming should be the goal for those who truly desire the best possible life. Even though the schedules were not too hard to work out, I found it very tiring and inefficient to go back and forth between beekeeping and doing construction work. I had only a tiny economic margin available to me when I finally gave up doing any work outside the apiary, but the change it made in all aspects of my life was truly amazing. The rapid progress which began at that point has continued ever since, and I’m very thankful that my own mentors never told me I would have to have another job to support my beekeeping. If another business is deemed necessary or desirable in the long run, it’s best to have it functioning right on the farm; so that others come in rather than you go out. The great advantages of full-time farming can still be preserved this way.
One sunny Saturday last summer, a few of my neighbors happened by while I was working in the bee yard. I joined them in the shade nearby for a few minutes, glad to have a rest while we visited. After awhile, one of them commented on how lucky I was to be able to work outside all the time during the summer, and to be free to stop and talk if I wanted to. They all agreed, but someone quickly added that most people would never live this way because agriculture is too dependent on the weather and hence too unreliable and unpredictable. They all agreed once more, and soon continued on their walk; eager to get some sun before returning to the cars and buildings where they spend most of their time. I didn’t say what I was thinking, but instead returned to the hum of the bees–to reflect upon my decision to remain silent, and finish the day’s work…
The very trees we had been standing under, and thousands of others visible in every direction, were living testimonials to the reliability of sun and water, warmth and cold, over a period of decades and in fact hundreds of years. One glance around should have told us that the promise of seed time and harvest has never been broken at least since the first European settlers arrived here. From a tree stump or core sample anyone can see that growth is greater in some years than in others. Trees, like good farms, survive and prosper according to their average growth over a period of years. Both store reserves during the most favorable seasons, to help offset the below average harvests of the poor years. Both trees and good farms survived during the terrible year of 1963, when no rain fell here during the entire spring and summer. Even when the first cutting of hay failed in that awful drought, the best farms had enough reserves of feed and cash to keep their stock alive, and wait for better days. Without any haymaking to do, at least they had plenty of time to haul water from the lake. A few years later, after the return of the rains and decent milk prices, the reserves were built up once again. Evidence of the stability and abundance of nature and farming is all around us. Most of the time it remains unnoticed because of the failure of our Faith, and our distorted views of time, economics and family life.
The kingdom of heaven really does surround us, though we see it not. It’s the transformative power of doing simple things in a reverent manner that enables us to see through the illusions of the present. The farm in this lifetime is to sail briefly on a river whose headwaters lie in the distant past, and which will keep on flowing as long as people live on earth. While we see just a small part of the river during our lifetime, the water itself has made the journey many times–returning as rain to the headwaters again and again. Farming is always evolving, but is also timeless; giving us a living connection with the past and the future. The plants and animals we’ve lived with for so long (both wild and domestic) are really the most precious gifts. They have accompanied people on all of their major migrations, been present for the building and destruction of all past civilizations. They were nearby as all the great teachers spoke to their disciples, and went on every military campaign. No matter how high up in a high-rise or isolated in a desert hogan, they are present in every home. If only they could talk. If only we knew how to listen. It’s a great privilege to be with crops and livestock, and to work with them. I think we should take them, and their wild relatives, into our families and give them the same consideration and care that husbands, wives and children deserve. Then they might help us to wake up, transcend the modern world, and recover.
It’s quite likely that I will never achieve complete success with my bee farming, according to my strict definition. Still, I’m hopeful that others can learn something from my limited success and do better–by getting a good grasp of the fundamentals early in their career. There are many pitfalls and struggles in farming, but I’ve never seen or heard of a better way of living in this time and place. Succeed or fail, I learned one thing: we live in a predatory society by choice. The alternatives are all around us, if we can just reach out and touch them. The major obstacles lie in our hearts and minds and have little to do with prices or politics. The earth, sun, water and air are all still there for us to use, if we have the right attitude. I wish you all peace, happiness, and a good crop in the coming season; whether it be a single flower pot, or upon a vast acreage.
The Farming Ladder (sidebar)
From Virgil and the Bible, to Sir Albert Howard, Wendel Berry and Eliot Coleman, (not to mention Lynn Miller), much of great value has been written about the neglected fundamentals of this great craft. But usually you have to winnow the wheat from the chaff–only rarely are they brought together and presented as a whole in a way that we can use them today. Two notable exceptions I have found are the editorials and articles written by Alan Nation in the Stockman Grass Farmer during the ‘90’s and in George Henderson’s books–The Farming Ladder and Farmer’s Progress, written in England between 1944 and 1954.
George Henderson ended his formal schooling at 16 and worked the next 4 years on the best farms he could find. At 20, he and his younger brother, with almost no capital, took a mortgage for a near-abandoned property of 80 acres: Oathill Farm. In The Farming Ladder he describes each step of his journey from laborer to landlord. In just 20 years the brothers not only paid for the farm and made many improvements, but had begun the process of buying other farms and renting them to the apprentices trained on the home farm.
It’s rare for a farm today to progress as rapidly as the Hendersons did. Economically, their great prosperity was based on the large margin that could be made at that time by converting grain into poultry. British agriculture was still stuck in the old pattern of “Beef, Beef, and more Beef’, while the demand for eggs and chicken in the towns and cities far exceeded the supply. But their overall principles of thorough training, taking the long view, and balanced mixed farming are just as sound today as they ever were. Their attitude and firm grasp of the basics are really the most important lessons for us now.
Whether they ever appear here or not, it’s worth seeking out copies of both books. George wrote a third called A Farming Manual, about the physical skills needed on British farms circa 1945. It’s not as central to our situation and needs of today, but still valuable and extremely interesting.
Here is the first paragraph of The Farming Ladder:
“The object of writing this book is to demonstrate how a happy, secure and useful life may be spent on what were a few barren acres, without the toil and drudgery which are associated with smallholding, and that a financial return may be obtained comparable with that in any other business. The methods used, none of which are clever or original, will show that in peacetime depression or in wartime prosperity the creative work of the farmer can have its just reward, independent of tariffs and subsidies, if directed on the right lines; that great capital, special knowledge or skill are not essential; only energy, patience and a thorough grasp of the underlying principles.”