Acquiring Knowledge By Accident


We learn our lessons more by chance than by deliberation.  Or maybe it is more to the point to say that we learn by living. For sure, what we learn from experience sticks with us longer than what we think we learn in classrooms.  I can’t remember how to do algebra problems involving two unknowns but I will never forget what happened when I was dumb enough to touch a frosty piece of iron with my tongue.

I learned by chance that a good way to start tree seedlings is not to clean out the roof gutters. Another accidental discovery: you can make a deer proof fence by planting a row of red cedar trees about ten feet apart and after they get 15 feet tall or so, tie a wire panel fence to the trunks. The trees will continue to grow, closing the space between them with dense branches that extend above the fence high enough to stop the deer from jumping over. The only problem is that you have to accidentally learn this lesson many years before it takes effect.

Here’s another one. Last summer, making hay with rain threatening (rain is always threatening when you are making hay), I decided to dump a couple of pickup truck loads of loose hay in the machine shed instead of forking the hay into the barn loft, to save time.  The little stack would still be handy enough to the barn to carry forkfuls over to the hay ricks for winter feeding.

So now it is winter and the sheep are still out eating on the haystack in the field. The stack in the shed keeps settling down and spreading out more than it should be doing naturally. What gives?

First I blamed it on the cats romping over the top of the stack. Then it became apparent that the chickens loved to scratch merrily away in the hay, eating green bits of clover leaves and grass seeds out of it. With the ground frozen and covered with snow, they can’t forage in the woods, so they are supplementing the whole wheat and corn I feed them by eating the haystack.

Not in all the annals of agriculture can I find any treatise on feeding haystacks to chickens. A fellow in England got into the books a few years ago by making silage out of grass clippings which he fed to chickens. That’s as close as I can come to finding a self-feeding haystack for hens in the literature.  I had to learn it by accident. That little stack is suddenly worth some real money because now I don’t have to worry about buying the hens expensive feed supplement over winter in this crazy year of corn at six dollars a bushel. The egg yolks stay marvelously bright yellow-orange from that high quality hay and taste just as wonderful as they do in summer. Rest assured that from now on, there will be a little haystack in that shed every winter.

The beauty of it is that the hens eat only a fraction of the hay pile while pecking away at it. They don’t seem to deposit manure on the stack either, although they have made a couple of nests for egg laying. Most of the hay I can still fork over into the hay ricks for the sheep as the hens scratch it off the top of the stack.

If only I could live another century, I’d be a genius.


I am right at 50 and I will have been on this little farm for a year in March. We have 14 hens and 5 roosters. Had good success this past season with straw bale gardening and planning to do a lot more this summer.

We have seedlings for lettuce, broccoli, swiss chard, etc. going now and tomatoes and peppers on the way. We are nestled in the mountains of North Georgia. You can check out pictures on my blog:

Really like your site and all the things I can learn from it.

Another great post Gene! I too am in the ‘over 50’ group and really starting to get into all the back to the land stuff, looking at the sad shape of things right now. I’ve learned a lot from reading your books and posts and from watching how my flock of chickens operates. Although I grew up on a dairy farm, I never looked at things they way I do now. One other learning resource, besides observation and doing, is talking with old farmers – depression era ones if you can. My dad grew up in that time on a dairy and potato farm, and I often talk to him about how they did things then and the wise use of resources was amazing. I now know we have become a spoiled bunch, but the gravy train is fast coming to a stop. I thank God that I am able to learn some of the old ways before it is too late.

Keep writing and teaching us Gene. I once read that the Amish and Mormons are the two groups that have the potential to restore America to greatness. I would like to add that Old Farmers belong in that elite group.

Happy New Year to you and all the fine folks that post here!

Russ, I really feel both humble and elated at the intelligence and humor of the people who respond to this blog. It is really fun to know all of you. Writing has never been so gratifying. And thank you for responding to my other column in the local paper. I get a bit crankier in that one, as you can see.
I do not know of anyone who planted winter wheat in April. But I bet your idea would work. Around here, lots of people used to put lambs into corn fields, but only after the corn had eared out and the ears too high for the lambs to reach. Lambs,unlike wise old ewes, never figured out how they could ride a stalk over to get at the ear. One of my subjects of meditation, which I keep saying I am going to do but never do, is plant sweet corn late, like in June or even July, pray for rain, and then graze cattle and sheep on the sweet corn, ears and all, in snow time. My sheep will graze a sweetcorn stalk right down to the ground.
Roof, our chickens spend summer under giant ragweed too. I’ve written about this weed, and want to again because I have a photo of Carol standing next to super giant ragweed towering above her. There’s a lot of very interesting details about giant ragweed. Evidently you are aware of them too.
Ian, I think I did not go far enough on the ear corn, shelled corn thing. We always figured it took about 90 lbs of ear corn to shell out 58-60 lbs of corn kernels. Gene

This has been my first full calendar year as a regular reader and I have thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour through the seasons. So much so that I became an online subscriber this summer to the Progressor Times just to follow your weekly column written for your local community. I particularly liked your most recent column and your semantic twist on re-identifying some “conservatives” as “preservatives”. It is always a pleasure to read what is on your mind and your vigorous writing output is amazing.

This column along with the encouraging one on Island Grains has given some focus to something I had been vaguely considering. Years ago when I was dairying, I ran out of oat seed with less than a round to plant. Since part of the purpose was to establish an alfalfa hay stand and in the interest of finishing, I used a bag of left over winter wheat seed that I had. I really didn’t know what would happen and the answer was not much. It made a nice leafy grass that never got more than about a foot high all summer. I’ve been wondering about the feasibility of disking up a manure covered old alfalfa stand in the fall, sowing some winter wheat in April, no-tilling corn into the green wheat cover when the weather turns warm in May and then stocking the field with some feeder lambs once the corn gets waist high or taller. I think I remember you writing about turning lambs into corn fields with minimal damage to the corn plants. I doubt that I am the first to think along these lines – are you aware of anyone who has tried this?

Happy New Year to you Gene and your beautiful wife and to your many readers among whom I am glad to be counted. You do draw an interesting crowd.

Accidentally intelligent is the best kind of intelligent. Knowledge aquired through making mistakes and learning from them gives you much more applicable learning than the hypothetical stuff being poured at me in college. Most professors never tried to apply what they are teaching, so it’s conceptual at best.

Ian, a bushel of shelled corn weighs right around 58 lbs. A bushel of ear corn right around 70 lbs. So the old tables all say. Actually, if you look back through my blogs, many of them have photos from our place and can give you a good idea. More will no doubt be coming. Gene

Another great post, Gene. Thanks for giving credit to the giant rag weed; when I was a kid we used rag weed for shade in the young chicken yard. Seemed like that stuff grew twelve feet high, and became a small forest. It kept the young chickens cool, not much sunlight got through the canopy, and come to think of it, I don’t remember any problems with hawks, either.

I was taught as a kid to keep my eyes open, and never assume I had something figured out. That has served me well. Chickens and hogs are the ultimate scavengers, and are always interesting to watch. They will help you learn what you don’t know.

Time to log in again, haven’t posted a comment in a while. Tim52160, I’m doing the same riff as you, 50+ and starting to ‘cottage farm’, learning by reading, listening, trial and error on 20 acres. Gene, you’re reluctant to have people come visit, which I understand, but this picture made me want to suggest you do a whole lot more of them, cuz it’s true, a picture is worth a 1000 words. Your sketch of your homestead layout pg 30 in
All Flesh is as close as we’ll get to seeing how things really are there. Maybe posting a photo essay someday would be a good idea?
I throw my whole corn cobs to the chickens like you suggest, and yup they pick em clean. Greenhouse weeds and old produce goes in there too.
Still wondering how to figure cob corn bushels into shelled corn equivalent…
Ian in Dundas

you ARE a genius – great work! we learned that really long oat straw feeds geese just fine (and is great for puppies to play in) and we let our hens (and a few other geese) hang out with the goats. whatever the goats dont eat, the clucks and geese eat. works out great. say – does that mean I’M a genius?

Gene, thanks for the post. It gave me an idea. After reading it I went out and bought a bale of hay, took it to the chicken coop, and threw a few scraps out for the girls. They pecked around at it a little and then headed over to the feed trough to eat some rations. Huh, so the chickens like hay?

But I opened the bale further and got a big batch out and tossed it down for them. When I left they were scratching and pecking in it. My chickens do not know hay: they have to learn what to do with it. Though I have to admit they are pretty fast learners!

Eric, I know that some people do need to do the homework and I have no criticism for their need. I happened to be get lucky in the game of genetic roulette and got a brain that could learn quickly and retain what I learned, so I really didn’t need the homework. What bothered me was the lack of flexibility in the system. Of course, this was in the 50s and 60s when things like charter schools and home schooling were not available; women were still being put in “boxes” like secretary and nurse. And Gene, we do need to say so in print–frequently–that the current system doesn’t work in many ways. While the piece of paper/degree may be nice, the real question is whether the graduate can think clearly and consistently, and can function in the real world when presented with problems that weren’t in the textbook. What if a student could challenge a test, for say half the usual tuition fee? Saves the college money because they don’t need the support system necessary for a student who is physically there. Oh wait, they want the infrastructure and the big salaries so they can get the grants to teach what is politically acceptable–silly me! sorry, this is one of my hot buttons; I’ll get off my soapbox now!

Gershon, what a great idea. I bet anything that a load of weeds gone to seed would make a great winter feed for chickens. Especially giant rag weed which I know chickens like.
Tim and Beth, I try not to say it in print because I went to school so terribly long, but I truly wonder these days when so much information is available, whether intelligent people need to go to college. Not going saves a heap of money that could go toward buying land. Gene

Many people (like me) need to do the homework so that we can strengthen the process in our minds. Unfortunately, I find that doing it on a different day than when it was presented is best for me – and they usually like the homework done by the next day…

Also, for physical activities, practice (i.e. homework) is best for building up “muscle memory”.


I agree with Tim. Aside from the basics of math, reading/spelling (and I actually taught myself to read and spell) and writing, I don’t think I learned anything in school, college or post grad that was particularly useful. The good stuff was what I got from reading everything I could lay my hands on, observation, thought, practice and happy accident. The thing I remember best about my formal schooling was an intense frustration at being told that even if I could pass the tests with 100%, I still had to do the homework! It sounded stupid when I was ten and it sounds just as stupid now.

Gene ,I’ve learned more from reading you in my 50 years than if i had wasted money going to college.Ive collected old farm journals and other mags for farming info that i cannot aquire from the modern get gigantic or get out mentality prevailing today.I am slowly “due to age ,health and job moving into a 30 acre farm 90 miles away myself. I need to build myself a machine shed like yours to house my equipment since my farm has no buildings except an unlivable house. Thanks again for being a beacon in the pitch black night of corporate agrigreed.


Observation can lead to a lot of discoveries. The chicken in this photo loved to hang around the goat shed. (Which one is not a baby goat?)

Perhaps if you put a goat in with the chickens, some sort of symbiotic relationship develops.

I know nothing about chickens, but it seems to me that if one cut a lot of dead weeds along the road and put them in with the chickens, the chickens would find the seeds in them.

You’re already up their with that Einstein fella, except he had all of those “whacky hair” problems you don’t have to worry about. I’m going to go throw a couple of bales of hay into the chicken coop, make sure the heated water bucket is working, and then crawl back into bed with my Christmas flu “present” for a few days. Once again, you’ve taught me a valuable lesson!!

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