Humble Beginnings Humbug



Nothing annoys me like news stories and biographies that refer to the “humble beginnings” of famous people who grew up on the farm. This kind of talk is meant to sound faintly praiseworthy, intimating that only by superhuman effort could a person pull himself or herself out of the clodhopper and hick backwaters of society and achieve success. Rarely if ever does the silken hand of literature say that such and such a president or industrialist or writer or inventor or whatever became great and famous BECAUSE he or she grew up on the farm. I love what the Farm Journal magazine editorialized way back in 1893: “That bright boy, as full of questions and ideas as he is of mischief, has in him the material for making a stirring, successful farmer. Answer his questions patiently, interest him in the farm work and business by taking him into your confidence and giving him something to do and to think about. As to the dull boy… he can be a lawyer and a politician.”  That attitude carried through at the Farm Journal even into the 1960s and 70s when I worked there. I mentioned once to my boss, Lane Palmer, that The New Yorker, surely one of our most literary publications, was my favorite magazine. He snorted. “Way too longwinded. None of those writers could ever sell us a story.”  You just can’t get any more prideful that that.

There was nothing humble about most of us who grew up on farms. In fact we were inordinately proud of being sons and daughters of the soil and still are. When she was young, my mother (who loved The New Yorker too) wrote a beautiful essay about how great it was to be a farmer, and we, her children lapped up every word of it. In school we looked down our noses at “town pups” even as they called us “rednecks.” We gave no quarter in the realm of pride and prejudice and still don’t. If anything we are way too proud. I pity the poor savant of the university system or of Manhattan society who would blunder into our very country neighborhood today and repeat within earshot of my sisters that grand old ivory tower notion about how rural people are too provincial in their outlook.

Perhaps our “attitude” was more arrogant than humble because although we were far from rich, many of us had grandparents who were quite wealthy in their day. They farmed profitably at the height of the agrarian heyday from about 1880 to 1920. In our family, that money was all gone by my time, darn it anyway, but we inherited a landed-gentry attitude toward society rather than the bowed head of humble peasants. Also, here in our little part of the world at least, the country children happened to be smarter on average than our village classmates. (Well, I warned you that we are anything but humble and that proves it.) We generally scored higher grades and so all that talk leveled at us about being dumb yokels sounded arcane and inane and we became quite proficient at making the non-yokels who tried to do the leveling look even stupider than they were.

My theory is that rural people, peasants if you will, have always been plenty smart enough. Witless humans just can’t and never could be successful at farming. But because the peasants shunned and even ridiculed higher education and its regimentation (PhD meant to us “piled higher and deeper”), they did not pick up the language and fashions of the urban world and so they looked and sounded stupid by comparison. And before frequent bathing came into vogue, they sometimes smelled of barn manure.

 Of course today the tables have turned considerably and successful farmers are both educated and fashion-conscious unfortunately, and some of them as wealthy or as land poor as the old southern plantation owner. Some of these humble beginners stand to inherit a bunch of money unless the corn market collapses. But if they keep on farming, their money will soon enough be gone if they are brainless and so their “humble beginnings” will come to humble endings. I like to tell about one of my good friends, now departed, who inherited some 4000 acres of land free and clear. When I would get on one of my high horses about the filthy rich, he would respond with a meek and complaining voice: “Gene, it’s not my fault I was born rich.” Then he would pause and add. “Being rich in farming means nothing because you can lose it all in a hurry if you don’t manage correctly and don’t have a little luck.”


I think you may be living in a history book; the actual labor of farming now is pretty much irrelevant. How much equity you inherit or marry is the critical thing now. I have a neighbor in his late forties who lives strictly on cash rent checks: never “farmed” or had a job in his life. Momma just passed a couple months ago, so he’s got equity now. He’s richer than I’ll ever be. I feel pity for him.

I grew up in the culture you admire; I thought everyone was like us. I didn’t realize we were poor. We never had new, we always fixed the old stuff that broke, or that other people threw away. One of our family heirlooms is an old Regulator wall clock which we took from a dump (remember those?) when I was a kid. Dad got it running, and on our wall it went. Dad quit school in the seventh grade, but I learned more useful stuff from him than from any Ph.D. I learned to watch things, and wonder about them, and play with them, and fix them. I learned to take care of myself, and to always keep my eyes open. I spent my early years trying to farm, until an epiphany made me realize that how smart you were or how hard you worked was of little consequence compared to the equity possessed. That’s why it’s called capitalism. What I had learned from my parents as a child had prepared me to be a pretty good maintenance man in an auto factory, and make a very good living. Maintenance is one of those jobs where every day you learn something new, like farming used to be. Gardening is as close to farming as I wish to be, nowadays. Modern farming is just a giant welfare program for people that were born wealthy. Looking back on life, I had to do a lot of desperate things because I wasn’t rich, and that made me a better person now. Every morning I ask myself what’s important to me, or who’s important to me, and in general question my values. Some mornings the answers have changed. That means I’m still alive. Today will be different than yesterday.

I know more than a couple people like your friend who was born rich and lamented that it could all be lost. The tragedy is they allowed the land to define their life. They didn’t own the land; the land owned them. Pity. How many times have you seen their kids become impatient to get their hands on the equity?

I believe I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:
The common assumption is all too often of an uneducated, unskilled manual laborer who couldn’t succeed in the “real world”. This despite the fact that in addition to such mundane farming tasks as collecting eggs, shoveling manure or irrigating pastures, a farmer may, in a twenty-four hour period, act as mechanic, veterinarian, gardener, carpenter, plumber, mason, animal trainer, welder, cook, bookkeeper and electrician—all skills for which most of us would pay a pretty penny in that aforesaid real world. It takes a very smart person to do all those things and do them well. More, it takes dexterity, judgment, strength, creativity and determination. Farmers and ranchers are truly versatile.

In addition, it makes you independent, which is critically important for survival and will become more so in the future, IMHO.

I’ve made a living doing several different things all the while also doing some farming and can say without a doubt farming for a living takes way more skills and brainpower than any other job I have ever been associated with for sure.Most people outside of farming have no idea whatsoever how much hard work,planning and day to day decision making there is on a full time farm.

I think a farm or rural upbringing taught (at least me) the value of hard work. Just put up hay all day and at the end realize all that you have done! Most of my town friends could not imagine doing that much work. Most of us were told to get an education which I did and left the land.

I had a company owner tell me one time he only hired farm boys (like myself in1983) for technical positions since they had the work ethic and common sense to get things done.

I don’t know what the answer is but we somehow need to teach practical skills to all our children so they can survive in a world with an unpredictable future.

For me city people display “book smarts” and country people display “skill smarts”. It’s good to know facts and figures but the skills will carry you much farther in life.

It isn’t how humble the beginnings are. It is how humble one is throughout their life that marks a true person. In my limited experience, living close to Nature and depending upon her good graces for sustenance is a good recipe for creating a well grounded person. Gene, you and a raft of others have excelled in life without knowing how to toot ones own horn. My farming friends exude a most quiet and comforting competence that I have yet to see in any of the urbanites I know.

Enjoy celebrating 237 years of Independence tomorrow.

Gene- Check out “Beyond Off-Grid” new documentary coming out.

It all started growing up in a little rural town of Hope, Arkansas….

I don’t know if it is humble beginnings or a sense of community, but rural folks always seem to have more fun. City dwellers are more interested in having a story to tell Monday morning at the office. Happy 4th to all!

Humble beginnings are no surety against future arrogance, and this is certainly without any distinction between being raised in the city, or on a farm. I am always going to prefer the company of country folk to city folk, on average.

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