Sitting Your Way To Success 


My mind lurches around uncomfortably whenever I consider the subject of farm work. I worry that, as a writer, I gloss over the reality of it and overly glorify the ideal of it. I personally prefer a life that means many hot summer days bucking hay bales into the barn over one that requires many hot summer days commuting into a Philadelphia magazine office in a train that is not air-conditioned and then trying to figure out what to write that will not upset the boss. I have done my share of both. Office work stresses me mentally and physically. Farm work only stresses me physically and getting tired that way is sort of soothing if you don’t overdo it.

But my view of the matter is obviously not the case for the majority of people. Most humans dread hard physical labor. History shows that they will flee farm work even for life in a city ghetto and this trend continues all over the world, especially evident right now in China.

“Labor-saving” technology is our salvation, according to our culture, when in reality it only means we can do more in the same amount of time with the side effect of creating millions of unemployed people. One man can farm a thousand acres now and with a couple of employees five thousand at least, whereas in the dim, grueling past, he could only farm eighty with family help. But my experience is that the intelligent and skilled 80-acre farmer of yesteryear did not work as hard or as long as the ten thousand acre farmer of today. Few believe me because the latter does most of his or her work sitting down. Sitting down work is what we prefer even when it is worse than standing up work. You go to college to make sure you can earn a living sitting down.

But my love or at least embrace of hard physical work requires more definition. I do not like to do hard farm work without adequate rest periods. Nor do I enjoy doing it for someone else unless that someone else intends to return the favor. Milking someone else’s cows is not any more savory for me than commuting to the big city to edit someone else’s magazine. I am inclined to think that the massive migration of farm kids to the city over the last century or so was not just about being forced off the land by economic reality but because Dad did not usually know how to treat his children properly on the farm or provide the right incentives. Smaller farms have always been profitable as the Amish prove.  Young people left the farm because Dads worked them too hard and too long, believing he had to use them to compete with machines he could not afford to buy. FFA in our area does not mean Future Farmers of American, but Farmers Farming Alone.

My father made games out of hard dull work. Picking up ears of corn knocked off the stalks by the binder in those olden times, he taught us to keep an eye out for flint arrowheads and stone axe heads. He showed us how to fold back the husk on an ear and throw it high into the air to make it parachute back to earth, ear tip first. Then it became a game to try to parachute the ears into the wagon from a hundred feet away.  We didn’t get the job done as efficiently as Saint Efficient Farmer, (many ears had to be picked up twice) but it was more fun.

Dad might have been ahead of his time. Making sport of work has now become making work of sport. High school kids now work as hard at basketball and football as we did doing chores before and after school. My grandson when in high school was rising at six to “work out” in the gym before classes, then attended grueling practices in the afternoon after classes. Kids are burning out of sports these days about as frequently as kids 60 years ago burned out of farm work.

Of course that’s not the whole story. There are other episodes— like people who have lucrative sitting jobs but are opting out today to go broke doing backbreaking farm work. More on this next week.


my brother and I farm 600 acres. It is bottom ground and rather wet. It is not really enough to support two families and so he drives truck and I no-till for the neighbors and make hay. For me the summers are often 12-18hr days five to twenty miles from home baling and stacking for another farmer.
I remember as a kid picking up alfalfa bales to the point I couldn’t lift them anymore. But… I also remember the incredible dinners fixed by my Mother. Knocking an hour between sprinkler line moving to go swimming, canoeing the river in the evening, coffee breaks at 10 and 3 and all the weird old farmers that would stop by.
We have better equipment now but we work at night and I think we have a little more money but it is not really how farming should be.
I’m not sure if want to farm with horses.

As someone out of college only 4 years ago and sitting in a “lucrative” job, I completely agree with your statement of enjoying manual a point. My wife and I are building a homestead and planning my early “retirement” from sitting to success. It’s not what its cracked up to be. My favorite time of the day is when I get to go home and do manual labor in gardens…

What I realy like is the people who pay someone to mow their lawn while they workout at the gym.

All I know is, one day spent sitting in the pickup when we cram all of our town errands into the shortest space possible leaves me mentally and physically exhausted. Yet I can put in long hours in the garden, build fence, move pigs, irrigate or do other ranch chores without feeling nearly as whipped as I do the day we go to town. And there’s always the opportunity to watch a piglet rodeo, see lambs playing something that looks like a combination of leapfrog and hopscotch, check on the latest wildflowers, give the old stud-horse a good ear scratching and smell the green, growing world.

This is an interesting subject. Humans are drawn to easier faster ways of doing things like moths to a flame, even when its not in their own best interest. Its a big part of what makes us human. I have a picture of a haying bee helld for my father after he slipped in a motel bathtub on the only vacation he ever took and broke some ribs.The year was 1956 and they are skinny,so much so that they would look out of place in todays agriculture.Fat farmers are just one of many unintended consequences of mechanization.Perhaps most interesting is the productivity of human labor. A motivated knowledgable,gardener can produce a staggering amount of food on a acre of land. Enough to make that 200 bushels of gmo corn look pretty meager.Some are grossing $50000 per acre and more using nearly all hand labor.Keep in mind they are using very intense techniques,possible only by human hands.All I know is I feel better after a day on my feet than after a day on a tractor.

“Farming is my sport.” That is what I tell folks when they see me hard at farm work and they try to get me interested in some boring diversion.

It doesn’t surprise me a bit that no one on this site wants to work for anyone else–even if it is farming! Contrarians all!! I would never work as hard for somebody else as I do joyfully here on Persimmon Ridge.

Just in now for lunch (2:20) and had 3 sausages, 1 lb.spinach salad, various cheeses, and when I’m finished here I’m going to have butterscotch fudge. I was working. Alone and in my garden. Was working with my hands. Was using as needed a flat shovel, several kinds of hoes, a long string, a few stakes, a small heavy hammer. Plus a wheelbarrow. Made 175′ of raised beds for the planting of leeks. 820 leeks. Limed, composted, made holes, laid out the sets, planted, gathered up all tools, looked over my work, appreciated how it looked, the row/s even, straight, orderly. And now lunch. I read your post Gene at the perfect time: Just after working long and hard and purposefully and willingly,Thesis: The life of the hand (work) is fun, valuable, beautiful, meaningful, sustainable, healthy, etc. I once taught at the university. I know all about sitting and offices and meetings. I’ll take the garden any day, any weather. But (like you Gene) don’t ask me to work for you. Won’t happen. What I will do for you is talk about god and beauty and capitalism and books and history. And don’t get me started on Thoreau. The life or the hand, the life of the mind. Ain’t none better.

Wow, does this post remind me of my father, one of the last of the old-time farmers in these parts. He was the first in his family to go to college (first the local community college, then to Ohio State) where he studied chemical engineering in the late ’30s. He loved the chemistry and the academic life, but when he went on a chemistry department field trip to the chemical plants in Charleston, W.V. his junior year, he realized he’d REALLY rather spend the rest of his life at home on the farm, rather than in a chemical plant. So he dropped out, and farmed — first his dad, then his brother, then his brother’s grandson, then finally with his son-in-law, my husband. Daddy could still be found in the tractor seat at age 92 (which worried me to death, as he could barely get on and off the tractor and had a weak heart besides), but even when he was confined to a wheelchair, he never left the farm. Gosh, do I miss him and his farm wisdom….

You’re right about work being totally different when I do something for myself as opposed to doing it for someone else as a job.Like picking up rock and there are plenty to pick up here,I have a good size dump truck load of rock on the lower side of my garden that I have gotten off of it in the last few years,I get a certain satisfaction out of looking at that pile just to admire it and gives me inspiration when I have to pick up more.Picking rock on someone else’s farm would be drudgery.I was the manager in a concrete block plant for 20 years doing a lot of manual labor like welding,electrical work and the like and really enjoyed it.Then I got ‘promoted’ to the office side of the company seemed great at first but ended up not liking it at all,quit and went back to farming full time and have never regretted it.Farming with me is having just the right mix of things that are modern and some of the older stuff and ways mixed in.Also is nice these days that a failed crop or other problem is a pain to deal with but I won’t loose the farm over it either now that is a real luxury.

I spent yesterday watching ewes deliver newborns. They all did well and needed no help, but it sure beats being in an office.

After 44 years of foundry work, helping my wife raise 3 great kids and maintaining a large garden all that time, I find great joy in doing manual labor – now for just us. There is no finer sight than looking out at row upon row of newly stacked firewood, ready to keep us warm next winter, or seeing the 3 gardens covered in chopped leaves, home raised chicken manure and freshly broadcast lime waiting for the kiss of warm spring weather and the tiller to start another growing season.
With all the ads for various sleep aids, I know of nothing better than a day spent stacking firewood, cleaning out the chicken coop, or planting seeds or pulling weeds in the gardens to make rest at the end of the day a joyful and peaceful event.
I believe God made man to work and enjoy the fruits of his labor, in a very literal sense.

Thank you Gene for the inspiring writing.

Jerry Pituch

Gene, I prefer a laborers’ life to that of a cubicle-dweller, even as I sit in my Barcalounger, knee elevated, doing nothing for the next three days (per doctors instructions) , my knee problem being the result of a lifetime spent doing manual labor. I hope, by following doctors orders, to forestal a knee replacement till “retirement” three years hence. Retirement, for me, means a continued life of labor, only it will be laboring for myself. At least I’m paid well, for the slow deterioration that occurs to my body

I’m looking out into my garden, wishing one of my adult children would drop by so I can shout instructions out the window as to which weeds need pulling, what vegetable flats want planting out today, why the shade cloth needs to be tossed over the greenhouse, and hoping they might bestow a measure of pity on me by mowing the back yard – I’d still prefer doing it myself, dirt, sweat, and soreness .

People work harder at getting out of work, than if they’d just do the work. That includes earning the money necessary to purchase so called labor-saving devices that soon fall apart. No problem, work a few more hours and buy another. They are, after all good for the economy.

My story is much the same as what you mentioned in your last paragraph. About 2 years into college I realized that maybe being an engineer wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, but I also realized that I already had so much student loan debt that I would need an engineering job just to pay it off. So I completed school and got an engineering job. I don’t like it, but I’m making good money. I’m living on as little as I can and every extra penny I can squeeze out of my budget goes as extra on my student loan debt. Someday, when I’m finally free, I hope to save up some money, buy some land and build a homestead farm with a focus on icelandic sheep.

    Whoa! Do some more research. Yes, I’m an engineer also. That’s what we do. First find out all you can about farming. Find out about FSA loans and Farm Credit loans for beginning farmers. There are down payment loans for beginning farmers with no money. You still have to pay money to live, right? Live on your farm. You’ll never manage to save much working for someone else. Work for yourself at the same time and get the income tax deductions to offset your engineering income.
    Career doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’m an engineer AND a farmer. Who needs sleep?

      Don’t mistake summation for the sake of brevity with a lack of planning or research. I’m leaving the engineering field not because I think I’d like to be a farmer, but rather because I do not like being an engineer. I have researched loans and decided I don’t want any part of them. As a student of Dave Ramsey, I’d rather save up and buy an unimproved plot of hilly land (cheaper because it’s useless to commercial agriculture but sheep can make use of it for pasture, especially an unimproved breed like icelandics that thrive on browse and forbs in addition to grass) and build my own house and farm buildings using alternative building methods (require more labor but often as little as 15% of the material costs, during a time when I’d likely have time and effort to spare but not much money). Through diversified production, I hope to minimize the amount of expenses I have and rely on the icelandics to feed me and earn enough to cover what remains of my financial needs. They can be grown in a 100% pasture system, reducing the expense of keeping them by avoiding the cost of grain-based feed, and produce gourmet meat which should be easy to move in a market that values pasture raised, grain-free, antibiotics and hormone free meat. Additionally they supply a fleece that is prized by hand-spinners (a market I would have to cultivate), horns that have value in certain markets, can be used as dairy animals, and add fertility to the pasture without tearing it up as much as heavier cattle do. I’m under no illusions that it will be a breeze, but I believe it will be enough to sustain me and I believe it will be worth it.

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