Working Too Hard At Farming To Succeed



Last week I ruminated about how so many people hate hard physical labor and how society invariably rewards sitting down work with better wages than standing up work. Then the sitting down people sweat themselves into pain and misery in sports and “leisure” activities. Your responses were wonderful. I have the same experience that you do, Beth— going to town is more exhausting than a day of hard work on the farm.

But what are we to think of the new farmers today who despite having very good jobs sitting down, insist on working themselves half to death in the fields during their free time. What gives here?

There’s a new book out by a friend of mine, Richard Gilbert, called Shepherd that eloquently explains what gives here. In Richard’s case it was a vertebra in his upper back among other things. Richard and I go back quite a few years now and I owe him because, working at Indiana University Press and then at Ohio University Press, he vigorously supported the publication of several of my books. But I would praise his book even if that were not the case. It is well-written in a well-paced narrative style, courageously honest, invariably accurate in all the details of sheep husbandry and human nature he gets into, and tells, better than any book I have so far read, why people who are perfectly sane and successful in their urban work turn to the joys of farming that often amount to more pain and penury than profit.

Richard and his wife, Kathy, both successful in their chosen fields in education and continuing successful to this day, had to overcome just about every problem new farmers can confront. Richard’s way of coping was successful, at least in the sense that when he quit, he could sell out and recoup his losses. He considered farming a business opportunity, not just a fun thing. He referred humorously to my book, All Flesh Is Grass, as “pasture porn” in the sense that I accentuated the pleasure part of grass farming, not the grim profit part of it. He barged into shepherding with all sails hoisted while I eased cautiously into it in a leaky canoe with paddle poised tentatively above the water. He was not afraid to spend extra money to make money whereas I never thought I had any extra money to spend. I admired his courage but feared that he was going to hurt himself if he didn’t slow down. I have two hernias to prove I am an expert in this area.

I am torn over the confliction between farming as a business and farming as a pleasant pastime. I want to encourage young people to make a profitable success out of farming but deep inside me is a conviction that raising good food can’t ever be very profitable in a business sense and still be a sustainable life-supporting undertaking. My mother said that it took three dedicated generations to build a financially successful farm and then the fourth generation blew it all. As Woody Tasch’s book by the same name puts it, it is very much a matter of “slow money.” Or as my old neighbor always observed: “Slow and steady go far into the day.”


Your mother’s observation about inherited wealth aptly describes human tendency. If it is free and unearned it is seldom valued no matter how valuable it appears to others. Your thoughts about the conflict between pastime and profit reminded me of the film “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” . When I googled that to find when it was released, some related info directed me to the 1936 short documentary “The Plow That Broke the Plains”. Are you familiar with it? I found it a fascinating encapsulation of how the drive for profit in an honorable profession blinds people to possible devastating consequences. Much of it was in the name of “feeding the world”. Quite the possible prophetic forerunner to reinforce yours and others thoughts in GMO OMG.

My husband and I had long planned to buy a piece of land and do some farming – as a supplement to working in town, you understand; we have never expected the little bit of land we could afford (7.5 acres of former timber company land and then horse pasture) to support us or pay the mortgage. But we jumped at the opportunity when it arrived, sold the house in town and bought this land, and are happily making it productive. “Profit,” as those in the previous comments have noted, is not just counted in dollars and cents. I could have stayed in town and had those, along with traffic noise, the sounds of my neighbors arguing, car stereos blaring, asphalt heat and lights blaring all night long in my bedroom window. Now I have whippoorwills, fireflies, foxes and deer and chickens and an enormous garden; I sell my extra produce and eggs at my downtown office to co-workers, and while there’s a lot of sweat and dirt and sore muscles involved, I wouldn’t trade my current life for any amount of money. And, just for the record, my husband and I are both in our early 50s. Thanks for thoughtful posts, Gene – it was your At Nature’s Pace that started us down this road. 😉

What a great post, Gene. Thanks so much for plugging my book and being so kind to me. My long story was really a coming to where you have always been. I am going to post this week on your great book The Man Who Created Paradise.

This past week I had the opportunity of a temp job to put a few extra pennies in my pocket. On one of my morning commutes the insanity of it all hit me and I said to myself out loud,
“This is not worth it! Being at home and working towards a way of life that I truly believe in does not have a monetary value. It is priceless. Difficult,.. yes. That’s part of it’s charm.

I’ve enjoyed both of these articles and can certainly identify. I have a good town job, and am fortunate to say that it only ties me up three days a week. So the question is, if that is success, then why farm. Not that what I do I consider farming, I’m more of an over-sized gardener :). To sum it up, and I think I speak for most of us visiting her, I enjoy the outdoors and the activities associated with garden farming. What would I do with my days off? Spend lots of time with the kids. Sure, I spend every day I can with the family. But I find that time spent on the farm doing and learning things in the outdoors is a wonderful way to enjoy life with a family. And the kids love every second of it. Of course we still do lots of other activities, such as trips to the zoo and vacation time. But some of the best times are spent together on our little piece of land. It’s a good life!

The million dollar question…
I believe God created farming as the perfect life. It is not an easy life but it is the model for human existence. You grow it and you eat it and your have a big family and your kids learn how to work hard, have self discipline, know how things work. In the winter you set around a roaring fire and read the Bible and all the classics. You have debates over things like states rights, liberty, predestination of the elect vs free will, Marxism, and you put on plays and learn fiddle.
Your farm looks like a Marx Lazy-Days farm set from the apex of agricultural history, 1950’s America.
Sometimes my faith is questioned a little… My pig got hit by two cars and had to be converted into dog food. (He didn’t even live at my house) I spend all my time planting and doing hay for everyone else and don’t get my own stuff done.
Sometimes my back hurts so bad from bouncing around on everyone else’s rough fields in a 20 mile radius that I have to get out of the stacker and lay flat on the ground in the straw field.
AND…at this point in my life I have no idea how I could ever get another job.
What I imagine is not what it really is.
I’m just adding to your questions not giving you an answer. Of course I’m setting in my armchair drinking coffee cause it is pouring down rain outside.
I should be out in the shop working but I am kind of Lazy…

Profit is a funny thing. The typical commuter in this area drives to Washington D. C. Five days a week and gets paid bi-weekly. With this pay check, he pays the mortgage, the car payment, phone, sewer, water and other various bills.

Before the commuter receives his check, the government gets their share, at the end of the year, what is left over, with luck a $1000.00 or so in savings.

I work on the farm for free, the farm pays the mortgage, the tractor payment, buys the necessary feeds. The farm buys the fuel, makes the equipment payments, places food on the table.

The farm also provides beauty, eliminates commutes, provides both a teaching and learning environment. If after taxes, the farm makes a $3000.00 profit which of us is further ahead?

In my mind the answer isn’t close.

I guess it depends on how you define “profitable.” If your definition is money enough to drive the latest in cars and have an air-conditioned harvester with surround sound, lots of electronic toys and enough money to allow you to redecorate the house every couple of years, then you probably shouldn’t go into farming. If your definition is enough to pay for the basics of life and set a little aside, no huge debt for monster equipment, time to watch lambs play or the sun go down and great-tasting food you raised yourself, head out to the field. The old “get big or get out” mantra did incalculable damage to farmers, many of whom were doing OK even if they weren’t getting rich.

I also have severe spinal stenosis; spondilosis;and arthritus in my back not to mention knees and hips, and sleep apnea .Not to mention the only plot of land i got is undrained ,no utilities, and no buildings except for a house that you can stand in the basement and see the sky and had been storage and a home for racoons and never had running water or septic . Hows that for shits and giggles? lmao deffinitly a settler here.

When I see a long block of text, I know it’s going to be from James M Thomas and that it’s going to be well worth reading! Thank you so much James. Wish I could learn to harvest a goat from you! Is it much different from processing a sheep?

Tim, I feel you. Hang in there. 53 is young! It takes a while for things to settle into place–maybe that’s why we’re called settlers as well as homesteaders? I’ve been working like a borrowed mule on this place for 7 years and things are just now really falling into place. I was a year older than you are when I started.

Terry, you are wise beyond your years–and just a young thing you are!

dancinghairwoman May 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

My goodness. This sounds like a lot of over thinking to me.
I have a small parcel and every inch is dedicated to some form of “pay back”. From the pig pen and chicken house to the shop where repairs are made to the garden beds that provide our fresh produce, there is little space that is devoted to relaxation. The reason? I love the smell of the lavender in bloom, the feel of the earthy compost in my garden, and the time I spend talking to the chickens when I feed and water them to encourage more egg production. I really just enjoy (most of the time) working and creating a life on my little farm.
My grand-kids think it’s the best place on earth. The chickens pay for Boy Scout camp every summer and their friends from the big city can’t wait to get out here for a few weeks in the summer (we have a lottery) even if it does mean shoveling out the pig pen. The sweetness of cleaning up at the creek on a warm afternoon is all the recompense they require.
That’s what it’s all about. The reward of hard work at the end of the day…the sweetness of a good meal and well earned relaxation whatever form it takes.

Yes i have had a few days working that went over 24 hours. More than i care to or can remember. I drive a semi or was till i got temporary lay off and trying to fix place up and farm and drive semi. This is the most time ive had off in half a decade. I bought a farm and had a trailor moved to live in and they left it sitting in the field instead of putting it where i belonged, so i had all the exspense of moving it and still no liveable place. My tractors the largest is a d 17 and it is too light for moving the trailor. The neighbors will move it IF they get to farm my place,etcI remember when farmers used to help each other without wanting something in it for them selves. Not any more!! They make me ashamed to call myself a farmer these days.They will cheerfully take everything off my hands for ten cents on the dollar though!I’d rather let it grow up in weeds and trees than let these greedy bums have it now! But i keep getting out there when i can and fix things up.Its a shame they always let the houses and barns go so they wont have any competition starting up around them. I used to work for a big hog farm and then come home from work and work my place till late in to the night. But golf,tennis and video games bore me so at least i got something to do till i finally get to kick the bucket. Maybe even squeeze in a little fishing till then , Tim age 53

Well put Gene, but it’s a typical case of the conundrum :”How does one define profit”? I tried to put a dollar amount on the meat from the animals I raised and figured the profit was in the manure pack. My wife pointed out that if that was the case I could get plenty of strawy manure from the FFA barn at the local high school, which I did, but mainly because I needed more manure pack than what I had.

I’ve listened to neighbors talk about why they raised Cornish Cross fryer chickens because they knew what they had as opposed to store bought chicken. Although they kept them in a pen and fed them commercial food. Of course if those chickens were set out for free range they might have a tough time of it even if they weren’t eaten by racoons. They are selected for fast growth while eating from a trough. I did note however that one time they had a broody hen so they managed to convince her to adopt some Cornish cross fryer chicks which she did and the hen raised them successfully with no problems with dislocating joints as so often happens when the Cornish Cross are penned and fed all they can eat. Of course they didn’t grow as fast nor eat as much commercial food but when they were butchered, the neighbors didn’t crow about how tender they were either as they did with the meat from the caged birds. Realistically, I didn’t see much difference between what they had and a store bought fryer except for the chicks raised by a hen. Did they save money compared to buying fryer chicken from the store? I seriously doubt it.

In regard to profit from homesteading, it is similar with many of the agricultural products we homesteaders produce. As an example I have some plum trees that have disease and insect problems and I constantly do battle with frost when bloom time arrives. Why would I do that when thousands of acres of plums , mainly the famous “Italian Prunes” are grown not far away and the plums are available for purchase? It is because these home grown plums can be picked when perfectly ripe, which means it is impossible to ship them because they are very perishable. In contrast to eating the commercial Italian prunes , to bite into one to these home grown, perfectly ripe plums just picked from the tree is an experience everyone should have at least once. I haven’t been able to figure out how to profit from that simple pleasure other than thinking of it as a quality experience.

I did note on one of the PBS programs where a homestead type of farmer is able to arrange having paying guests come to his orchard and sample ripe plums grown without irrigation which the guests picked themselves and enjoyed eating on the spot after being shown how to eat the plums without wearing them. I suspect if the guests were shown how to pick and dry or can the plums to take home they might pay for that experience as well. Of course if the guests figured out how much the experience cost compared to buying plums from the store they might raise the same question: was the quality of the produce and the quality of the experience worth the expense compared to buying plums from the store? I think in most cases the answer would be yes.

So I think the real profit in farming may be expressed as something hard to define but for convenience sake let us call it: “quality”; quality of meat and produce, quality of experience and although it’s an over used phrase:”quality of life”. By that I mean even the bad experiences such as losing a fruit crop to frost or losing animals to predators add quality to the homesteading life.

As an example of a quality experience: just last week I was privileged to have a young man from Los Angeles help me with butchering a goat. It was a totally new experience for him. Being able to mentor him (I even managed to cut myself after lecturing him about knife control) was a definite quality of life experience for me while simultaneously he was thrilled to be able to participate in such a life taking but life giving process. In essence the mutual experience added to his quality of life as well.The goat meat will be exceptional as well and I’m trading the meat for services rendered to a mechanic friend for repairing a sickle bar mower inasmuch as he can benefit from the meat and I don’t have to part with hard earned cash for the machinery repair . It’s rather difficult to put a monetary value on such a transaction to figure traditional profit or loss, so ‘ll just chalk it up to “quality” all around. I enjoyed the quality experience of raising the goat to butcher size from birth, the young man from LA enjoyed the experience of learning how to process a meat animal and the mechanic friend will enjoy the meat on the grill I’m sure. Meanwhile the crops will benefit from the manure the goat provided during his lifetime.

However, I still have to figure out how to generate enough cash to keep the quality of experiences,aka homestead, financially afloat, because the tax man and the bank with the mortgage still need to be paid. Hmm… maybe I can barter with the tax man to share a quality experience: have him come out and pick and eat tree-ripened plums in lieu of paying taxes, maybe the banker wants to learn how to butcher a goat and cook and eat it in lieu of a mortgage payment? Not likely, but one never knows unless one tries.

Gene you always make me think, which is a good thing, sometimes.

I wonder about making farming profitable too. These days I think it’s difficult to do ANYTHING you truly love and still love it after you’ve had to turn it into making a profit–either for yourself or someone else. I don’t farm. I homestead, which means I try to provide as much for myself as I possibly can so that I can work as little as possible, or not at all, for someone else. It’s like taking a vow of poverty in one sense while living very richly in another.

I know this is a radical idea, but if more of us did this, maybe employers would value us more and making a living wouldn’t be so hard? Maybe not.

Thank you for bringing Richard’s book to my attention! I bought my first sheep from Richard and Kathy when we moved to our farm in Southeastern Ohio. We were SO fortunate to connect with him. Until that time, my sheep experience came from training herding dogs (for trials/pleasure). I would farm sit and help with chores on a friend’s farm in exchange for dog time. I knew some of the basics, but I came from the suburbs and my husband from L.A. We were real greenhorns!

Fortunately, Richard not only gave us tons of great advice, he provided beautiful, healthy (I had never heard of CL and thanks to Richard never had it on the farm) Katahdin sheep. The ewes were young, but proven lambers. They were already trained to electric mesh (our chosen grazing method). We kept in touch over the years and enjoyed visiting with him and Kathy as we came back to buy new rams.

Having read his articles in the Katahdin Hairald, I know his writing is wonderful. I am off to order his book for myself and two shepherd friends.

Gene, thank you for another book recommendation! I will definitely read it. Not having read this book, I can relate. Both my wife and I have been very fortunate in our careers and very successful. We own 40 acres of wonderful property that has brought me much pleasure as I work to make it something in the future to leave as my legacy. But making it profitable while holding my current job is something I have come to accept as not feasible and work slowly toward my goals. Understanding it will be a decade before a I reach this point of so called profitability. Time and money are the issue. I have money and can put dollars into the property rapidly, but prefer to invest in a manner that allows my time to match the work the investment creates. Additionally, the details of my goals change as I put more prudent thought into what or how I want to protect the land and provide good food for my family. I also realize I am in my late 40’s and new to farming. Be assured your writings and publications have been a driving force for me as I move forward.

Now that being said, I just came in from my morning chores and walked newly planted pasture visualizing the fence line I need to put in for cattle and sheep. Oh how much better it will look than the row crops that were here before! I checked the progress of various trees that I moved from my tree garden to bare hill sides of the farm. I search for areas to start my shitake mushroom logs in the timber (while noticing some more trees that need to be thinned). And lastly, sitting on the hill side above the pond watching two geese that have to take up residence here as well as two blue heron that are new to my pond. I am sure they are here to feast on the fish we stocked last fall. Life explodes from this farm! Nature moves at its own pace and I cannot rush no matter how much I spend. Forcing it will only add to my stress thus make me unhappy. So for us small farmers surrounded by big ag, moving at Nature’s pace may be the best plan of all.

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