Farming Is A Special Calling



All the delightful responses to my column the week before last about favorite farm and garden chores reflected a fact about farming that needs to be repeated over and over again. Producing food is not a job or a business but a calling. Only some of us are attracted to it. Only some of us can really enjoy the physical work involved. From now on when I hear how I romanticize farming too much and don’t tell readers how difficult farm work can be, I will just show them your responses. For us, repulsive is commuting through traffic jams and sitting in offices all day. Even hauling manure is better than that.

Several of you, particularly Jim Henslee said every farm activity, as it comes along through the year, is your favorite. Rick Presley likes to prune orchards. Raking hay is Gary Burnett’s favorite. One of mine too. Dancinghairwoman likes to burn brush in the spring. Me too again. Brian L likes to harrow a freshly disked field, another of my favorites. Amos Turtle likes watching the yellow ears of corn being carried by the elevator chain on the picker up into the gravity box. Reminds me of a story. A neighbor once confessed to me that the first time he harvested corn with a picker-sheller and watched the golden grain funnel effortlessly into the combine bin, he broke out crying, remembering the grueling work of harvesting corn by hand. I guess I would have to say that my worst job was hearting out a big field of corn in August and husking it in January, but when I did only a  few acres this way, in the fall, the work was quite satisfying, especially when the kids and grandkids came to help. Hotrodinwi’s favorite farm activity is watching the cows frolic in the pasture the first time they are let out in the spring after being penned in the barn all winter. That is an extremely pleasurable time for every farmer. Marsha aka Homegrown is always pleased to see vegetables from last year volunteer in spring. We have a lettuce doing that this year, especially mysterious because it volunteered last year out of nowhere. We don’t know what variety it is, if any. Beth Greenwood enjoys keeping an eye out in spring for the wildflowers as they first come into bloom. This is one of our special pleasures too, starting as early as February with snowdrops and winter aconite and then proceeding, one after another from Grecian windflower, crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinth,  hepatica, bloodroot, purple cress, rue anemone, spring beauties, purple. white and yellow violets, cut-leaf toothwort, white and red trilliums, Jacob’s ladder, trout lilies, tiger lilies, waterleaf, forget-me-nots, bluebells, wild geranium, Deptford pink, and fortunately for all of you, I can’t remember the names of quite a few more so I have to quit showing off.

I must confess I don’t know anything about imprinting foals, Jason Rutledge’s favorite activity. Clue me in, Jason. I don’t know much about leveling land with a laser guided blade, daddio7’s favorite either. Chris likes to put up new fence. I like to admire new fence but not too keen about building it. Finishing  and covering next winter’s supply of stove wood is Jerry Pituch’s favorite chore, also extremely gratifying to me. But I know boys who grew up having to spend cold days cutting wood, who hate the job. I think it might come down to having a kind father or a cruel one bossing the job.

The general joy that shows through all the responses is so encouraging to me as I try to convince people that farming really is fun for some of us, at least more fun than any other line of work. Brian’s declaration that making hay by hand, cutting it with a scythe, raking and drying it in small amounts is indeed amazing. I have done it as he describes and it is hard, sweaty work. I never got the hang of it with the scythe, Brian, but cutting stiff-stalked dry wheat was easy enough. I think that making very high quality legume hay is the secret to successful, small scale farming because that kind of hay is the perfect food for all farm animals and costs little to produce if done as you do it. Even chickens thrive on good clover hay and need little or no other kind of feed except grazing. But I finally had to start cutting hay with a sickle bar mower and then a rotary mower. Actually, small amounts can be done with a lawn mower. Raking by hand, even with just a lawn rake, is slow but doable and the gentleness keeps the precious leaves on the stems. Over the years, one learns little tricks and details no one seems to know, which adds to the fun. For instance, ladino clover though it does not produce as much as red clover or alfalfa, is fine-stemmed and dries fast and the entire stem is good hay. Sometimes you can make it the same day you cut it and very few of the nutrients leach away. Little things like that, which non-farmers and beginning farmers might not appreciate, make the hard work enjoyable. But I don’t know how to convince people who don’t seem to have a calling for it, how deeply satisfying it can be when you bring together various natural activities and turn a piece of land into a wonderfully artful and sustainable place to live.


I’ve been extended a media reviewer’s copy of the upcoming documentary on Wendell Berry, “The Seer”, and I’m happy to report there is a lot of the notion of “calling” that gets communicated in the film, though often it’s indirectly. Many of the young farmers featured in the film can’t explain with much clarity why they choose farming even though they went to college. This strange phenomenon reinforces what Gene is saying. I’ll have my film review in our summer issue of Stewardculture Magazine. But, I don’t want to dissuade those of us who didn’t grow up farming from entering this wonderful world. Maybe we received our calling late or didn’t receive a calling at all, but that shouldn’t mean we don’t try. We must do so with very clear understanding of the risks and trials ahead, but as Gene, Wendell, and others above have noted, the rewards far outweigh the downsides.

It might not have come readily to mind if I hadn’t just done it today, but one of my favorite chores is sitting on the step, listening to the birds, and cutting seed potatoes. It’s a great way to spend a nice spring day while the chickens scratch and cluck in the yard.

I too love to prune in the orchard, it reminds me vaguely of teaching a young child some simple chore, as you must show the tree what you want, you cannot tell it. Then you see if they agreed with you next year. That may be what I like best, as trees seem to live more at my speed than most people do.

Imprinting works on calves and sheep, too (and probably goats, although hubby won’t have goats on the place, so I can’t speak from experience there). There’s a lot to be said for having animals that are comfortable enough around you to allow you to get close and check out a possible injury or feel an udder for mastitis. You have to balance that with enough dominance on the human end that they don’t try to walk all over you, of course. I’ve always seen a clear difference between the animals we raise ourselves and those we’ve bought. Even though plenty of time and patience may get the bought critters more comfortable with being handled, it’s not the same. And their offspring aren’t as gentle, either. We bought a broodmare once whose interactions with humans went thusly: once a year, she would be roped, wormed, have her feet trimmed and be taken to the stud. She was understandably hard to catch, even though she was halter-broken and otherwise gentle. To the day she died (and I owned her about 20 years) when I went out to catch her, she would make several large circles around me, staying just out of reach, before finally letting me slip on a halter. She taught it to her daughter, who despite imprinting, taught it to her colts. By the third generation, however, it was only one circle. I didn’t raise a forth generation, but I suspect by then I would have managed to break the habit.

Mr. Hubbell is correct in defining imprint training as physical interaction from birth. Further defining could include the understanding that animals never forget anything from birth and those memories are retained for a lifetime. I think it is where the “horse whispering” starts. If the farmer/stockman is determined and dedicated enough to be present when parturition or actual birthing occurs, the connection between horse and horseman can be indelible. Of course it all takes place within an accepting relationship with the mare because her attitude toward the human presence is important. Leaving them alone for the first few minutes of birth is important, including the mare licking the foal and the nosing and bonding that occurs naturally. Then as the foal tries to stand and suckle some help could be given. Not to much help but some assistance standing the first time on wobbly legs that are only a few moments old out of the womb. This is where the whispering comes in. As the foal stands that first time, with a slight assistance, that’s when one may whisper whoa in their ear as they relax in the upright position for that first time. That whisper happens just as the release of assistance and cradling stops. Then as the search for the tit starts some guidance can be helpful by directing the foal to the right area. Often a young mare could be asked or tied to stand still for that initial connecting. This is a subtle dance of connection without interference and support without demand. The next step is indeed a dance step of pulling the foals nose toward you and pushing the butt away in what I call dose e doe, like in a square dance. This acceptance and yielding done properly lasts a lifetime. Lots of petting scratching and affection may be applied from that point forward and the person may be seen as a trusted leader for life.

Randy Perkins, A Farmer in Disguise May 4, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Digging potatoes, carrots, parsnips — and marveling at that which grew unseen into something so tasty. There might not be an end to the list of enjoyable chores. Gene, maybe it’s a good thing growing food isn’t for everyone. For those folks who think walking along the produce aisle is a satisfactory gardening experience, let’s not convince ’em to the contrary. Land is already too expensive.

Farming is my sport.

I love milking my cow. In spite of challenges (heat, flies, or mud, or cold ) here is such a pleasure in the partnership. It’s an important task, but one in which haste, force and anxiety don’t help. Milking the cow gives me a reason to relax, perforce, twice a day, and just experience the surroundings, whether it’s barn swallows and the smell of new hay in summer or a snowy barnyard by lantern light in winter. The cow and I both benefit from our association.

Thanks for the tips We are trying to make hay to feed our meat rabbits and chickens and switch them off commercial feed We may but a little local grain and trying growing some grains using the scthyes I inherited from both sides of the family .

I didn’t get to reply to your blog with my favorite farm chore, but as I just returned from doing it to read this, I just have to share oh so belatedly–catching a swarm of bees! and one that didn’t come from MY hives is even better!

I really enjoy watering my chickens. I do it the old fashioned way. Turn on the hose and open the galvanized steel watering cans. Once filled, you have to match up the peg and slot to close the fount and keep the water flowing when needed. Somehow this simple task is supremely satisfying. Of course water is important for every living creature and to be able to supply it to my hens and roosters is somehow supremely satisfying. Call me crazy but I also like candling and packaging eggs. After leaving a boring old corporate job, I now feel like I am really contributing to humanity by supplying fresh healthy food.

Thank you, dear Gene (and all of your responders as well). Touching base with you guys every Wednesday helps keep me sane.

Amen to the concept of agriculture being a calling.

I just finished putting up the equivalent of five two string bales of hay from a grassed parking area into the barn loft. It was a real workout; no gymnasium needed. But thinking about the straw/wood chip bedding mixed with manure and urine which the hay makes feasible made it enjoyable work.

The big payoff is the delicious abundance of vegetables and the recipes filled with fresh home grown ingredients that will grow and be harvested from the circle of growth and harvest which all begins (if a circle of life and death can be said to have a beginning) with the hay.

I also cut hay with scythes; both a custom fit model from Scythe Supply complete with European style hammered blade, and for rougher cutting: American pattern straight blades with curved snaths. Performing such hay making labor, then, taking a break while sitting under a home made pergola to enjoy a cool drink and a work respite, then reaching up to pluck some fresh ripe grapes growing on the pergola, which grape plants also provide shade while knowing that you, with your family: built the pergola and planted the grape plants and, continuing down that thought path,knowing that God and you with your family transformed this former garbage dump into a semblance of Eden via a lot of work that is still ongoing; now that is truly satisfying in a way no JOB can ever be ( in my humble opinion). In Genesis in the Bible caring for a garden is one of the first tasks given to Man. I still think it is one of, if not THE BEST task(s) we can do. Got’ta’ go I hear the garden calling.

As a PS to what I said about. I think it is some of our ancestery that or some exagerated stories we have read and our ancesters read that thought farming or any job was supposed to be grueling ,soul robbing affairs that had us dragging ourselves home at night straight into bed without eating and dragging ourselves up in the morning to do it again. I know after 2-3 days of doing a hard labor kind of job ,you start to get used to it. Even finding some satisfaction and joy in it occaissionally. SOmetimes I’ve wondered about the writers in the past who wanted us to think like that. I think stubborn old germanic pride in myself. Plus the foolishness of trying to do the big farm thing where you end up working harder to pour more money in others pockets instead of my own.I too cut hay with a scythe as a kid and carryied it by hand to our granery of all places. But my sisters horse got free feed 1-2 days that winter. It seems a lot of this comes from salesman desparetly trying to keep from doing hard work themselves! One poster on a tractor forum said pretty much the same thing to a tractor salesman.Unless he wanted to pay for them ,his old case tractors are paid for and work just fine.I know I’ve been bitten by the bug when i find something isnt perfect to always be looking to the next thing even though what i have is working perfectly or close to it for what i need. Tim henslee

Gene, there is a risk to farming that you should warn your readers about…
Having taken you advice with great gusto, we started farming a number of years ago. I can attest to the pleasures of forking manure, cutting wood, plowing, putting up hay with horses, and all the other pleasures noted above.

The downside is that such pleasures and the sense of satisfaction that comes from creating a wonderful haven provides such a stark contrast with an office job that you may no longer be able to bear the latter. Now if only I can figure out how to make money as a farmer… 8^)

Thanks Gene (and all the fellow travelers in the struggle to spread more manure than the politicians). I have been reading your prose since the early ’70’s when I was trapped in academia and you helped show me the way home.
Normally I am a confirmed Luddite and horse farmer (imprinting a foal is physically interacting with the foal shortly after birth to condition them to be comfortable with human interaction) but I have to say that the internet has a great value in allowing us to connect across the ether in ways that would never have been possible before.
Dan Hubbell

That’s what I love about farming.Up in a hay mow on a 90+ day, or freezing going in one direction planting wheat or picking corn on a wd allis with a heat houser and being comfortable going the other direction. Or baling hay by myself. Driving the tractor and then going back every so often to climb on the wagon to stack the hay. or loading fork or shovel full of heavy wet manure into my old JD spreader. Scoop shoveling ear corn into a crib before i got an elevator. Farming sure beats working for a living! lol Tim Henslee

I farm therefore I exist.

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