Gene Logsdon: Working Too Hard At Farming To Succeed


The Contrary Farmer

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.”


faithanncolburn May 7, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I think we all have a deep need for connection to the land, whether we admit it even to ourselves or not. Hobby farming or farming as a part-time exercise provides that connection even though it may not pay financially. Maybe better health as a result of the exercise and good food will pay off in smaller medical bills?

Perhaps the entire notion of “profitable success” is in error. Seems to me what most people mean by the notion is that one day, in the not too distant future, they will have achieved a state in which they can sit back and do as close to nothing as possible while still having the means to eat, sleep, wear clothes, take vacations, buy large televisions, drive SUVs, and generally behave like the royalty of old, sucking the life out of various slaves and serfs, though, of course, the serfs and slaves of today are “energy slaves,” rather than human ones, and are provided by the fossil fuel industry (decreation) rather than by the “human industry” (procreation).

Perhaps if we were all to achieve “profitable success” we could advance the exhaustion of our fossil fuel resources, and the general degradation of the environment that supports us, by decades.