Chapter 19

Is Farming Boring?

When I was in the army, about 1956, I was at the Chemical Corps School at Fort McClellan, Alabama, near Anniston. It was an eye opener for a rural kid in many ways, and I enjoyed it in some ways, but the Army was what I would call really boring. That is the only time in my life I have had the misfortune to work only 44 hours a week and had to fill the other 124 hours with what ever I could find to do. My father observed, however, that I got two pairs of boots (to be worn on alternating days: the research had shown they last longer that way), three pairs of fatigues (work clothes), five khaki uniforms, two winter uniforms, three winter shirts, more clothes than I had ever had in my life.

We had a fellow by the name of Bill Coffman who ran the mail room. He had been a contractor's estimator in Tulsa before being drafted, and he was married to Roberta, who was interested in "artsy" things, French in particular. They had me over one evening, and Roberta made " Chicken Congo," which is chicken with peanuts. It was absolutely delicious! They go together very well when cooked. In the course of the conversation that followed I remarked that I liked farming very well. Roberta thought that was terrible. "What do you think about when you are riding around the field in circles," she asked, "sex?"

That was a conversation stopper for sure! Bill rebuked her for such an impertinent question. I hastily informed her that it was like meditation time, mind about one-tenth occupied, something like driving down the highway, and nine-tenths free to think about other things in connection with the farm, personal relations, or interests such as politics, religion, or writing a book.

Farming is a lot more complicated than many people realize. And it is a business. If you ignore the business aspects, you are soon out of it. There are many examples of people who have inherited a farm, or even purchased one, and then let it go to pot. (In the old sense of that term. There is a newer sense in which some - very careful - people have let a farm go to pot and have made a fortune, and many more who tried it have gone to jail!)

In the old days, one hundred years ago, the technology was simple, and the main input was labor. Food was raised at home and processed at home. Mistakes were paid for by a lower standard of living and a loss of face. It was easy to find out how to do things right, you just asked your neighbor, or watched. You had to have initiative and willingness to work, but what you did was not so critical (if you had land, that is, getting land was another matter).

Glenn Riddle, my high school Vo-Ag teacher, had a unit one year in which he pointed out all the occupations which a farmer is expected to perform. Some of the most important kinds of labor include skilled driver and mechanic, animal herder who must recognize about ten or twelve diseases and treat them for each species he works with, help deliver animal babies and do other simple operations, recognize plant species and their relative feed values and create conditions that favor the right plants, building of small buildings and fences, electrician, plumber, weather forecaster (to make hay), roofer, and book keeper. Additionally, on the small farm the list includes butcher, gardener (with all the lore that entails), home repairman, and painter.

The farm manager must choose how, where and when the product is to be sold, must buy fertilizer, lime, feed and seed wisely, he/she must decide when and what machinery to buy, must negotiate with neighbors over boundaries, strayed animals, and rented land, must handle taxes and eminent domain problems, liability for accidents, and must provide for safety, since farming is the most dangerous occupation. The manager must provide for succession, if there is a family to inherit the property or sell it. He/she must deal with the government in environmental and other laws regulating land, must decide when to sell, and how much, of any timber on the place, must decide to sell or not to sell minerals if he owns them, and will deal with those who will extract minerals. If others own oil and gas and/or coal on your property, it is even harder to deal with extraction companies. Rights-of-way for electricity, telephone, sewage, public water, and roads must be dealt with. One may decide to allow advertising on billboards in some locations, which is profitable, but causes problems.

(Illustration 19-1)

The road on the hill at my Grandfather Kennedy's place 1956

The manager must also decide when to cut hay, when to move animals from one pasture to another, when fences should be repaired or rebuilt, if money should be invested in better sources of water for animals to drink, and how much to feed in the winter. He/she must deal with hunting since the State runs this very land intensive and profitable business on your farm, too. He/she must deal with floods, high winds, accidents that happen on roads adjacent to, as well as on the farm, such as trees that blow into the road or drivers who run off the road into your fields.

Sounds like a job for dummies, right? Wrong! Not every one who does it is conspicuously smart, but not everyone is keeping even in the tide running with time causing the changes in farming. Many are "rural, non-farm" as the census calls it, and many are paying for the privilege of living the rural way of life.

Like most manager jobs, negotiating skills are at the top of the skills list in the farming business. Many people, including many farmers, do not realize this. You often hear the phrase "In farming you buy at retail and sell at wholesale." This is true if you simply do what others around you do. Buy at the feed store and sell at the sale.

There is a lot of opportunity for salesmanship if you go into certain kinds of farm business. In fact, it is a very high component of the purebred livestock business. Many are now trying exotic crops, alpaca, aromatic plants, or direct sales, and products such as berries, rabbits, or goat products. These enterprises are not well adapted to large scale, due in part to the difficulty of merchandising the product.

The hard fact is that cutting cost is the most likely avenue to improved profitability. The market presents a fixed price. The various inputs are also fixed in cost, but you can vary the mix of inputs, and for some of them can substitute labor for purchased goods. For things like fence posts; you can buy them or you can cut them if you find satisfactory locust trees. You can make your own gates or cattle crossings from salvage materials. Shelter and maintenance of machinery is most important. At one point I bought a new bailer, took care of it and kept it in the dry. It was still in good shape seventeen years later, when I bought a new one because of the model improvements. Quality fence construction that lasts fifteen years or more with minimum maintenance is a good investment.

Maintaining good relations with your neighbors so they don't take pot shots at you is quite important. One needs to be nice to neighbors and pay attention to their concerns, and helping them from time to time will save a lot of agony when the cattle get out. The farmer usually has a tractor and a chain saw and can be very helpful to adjacent homeowners if he wants to be. The saying is, "You can't become the neighbor's cow, but you can give a little milk now and then." Good Will goes a long way when your cattle are out, or there are other disagreements.

Is farming boring? Some would think so, but there are many of us who think it is fascinating!

Aside My cousin, Gene Kennedy, had a field of silage corn about a mile from his house, across a little valley. One fall he was cutting it, hauling it to the barn where the silo was located. He cut the corn rows by going around the field, eventually getting in to a spot where there was a patch of very large, very fibrous weeds. When he cut into them it really bogged down the forage harvester. He noticed the corn had been laid back from the weeds, and could discern a path leading from the patch to the far side of the field.

This made him suspicious, so he called the state police, and sure enough it was marijuana! They took it away, but he had run it into his wagon on two or three rounds of the field before he caught on and the wagonloads were emptied into the silo. Gene said he guessed he had some happy cows for a few days that winter.

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at