Chapter 38

The Education of a Farmer, Values and Practical Learning

It’s awful, what you had to go through to become a farmer in my lifetime. When I was young, you had to inherit land, have a very good business to provide capital, or plunge deep into debt. Starting by going into debt is really not feasible, since return on investment from cattle is very low. Conditions are much the same today everywhere, and likely to be the same in the future, because of the high capital requirement.

Learning what you need to know to farm was much easier when I was a boy, however. If your dad wasn’t a farmer, there were bound to be several in the community who needed help from time to time. Farming was an honorable, masculine pursuit. Training in the culture began very early.

Farming was the default topic at church, and I’m sure it was at most small town and country churches. In a way it was strange to hear a store clerk or a physician talking about crops, or a truck driver, but when I was young everyone had a farm background and pretty well knew what they were talking about. Now, this is no longer the case. We are down to one percent or less of the population involved in farming, and many of those rather tenuously.

War was also a popular topic of conversation at church when there was a war starting, in progress or recently ended, and politics around election time. I lived in a time when “the Great Depression” received a lot of discussion, also. Women talked about gardening, preserving food, cooking, taking care of children, relatives. Some women discussed books they had read, people in the news, family history, and other less homely topics. The values were agrarian values.

Child rearing in that society was much more uniform than it is today, at least in part because people talked about it, and there was a sense of pride in doing a good job of raising your child to be “well adjusted,” although that term was unknown at the time. The whole community “socialized” the children (another psychology term), and if a child was ignored, abused or not properly directed, the parents lost respect in the community. We accuse the Oriental people of being afraid of “losing face,” but in fact, that is what keeps the citizens of any community following social mores. The kind of freedom which encourages citizens to permit children to grow up without guidance is license, and society suffers for it. What people in my youth called “bringing up a child right,” which we would today call “socializing” the child, was serious business. The standards were agreed on across the community and on occasion rigorously enforced. Other adults and older children were expected to help “keep the child straight.”

There were differences in child rearing between different ethnic groups, though. I don’t qualify to discuss this, having almost entirely lived within the older, North European derived group. These people were Protestant, and English, German, Dutch, some Scandinavian, Scotch, Irish in national origin. The most prominent newcomers were the Italians. There were actually more people of Spanish origin around, I found out about in the 80’s, but they tended to be quiet and blend in, while the Italians were, well, colorful. The following story illustrates a difference in child rearing that caused a school principal a problem.

One day I met a man in Clarksburg who asked me if I was related to O. B. Bond, a cousin, a neighbor and a very good friend of my Dad. I gladly acknowledged knowing him. His reply was, “well he beat a boy too much when he was a principal.” I mumbled something, I don’t remember what. It was out of character, he liked kids, and he was a kindly man. Some years later I learned that the Italians taught their sons never to cry, even when they were being punished. It was considered a sign of weakness. Well, I doubt if O. B. would quit until the kid did cry. That was the sign of remorse in the culture we lived in. If a child failed to cry, it was the sign of rebellion, in effect saying, “You can’t hurt me.” O. B. was a principal in a rough district, North View Junior High, and he was there because he could handle it. The kid’s home taught values that contrasted with the values of the majority community. There is an important lesson here.

As a consequence of the rule to show remorse, sometimes a child would cry to avoid punishment in the majority community. This was a difficult call for the parent – should you spank (at home) or paddle (at school), and when to quit. If the child over played the remorse, he was told, “If you don’t get quiet, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

I laugh at the child rearing experts who say you should never spank a child. No behavior today seems bad enough to force a child, young or older, to avoid it. Everything is negotiable. Lack of strength of character is the result. Is the lack of local consensus about how a child should behave and lackadaisical child rearing the result of our increasingly hierarchical social structure? Some have called the new social structure “the New Feudalism.” Everybody has his boss, and the boss is always responsible, not the individual. People habitually don’t have the courage to make firm decisions for themselves, and don’t feel in control of their own lives. A good dinner may be assured this way for the obsequious, but boredom is the daily fare at work, and you lose the habit of thinking things out.

I learned most of the practical things I know in the early years of farming at home, as a child. We had the excellent Vo-Ag program in High School mentioned above, although most of the boys who took it did not go into farming. Dad thought there was no future in farming, and insisted I get my education first. In a sense he was right. I certainly haven’t made a living in farming, couldn’t have, perhaps, but it has been a life long passion, and is the source of what material things I have to pass along to my children. If my life had consisted of teaching only there would have been very little inheritance for my children, and considerably less fun. As for education, a good education in the wrong subject may be more valuable than a sloppy education in the right subject.

The chemistry and the little biology I learned in college and graduate school have not been a great help in farming. What I am saying is that it hasn’t made any money. But it has been the icing on the cake, allowing me to understand a lot of things I would otherwise have missed. I have picked up geology just by being interested in it. Trying to benefit from the minerals associated with the land, has helped some and has been a larger financial benefit than chemistry and biology. I learned some microbiology from serving in the Biological Warfare Branch of the Chemical Corps School at Fort McClellan, Alabama, for two and a half years, and a lot of other things as well, about people and hierarchical social organizations.

Much education has come from reading the publications and meetings available to farmers through Agriculture Extension, subscription and the trade papers sent out for the advertising value by some companies. I have learned very little from talking to other farmers. I am glad I didn’t go to Ag school in college. I believe that is a reduced kind of education, training for government employees, rather than an education for farming. The best thing about it is that one makes contacts with others in professional agriculture. But you need contacts with trades people, machine dealers, neighbors, etc., which you don’t get at Ag school. If you want to farm, go to college and get a degree, preferably in biology or chemistry, or in business and be sure to take genetics and statistics, and rely on the University Extension for specific, timely advice.

I am a peculiarly well educated farmer, because I have a Ph. D. in Chemistry, and have taught college chemistry through physical chemistry, and elementary physics, and have some Industrial Hygiene experience. I am self-taught on computers and am particularly pleased to do some mechanical drawing on the computer, as well as word processing and spreadsheet manipulation. The education hasn’t turned into money through farming, but has kept me a steady job, so the income from farming could be reinvested in the farm.

The most important assets for a farmer are good health, vigorous ambition, the ability to negotiate with people, and the ability to see ahead and plan. Lack of any of these characteristics can not be compensated for by any education.

Aside Dad told a story that had been in the family for many generations. Some of the younger people, hearing the settler’s stories about the fantastic trees they found in the forest, asked the old settlers what they did with the big trees they found. The young people were told, “ We carried anything that would go between cartwheels (five feet four inches apart) to the sawmill. The bigger stuff was rolled up in a pile and burned.” I can’t vouch for the story, but it is possible. Certainly, the original Appalachian forest was magnificent .

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