Family farms once dominated the heartland. Now those homesteads have given way to smaller farming operations, mostly organic, but the time-honored values remain the same. Rural Wit and Wisdom (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012) by Jerry Apps is the compilation of all the advice, sayings and poetry of heartland people from the family farm days to today. These timeless sayings capture the common sense and poetry of the hard-working farmer. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “Farming.”
Farmers are the heart and soul of this country. In the settlement years of the heartland, more people worked as farmers than any other occupation. As the years passed, farmers began leaving the land; now, less than 2 percent of the American workforce farms.
The values and beliefs held by farmers who settled the region, and the children and grandchildren who followed them on the land, forged the basic foundation for today’s heartland people. Some modern-day folks claim farmers and farm life are historic relics, replaced by high-tech, modern-day agriculturists who farm thousands of acres, milk thousands of cows, fatten thousands of beef cattle in feedlots, and raise thousands of hogs and poultry in confined operations. Those who say this are likely not aware of the much smaller farming operations, many of them organic, that are rapidly growing in number in this country and in many ways resembling the family farmers who worked the soil during pioneer days. Family farmers are a special people. Famed Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington wrote in 1895, “No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” That advice still holds.
Here is a sprinkling of farm wisdom:
• A farmer recently won the lottery. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he replied, “I’ll keep farming until the money runs out.”
• Anyone can farm, but not everyone is a farmer.
• In the business of farming, it’s not so important who gets there first as who gets there at all.
• An old horse, an old dog, and an old farmer have much in common: they are slow but wise.
• If you must sing, do it when you’re after the cows. Cows don’t care if you can’t carry a tune.
• Look down when walking in a cow pasture.
• Attention to detail makes all the difference, whether it’s plowing a field, building a fence, or teaching a calf to drink out of a pail.
• When cultivating corn with a tractor, keep one eye on the corn row, one eye on the cultivator, one eye looking out for stones, and one eye on the fence at the end of the field.
• Bigger is not better when it comes to farm size. Ability to care for the land ought be a guide, not whether a person can negotiate a loan to buy more.
• Books do not begin to contain what is necessary to become a successful farmer.
• Farmers, more than anyone else, know the meaning of hope and patience—waiting months for a crop with the hope that it will amount to something.
• Farmers produce food and fiber, not products. Products come from factories. Food and fiber come from the land.
• Farmers seldom have good years, only some years less bad than others.
• Farming is like playing five-card poker with four cards.
• Happiness for a farmer is a barn roof that doesn’t leak, a pasture fence that isn’t broken, and a daylong rain in May.
• Farming is more than making a living; it is about living and the connection of people to the land.
• Few occupations blend art and science as well as farming—adding a little religion also helps.
• For a farmer, next year will always be better.
• Most farmers know they can make a small fortune in farming, if they start with a large one.
• No machine, no piece of technology can replace the eye of the farmer in caring for animals, producing crops, or appreciating the land.
• Successful farmers know the beliefs and values that made their parents successful, and they try to follow them.
• Successful farming has more to do with values such as hard work, cooperation with neighbors, frugality, caring for the environment, and common sense than with science and technology.
• There is reason to suspect the sanity of a farmer who does not complain.
• Today many farmers produce more to earn less.
• Every year is a good year; some are just better than others.
• The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not able to climb over.
Land is essential for farming. It is also the basis for all life on this planet; it is just as important as air, water, and sunshine. On it grow the crops that feed the living creatures of the world. Yet, we too often take the land for granted. We form and re-form it; we dig holes in it, pile it, level it, pour water on it, and drain water from it. We call it dirt when it finds its way into our homes and despise its very existence.
We sometimes attack the land as if it were the enemy—not our friend and ally—not realizing how important it is to the future of all humankind. Farmers know all this. They may not talk about it, but deep within them they know that their livelihoods depend on the land. They know how to listen to the land—most of them, anyway. They listen for its subtle message, for the land is alive with a past, a present, and a future. Farmers and their descendants, and that includes most of us, are people of the land.
• Caring for the land is one of the most important things we can do.
• Destroy a piece of land and you destroy a piece of the future.
• Humankind has been given an allotment of land; what we have is all there is.
• Land is more than an economic asset, for it provides a spiritual dimension to the lives of those who work it and love it.
• No one understands the land as well as farmers, for the land not only supports them but nurtures their souls.
• The history of the land is etched in the faces of the farmers who till it.
• Love the land; it is the foundation for everything.
The family farm
When I was a kid, family farms, many of them 80, 120, or 160 acres, were everywhere. A family farm is one on which husband and wife and their children earn a living from the land. They may milk cows, raise hogs, keep sheep, graze beef cattle, sell cash crops— such as potatoes, cucumbers, or green beans—or do some or all of this. They work together as a unit, children and parents, often for long hours, to make sure the animals are cared for and the crops are planted and harvested in a timely manner.
• A family farm is where the entire family works together, plays together, and makes a life together.
• Children growing up on a family farm know where their food comes from and take pride in the fact that they helped produce it.
• Children growing up on a family farm learn the importance of cooperation, of each one pulling a fair share of the workload, and helping each other when necessary.
• Family farm children learn respect: Respect for animals. Respect for the weather. Respect for their elders. And, above all, respect for the land.
• On a family farm, children learn to put the needs of farm animals ahead of their own needs.
• On a family farm, there are chores to be done, animals to be fed, eggs to be gathered, hogs to be tended—daily work that needs doing, without fail. No days off, nor days skipped. A time when children learn responsibility by doing, not by having someone saying it is important.
• The family farm is the model for farming and a model for family—older sharing wisdom with younger, younger sharing enthusiasm with older.
• The kitchen table is often the centerpiece for the family farm, for it is here that the family gathers for three meals a day and shares stories of the present and the past, as well as hopes for the future.
• When a farm is sold, for whatever reason, a part of the family is sold as well. Farmers who live and work the land cannot easily sell and move to the city. Too many emotions are involved and too much history. Usually several generations have grown up and worked the same acreage. To sever a relationship with the land is like losing a child. It is more difficult than words can express.
On the home farm, for many years we milked cows by hand, every morning, every evening. In those days, we milked fourteen or fifteen cows; my dad milked seven or eight of them, and I milked the rest.
• Cows expect the same fair treatment day after day, no matter how you feel or what has happened to you before you enter the barn. Good advice when working with people as well.
• Learning to know another living creature is never at a higher level than when you are milking a cow.
• Milking cows is a time to warm up after a cold day cutting wood when the temperature is below zero.
• Milking cows is a time for thinking about everything, from what you plan to do when you grow older to the meaning of what you did last night.
• Milking cows teaches patience. Milking can’t be hurried much. If you try to speed things up, you’ll likely get a wet tail across your face or a big foot planted on your shoe.
• Milking cows with your parents is a wonderful time to discuss those things that take time. There is plenty of time when the cows are milked, time for thoughts to settle in and move around in your mind before they are shared.
• There is no better way to understand an animal than to milk a cow twice a day, every day.
• When milking cows, you learn about individual differences and how they must be attended to. Some cows milk easy, some hard. Some have skittish personalities and jump at the least distraction, such as when a barn cat races in front of them. Others are so docile they wouldn’t move if the barn was falling down. Some like to be milked and let you know by lowing softly. A few despise you and let you know it by kicking at you, trying to dump your milk pail, or slapping you in the face with their tails. Yet, in all instances, you make adjustments and keep on milking.
• Before the new can be planted, the old must be put aside, plowed under, and buried from view.
• Farmers are never closer to the land than when they are plowing.
• Like the artist who paints a canvas with a brush, a farmer paints the landscape with a plow, creating ribbons of black and brown.
• More so than the calendar, plowing marks the beginning of the farming year, the start of the growing season.
• The smell of newly turned soil is the smell of promise and hope, of crops to come and harvests to gather.
• The worth of a man is measured by how straight a furrow he can plow.
Read more: For more time-honored values from the heartland check out Rural Wit and Wisdom: Community, Rural Wit and Wisdom: Farmer's Work and Rural Wit and Wisdom: Little Things.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Rural Wit and Wisdom: Time-Honored Values from the Heartland, published by Fulcrum Publishing, 2012.
For many years, best-selling author Jerry Apps has written and collected observations and advice about country living, such as “Love thy neighbor but make sure your fences are in good order” and “It’s not going to get done if you don’t start doing it.” Jerry and his wife live in Madison, Wisconsin.