The Farming Ladder – A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Inspirational Stories by James0 Comments

This poem opens up the George Henderson classic The Farming Ladder


“Oh, little valley, all our own,
Here is the place where beauty
dwells,
And all the joys this world has
shown
Your gift of quietness excels,
Nor would I change your stream and
trees-
For jewels of the Seven Seas.”

Henderson penned the book in 1943 and it still holds up today. In the preface George gets straight to the point in letting us know what to expect while reading his book:

“The object of writing this book is to demonstrate how a happy, secure, and useful life may be spent, on what were a few barren acres, without the toil and drudgery which are usually associated with smallholding, and that a financial return may be obtained comparable with that in any other business. The methods used, none of which are clever or original, will show that in peacetime depression or in wartime prosperity the creative work of the farmer can have its just reward, independent of tariffs and subsidies, if directed on the right lines; that the great capital, special knowledge or skill are not essential, only energy, patience, and a thorough grasp of the underlying principles.”

What more does a wanna be farmer need to hear? That was enough for me to eagerly plow through this classic, and it didn’t disappoint. The book ended up being a harbor of inspiration. It’s the 20 year story of a farm that was brought back from the dead by a man and his brother who simply had the drive to be farmers. There’s no magic or incredible luck in this story, just a lot of sweat and heart that act as a guide illustrating the dedication required to make dream become reality. The book is laid out nicely into 15 sections that tell the story of Mr. Henderson’s experience while introducing the reader to the farm.

Chapter One – THE FARM

This section details the history of Mr. Henderson finding the farm and the terrible condition that farm was in when he and his brother discovered it:
“We saw it first twenty years ago, on a cold grey morning, lying in an isolated little valley on the eastern slopes of the Cotswolds; eighty-five acres of poor, stony land, overgrown hedges, tumbledown buildings, arable a mass of weeds, and grassland, if such it could be called, full of little bushes, or rushes in the wetter parts.”

He goes on to tell the clever way in which he acquired the farm which was thought by the locals to be haunted. He details all of the problems with the farm which were quite numerous. This story transitions into his personal stories of gaining farming experience. He worked for several different farmers for a four year span learning everything he possibly could. This education and experience would prove to be the backbone of his success when he later worked on his own farm.

Chapter Two – THE PLAN

This chapter goes into the the nuts and bolts of the Henderson brothers’ plan:
“Working on the assumption that we would be able to live on the income from stock, using the return from corn sales for debt repayment and improvements, it was calculated that we could establish ourselves as tenant farmers in seven years and then buy the farm freehold in a similar period. The first step was achieved in five years and the second in another five, which indicates that our plan was not too ambitious.”

Chapter Three – THE POULTRY

Henderson details the centerpiece of his small farm:
“The poultry section, the most important branch of our farming both from the view of profit and of the maintenance of fertility, has been built up from the very smallest beginnings.”

Chapter Four – THE CATTLE

In this chapter we learn about the farm’s cattle enterprise in great detail:
“The most economic producers of rich milk, in our opinion the most healthy and hardy of all dairy breeds, and with greater freedom from disease, Jerseys are ideally suited to the small farmer.”

Chapter Five – THE SHEEP

“If it should be contended that farming to us is just a money-making racket, our sheep disprove it. True, they have always paid their way, but there has never been much money in sheep, because a sheep’s worst enemy is another sheep, and any flock will die down to the capacity of the farm if overstocked; so that it is impossible to maintain the intensity of production necessary to make good profits.”


Chapter Six – THE PIGS

“First one should think, what will these pigs be worth when they are fat? How much food will it take, and how much will that cost, to fatten them? What profit do I require? And then, therefore, what can I afford to pay? How simple this sounds! Yet I have never met a farmer who works on these lines, and there are very, very few, who can tell you average consumption of food on their farm required to produce a score of bacon, the unit of twenty pounds dead weight on which the fat pig is calculated.”

Chapter Seven – THE LAND

“However profitable and interesting the stockbreeding may be the land remains our abiding interest and first duty. The stock, like us, will pass on, the land will remain.”

Chapter Eight – LABOUR

“Probably the biggest problem farmers have to face is labour. With enough good and efficient men a really capable farmer could manage a thousand acres as it should be farmed.”

Chapter Nine – CORN BINS UNLIMITED

This chapter details the farm’s manufacturing of specialized corn bins. Something they manufactured for their own needs, but was made so well that other farmers took interest and it eventually spurred another enterprise on the farm.

Chapter Ten – HOLIDAYS

In this chapter the author discusses how his holidays were spent (traveling through Europe and other countries) and how the notion of farming means never taking a holiday is a misguided one:
“The school of thought which believes that farmers should not have holidays may skip this chapter. To them we tender our apologies, and trust they find excellent value for their money in the rest of the book.”

Chapter Eleven – THE FARM BUILDINGS

“In planning we had five guiding principles. The buildings had to be adequate for the purpose, cheap to construct, convenient for use, lasting, and pleasing to the eye.”

Chapter Twelve – THE FOURTH RUNG OF THE LADDER

This chapter focuses on the brothers approach and thoughts after 20 years of successful farming:
“Opportunity, we are told, only knocks but once. Personally, on looking back, I realize she spends most of her time hammering on someone’s door, but they do not bother to get up and let her in, or complain the door is too heavy, jammed, or pinches their fingers!”

Chapter Thirteen – WARTIME FARMING

This chapter details the struggles of farming during war time, and dealing with the government restrictions and requirements that came along with being a wartime farmer in England.

Chapter Fourteen – ACCOUNTS

“We have sometimes shown our accounts to fellow farmers, and in nearly every case they say, “You must never let these figures be published. It would give people, and townsmen in particular, the wrong impression of farming. If an eighty-five acre holding can show profits running into four figures, it will be assumed that large-scale farmers are making a fortune, could pay higher wages, and do not need subsidies or protection.”

Chapter Fifteen – CONCLUSION

Here Henderson ties up any loose ends and gives his final thoughts.

The Final Thoughts of a Wanna Be Farmer 

This was an excellent and extremely detailed book. It was equally educational and inspiring. I’ll finish this review/summary by quoting some words of wisdom from the Preface:

“One note of warning. There is a ‘farming ladder’ for all who can make use of it, but remember that it is a ladder and not an escalator; it must be climbed step by step and one must be prepared to take the full weight on each rung. The two feet must be placed firmly on the good earth, or it may be a danger to yourself and to others, and although it may enable you to achieve the heights, you may never reach the top. Beware of the easy, the gaudy, the cheap, the second-hand, and the rotten. Even on our bright and shining ladder there may be times when you have to balance on one rung and reach for the next. If you have faith in yourself and the land there are only two rungs you need fear, ill health and accident. Once started you will find others on the ladder too, some above and some below: give them all a helping hand, but avoid those who expect you to drag them up and make no effort of their own. Those who would stop you climbing, or shake you off, may well be ignored.”

Buy the book via Amazon by clicking HERE (It’s an affiliate link so I get a little kickback if you buy. Thanks!)

 

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