Home & Shop Companion #0095
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
At my last birthday, a good friend told me that I am hard to buy presents for. It is not the first time I have been told that, and it isn’t a surprise, because on the subject of ‘stuff’ I am with William Morris, who said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” So, since we are coming up to a present giving time, I thought I might say what I would like to be given, had I not got them already, in case you also have an awkward customer in your own present receiving circle. They are all books, useful books, and some are beautiful too.
My first suggestion is particularly for anyone starting out in farming, a generic choice, which is almost any general agricultural textbook from around 1900 to 1940. For Britain, that might be ‘Agriculture’ by Watson and Moore, or ‘Fream’s Elements of Agriculture,’but there will be other standard works for where you live. [Along these lines we also suggest anything by Liberty Hyde Bailey. -ed] If you don’t know farming, you need a book like this, which tells you the basics of cattle husbandry, drainage, why you use a harrow and what good ploughing looks like. Unlike web pages, where you have to wade through the banal, superficial and misinformed, instead, just flick it open to get a balanced, although old-fashioned summary. Of course, some things have changed since then, so take the medical suggestions with a metaphorical pinch of salt.
My next choice is also old, George Henderson’s, ‘The Farming Ladder.’ Written in the 1940s, it tells of how George and his brother became successful farmers, starting from nothing, during the depression. Now long out of print, it was reprinted in the SFJ in installments a few years ago. It is a classic in how to think like a farmer, as is his subsequent volume ‘Farmers’ Progress’ which is more like a textbook. Although we live in a different time, the approach is still very relevant, though the author’s character is somewhat, shall we say, lacking in humility.
My next offering, published last year, has a tinge of that same character, but can be forgiven for that because of its other qualities. This is Richard Perkin’s ‘Regenerative Agriculture,’ which I mentioned before in the summer. It is a thick book packed with useful information, wide ranging in scope and good for detail, especially on small scale activities such as growing vegetables and poultry. If you want to farm at a small scale this book provides a broad overview combined with lots of detailed knowledge including costings, based on Perkin’s experience.
For smaller scale market gardening with hand tools, I still like Eliot Coleman’s, ‘The New Organic Grower.’ Though I only have the original version from 30 years ago, it has been updated. Another book packed with detailed observation and methods based on extensive practical experience.
From small scale to large, ‘Dirt to Soil’ by mid-Western farmer Gabe Brown, is the challenging but hugely inspiring story of how he turned round his farm which was hit by successive hailstorms which nearly wiped them out. Starting from this difficult position and the choices it forced upon him, he came to rethink his methods, and through observation and a ton of good sense, improved the soil and his profits out of all recognition.
When it comes to working horses, the textbook/reference book/manual that should be on every shelf has to be ‘Work Horse Handbook,’ by Lynn Miller. My first copy got read to pieces, quite literally, so I was happy to buy the enlarged second edition when it came out.
Its companion volume, ‘Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters,’ I got when it first came out and I also read it until it fell apart, which is either a testimony to my slow learning or an endorsement in itself. The title might suggest that this book would only be suitable if you want to train horses or novice teamsters, but what it really does is it gets you into the horse’s head, largely by observing its movement, and shows how you can work with that knowledge to benefit of both horses and teamster. I wouldn’t want to be without it.
My next recommendations are Stephen Leslie’s ‘Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century,’ and his first book, ‘The New Horse-Powered Farm.’ The first book is more general, an easier read for the uninitiated; clear and rich in detail, this book seamlessly dovetails growing vegetables and working horses together. The second book is more specific on equipment and methods, drawing on the experience of many growers across America and further afield. I particularly like these vignettes, which, particularly these days when we largely stay at home, it is like visiting those individual small farms, hearing their stories and seeing how they work.
Although none of these books are fiction, stories are a staple part of human culture and agriculture, not just as entertainment but also as education. In ‘Art of Working Horses,’the most recent publication in Lynn’s workhorse series, there are stories aplenty, alongside a huge variety of pictures used to illustrate the variety and subtlety of using horses for work. The other titles in the series are more nuts-and-bolts stuff and do what they say on the tin, so if you want to plow, buy the plowing book (‘Horsedrawn Plows & plowing’), or if your nearest and dearest wants to run a traditional mower, buy the mower book (‘The Horsedrawn Mower Book’), because they will save you hours in trying to glean information from other sources and filtering out the flaky stuff from the solid information.
Two Christmases ago, I was given Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding.’ I scarcely put it down, reading too quick so I would find out what happened next, and as soon as I finished, I started reading it again. It tells of how this farming couple, heavily indebted and losing money continuously, rewilded their farm using deer and English Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies and what happened to the land and the wildlife as time progressed. As pioneers in their field, there were no examples to follow, which makes it a gripping read, and challenging too, if like me, you grew up with tidy ‘proper’ farming. From unsuccessful conventional farmers, their home is now a Mecca of rewilding projects, the increase in biodiversity being remarkable, the ‘new’ habitats created by low pressure grazing from multiple species changing perceptions about the conditions some of our rarer species thrive in – a real eye-opener.
My final two choices are outliers, as they were not written by farmers. The first is Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Hidden Life of Trees.’ There has been a tendency in recent years for authors to tap into a green tinged, touchy-feely book-reading market, and although this book does do that, it was written by a properly trained forester, with a deep interest and knowledge of trees. As a popular science book, it has received some criticism for its tone, but I still like it, giving a different insight into trees and their associated ecosystems, a branch of science that we humans too often ignore.
The last book is another horse book, ‘Circus Baggage Stock’ by Charles Philip Fox. It is a trip back in time, to when the travelling circuses used horses, mostly grade Percherons, to pull the wagons with all the circus gear from the railheads to the circus lots, and in the town parades throughout America. It is not a sentimental book, but an in-depth account of the traveling circuses, the teamsters, the horses and the work. Full of photographs, descriptions and stories from the men that moved the shows, it demonstrates what those horses did, in good going and bad, on dry dusty roads, and swampy lots where the specially built, heavy-wheeled wagons sunk down to their axles; the boss hostler adding as many teams to the specially built wagons as was necessary, maybe forty horses on occasion. Fascinating.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.