The Poor Mans Farm
The Poor Mans Farm
A very old tapestry from the Small Farmer’s Journal archives.

The Poor Man’s Farm

by David Buffum
Originally published in “The Atlantic Monthly.” Copyright, 1910.

Does farming pay? Can a young man of brains and ambition, who has his way to make in the world, find in agriculture a fair field for his efforts?

These questions have been asked from time to time for as long as I can remember, though more often and more earnestly of late years, when combinations of capital and the tendency to do business on a large scale have narrowed the field of individual enterprise. Many young people, chafing at the idea of being mere cogs in the industrial wheel, are looking earnestly for some opportunity through which they may become masters of their own business; and, almost as surely as the quest is made, find their faces, sooner or later, turned questioningly — and yet, I think, more or less doubtfully — in the direction of agriculture. For agriculture still remains a business conducted in the old-fashioned way for every man for himself; and, let me also add, every man, thank God! his own master.

And yet, though a farmer myself, I can not satisfactorily answer the questions offhand with a yes or a no; too much depends on what success means: too many conditions are involved. If the young man has capital and has learned the business, — for farming must be learned, like any other trade or profession, — I believe he will find the returns as good as in any other legitimate business where no greater risks are run. If he is poor and the goal at which he aims is an independent fortune, no, it is not a good business. But if he has a clear conception of what success really is; if he desires the best in life that can be had as the commensurate reward of his labor from day to day; if he upholds no wrong ideals and is willing to work with his hands as well as his head, — yes, it is a good calling, worthy of his best efforts, and more satisfying to his natural desires and cravings than any other.

The statement is often made that, despite certain examples of financial success that can always be cited, the majority of farmers are poor. This is true; and it is also true that, in all branches of business, those who make a conspicuous success are few in number. It is as true, too, of farming as of any other calling, that starting with insufficient capital means hard, unremitting work, and a great deal of privation and self-denial. But it is not true that the rewards are less. The road to riches that agriculture opens may be a long one, but in no other road is there so much to be had along the way.

But is this worth one’s while? And is it not a lowering of the standard, a sacrificing of ambition, to regard the roadside and not look wholly to the greater splendor of some chosen goal, even thought the latter be uncertain of attainment? Again, this brings us to the question of the different kinds of success, the things in life that are most worth striving for, and it must be answered by each for himself.

A young man recently said to me — he was twenty-three years old, of good but not phenomenal ability, earnest, ambitious, a good worker, and in the business that for six long years he had been “learning” was receiving the munificent salary of fifteen dollars a week — that the goal at which he aimed was ten thousand dollars a year, that he could never be satisfied with less; and he added that, starting with nothing, he could never reasonably expect to make that much on a farm. This seemed so very probable that it was not worth disputing. Upon my pointing out to him that very few of the young men who started as he did in that particular line of business ever become owners or even high-salaried men, he gave me the time-honored rejoinder that “there’s room enough at the top.”

So there is; there is always room enough at the top. But of those who give the best in their lives to reach it — it must be remembered that it was a purely financial success the young man referred to — so few succeed that, figuring mathematically the proportion of those who win out, the chances of almost any starter are such as a gambler would not bet upon very heavily. The relentless fact stares us in the face that the number is pitifully small; and that the overwhelming majority, so far from reaching the top, only form a part of the great mob that elbows and pushes and squabbles around the bottom. It is very far from my wish to discourage any young man from striving with all his might for the goal which seems to him best and most worth while; in every battle there are sure to be some killed and some wounded. But it is not wise for him to trust too implicitly to the oft-inculcated aphorism that material success is of certain attainment to him who strives sufficiently hard for it, and that there is no such thing as luck and chance.

That, strictly speaking, there is no haphazard element in human affairs, and that all events must happen as the direct and natural result of cause and effect, must, of course, be admitted. But a man can be the architect of his own fortunes only in as far as concerns the causes and effects which are within his control; there are always others equally potent which are beyond his control, and beyond his ken, and which are certain to have their influence upon his life. This fact must be evident to all who have brought much thought or observation to bear upon the subject, or who have seen very much of life; to hundreds it has been brought startlingly home by the discovery of unforeseen and unconquerable obstacles in the path of their most strenuous and hard-fought endeavors. Its knowledge is, in fact, as old as the world, and is aptly expressed in the words of Solomon:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all . . . Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works. . . to eat and to drink and to enjoy the good of all his labor that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion. . . this is the gift of God.”

Yes, the natural portion of man — the gift of God; that is what I often think a country life really is. And this is the kind of success that farming offers to the man of small means: to work hard, but to be his own master, with such days of leisure and recreation as, in his own judgment, it is wise to take; not to accumulate a fortune, perhaps, but alway to have enough for his wants; to live upon the fat of the land and “to enjoy the good of all his labor all the days of his life,” as in no other calling.

All this plenitude, this fullness of life, is possible to any man who brings to agriculture a strong and willing mind and body, and sane, wholesome views of living — provided always that he has learned the business and has enough capital to gain some little foothold; this practical proviso can not be dwelt upon too strongly. For the element of chance, which has wrecked so many well-laid plans and cherished hopes, has less play in farming than in other occupations, owing to the simple fact that agriculture is, primarily, a means of subsistence rather than a business. A business, indeed, it may be; and a business it should always, so far as possible, become. But it is a means of subsistence first, and this primary function is a conspicuous and important feature in the poor man’s farm, and is a veritable sheet anchor in the matter of homebuilding.

A picture comes to my mind of a country home that I once knew well and where I was a frequent guest. It belonged to a friend, a man much older than myself, who had possessed large means and had always lived the life of a man of leisure. He had a large family of children, most of them girls. Among other things that he possessed was a small farm; and in an evil hour — or, possibly, a good one, for, in view of the way things work out, it is often difficult at first to distinguish the good from the ill — practically everything he had was swept away except this farm, and he was obliged to move upon it and get his living as a farmer. The farm was near my own, and I saw much of the children. They were all of them, girls as well as boys, constantly out of doors. They knew all about sledding, skating, ice-boating; they became expert in rowing and swimming; and they rode horseback, although they had nothing but farm horses for the purpose. They had all kinds of pets, and were always raising dogs, pigeons, or poultry — and, incidentally, it may be said that they bred some very fine ones.

Their father had brought from his city home a fine library, and he also subscribed to a goodly number of magazines and periodicals; and his family, though really poorer than most of their neighbors, had plenty of time for reading. The old-fashioned “great south room” of the farmhouse served as parlor, library, and living-room all in one; and its careless profusion of books, music, and chairs that were comfortable to sit in, would probably have shocked the tidy housewives of the neighborhood, whose “best furniture” was arranged with mathematical precision and whose parlors were rarely opened except for a funeral or the minister’s tea-drinking. In winter there was generally a wood fire in the fireplace; and if the dogs were allowed to sleep on the hearth (as they were), and if the air was sometimes full of tobacco smoke (as I have often seen it), these things only added to the impression of cheer and comfort and freedom.

This man never became an expert farmer; in some things — fruit-growing and gardening — he excelled; but, as a whole, the occupation was thrust upon him too late in life, when he had lost, to some extent, his faculty of readjustment. But, what is much more to our present purpose, he made a good living and he had considerable leisure. I often sat at his table, and though everything was very simple, — for he could not afford a servant, and his wife and daughters did the work of the household, — the food was of the best, and, as a rule, almost everything was produced on the farm. I recently dined with one of his daughters, now long since a woman grown and in easy circumstances, and she said, as we entered the dining-room, “I can’t give you such a dinner as we used to have at the old farm, for we can’t get such things in the market at any price; they don’t have them.”

Such households as this show better than any amount of argument, the possibilities in country life for men of small means. Unfortunately, they are not abundant; but in a corner of my native state is a young man who, after being graduated at one of our Eastern colleges and working for some years as a salaried man in the city, decided to try his hand at farming on a small and much-neglected farm that was left him by his father. The young man was married and had two children, and it took several years of uncomfortable, pinching economy to get together enough money to stock and equip the place. Now, after five years of farming, he expresses himself as more than satisfied with the change. “I don’t handle so much money as I did in town,” he said to me lately, “but I get fully twice as much, in one way and another, for my labor, and I have more time to myself.” And he told me that, as a rule, everything on his table, with the bare exception of sugar and spices, is produced on his farm — even the flour from which the bread is made being from home-grown wheat, ground in his own mill.

For a purely financial success, and considered apart from the advantages in living, one must look for examples to the larger agricultural enterprises, in which the primary function of agriculture — the means of support — is a less essential part. But money has been made, too, on the ordinary small farm; and there are men who, from a business where no one would suppose there could ever be much income above the necessary cost of living, have accumulated considerable sums. I am no despiser of money, but I would advise no young man to seek it by this road. The cost is too fearfully high; the dollars are paid for in the very stuff of which life is made. But, as no presentation of the poor man’s farm is fair without showing its every side, let us take a glance at the life of a man who has made money on one of these small farms and see if it compares favorably with the pictures already drawn. I need cite no special case, for, unfortunately, he represents a class, and his prototype can be found in every country town in the older states.

He lives in a two-story house, facing and quite near the road, and the front window blinds are always closed. The place is neither cheerful nor inviting. But there is a certain thrifty look about it — not exactly a look of neatness, but an indescribable suggestion of “forehandedness.” The farmer himself is getting old. He is weather-beaten, wrinkled, and a trifle stiff in the joints, but still able to work, and he does work. Early and late he has worked hard all his life. Nor is he the only one on his farm who has done this: he has seen to it that his wife, his sons, and his daughters have all done the same thing. But if he has been a merciless taskmaster, let us give him credit at least for this, that he himself has set the pace and kept the lead.

He has been frugal, too, as well as industrious. Though he keeps cows, cream is a rarity on his table; and with plenty of eggs in his storeroom, very few are ever used at home. He never thinks of dressing a chicken for his own use — though he does now and then have an old hen that has “laid out her litter”; and with a flock of sheep running in his pasture, he hardly knows the taste of mutton. Pork, potatoes, and Indian meal form the staples of his bill of fare.

Where is his wife? You will find her in the kitchen, for she is as tireless a worker as her husband; lean, wrinkled, and sour-tempered. Where are the sons and daughters? All gone; for the young people do not linger around such a homestead. The daughters are teaching school, and the sons have salaried positions in the city.

This old man, who started in life with nothing, is now financially independent; his unremitting toil and tenacity of purpose have brought him to the goal he sought. But he has never lived, in the true sense of the term, never had any recreation, never known the joy of existence, and has deprived himself of the love and companionship of his children. Even in his vocation he has kept aloof from its more attractive features: tree-planting, or indeed anything to beautify his estate (unless it be, perhaps, white paint), he has never meddled with; and of that most fascinating of all branches of agriculture, the scientific breeding of live stock, he has no knowledge. His life is pathetic, as is the life of every man who to the hardships and privations that fall unavoidably to his lot adds others that are needless of his own imposing.

Is the picture overdrawn? Surely every one who is at all familiar with the rural districts can testify to its faithfulness. The history of many an otherwise attractive old country homestead is marred by just such melancholy pictures: pictures of lives that were barren and meager without cause, and in which there was a daily sacrifice of precious things to false gods.

A very slight analysis of the conditions that result so deplorably will show that one prime trouble is in trying to accomplish too much with the means at hand. There are plenty of large and well-equipped agricultural states in the world in which money is made. But when a poor man starts out to do the same thing with his little farm, he is putting too heavy a task upon it; it is like requiring of one small horse the work of a farm horse team. It is not that the poor man’s farm can never be relied upon to do more than maintain himself and his family comfortably: in very many cases it can, and should, be made to yield such small additional income as will enable him gradually to make needed improvements upon it, to surround himself with greater home comforts, and to have some funds in reserve for emergencies and reverses. But if the accumulation of money becomes his prime object, the inadequacy of the farm becomes at once apparent; something, clearly, must be sacrificed to the end in view, and that something is usually himself and his family.

This limitation of the poor man’s farm should be looked fairly in the face by all those who contemplate going into farming. And there are also others which, although in my opinion they do not offset its advantages, should nevertheless have equal consideration. The publication of an article of mine in a recent magazine brought me quite a large number of letters from readers asking advice and suggestions about farming for poor men. Almost all of the writers stated that they were salaried men in cities; and the letters showed strikingly the land hunger, the desire for a permanent home, and the longing for freedom and independence which, however they may be obscured by circumstances, Nature has planted in the breasts of every living man. And yet I was very cautious in answering these letters. For the advantages set forth, like all good things, can not be had without being paid for — and a part of the payment is in a coin that a great many city-bred men, accustomed to an easy, if perpetual, round of work, and unused to hard physical toil and exposure to the elements, would be unwilling to pay.

Let us take the item of labor. The city man who goes to farming will find that there are times, intermittent, it is true, but often sufficiently prolonged, when he will have to work as he never did before. It is of no use for him to say that eight hours a day is long enough for a man to work. It may be long enough for his physical well-being, but he must plow and sow and mow at the right time, and he must make hay while the sun shines. He is working in collaboration with Nature, and the pace she sets is made without regard to the rights of the laboring man or the eight-hour law. On our own farm, for instance, my sons and I have often been tired for weeks together; not the pleasant fatigue that wears off in a night of refreshing sleep, but the deep-seated weariness of overwrought muscles and too long hours that is present even when one rises in the morning, and is thrown off only after a few hours of labor, when one has “warmed up” to one’s work.

This is a part of the price that must be paid for freedom and the privilege of working for one’s self and not for another. And yet I could never perceive that it did any harm in the long run; and the fact that at the age of fifty-two I am in perfect health, my muscles like iron, and my body as fit for any test of strength or endurance as at any time in my life, would seem to indicate that I am not far wrong in the conclusion. And in the course of the year there is far more leisure to be had on a farm than in any other business. The early autumn — that golden period when the earth overflows with fruitage, and the days have a mellow sweetness that summer rarely gives — is proverbially the farmer’s holiday, and during the winter a great many days off can be taken with no detriment to business.

I am reminded that leisure, without the means to spend money freely, is not usually considered a great boon. But to those who have learned even the primary lessons in wholesome and natural living, leisure is not such an unmanageable thing that it can not be handled without constant expense. For it is as important to know how to play, or even to do nothing, as it is to know how to work; to know how to release the tension when the necessity for it ceases, and to strike the easy gait that gives time for observation, thought, and enjoyment of life.

Burns, in a single quatrain, draws a picture of a farmer’s leisure moments that every true farmer can understand:

Upon a simmer Sunday morn
When Nature’s face was fair,
I walked forth to view the corn
And snuff the caller air.

To be sure, the mere growing of a field of corn or wheat is not a thing of great interest, although there is a quiet satisfaction, greater than may be supposed, in watching its development. But the country dweller, if he is wise and wants all that can be had out of the situation, will do more than raise crops; he will also engage, to such extent as he may be able, in that most absorbingly interesting of all rural occupations, the breeding of fine live stock. It may be some time before a beginner can afford the foundation stock for raising fine horses or cattle, but he can have the full fascination of the occupation, right at the start, in the breeding of poultry. All the laws that pertain to the breeding of the larger animals are exemplified here, and there is also one great advantage, that poultry matures and reproduces itself every year, bringing the breeder to the result of his efforts in a very short time. For this reason, a great may of the laws that are operative in all animals in such matters as crossing, mating, reversion, and the formation of new breeds and varieties, were first worked out and proved by experiments with poultry.

But for the use of the farmer’s leisure I shall attempt no advice or suggestion beyond a hint or two as to the privileges his situation bestows. By all means let him keep a good horse! No man who owns land should deprive himself of this blessing: the creature which, the Arabs tell us, Allah created from the wind and bestowed upon man as his last, best gift, his crowning triumph in the making of a beautiful animal. And if, like the writer, he live on the water front, let him utilize that privilege too, and have a good boat. For the personal application of these hints: one of the greatest pleasures of my life has been in breeding and handling horses; and from the buoy in front of my house, where our good boat is moored, stretches the whole world, with a fair, free highway to its very port and every shore.

It must be admitted that the country life does not always satisfy; that there are times when we want the noise of the pavements, the rush of travel and traffic, and, perhaps, the opportunity to attend the theater or some other place of entertainment that the country does not afford. There are times, too, when we miss the sharp contact with other minds — the mental attrition that keeps the wits keen. But these are trivial matters, easy of remedy, and prove very little beyond the fact that no life is ideal, and that there is no situation in the world where one can be always and invariably contented.

I plowed the land with horses,
But my heart was ill at ease,

says the old sea captain in Longfellow’s poem; and as a country dweller, I confess freely to this occasional unrest, this sometime feeling of vague dissatisfaction. But in a somewhat varied experience, I could never discover that such feelings were any more incident to the country than to the town; and they were never sufficiently potent to change my preference in any degree, or to cause any real desire to cease the plowing.

And in advocating agriculture for men of small means I am speaking with a full knowledge of all its drawbacks as well as its advantages, and with the firm conviction that, when rightly measured, the advantages greatly preponderate. The life is not perfect; but it gives to him who enters upon it his birthright as a man; it gives him the right to work for himself and to be one of the owners of the world; to maintain his family by the labor of his hands, and “to enjoy the good of all his labor all the days of his life.”