Casaubon's Book

Armchair Farming

Phil-the-Housemate asked me recently for advice on getting his dissertation done. He’s ABD, and having a tough time getting down to it. Asking me seems odd to me – I eventually baled about 1/2 way through my doctoral dissertation, due to a combination of childbearing, agriculture, slackdom and change of focus. But I did write three books in 2 1/2 years, so I do know a little something about finally giving up the slacker habits, I suppose.

The sum total of my advice to him went pretty much like this “Phil, there’s no substitute for the ass in the chair.” And this, I think is probably the nitty gritty of getting things like this done, whether book or diss or whatever – you sit at the computer with your behind on the chair and do the work. That means that at some point you have to give up on getting it perfect, you have to accept that the time for new research, going to hear that important talk, etc… is over. It means saying “no” to almost everything fun, and many things that seem like they’d be improving. And this is how my books get done – in fact, come mid-September, I shall have to re-enter “ass in the chair purgatory” for the fourth time, to get the Adapting-In-Place book finished.

All of this is pretty obvious stuff – although to the graduate school slacker that I once was (and I take heart in seeing that grad school slackers don’t seem to have changed much
;-)) it often seems like a good idea to go to that talk, to spend more time doing research, and necessary to go to the colleague’s defense party, or in my case, to have that second child. And maybe it is, but that’s generally not how things get best accomplished, unless you are one of those heroically self-disciplined people (I’m not).

What is probably less obvious, however, is that there’s a considerable and deeply important ass-in-the-chair component to farming and small scale subsistence activities. This is something that it took me a long time to learn – perhaps because all my other work was so devoutly rear-down, I felt that farmwork, real farmwork was done with muscles and involved being up and moving or down on your knees in a field full of weeds. It didn’t, I count, I thought if I was sitting at the dining room table writing things down – this was not agriculture.

Because of that, I tended to relegate the administrative details of agriculture – the record keeping, the billing of customers, the calculation of budgets, breeding plans, organizing to two periods – late winter, when there wasn’t much else to do, and after we were all too tired to do anything else. I have a fairly good memory for many things, and at first it was easy enough to keep track of what varieties I liked and how much grain a month we were feeding and where the hay I’d liked came from last year. The problem is that year over year over year, I lost track – a friend just asked me about milk production from one of our does, and I confidently reported a number. Then I realized…oops, that number applied back several years ago. The reality is that I can’t hold it all in my head.

The problems with this emerged pretty quickly – it is not feasible to do all the paperwork and record keeping for a functioning small farm during the winter – one can get ahead, set up their system and do much advance planning, but the realities of a cold climate agriculture where much of the on-the-ground work happens between April and November means that one needs to record things, tally accounts, track inputs and outputs, calculate costs, etc… while things are happening.

But again, because I did not think that this was “real” farmwork in the same sense that scything or digging or weeding or harvesting were, I tended to leave it to the end of the day – that was when I was justified in sitting down with my accounts or my plans. Once the kids were in bed, the chores done, the dishes washed, the lights low and Eric and I were settled down on the couch to relax, well, now we could discuss how to handle the breeding season or whether to manure the main garden or the pasture.

You can probably imagine how successful this was – I’m good for about 20 minutes of intent staring at a piece of paper before I start falling asleep after a day that included hours of farmwork, housekeeping, a couple hours at the computer, the homeschooling of my kids and everything else. And what we found is that a lot of things were going undone – we weren’t keeping good records. We weren’t taking the time to plan and strategize. Marketing materials needed making, costs calculating, sources researching – but since that didn’t count as farming, I wasn’t doing those things – and we started to fall behind. After a while we didn’t know how much we were making or not on individual crops, or how much grain the goats were eating. Moreover, during the CSA years, I eventually realized that several customers hadn’t paid us in full – because while I’d sent out bills, I hadn’t kept close track of who actually paid.

And that’s when the blindingly obvious struck me – when I finally got frustrated with the state of things. It isn’t only in writing and academia in which there is no substitute for the ass in the chair. It seems strange to think that I would become a better farmer by doing less farmwork, but in a measure, it was true – I needed to take a few hours every single week and sit down and take care of the paperwork, the administration, the sourcing, the research, the materials.

Of course, in weeks with too few hours in them, the only way for this to work was to have the time pay off – that is, I had to save time by sitting down and figuring things out. And we did – we stopped running out so often for that feed we were almost out of, or to pick up that thing from the hardware store, because we knew better what we had to do. Money began to come in a bit more smoothly during our CSA years, because I was sending out reminders on time. Taking time to read through the listings on Freecycle and Craigslist might not seem like work, but it saved us buying things. Figuring out the books more carefully gave me some ideas for time and money savings. Spending more time on marketing meant more customers and more revenue.

It was obvious in retrospect, and maybe I don’t even need to say it to all of you – but there’s no substitute in agriculture for putting your ass in a chair sometimes. It is certainly possible to spend too much time there – to over design, to obsess as you research, to feel that you can’t go forward on your garden or your farm until you know everything. But there is also a balance that needs to be struck between simply going at things as hard as you can, and thinking, planning, tracking and researching – keeping records is as essential as haying on time.

I mention this because I know particularly that young farmers of the sort I once was (I don’t think at 38 I get to call myself “young” anymore ;-)) tend to go at this with all their energies and passion – bring those things, but also make sure that you are allotting some time to use those energies for those administrative details that are as essential as laying good fence, planting good seed, or weeding. In the end, no matter what you are doing, there’s a place for putting your ass in the chair.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Diane
    August 26, 2010

    Our third year of serious canning and I have another case
    for “ass in chair”. What recipe did we use? How many pints did we get from so many pounds of tomatoes? What was wrong with the recipe? In addition to a notebook of preserving we make notes on the pages of our cookbooks and keep another list of canned goods that we have given as gifts so as not
    to repeat unless enthusiasm was expressed. Many of these notes have been really valuable. I also keep track of the yields of our pitiful, abundantly shaded garden which has revealed which crops actually yield a reasonable crop. This year the bush beans have it which I never would have guessed.

  2. #2 Susan
    August 26, 2010

    Thanks for posting this. I interned on a farm this year, and the most frustrating thing for me to see was the lack of organization and planning. No crop rotation plan – except in the farmer’s head. No idea which crops were profitable. He way overproduced tomatoes and blueberries, and we ended up losing a lot to spoilage. I felt that this could have been prevented if he’d planned his production better. Few records of anything.

    The main thing I took away from my internship was the necessity of good planning and record keeping.

  3. #3 knutty knitter
    August 26, 2010

    Ok. Now I’m feeling guilty. I need to plan what goes in the shop this season and haven’t even got started on that yet. My only plus is I know everyone is paid up to date for their stuff. I will be interested to see what we sell this year to the tourists as the last couple of years have been barely worth while – I may have to reconsider my target audience and become more of a straight out craft supply shop. Which would mean a lot more overheads etc.

    I think I need a new thinking cap!!!

    viv in nz

  4. #4 Mike
    August 26, 2010

    I do not like your title of arm chair farming. It makes it sound like arm chair quarterbacking by an observer. but before anyone starts a farm, they really need to design a business plan. then once farming they need to make records at least weekly of what is going on this year. Farmers can not make informed decisions about ways to improve in the future if they have no information about past performance and past actions.

  5. #5 Sarah
    August 26, 2010

    Some tips for Phil-the-housmate, if you could please pass them on:

    I did my PhD part time over 12 (!) years while working full time. In the last six months I had a new, demanding and unrelated job and I’d just moved house. Here’s what worked for me.

    I appealed to my inner six-year-old. I set my timer for an hour at a time and at the end of each hour I put another gold star on my calendar. This provided a really useful way of seeing how much work I was really doing as opposed to how much work I thought I was doing.

    At the end of each hour, I got a fifteen minute break to read a fun book, contemplate my navel, make a cup of tea or wash up. The timer was set for that too.

    I eventually discovered that the writing went better if I *limited* the amount of time I spent doing it – 3 hours on a week night and five hours each day on a weekend.

    For the last six months I minimised all other distractions. I didn’t unpack my tv, or any fun stuff. I cooked one meal a week, affectionally known as Stir-Fried Chicken from Hell, and froze it into portions to microwave each night. I got up at 7 each morning, worked, in bed on my laptop, for 45 minutes, went to work, came home, ate dinner and by 7.30 was back at it. I worked sitting up in bed surrounded by books, which was no good for my back but which minimised the distractions fairly effectively (though it did make it hard to sleep).

    I saw my friends on Sunday afternoons and Sunday afternoons only – they learnt to live with it. I cancelled all other committments and gave up on the idea of living any kind of balanced life in the short term.

    I ate a lot of chocolate and drank a lot of coffee.

    I stopped expecting it to be fun. It wasn’t. But my sense of resentment did diminish rapidly as I really focused on it, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My advice would be to maximise the pain and make the time shorter rather than dragging it out over a longer period to make it easier. You’re going to be consumed with guilt for as long as it’s with you so you might as well get it over with as fast as possible.

    Good luck.

  6. #6 Sherry
    August 27, 2010

    I don’t think you’re old at 38. (I’m 27.) You’d still qualify to join the Young Professionals Group down here!

  7. #7 Brad K.
    August 27, 2010

    Sharon,

    Funny you mention garden records today. I Drive My Tractor In Pearls wrote about records on the pantry and food preparation.

    My dad kept mostly-daily records of when hogs were bred or farrowed, litter sizes, number of hogs moved to which pasture, amount of feed prepared, etc. He also kept rainfall amount and dates, frosts and snows, I think. I find it frustrating that growing up “the weather” reports on the radio included amount of rain in the last day, when today all you get is a cheerful “it is raining/sunny/etc., the temp is xxx” and the forecast for the next day or seven. Today I seldom hear about depth of frost, amount of subsoil moisture, or accumulated snow on the ground. Perhaps the broadcaster’s market research shows people value high-quality forecasts for leisure purposes – and there are too few people that care about impact of weather on growing things to worry about. I wonder if there is a weather channel web site focused on things of interest to gardeners and farmers – like moisture and humidity accumulated levels.

    As for the record keeping, what comes to mind is a maturing I saw during the 1980s and 1990s in software development and other processes, called continuous process improvement. Starting out keeping records gives you information. But you have to review regularly to determine when you are spending time keeping records you aren’t using, when you are missing information that would be useful. Also, whether your planning for feed, for garden preparation, for pantry planning, etc. are meeting your needs. In addition to reviewing your process at significant events – say, after planting, harvest, finishing getting all the goats bred or delivered, or milking season ends – a strong review of the process(es) involved is triggered when anything untoward happens.

    The results of the review might be that you are checking what needs to be checked, and the unexpected event was handled according to plan, and meets the needs as well as could be expected. Other results might be to add checks and reviews, changes in practices, to avoid future problems.

    I think you found what I observed. That the more people involved, that is, the larger the organization, and the more complicated the process, the more attention to formal planning and process documentation and review is needed – and the more payoff there is in good planning and especially, eagerness to continue what works and change what doesn’t – and to skillfully appreciate both.

    With your complex operation of gardens, books, livestock, and other activities, you might consider some additional records. Personnel. In the Navy onboard ship we had to complete personnel qualification checklists/worksheets for each task we were assigned. We were considered in training until we “qualified”, and records of who was and wasn’t qualified for what in each division were kept. You could keep track of which neighbors have been introduced and “trained” for which tasks (to inform planning for time away), as well as for each of the boys. And Phil-the-housemate. And any interns or other visitors. Keeping track of that can help avoid forgetting that person Y hasn’t been checked out on successfully milking the goats, but person Z can be trusted to teach milking the goats to someone else. Same with composting, etc. Would this kind of record keeping pay off? Possibly, if you had several people around – or you have plans to add an activity, and want to chart people preparations as well as physical preparations. Or you wanted a written description of most of your tasks, so you can review and update the task when a change is needed, such as checking which cutting of alfalfa hay you are buying, if you add a horse to the livestock mix. (Horses and ponies are immensely entertaining and instructive, especially for children and young-at-heart, and occasionally useful, too. Maybe use a stocky light horse or pony with an appropriate plow or cultivator for a neighborhood garden tilling business.)

    I guess my thought is that keeping records and planning, and checking progress against the plans, and adjusting plans for actual results, is something important for most activities. What the plans should include, what records are needed, and how to make adjustments is going to depend on each activity and person.

  8. #8 Ben
    August 27, 2010

    Does your housemate know the German word “Sitzfleisch”? Literally translated as “sitting flesh”, it means the ability to sit your butt down and slog through a long, drawn-out task to the end. Listening to Wagner’s operas, writing books, and finishing dissertations all require a lot of Sitzfleisch.

  9. #9 ddu
    August 27, 2010

    Phil may enjoy reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” for inspiration to get the job done. If nothing else, it will give him a distraction from writing the dissertation.

  10. #10 MMK
    August 27, 2010

    I was hoping that your post would say that spending an hour reading farm blogs instead of going outside and picking the tomatoes that need to be canned today is a good use of time! I need to read you less and do my chores more! (But as usual, I can’t stay away from my Sharon fix. Thanks!)

  11. #11 stripey_cat
    August 27, 2010

    My personal speciality is failing to label plants, and then being surprised that, six to eighteen months later, I can’t remember the cultivars, or (if I kept the seed packets) which end of the row is which. So my experiments to see which are more reliable and tasty never seem to work out. Every year, I manage to keep decent records up until April or May (including little diagrams of what was planted where), and then it all goes to hell in a handbasket.

  12. #12 maribeth
    August 27, 2010

    I would recommend a short book entitled “The Clockwork Muse” for dissertation writing strategies.

    It is not enough to plant your ass in the chair. You need to figure out the time of day at which you are most productive, and dedicate that time (and only that time) to be Inviolable Writing Time.

    Another idea that helped me was recognizing that my thesis did not have to be perfect and complete. It had to be good enough, and outline the steps that the next graduate student should take to continue the research. Striving for perfection can be paralyzing.

    Good luck to Phil. It can be done.

  13. #13 Joyce
    August 27, 2010

    “I don’t think at 38 I get to call myself “young” anymore.”
    Sharon, given the average age of the North American farmer, you have *years* to call yourself young :)

    I’m 50, and within the agricultural community, I’m young. I just came from a community gathering where people were discussing a 93 year-old who is currently out doing his haying.

    Although there’s the inevitable grim aspect to the aging of the rural population, it’s also great to enjoy being young.

  14. #14 Claire
    August 27, 2010

    I must be one of the youngest people around who wrote their PhD dissertation draft by physically cutting up and pasting typescript from published papers and augmenting with handwritten pages of the newest information, then hiring a typist (the department secretaries) to type the final copy. The first Mac came out the same year I got my PhD.

    It probably won’t surprise you to find out I keep almost all my records on physical pieces of paper. I use graph paper to plan crop placements and rotations and some forms I got from attending one of John Jeavons’ (How to Grow More Vegetables) 3 day workshops to set up my garden calendar and record dates and weight of everything I harvest – the last two go in a small binder, then each winter the sheets are transferred to larger binders organized by crop so I can check across different years. I keep weather records on another sheet of paper and keep that and receipts from purchases, the graphs, a spreadsheet of seed on hand (the only thing I computerize), and a sheet of notes for next year’s planning in a file folder for that year. Notes on ornamentals and on fruit and nut crops go in different folders or notebooks. And this is just for a family garden. Even at that level, a certain amount of ass-in-chair time really pays off. I’ve become a better gardener over the years – more food for a longer time – because of it.

  15. #15 Anna
    August 30, 2010

    On our farm, we have the related saying, “Work smart, not hard.” It always seems to pay off to spend a few minutes thinking a project through before diving in.