Book Learning or Experience: Which Is More Important in Farming?

I say neither. Experience is crucial, but instructional materials as well as memoirs provide a necessary supplement for those breaking into agriculture.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

When my wife and I first moved from the city to a little farm in central Kentucky, some folks thought we were crazy, yet a surprisingly large amount of our friends said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” My wife had spent the last year or so volunteering on a friend’s livestock farm, we kept a small flock of chickens behind our little brick house, and our garden had swollen to numerous beds as well as a small orchard and a berry patch.

We also had read a lot. Mixed in our book collection with titles by William Faulkner, Michael Chabon and Annie Dillard were those bearing names such as Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs and Farm Anatomy. Our browser bookmarks, meanwhile, all pointed to sites with tips for raising your own food.

At the time, I thought we were ridiculously over-read on farm topics and that all we needed was the real-deal experience. Looking back, though, I realize that cracking a spine or searching for answers we didn’t yet need to questions we didn’t yet have was every bit as important to our eventual destination as the time we spent churning up soil or cleaning out the little hen house.

We carried those books to our eventual 12 acres, and, let me tell you, experience didn’t invalidate their places on our shelves in the least, nor did we stop running to the internet with questions. When our cow gave birth earlier than the vet had predicted, I grabbed a book on calf care to make sure our actions were correct during those first few hours. We taught ourselves how to castrate piglets by reading message boards. YouTube taught us how to process our first batch of broilers. I subscribed to Hobby Farms long before I could call myself a farmer.

While instructional guides and websites were invaluable, a different kind of farm book helped keep our spirits up when the cold winter tried to freeze out our love of farming. Authors such as Wendell Berry, Jenna Woginrich and Forest Pritchard assured us that we weren’t crazy (or at least not alone). Their farm memoirs freely confessed rookie mistakes while championing the importance of a hard life well lived. When we felt cranky about something, we knew there was a Joel Salatin book ready to commiserate with us.

True, we thinned out our book selection over time when we realized some weren’t as helpful as others. Similarly, we turned away from certain online sources; some farm-themed websites and message boards are pure hogwash. But I always keep that Storey pig book within arm’s reach, and I still love reading farmer memoirs on a cold night by the warm glow of a fire.

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In the end, a mixture of experience and book learning can be a potent formula to satisfy an eager mind, and, in the case of farming, a library of not-yet-needed books can empower a young suburban couple to strike out on a brave, possibly foolhardy adventure. These days, when the average farmer’s age is 58 and family farms are being parceled to developers instead of passed down to the next generation, that’s important. We need young farmers, and we need people who weren’t raised riding a tractor and listening to sage ancestral agricultural wisdom to be able to get a wild hair, study up and buy the farm. If books can inspire and educate future generation of farmers, regardless of their Zip Code growing up, then I believe that’s a very good thing.        

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