Synopses & Reviews
Gene Logsdon has become something of a rabble-rouser in progressive farm circles, stirring up debates and controversies with his popular New Farm magazine column, The Contrary Farmer. One of Logsdon's principle contrarieties is the opinion that--popular images of the vanishing American farmer, notwithstanding--greater numbers of people in the U.S. will soon be growing and raising a greater share of their own food than at any time since the last century. Instead of vanishing, more and more farmers will be cottage farming, part-time.
This detailed and personal account of how Logsdon's family uses the art and science of agriculture to achieve a reasonably happy and ecologically sane way of life in an example for all who seek a sustainable lifestyle. In The Contrary Farmer, Logsdon offers the tried-and-true, practical advice of a manual for the cottage farmer, as well as the subtler delights of a meditation in praise of work and pleasure. The Contrary Farmer will give its readers tools and tenets, but also hilarious commentaries and beautiful evocations of the Ohio countryside that Logsdon knows as his place in the universe.
June 30, 2006
Knowing how I am always recommending Wendell Berry's books, a friend suggested I read something by Gene Logsdon. Last week, I came across his name while looking in an Alabama bookstore and purchased a copy of The Contrary Farmer. I'm glad I did.
Logsdon farms a 32 acre "cottage farm" in Ohio. His book is a primer for those interested in making a living on a small farm. It's his thesis that although you won't get rich on a small farm, you can have a good life. He provides suggestions for the right size of such a farm (keep it small enough so that you're not overwhelmed or feel the need to grow large), the type of animals to raise and crops to grow, how best to organize your farm to minimize work, an introduction to a new way of looking at economics and finally some wonderful writing as he describes the seasons and the joy of working outdoors.
There are two keys to success in Logsdon's plans. First is enjoying what one does. Early in the book, he notes, "Where love is at work, work is mostly play." (page 3) Logsdon obviously enjoys his work around the farm and you see his playful approach through his writings. Life on the farm is to be a joy. "Farming without raising and eating sweet corn ten minutes from the path is like living out a lifetime as a virgin," he writes in one of his many suggestions of enjoyment on the farm. (page 152) A second key to success is diversity. He states early in the book that diversity on a small farm is essential to easing the workload, a theme he comes back to over and over again. Even his crop rotation plan for his "small fields" is done in such a way to increase productivity while reducing weeds (and thereby reducing work and the need for chemicals). "Variety is not just the spice of life but the indispensable ingredient," he quotes from Thomas Eisner, suggesting that it could be the Contrary Farmer's motto. (page 153) Logsdon farm has a variety of grains, produce, fruit and animals (chickens, sheep, cows, pigs, and fish).
Throughout the book, Logsdon comes down hard on the farming enterprises that exist today, suggesting that the only way that they're profitable is with government subsides. Yet, he does have respect (and maybe a little sympathy) for these "industrial" farmers, suggesting that a successful cottage farmer should befriend them. All farmers are going to have challenges but should be up to the task. "Compared to nature, zealots and bureaucrats are a piece of cake," Logsdom sarcastically notes. (page 200) Furthermore, he maintains the reason the United States has the most successful farming in the world has to do with soil and weather, not with "so-called capitalism" or innovation, suggesting that even the Soviet state run farms would have faired well in our Cornbelt. (page 83)
As much as he criticizes the large corn operations that wash away more soil than the corn they produce, he devotes a chapter to corn production on the cottage farm and generally raises an acre or two on his farm primarily for feeding animals (this is in addition to sweet corn). He is also critical of the organic farm movement for their failure to use treated human waste as a fertilizer and for being so "hard core" that they don't allow flexibility. Logsdon admits to occasionally using chemicals, primarily as ways to spot control weeds or bugs. His irreverence toward organic farming reminds me of Edward Abbey, an environmentalist who wasn't above tossing an empty beer can out the window of his pickup truck. Moderation seems to be one of his virtues.
Logsdon came from good stock. He grew up in the area he now farms and his wise father once said: "A bulldozer in the hands of a wise man does good work; in the hands of a fool even a spade is dangerous." (page 175) This illustrates Logsdon approach to tools and technology. He uses them, but he doesn't let them rule him which is what happens as farms get so big that their equipment have to be larger and therefore more expensive and the farmer ends up being controlled by the bank to grow more and more which, when done by all farmers, means lower and lower prices. By maintaining a cottage farm, Logsdon thinks one can provide healthy food for ones family and a good lifestyle, things that don't make economic equations.
The cottage farm sounds like a bit of heaven, especially for someone retired or who has another job, but with free time. However, I'm not sure if I'm ready to make such a commitment as it means that one will need to stick around home a lot more, for there are always chores to be done. However, I enjoyed reading the book and recommend it to anyone interested in farming or just good nature writing.
Critics of American agriculture bemoan the widespread decline of family farms. Gene Logsdon asserts that the solution to this crisis is cottage farming -- farming part-time, for fun as well as profit. For those seeking a saner, more authentic connection with a piece of ground, Logsdon explains ways to combine a successful vegetable garden with raising livestock, pastures, grains, and woodlots, the values of pastoral economics ("Stay small and don't borrow money!"), and how to save expenses and avoid erosion by cultivating with hand tools.
The Contrary Farmer combines the virtues of a manual for the practicing farmer with eloquent meditations in praise of hard work and pleasure. The book gives its readers tools and tenets, but also hilarious stories and beautiful evocations of the Ohio countryside Logsdon knows as his place in the universe.
About the Author
Gene Logsdon farms in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. He is one of the clearest and most original voices of rural America. He has published more that a dozen books; his Chelsea Green books include Living at Nature's Pace, The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, Good Spirits, and The Contrary Farmer.
Table of Contents
The Ramparts People/xiii
CHAPTER 1/At Ease with the Work of Farming/1
CHAPTER 2/Pastoral Economics/16
CHAPTER 3/The Garden is the Proving Ground for the Farm/38
CHAPTER 4/The Peaceable Kingdom of the Barnyard/53
CHAPTER 5/Water Power/83
CHAPTER 6/A Paradise of Meadows/104
CHAPTER 7/Groves of Trees to Live In/125
CHAPTER 8/King Corn/149
CHAPTER 9/Cottage Mechanics/175
CHAPTER 10/Winter Wheat, Spring Oats, Summer Clover, Fall Pasture/200
Books the Contrary Farmer Treasures/225