Friday, June 30, 2006

Book Review: The Contrary Farmer

Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1994)

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.


  1. sounds like a good one. I have a stack to take to the beach for pool side reading. Just finished Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again by Annie Jacobson. I had heard parts of the story before and really didn't put much thought into it. As I read the book though it really makes you step back and look at nat'l security annd makes you wonder why another 9/11 hasn't taken place.

  2. There is more criticism of large scale corn operations in the uS in the July issue of *Smithsonian* Magazine. They are taken to task for their misuse/overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers, which deplete ozone and contribute to global warming.

  3. Hmmm, well, I'm not a Wendell Berry fan, so I'd probably better stay away from this one too. However, I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

    Michele sent me today. Have a great weekend!

  4. It sounds like a fascinating book and well written. With so many hobby farmers and people dreaming of their own little piece of paradise there is definitely a market for it.

    Love the bulldozer quote.

    Michele sent me.

  5. i like the way you discribed this book... it makes it so much more readable when someone tells you their impersonation of it... which makes you want to make your own impersonation of the book... thanks very much!

    michele sent me - from Australia!

  6. I would LOVE to do something like that if I could get rid of the "day job"!

  7. Here from Michele.
    Coming from farmer stock, this really sounds like a great book. I bet my dad would enjoy it as well. He was a farmer boy growing up.

  8. It is sad that so many do NOT enjoy what they do and can't really afford a way out. Sounds like an interesting book! If I could get my daddy to read a book I think he would enjoy that one.

    Have a good 4th holiday!

  9. Kontan, you should put more book reviews into your blog!

    Kenju, haven't seen that issue of Smithsonian... He does come down hard on large scale corn producers, but one of the quotes he has for a corn farmer (about over production) goes something like "If we have this good of a year next season, we'll all be ruined."

    Karen, I would be interested in learning why you are not a Wendell Berry fan. Is it his theories of small farmers and local communities or do you not like his writing style?

    Pearl, good to see you back!

    Ravvy, is there a small farm movement in Australia?

    Poopie, you're descriptions of your farm are priceless.

    SRP, you can make it a "late" father's day gift.

    Deana, he does talk about those caught in the trap--which he generally links to being tied to farming because of huge mortgages ad loans for equipment (he is not in favor of taking out loans for equipment).

  10. Can't imagine you sticking around long enough to have a farm. Get exhausted and a bit envious reading about your trips

  11. Pia, I know what you mean, for I don't generally like grass growing between my toes. Yet, I've always been intrigued about growing and raising my own food. However, I'll probably just remain intrigued.

  12. happy 4th of july...

    ...geta *bang* outa it!!

  13. I'll get right on that Sage! Guess I have been a little worn out after grad school. Search "Latte thought" in categories, there are many there...haha, I'll add some more recent readings by request!

  14. As you know, I grew up on a farm and so farming runs in my blood.

    I agree with Logsdon that you can make a life on a cottage farm but you won't make the money to live another life. It is certainly not for everyone. I've always thought that when my life as an engineer ends, I'm going to by me an acreage (a.k.a. cottage farm) overlooking some big river and live out my years growing my vegetables and maybe raising a few livestock. Of course, I may need a grandchild or two to look after the "farm" when momma and myself are off touring Italy or some exotic corner of the globe.

    I love the quote about growing sweet corn no more than ten minutes from the path. All my life, my parents have grown sweetcorn no more than 100 feet from their front door. Maybe a minute tops if you walk slow and enjoy the stuff along the way. Ten minutes in our neck of the woods means just handing it to the 'coons' and deer.

    I think large grain farms have a bad rap and are largely misunderstood. It is like anything, a few bad apples can spoil the whole bushel. Since I was just a babe, my parents have practiced erosion control by building terraces and waterways to prevent the soil, their life's blood, from washing away. Those who don't might just as well toss their money in the nearest creek. They are also very conscious about the use of sprays and fertilizers and must take classes every year to remain certified. I would be willing to bet, less fertilizer and spray find their way into our water supply on my entire family's farm, than the typical suburban lawn. Largely because my parents don't spray near any direct water source. Suburbanites spray right by the storm sewer opening and thing nothing of it.

    One of the beefs I have with Edward Abbey are his thoughts towards littering along roadsides. He has a point that the earth they occupy are environmentally destroyed already but he doesn't account for the wind and water moving the trash to places that aren't. You wouldn't believe how much trach blows miles from the nearest highways.

    Sounds like a good book and I am in agreement, cottage farming sounds like heaven. But it isn't for the weak of heart or body. Slaughtering an animal for food that you've raised from a babe is one of the hardest things one must do. Hoeing weeds in the darkness of morning to avoid the harsh mid-day heat is also a hard task and hence the saying, "They have a long row to hoe."

  15. Oh, I'm so late reading and commenting on this review, but I wanted to let you know that I appreciated it, and that I will probably, at some point when I don't have a million other required books to read for grad school, check it out! Despite the fact that it will probably make me waste oodles of time daydreaming.