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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

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