Reviews of Books on Farming

The Purpose of Rural Reads

The purpose of this site is to offer a place for friends and colleagues interested in farming to post short book reviews.  Whenever we get together, titles are mentioned, pencils scrambled for.  There is evidently a wonderful range of books read that some would like to pass on and others take in.  Here’s your chance.  The categories at the onset are History, Memoir, Textbook, Practical Manuals,  Journalistic and Scholarly Studies, Novels & Poems,  Manifestos & Philosophies.  The only rule is that postings represent a thoughtful reaction to books you have actually read.   If you wish to respond to a review, do so only after yourself reading the book and adding your own review.  Let’s have real engagement and substance.  ( The editor will excise entries such as “This looks like it might be good”,  or comments like “Great book, Dude!” )  Also, in each review or response, give  name and e mail of the contributor.  I look forward to your entries.   Chip Planck.


Robert Frost, After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Rachel Bynum, Waterpenny Farm,

George Ewart Evans, Where Beards Wag All and other works.


If you can’t get enough of how things were done in the Old Days, George Ewart Evans is the man for you.  Beginning with his best title, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, 1956, through The Crooked Scythe, 1993, he wrote eleven books of oral history on the farming and rural culture of England, primarily in East Anglia. 

From Tools of Their Trades:

Farming and the Depth of Oral Testimony

The importance of the testimony of the older generation that took part in East Anglian farming prior to the introduction of the self-propelled machine needs no emphasis.  Arable farming has been here the main line of farming since the beginning of the historical period; and farming itself has been both the mother and the nurse of the East Anglian culture.  It has given this culture its individual stamp and is responsible for its remarkable continuity up to the beginning of this century.  The older generation that reached manhood before the First World War are in a true sense historical “documents” in that they can teach us some of the techniques of the age-old farming that mechanization displaced and communicate to us the cultural atmosphere and attitudes within the society which was the old farming’s context.  p. 87

So great was the interest in ploughing a well-finished stretch with mathematically straight furrows…and so keen was the rivalry between horseman that, even after they had spent an autumn day ploughing an acre in the field, they would spend the rest of it ploughing the land over once again in the cosiness of the inn bar.  And on a Sunday morning they walked around the parish inspecting their neighbors’ week of work to see if it measured up to the high claims made for it during the detailed preliminary examination at the bar.   p. 64


From The Farm and the Village:

…farmers used the following practice to control the gleaning….After the farm-workers has cleared a field of the crop they left one sheaf standing on it.  This last sheaf was called the Policeman, and…as soon as the farmer took it away, the gleaners were free to enter.  p. 80

From Where Beards Wag All:

When John Tollemache wanted a new coachman…his own experiences in driving, and possibly his own rather dangerous pretensions, prompted the question he asked each applicant:  ‘How near can you take the carriage to a post without hitting it?’  He got various answers, each designed to illustrate the coachman’s extraordinary skill, for example:  ‘I can stick a match into the side of the post, my Lord, and hit the match without hitting the post.’  But one man gave the answer he had been waiting for:  ‘I don’t know about being near to it, your Lordship.  I reckon to keep as far from the post as I can.’  ‘Right.  You’re then man for the job.’   p. 125

Social relations in “closed” or estate-dominated villages.  These were physically well-ordered and maintained, and the landed proprietor might  at times intervene on behalf of the farm workers in disputes with their farmer employers.

We must beware of ascribing present-day standards of what social relations ought to be to a Suffolk village of a century ago, when a Victorian authoritarianism was the dominant pattern, especially in rural areas.  Possibly some inhabitants did not feel the paternalism of the squire in any way oppressive and would blithely sing of ‘the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.  Some, too, would probably feel—as some still do—the cosy warmth of aristocratic contact….Yet there was alongside this an underlying, smouldering resentment whose depth and intensity can be gauged by the fact that it has lasted until the present when the overt conditions which gave rise to it have been to a great extent removed.

‘You were under and you dussn’t say anything.  The old Lord used to come round to look at the house, the garden and the allotment just as he did the farms; and the farmers were as afraid of him as you were.’

‘You had to go to church on Sunday and the farmers had to see that you went, too.’

Herman Biddell, a Suffolk farmer, used to proceed down the aisle at the end of service while the rest of the congregation remained seated.  He cast an experienced eye and if there was a gap in the pew of one of his tenants he leaned over and asked, ‘Where’s Charlie?  How is it he’s not in church this morning?’


Thanks to my friend Taylor Stoehr, I have eight of these titles, and will gladly loan them out.


                                                            Chip Planck, Wheatland Vegetable Farms,

Norwood and Lusk, Compassion by the Pound

F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk: Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Oxford University Press, 2011.


This book may be unique in that it presents (among other things) a detailed, non-biased portrait of factory farms. There’s plenty of literature out there on the subject, but it’s generally written either by overzealous animal activists or by industry insiders seeking to spin public perception. Norwood and Lusk seek only to inform. They certainly offer opinions, with which you may disagree, but they also offer facts, some of which are inconvenient to the stories I (and others) like to tell about factory farming. For example, antibiotics are generally not used in egg or dairy production, and milk or eggs from animals treated with antibiotics are generally diverted away from human consumption. Of course some of the facts do conform with our stories: caged hens have 48-67 in2 per bird, and hens in a barn system have 200 in2 per bird. My chickens, in their winter housing (where they admittedly have more space than they really need), have over 2,000 in2 per bird. Chickens raised for meat have .7 ft2 per bird, against 1.6 ft2 per bird in the Polyface/Salatin system.


The authors, being economists, also look at the cost of improving animal welfare and attempt to evaluate the extent to which consumers are willing to pay that cost. They even devised some pretty ingenious experiments in order to gather data on consumer preferences. Because ordinary people are for the most part are ignorant about livestock production – on average consumers believe only 37% of all eggs produced in the US come from a cage system (against 90% in reality) – the authors had to provide them with a lot of information before accurate data collection could occur.


Here are a few of my favorite passages, with some commentary:


“Another reason for defining free-range as an optional component of the cage-free egg farm has to do with costs. The free-range farm depicted in Figure 5.10 has dramatically higher costs of production. This farm allowed the authors to study their accounting data, and we determined that they lose a considerable sum of money in their egg enterprise. Unless they find a creative way to charge higher prices or lower their costs they stand no chance of making money. In fact they would probably have to charge more than $6.00 per dozen to break even on their egg production enterprise. Although the free-range farm in Figure 5.10 is interesting, the economics of the enterprise cause us to eliminate the system as a viable alternative…. A farm such as the one in Figure 5.10 is not studied, though perhaps in the future it may become a viable alternative.”


As always we should be hesitant to generalize from a limited sample set. In this case the farmer said that one year he lost 50 hens out of a flock of 250 to hawks. He also said that he never has to decide what to do with old hens, past their prime, because hawks always get them before that happens (!). I am curious what the authors would think about Forrest’s or Joel’s system. However I do tend to think that pastured eggs are under-priced, as compared with pastured meat.


“Pigs’ intelligence is illustrated nicely by the following, a common occurrence witnessed on hog farms. Some farms have automatic feeders which respond to computer chips placed in collars on each pig. When the pig approaches a feeding stall, the collar communicates with a computer whether the pig has been fed yet. If the pig has not eaten, the stall automatically drops feed. Pigs have come to understand that it is the collar that causes feed to drop, not the pigs themselves. If a collar is found on the floor, a pig will pick it up and take it into the stall to receive an additional feed allotment. This is not something that has happened as a one-off coincidence, but it is something that has been repeatedly observed, making the observer confident that the pig must be thinking, “If I pick up this collar and take it into the stall, I will get feed.”


(I love pigs.)


“Regardless of the extent to which food is labeled, the average consumer will always know little about how an animal is raised. If consumers cannot discern the level of animal care, the farmer has the incentive to set low welfare standards. There is little incentive to incur the expense of raising happy animals if the only information the consumer will have is a pretty picture and an appealing brand name–which all products have, by the way. Even if farmer Bill wants to set high standards for personal reasons, so long as other farmers are willing to raise animals under worse conditions the market will force Bill to mimic the others. In turn, consumers know they are uninformed, and the natural cynic within them will cause them to surmise that farm animals are raised in unappealing conditions. Farmers then expect consumer cynicism, providing them even less incentive to employ high welfare standards–and so on because the product label does little to convey information, the market provides little incentive to employ high welfare standards.”


A sad state of affairs! And hence our emphasis on direct-marketing and consumer interaction. A portion of the price premium paid at farmers’ markets is related to qualities evident in the product, e.g. freshness or taste. However another portion (perhaps especially for meat-vendors?), is related to qualities verified only through inspection of the farm or absolute trust in the farmer/vendor. If someone shows up with the same happy stories, but a product disconnected from those stories, we depend on consumer vigilance to prevent that person from driving his competitors out of business. At least that’s my take on it. I’d be curious what any of you might think about consumer vigilance vs. certification programs vs. self-policing as tools to ensure that consumers are buying what they think they’re buying.

Andrew Barnet, Open Book Farm.



William Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1830, 2 volumes

(In print; many used editions available.)

The great champion of the English agricultural labourer and a well ordered countryside.  Marvelous stylist, biting pamphleteer.    Published a two-penny paper, Cobbett’s Political Register, for the working classes for 30 years.  In the 1820’s, began his rural rides, chronicling practices and conditions throughout the countryside.  These reports were published in the Register, and gathered in Rural Rides.  Nobody loves good farming more than Cobbett.

“Gloucester is a fine, clean, beautiful place; and, which is of a vast deal more importance, the labourer’s dwellings looked good…and the girls in the fields (always my standard) are not in rags, with bits of shoes tied on their feet and rags tied round their ankles, as they had in Wiltshire.”

“The custom in Hertfordshire…is to leave a border round the ploughed part of the fields to make hay from, so that, the grass being now made into hay, every corn [grain] field has a closely mowed grass walk about ten feet wide all round it, between the corn and the hedge.   This is most beautiful!  The hedges are now full of the shepherd’s rose, honeysuckles, and all sorts of wild flowers….And thus you go from field to field, on foot or on horseback, the sort of corn, the sort of underwood and timber, the shape and size of the fields, the height of the hedge-rows, all continually varying.  Talk of pleasure grounds, indeed!  This is a profitable system, too, for the ground under the hedges bears little corn, but very good grass.”

“Amongst the laboring people, the first thing you have to look after is, common honesty and refraining from thieving; and to secure these, the labourer must have his belly full and be free from fear; and this belly-full must come to him from out of his wages and not from benevolence of any description.”

“This country, though so open, has its beauties.  The homesteads in the sheltered bottoms with fine lofty trees about the houses and yards form a beautiful contrast with the large open fields.  The little villages, running straggling along the dells are very interesting objects, even in winter.  You feel a sort of satisfaction, when you are out on the bleak hills yourself, at the thought of the shelter in the dwellings in the valleys.”

“…that most interesting of all objects, that which is such an honour to England, and that which distinguishes it from all the rest of the world, namely, those neatly kept and productive little gardens round the labourers’ houses, which are seldom unornamented with more or less of flowers.”

“Little boys and girls shave hop-poles and assist in other coppice work very nicely.  And it is pleasant work, when it is dry overhead.  The woods, bedded with leaves are clean and dry underfoot.  They are warm, too, even in the coldest weather.  When the ground is frozen several inches deep in the open fields, it is scarcely frozen at all in a coppice where the underwood is a good plant, and where it is high enough to cut.  So that the woodman’s is really a pleasant life.  We are apt to think that the birds have a hard time of it in winter.  But we forget the warmth of the woods, which far exceeds anything to be found in farmyards.”

Cobbett also wrote gardening books for England and America, a guide to morals for young men, an English grammar, tracts on England’s religious conflicts.  Served in Parliament at the end of his life.  Produced the precursor of Hansards, the unofficial record of parliamentary debates.  I have many of these, and several biographies, available to borrow.

Chip Planck,

J. M.Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge, 1993

Debate in British historiography on what the enclosure of common agricultural lands and the coming of industrialization meant for standards of living has been described as  “more polemical and vituperative” than that on any other issue.   Because England ceased to have a serf-like peasantry tied to the lord’s land centuries before the rest of Europe, it is often argued that losing the benefits of common rights was insignificant, especially when compared to the greater efficiencies that came from enclosure. English peasants were already “free”.    Neeson argues against this consensus.  She gives a rich picture of what the rural culture was before enclosure, and what was lost with its culmination of common rights in the early 19th century.  Rather than a statistical focus on wages, she emphasizes the loss of economic security and cultural autonomy by the rural poor.   For instance, not being able to graze a cow had huge implications for nutrition and security, which wouldn’t be noticed if that benefit of common rights had already been discounted.

A similar look at the consequences of modernizing agriculture for all aspects of the standard of living is K. D. M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900, Cambridge, 1985.

An argument that enclosure didn’t even lead to production efficiencies, effects on rural culture aside, which I haven’t found yet, is R. C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman.

Chip Planck,

Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe, Princeton, 1978

A  comparative analysis of the relations of lord and peasant in early modern Europe and the events leading eventually to emancipation of the serfs, first in Savoy in 1771 and lastly in Romania in 1864.  Wonderfully detailed and discriminating in describing different arrangements and outcomes in the multiple states and regions within them.  An antidote to any inclination to romanticize pre-modern rural life.  It’s also instructive on the deep conservatism of peasant societies, and the extreme rarity of true “improving” (reforming) noble landowners over the centuries.  Reminds one of the truth of Gene Logdson’s statement that progress in agriculture has come more from the “garden” than from routines in the countryside.

Chip Planck