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5 Great Books for Farming: Philosophy to Operations

Brian Morgan | 09.26.18

Square Roots Farmer Brian Morgan's photo inside a library.

In the past year I’ve been on a binge of reading agriculture-related books. I’ve asked for recommendations from farmers with 1 year of experience, 10 years of experience, 30 years of experience, folks in graduate degree programs, and others. Sometimes I’m buried in textbook-like readings, and other times it’s short stories that keep me turning the page. I can’t always be reading educational non-fiction — it’s nice to have some balance — and this selection has that balance.

As someone who, before last year, had intro-level experience in agriculture (read: volunteered on farms in high school, but never studied it formally or considered learning with the intent to work full-time in agriculture) these books have been helpful to give meaningful background on the importance of agriculture, as well as tangible details in day-to-day operations, and everything in between.

These are in order from high level/broad overview (1) to highly tactical/day-to-day specifics (5).

1. The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (1977)

A true renaissance man, Wendell Berry is hard to describe succinctly. He’s at least a farmer, poet, professor, essayist, novelist, artist, and extremely thoughtful global citizen. Similarly, this book is hard to sum up in a few words, but its scope and history is what makes it so indispensable. Berry effectively explores the economic and cultural values of America, the industrialization of agriculture, and the humanity of farming.

If you enjoy philosophy and want a deeply thoughtful read about why agriculture is core to our society and the human experience, this is a great one. For me, it was one of those books that I chipped away at for months before finishing, but I’m so glad to have kept at it.

2. One Man’s Meat by E.B. White (1944)

Journal-style short stories from 1938–1943 by the former New Yorker writer most well-known for authoring Charlotte’s Web, this collection documents White’s journey from Manhattan to Maine where he and his family lived on a farm while raising their children. The prose has an old school wit to it, and such a distinct voice, that it’s hard to put down even when he’s writing about typically mundane topics such as farm expenses or his children’s unreasonable demands.

In addition to his anecdotes of actually running his farm, the cultural context of the 1940s era feels strangely applicable to modern day.

3. The New Farm by Brent Preston (2017)

Okay, this one is a true page-turner. If you’re interested in the process of leaving a “stable career” and starting a farm, all while raising a family, this book is a must-read. Brent Preston and his wife left their comfortable consulting and journalism jobs in Toronto, bought a farm a couple hours north of the city, and started from scratch in 2005. This book recounts the first 10 years, chronologically, of their experience making that transition.

The writing keeps you moving right along; funny stories of town politics and apprenticeships gone wrong, mixed in with existential crises and farm-specific tips make it hard to stop reading. It’s also really fun to read in comparison with the next two books on this list. Initially, Preston and his wife were set on a small farm orthodoxy (e.g., small scale efficiency), but had to adapt given their particular circumstances.

It’s fascinating to see this application and evolution over time, and it feels like you are part of the story.

4. The Market Gardener by J.M. Fortier (2014)

A bit of a celebrity in the small-scale farming community at present, JM Fortier’s The Market Gardener explores in-depth the considerations needed to get a farm up and running.

Everything from how to find the right land, to crop layout, to irrigation, to labor, to sales channels, this book is a blueprint to getting started on your own. It gives you a great sense for just how many small decisions are needed to make such an interdependent system work smoothly. It’s also a book that I’d imagine would be great to have on hand if/when you actually have your own operation and need a reference for ideas on how to set up drainage, or heat your seedlings, etc.

I wonder how many small farms have been started as a result of this book...

5. The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman (2015)

While no one wants the focus of their farm to be finances, a theme throughout much of these works is that financial sustainability is paramount to farming — otherwise the farms would not exist. The Lean Farm explores in-depth how to run a farm from an operational lens. These operational practices flow through to all facets of the business to keep the farm afloat financially, and eventually to thrive.

I think it does an incredible job uniting the art and science necessary to run a farm effectively. The roots of the book are in the Japanese lean manufacturing principles — you may be familiar with these concepts popularized by Toyota’s success. Yet Hartman applies these principles specifically to his own operation — a small farm in Indiana — and does it in a way that feels less like a handbook and more like notes from a coach or mentor.

*Note — I’d also be remiss not to mention Eliot Coleman here. The New Organic Grower, and The Winter Harvest Handbook are huge influencers to a few of the books mentioned above, and are well worth a read. I didn’t include them here because I think the books listed incorporate many of his principles, and apply them to present day circumstances. But consider this a plug to also read Eliot Coleman.*

Please feel free to comment if you have any others you’d add or substitute, etc. And I’m always up for some good fiction recommendations, too…!

Thank you for reading.

This article was originally published by Brian Morgan on September 26, 2018.

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