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One Man's Meat

(article, E. B. White)

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h3. From the essay "The Practical Farmer"

p(blue). Editor's note: In this excerpt, E. B. White muses ruefully on the advice meted out by a one Mr. Highstone in a tome titled Practical Farming for Beginners.

Mr. Highstone, being himself a practicing farmer, knows one important truth about country life: he knows that farming is about twenty per cent agriculture and eighty per cent mending something that has got busted. Farming is a sort of glorified repair job. This is a truth that takes some people years to discover, and many farmers go their whole lives without ever really grasping the idea. A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus. The repair aspect of farming looms so large that, on a place like my own, which is not really a farm at all but merely a private zoo, sometimes months go by when nothing but repair goes on. I can get so absorbed in the construction of a barn door that I can let the spring planting season go right by without ever opening the ground or sowing a seed. If I were engaged in making myself self-sustaining, I should perhaps be a little wider awake; but I know, from experience, that at any given moment of the year I would be found doing the wrong thing, and with a dull tool. I mention this because the weakness in Mr. Highstone’s book is not in his plan for subsistence but in the people who are going to carry it out. In spite of all his warnings, there will be plenty of them who will get sidetracked, probably along the line of some special hobby, hitherto unindulged. I have been fooling around this place for a couple of years, but nobody calls my activity agriculture. I simply like to play with animals. Nobody knows this better than I do — although my neighbors know it well enough and on the whole have been tolerant and sympathetic.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="You can never have too many farm tools." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/mstroz"]

Mr. Highstone wisely insists that the man who intends to get a living from the land begin not by studying agronomy but by learning to hollow-grind an ax and file a saw. He insists that you equip yourself, immediately, with dozens of tools and implements including a pipe vase, a drill press, a forge, and a 2-horse stationary gasoline engine. “The fact,” says Mr. Highstone, “that a man may be unfamiliar with some of them should never daunt him.” I have a strong suspicion, although I know nothing about Mr. Highstone, that his years in the city were spent dreaming not so much about fields of ripening grain as about a shop equipped with a pipe vase. The ecstatic passages in his book are not the ones dealing with husbandry and tillage but the ones dealing with edge tools. He demands that the subsistence farmer equip himself right at the start with four hundred dollars’ worth of implements and tools, including a walking plow, a two-horse spike harrow, a one-horse row cultivator, a wire hayrake, a mowing machine, a buck rake, a stone boat, a farm wagon, a roller, a disk harrow, and a long list of tools ending with an assortment of nuts and bolts, washers, and wood screws. (Incidentally, he forgot a crowbar, a clawbar, a block-and-tackle, and a pair of tinner’s snips, without which my own life would be empty indeed.)

h1. About the book and author


In 1939 the American journalist, essayist, and children's novelist E. B. White (1899-1985) moved to a farm in Maine. From there, he wrote a series of essays for Harper's Magazine on the trials and triumphs of rural life; the essays were collected in the 1942 book One Man's Meat.

The New York Times interviewed White in 1942 about One Man's Meat_ and life in Maine.
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Tilbury House Publishers (1997) and the E. B. White Estate.


In all this, and in fact in his pattern for a self-contained farm, he seems to me essentially sound. It is only in his assumption that a city man of average intelligence, strength, and will power can operate a self-contained farm that he appears fanciful. Some of the bald statements in his book are open to question. He says: “Anyone with brains enough to pound sand can successfully raise chickens.” I think that is a misleading pronouncement. Raising chickens (except in very small quantities) is partly luck, partly experience, and partly a sort of gift, or talent.

In another place Mr. Highstone actually suggests that the subsistence family harvest its own grain crop by mowing it with a mowing machine and making sheaves by hand. Remember that the grain harvest is ten tons, or 200 sacks of grain each weighing one hundred pounds. And remember also that the grain harvest comes at the same season as the canning — those 600 Mason jars that have to be filled. It would take a large family of stalwart sons and daughters to put through that program without cracking. Some of the jars are going to crack even if the children don’t.

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