How to Make Money Farming

Life is full of little ironies. A few months ago I was on a podcast–and get this, the name of the podcast was Farm4Profit. They needed someone to do a segment on beekeeping, and somehow they found me. Apparently, they didn’t know I have a blog called The Misfit Farmer, where I dispense questionable farming advice and mostly enumerate the many ways I’ve lost money farming, beekeeping being one of them. Instead, because I write for a beekeeping magazine, they thought I was a beekeeping expert, obviously having never read any of my articles, which would have quickly dispelled them of that belief.  The point here, though, is I feel like I short-changed the nice guys at Farm4Profit. Admittedly, I was very nervous, having never been on a podcast before, so I’d like to make it up to them by providing some surefire ways to make money farming and beekeeping. 

The great news is I’m often too busy chasing swarms over the horizon to fool with paperwork, so I haven’t filed for patents on any of these lucrative ideas yet. That means you’re free to make millions off them without worrying about patent infringement. In fact, just a nice hand-written note and 10% royalty on sales for perpetuity is all I ask. So without further ado, I present your path to future fame and fortune (don’t everyone rush to apply for Shark Tank all at once). 

Biodegradable diapers with a built-in wildflower mix. Just let your baby add fertilizer, then plant, water, and wala! In a few months you’ll have a little tuft of wildflowers for your favorite vase.

Organic Clay-Doh. Put red clay in a little plastic cup-like container, market it as Organic Clay-Doh, an all-natural alternative to Play-Doh.

Stingers Home Security Company. Place mean bee hives at strategically-placed positions around houses to deter home invaders.  

Whirlpool Washer/Extractor Combo. For a piece of equipment that only gets used a couple of times a year, honey extractors are big and take up a lot of space. A honey extractor that doubles as a washing machine the rest of the year would sell like hotcakes to hobby beekeepers. 

Beemorang. A hive tool shaped like a boomerang. When you accidentally sling your hive tool into the atmosphere because a bee just performed a torture technique by inserting its stinger under your fingernail, the hive tool will come back to you.  

The Lil’ Loader Seat. If you’re tired of toting your offspring around the farm or pushing them in the stroller, the Lil’ Loader Seat,  a baby car seat for your tractor’s front-end-loader, is for you. 

Kudzu Cologne. Ever traipsed through a Kudzu patch beside a pond while searching for a jon boat now hidden by vegetation? Well, I have. And I can tell you that Kudzu has a quite pleasant aroma. Kudzu would be a very easy crop to grow. 

Cow Obedience College. Tired of having to reimburse your neighbors for the shrubbery your fugitive cows ate? That’s not a problem when your cows have graduated from Cow Obedience College. 

If anybody else has some ideas they’d like to add to the list, let me know. I’m all about sharing the wealth. 

How to Bid on Livestock like a Pro

The sale barn, where livestock is bought, sold, and sometimes bartered in the parking lot,  is your local hub for agricultural activity. It’s a good place to connect with other farmers—just  don’t yawn or scratch your head because you might accidentally buy a cow. Such faux pas are  common among newcomers to a stockyard. 

As a child, perhaps you longed to be a professional sale-barn bidder. Or perhaps not. But  in rural culture, it’s nearly as common a dream job as a cowboy, county agent, or veterinarian.  Even full-grown adults, while listening to an auctioneer jabber endlessly, have been known to  daydream about life as a high-profile livestock trader. Unfortunately, daydreaming is a sure sign  you’re an amateur buyer. Professional buyers sit stoic in the crowd, impervious to the hypnotizing  effect of an auctioneer’s voice, bidding with nearly imperceptible winks, head nods, and twitches.  Rumor has it, the best sale-barn buyers can blink Morse code with their eyes. 

Professional buyers are rock stars of rurality. After thundering into the parking lot with a  livestock trailer capable of hauling a small herd of elephants, a professional moseys over to inspect  the bovines while awestruck onlookers ask for autographs on bidding cards and advice on buying.  The professional obliges, scribbling a pithy line like, “Buy low. Sell high—High Bid Hal.” Hal  then enters the arena fashionably late and sits proudly in his reserved seat in direct line of sight of  the auctioneer. Moments later, a murmur ripples through the crowd when Hal buys his first of  many cows. 

Of course, we all can’t be as suave as High Bid Hal, but I’ve studied his behavior and  gleaned some helpful tips on how to resemble a professional sale-barn bidder and strike fear in  your bovine buying competition. Follow these tips, and you’ll resemble a competent procurer of  livestock in no time. 

Do your homework

Don’t arrive at the sale barn and start buying willy-nilly. Although  professionals do this, buying willy-nilly is considered an advanced technique that takes many years  to master. Instead, spend time at your stockyard studying the process. Also, learn the markings.  Often cows will be marked with spray paint or a sticker. Different colors represent different things.  For instance, a red dot might mean “steer” or a yellow dot might mean “confirmed pregnant.”  Thus, a red and yellow dot together would mean a confirmed pregnant steer, in which case you  should buy that miraculous animal. 

Show No Emotion

Don’t smile at the sale barn. Don’t make eye contact with humans.  Such behavior is considered a sign of weakness. It’s best not to attempt jokes either, unless you’re  the auctioneer who will likely impersonate a stand-up comic before the sale starts. Whatever you  do, don’t laugh at the auctioneer’s jokes. The auctioneer is merely trying to loosen up the crowd  to encourage bidding. But if you’ve done your homework, you’ve heard these jokes before.  Auctioneers rarely come up with new material. 

Walk the Catwalk

Strolling the catwalk is an essential job function for supermodels and sale-barn bidders alike. At a stockyard, the catwalk is  the elevated walkway that allows you to view animals in the pens below. If you’re a sale-barn  novice, practice your walk at home, especially if you’re afraid of heights. Many professional sale barn bidders prefer a mosey, though you can try a saunter or amble. Advanced sale-barn stars will  often have a trademark “hitch in their gitty-up” that sets their walk apart from amateurs (If you’re  a British farmer, please visit the Ministry of Silly Walks to search for trademarked hitches. America has no such regulatory body, so trademarked walks here mean nothing. If you don’t like  Monty Python, please disregard the previous joke). 

Don’t fall

Have your bidding card ready:

Nothing says amateur like fumbling to find your bidding  card, which contains your all-important bidder identification number. Livestock sales are fast  paced. For instance, a typical cattle sale might go as follows: 

“A good steer, who’ll give me a dollar fifty—fifty cents, fifty cents, fifty cents? Alright,  dollar forty, looking for forty, looking for forty, looking for forty to start. That’s a good  steer now. Someone start it. thirty-five cents, thirty-five, thirty-five, thirty-five, looking for  thirty-five cents. THIRTY-FIVE—top right corner! Now forty, looking for forty, huhmana  huhmana forty, huhmana huhmana forty. FORTY over here! Now forty-five, forty-five,  forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, looking for forty-five, looking for forty-five,  looking for forty-five. Now looking for forty-two. Down low, FORTY-TWO! Now forty three, a dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three. That’s a good steer, good  steer, good steer. Forty-three, looking for forty-three, huhmana huhmana huhmana forty three. FORTY-THREE—top right! Now forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, forty-four,  forty-four, forty-four, huhmana huhmana forty-four looking for forty-four. Going once,  going twice, sold FORTY-THREE! Top right corner!” 

Though seemingly impossible, all this verbiage is uttered and the steer is sold in five seconds total.  And the process is repeated instantaneously with another cow—if, that is, the previous buyer had  his or her bidding card ready. If not, the whole auction comes to a jarring halt and people glare.  Whatever you do, don’t get flustered and flash your card upside down—you’ll be laughed out of  the arena. Though speed is important, it’s better to draw slow and shoot for accuracy than fall  victim to vicious sale barn humor. 

Having read these tips, you’ll soon achieve stockyard stardom. If in doubt, just remember:  buy low, sell high. It’s that simple.

How to Talk UFOs and Farming

For those of you who don’t track sasquatch sightings in your spare time, my county is home to a bigfoot named Knobby. His last sighting was about ten years ago when he was caught snooping through a cabin window. The owner of the cabin called 911 to ask if he could shoot “the beast,” but decided against it on advice from the dispatcher. Instead, he resorted to telling the sasquatch to “Git! Git away from here!” The sasquatch turned and fled, but the man noticed the beast had a “beautiful head of hair.” (This really happened: youtube the video, “CNN: See Bigfoot? Call 911”). 

A local gas station used to sell Knobby T-shirts at the local gas and grocery, but the shirts have been discontinued. These days, bigfoot hunters are few and far between. Instead, they’re all out searching the heavens for UAPs–if you didn’t know, Unidentified Flying Objects are now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena by the government. (Apparently, the Navy released a video of some flying triangles, a.k.a. UAPs, that has the paranormal community salivating and really polishing up their tinfoil hats.)

But the transformation of UFOs to UAPs is what I’m really concerned about in this post. The transformation is a classic case of the deterioration of the English language by jargon, and I know all too well about the harmful effects of jargon. I work at a government agriculture office. 

Sound and Agribusiness Lingo

Agriculture is ground zero for jargon and its fallout on sentences. In fact, the other day I was talking to a young farmer when I realized I couldn’t understand him at all. It wasn’t that he was mumbling. It wasn’t that he spoke a dialect different from my own. It was just his words–words full of sound and agribusiness lingo, signifying nothing. The young man was fond of utterances like the following:

“What the public doesn’t understand is that modern agricultural producers are utilizing the latest technologies and materials–we’re deploying the safest chemistries and best genetics to maximize revenue and increase productivity, just to feed the world.”

Young Farmer

Admittedly, I didn’t have the heart to tell the young farmer that what the public doesn’t understand are his verbs and nouns. And it’s only a matter of time before the last bastion of his understandable lingo, “to feed the world,” is transformed into some monstrosity like, “to replenish the planet’s gastric capacity.” The oddity is that when the young farmer talks of other topics, not related to agriculture, his sentences are both clear and intelligible, but the moment agriculture is broached in conversation, a switch flips and he speaks in riddles.

Of course, the government is partly to blame for this. For decades, the USDA has referred to farmers as “producers” or “operators.” I think the intention is to make farming seem more modern and business-like, to leave behind the pitchfork and overalls stereotype. So highfalutin farm words are, in a sense, an innocent way to puff out one’s chest, to say “I’m important.”

But concocted words like producer and operator do more harm than good. They only exacerbate the separation and increase the distance between non-farmers and farmers. A child will never comprehend an “animal unit” if it can’t comprehend a heifer or steer. 

And not all separation is so innocent. Words are purposefully manipulated to soften and hide meaning. Thus, killing becomes depopulate; slaughterhouse becomes processing plant; pesticides become chemistries. My favorite metamorphosis is the transformation of the word lagoon from a waterbody in a tropical paradise to a manure pond at the end of a loafing shed. 

To be fair, alternative agriculture is not without offenses. Words and phrases like biodynamic, regenerative, and beyond sustainable are now bandied about with such frequency and carelessness that one never knows exactly what they mean. I am often left wondering if these words are merely hip, feel-good marketing terms. Often they’re used vaguely and all-inclusively, for anything from moon crystals to cover crops–just more words meaning everything and thus meaning nothing.

Farm talk didn’t used to be this way. Listen to any old-timer talk about farming and you’ll immediately notice a difference. You’ll notice farmers are farmers, not producers. You’ll hear nothing of “animal units” but plenty about cows, or more specifically the twenty brood cows grazing the back pasture. You’ll hear idioms that are both illustrative and clear, like “meaner than a Jersey bull” or “madder than a wet hen.” And forget feeding the world—you’ll hear about the struggle to feed the family when the boll weevil came through in 1949.  And you’ll not only hear the words, but you’ll see images and know meaning. That is how to talk farming. 

But back to the point of this post: if you’re talking about flying triangles (that look remarkably similar to Imperial Star Destroyers), you should call them UFOs, not UAPs. 

UFO, not UAP

Beware of Beginning Olive Growers

One of the occupational hazards of working in a government agriculture office is the increased likelihood of encountering, if not being cornered and trapped by, a beginning olive grower. At our ag center, every agent who provides some form of government-sanctioned farming assistance–from the Farm Service Agency to Cooperative Extension, NCDA, Soil and Water District, and even the Forest Service (olives growing on trees)–has been ambushed once or twice by our local would-be olive grower, a serial ambusher whose ability to hold hostages through the spoken word is downright frightening. 

At first sight of his car pulling into the parking lot, the ag center reverberates with the sound of office doors closing and the clatter of government employees diving under desks, only to be followed by a hushed silence as the olive grower traverses the hallway in search of a victim to waylay. Sometimes a benevolent soul, usually a career public servant seeking to prank a new hire, will assist the olive grower in his search for the best employee to answer olive-growing questions. 

One morning, as a new soil conservationist, nary had I yet leaned back in my chair and kicked up my boots before the local field crop agent, who was set to retire in two weeks, guided the olive grower into my office. “Good morning, Stephen,” said the agent, “I’d like to introduce you to Tyler Wilson. He wants to start growing olives and has a few questions.”

To be honest, I was caught by surprise, completely unprepared for any discussion on olives. Had I had time to open my mouth, I would have admitted I knew little about olive culture, only enough to doubt they would grow well in our climate and soils. Thankfully, I didn’t betray my ignorance because I was quickly informed that the foothills of North Carolina was a prime olive-growing region. Tyler Wilson told me so himself. 

Tyler told me a lot. He talked non-stop for two hours about olives and was possibly the foremost expert in the olive-growing industry, despite the fact that he had yet to plant his first olive tree. Eventually, I feigned the symptoms of food poisoning and politely declined Tyler’s offer to drive me to the hospital to continue our chat. The last time I saw Tyler in the ag center, he was interrogating our janitor about the best sanitation practices to prevent disease in olive orchards. And judging by our janitor’s dazed expression, I would say Tyler’s long-winded discussions about olives should probably be outlawed by the Geneva Convention

Whitman is Hardly an Expert in the Poaceae Family

I know 2020 has been less than stellar, and I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but for all of you who thought Leaves of Grass would be the perfect gift for the farmer in your life, your gift is going to be a dud. 

I ordered it a few months ago because farmers are always pestering me with questions about pasture grass identification, and I needed a good pocket manual, something that I could whip out of my back pocket and refer to in times of doubt. This manual had nearly a five-star rating on Amazon and was a slim volume, only 145 pages. I thought that’s just what I need.

Yikes! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT open and recite anything from this manual in the presence of a big-time cattle farmer, no matter how stumped you are by a strange grass clump. At best, if you live in an area with rocky topsoil, you’ll be quickly stoned to death. At worst, you’ll be left to wander the pasture alone, while the big-time cattle farmer hurries over the horizon to the nearest gas station grill, Lowry’s Country Corner, to insert into circulation the vicious rumor that the local soil conservationist likes poetry. Afterward, you’ll be forced to live the rest of your days as an agricultural outcast and farmers will point and snicker at you at the sale barn and ask you, derisively, if you’ve read lately at any open mic nights.

So, just FYI, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is not the authoritative source for species identification in the grass family. For a more accurate field guide, I suggest, “Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes: An Identification Guide” by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman.