Rural Wit and Wisdom: Farmer’s Work

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Work defines rural life, yesterday as well as today.
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“Rural Wit and Wisdom” by Jerry Apps is a compilation of sayings and advice from farmers in the heartland. This collection of Old-Timer wisdom tells the story of heartland people who work their farms, give back to their communities and appreciate the little things in the same way they have for generations.

Family farmers are a busy part of the American workforce, and their days are full from sunup to sundown. Hard work is something they take pride in even when some of the tasks are less desirable. Rural Wit and Wisdom(Fulcrum Publishing, 2012) by Jerry Apps is a collection of sage advice from hard workers who motivate themselves to do all kinds of tasks that keep their homesteads running. This excerpt was taken from Chapter 3, “Work.”

Work defines rural life, yesterday as well as today. On the farms in the heartland, the workday begins at an early hour, before the sun rises during much of the year, and continues into the evening until the livestock are fed and the evening chores are done.

It is easy to conclude that a rural person’s life is one of drudgery. For some it is, but for most the work is enjoyed, nearly all the time, anyway. Some tasks are enjoyed more than others. No one that I knew enjoyed hoeing potatoes or cucumbers hour upon hour under a hot June sun, or forking manure from a calf pen, or walking behind a team of horses pulling a smoothing drag that lifted clouds of dust so thick that you could barely see the horses’ heads in front of you.

Other tasks made up for the less desirable ones. Going after the cows on a dewy morning in spring, with birdsong everywhere and the sun edging the horizon, was one of them. Hauling hay into an empty barn, with the sweet smell of drying hay and the satisfaction of seeing the haymows filled to the rafters, was another. Rural people take great pride in their work. It doesn’t matter if the task is picking cucumbers, shocking grain, or making a fence. The job is done well, to the best of the person’s ability. Barn builders were a good example of this. When they finished constructing a barn, they brought friends and relatives to see it. For these barn builders, each new barn was a part of who they were, what they believed, and, of course, their craftsmanship.

• A neighbor had two willing hired men. One was willing to work and the other was willing to let him.

• All that you do, do with all your might. Things done by half are never done right.

• An enjoyable job for one person may be another person’s torment.

• Better to risk going hungry than to continue on a job you don’t like.

• Do you want your tombstone to read, “All he did was work”? How many of us lead our lives as if that were the case?

• Every job can be either pure joy or sheer drudgery–it all depends on your attitude.

• Exchange work with a neighbor, but don’t worry about exchanging money. If your neighbor helps you for half a day, expect to help him for half a day. It doesn’t matter the task. Don’t worry if you believe a half day of chopping wood is worth more than a half day of unloading hay bales. In the end, it will all work out, and you will continue having good neighbors.

• If thoughts of your work consistently awaken you in the dark hours of the night, look for other work.

• If you are not having fun doing something, you won’t think much of what you’ve done.

• It is a joy to work at a job that is worth doing.

• It’s not going to get done if you don’t start doing it.

• Learn how to work well with others; learn how to work well alone.

• Let your deeds tell your story. Don’t blow your horn too loudly, just enough so people won’t run over you.

• Many people are more capable than you, and, likewise, many are less capable. Just do your best and don’t worry about others.

• No matter how small or how large the task, give it your very best effort.

• No matter how well you believe you are doing your job, there is always someone else who can do it as well or even better.

• On the days when you are unhappy with your job, think of what it would be like without it.

• Recognize that there is good and bad in every job. The idea is to find work that is more agreeable than disagreeable.

• Some people work so slow you have to set up a stick to see if they are moving.

• Succeeding in work usually means working day after day, year after year, but it also means finding time for fun and family.

• To take work too seriously often takes the fun out of the rest of life.

• Try to do more for others than they do for you.

• Using your head when you work often results in less use of your hands.

• We all can do better than we think we can.

• When you find a job you enjoy doing, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.

• When you work for someone else, always do more than what is asked. Come to work earlier than required and stay a little later.

• Who you are is more important than what you have accomplished.

• With a little more effort, what was done well could have been exceptional. We often stop too soon. We are willing to accept “good enough” without striving for something special. When you believe you’ve done the best job possible, consider this the beginning place for doing something outstanding.

• Work hard, even when no one else is watching.

• Work is never done, so take time to play.

• Work isn’t nearly as important as most people would make it.

• Working too hard for too long a time is often harmful. A heavy rain does not continue for an entire day, nor does a deer run without stopping to rest.

• Worrying that your neighbor is achieving more than you prevents you from doing your best.

Getting things done

Country people have long ago learned how to work smart–they had to. There was so much to be done that every effort had to count. Some things learned about working smart include the following:

• A task started is half completed. Picking up hay bales in a twenty-acre field is an example. The task looks impossible until the first couple of bales are on the wagon.

• After all is said and done, a lot more will be said than done.

• Asking the right question is two-thirds of the way toward its answer.

• Before acting, it is always wise to ask, “What if I do nothing? Would that be the better choice?”

• Begin each day with the difficult tasks. Thinking about the easier things to come makes the time fly.

• Clear thoughts lead to clear action. Muddled thoughts lead to muddled action.

• Do the work that requires considerable thought when you are fresh.

• Doing work with immediate results, such as splitting wood or painting a fence, helps cushion the times when the work shows little gain, such as when teaching a new calf to drink from a pail or discussing politics with your brother-in-law.

• Don’t worry about what you didn’t do yesterday; concern yourself with what you will do today.

• If we always waited for inspiration to do something, little would ever be done.

• Inspiration often comes from doing, not the other way around.

• Many know the way; few people walk it.

• Sometimes we must tackle the tasks that we think we cannot do–and be surprised at what we can accomplish.

• The key to getting things done is to know when to leave certain things undone.

• When starting a task, no matter how difficult, work as if it were impossible to fail.

Farm machines

No question about it, machines have made farm work easier and have taken much of the drudgery out of it. Before the 1850s, farmers did most of their work by hand, from the planting of grain seeds in the spring to harvesting the crop in the fall. With the invention of farm machines such as the reaper, invented by Cyrus McCormick, and a host of other horse-drawn equipment, farmers’ work became a little easier. By the end of World War II, with tractors and electricity coming to almost all farms, farm work was once more transformed, with considerably less manual labor. But the farmers’ hours did not diminish, and sometimes, with machines and expanded operations, farmers worked harder than ever. In some cases, farmers became slaves to their machines.

• Be careful that modern machines and technology do not get in the way of intelligent ecology.

• Keep your tools and machinery well-oiled and in good repair. An hour spent oiling and adjusting can prevent three hours of fixing.

• Machines can teach us much if we give them a chance; especially do they teach patience and tolerance.

• Machines do some things well. Humans do some things well. We must be wise enough to know which is which.

• Make sure that you control your machines and that they do not control you.

• Buying a big and expensive machine, no matter if it’s a tractor, a corn combine, or a fancy hay baler, doesn’t mean more money in your pocket. It often means no money in your pants at all; sometimes you even lose your pants.


The words money and work often go together–the reason for work is to earn money. That is not always true on the farm. Much of the work does not result in money. Of course, money is necessary to pay taxes, make necessary repairs, and keep everything shipshape around the farm. But farm work can result in other, less tangible benefits as well.

• Money can’t buy health, a sunset, a friendship, or a baby’s laughter.

• For many of us, time is more valuable than money. You can acquire more money. You cannot acquire more time.

• Friendship cannot be purchased.

• If you don’t have the money to buy something, hold off buying until you do. The exception is buying land.

• Even when your income is small, put some money away. You never know when your income will be smaller still or disappear altogether.

• It is no disgrace to be poor, just rather inconvenient at times.

• Living to accumulate money is not living.

• Marry for money and love will come is advice sometimes heard. Unfortunately, those who heed the suggestion usually acquire neither.

• Money and happiness don’t agree.

• Never let money come between you and a friend. Better to give a friend some money than to lend it.

• No matter how much money we have accumulated, we all grow old and die.

• One person’s wealth is another person’s poverty.

• One way to double your money is to fold it over and put it in your pocket.

• Pay your bills on time–a little early, if possible.

• To worry about money is to take your mind away from more important matters.

• Want to feel rich? Count the things you have that money can’t buy.

Read more: For more time-honored values from the heartland check out Rural Wit and Wisdom: CommunityRural Wit and Wisdom: Farming and Rural Wit and Wisdom: Little Things.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Rural Wit and Wisdom, published by Fulcrum Publishing, 2012.

For many years, best-selling author Jerry Apps has written and collected observations and advice about country living, such as “Love thy neighbor but make sure your fences are in good order” and “It’s not going to get done if you don’t start doing it.” Jerry and his wife live in Madison, Wisconsin.