Business principles in farming still resonate after 108 years

John Oncken
Small red stanchion barn served served successfully for decades.

“Farm management is the study of the business principles in farming. It may be defined as the science of the organization and management of a farm enterprise for the purpose of securing the greatest continuous profit. Successful farming requires good judgement in choosing a farm...(and demands clear business organization and management for the efficient use of capital, labor and machinery.”

Profound words from a nationally renowned farm management teacher G.F. Warren written as a preface in his book “Farm Management,” published in 1913. Those words could be an acceptable description of farming today, 108 years later.”  

The good professor further writes: “The change from cheap land, hand tools and farming to raise one’s own food to farming as a commercial undertaking has happened so suddenly that business principles are not always well understood by farmers. And the success of the individual farmer is as much dependent on the application of those principals as it is on crop yields and milk or meat production.”

Professor Warren did not promote herd size as the reason for farming success.

Oh, how often that statement or something like it has been uttered over the years as farmers have faced challenges of change to their way of making a living. And even today many farmers consider farming more a “way of life” rather than a business. 

So, you may ask, what has the farm management advice given over a 100 years ago and printed in a musty book used by my father in his UW-Madison Farm Short Course class also near a 100 years ago got to do with today’s modern agriculture? The answer is a lot.

The small 5 foot Allis Chalmers combine was a big step forward for the progressive farmer.

Note that the professor never said anything about farms being big or small. Or about using chemical weed control, or farming organically or with fertilizer, or milking big herds or little herds. He wrote only of judgement, management, efficiency and business. 

Consider this:

  • The many farm crisis when many farms were lost and sons and daughters left the home farm for college or work.
  • The continuing trend to consolidation of family farms into ever - bigger units as some of the well-educated offspring returned to the farm.
  • Never ending unrest because of cyclical low selling prices and never ending high production expenses.
  • The current movement toward sustainable agriculture, organic farming and rotational grazing.
  • The perennial question of “What is a farm? The USDA defines a farm as  “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold.”  This definition often brings a chuckle to a traditional farmer’s face.  The issue is again current as the USDA pandemic funds are divvied up. 
Professer Warren never envisioned he trade shows farmer to learn about new things.  He would have approved.

Years ago at a farm meeting in response to a debate among attendees as to the definition of a family farm, I came up with an answer: “A family farm is any farm the same size or smaller than mine.” The size is not important if it is family-owned, family-financed and family-operated. It’s still an issue today with the government payments. (Should the daughter living in New York, who never lived on the farm be considered an owner?) The issue of who is a proper farmer continues today.

“It's each and all types. Each can be successful in terms of business management, use of capital, efficiency, profit and family life," according to Professor Warren. The professor also says: “All progress in civilization depends on having each farmer produce more than his father produced."

Big freestall barns work for many progressive dairy producers, but not everyone wants one.

He summarizes in that the requirements of a good farmer include: The ability to make a full and comfortable living from the land to rear a family carefully and well; to be of good service to the community; to leave the farm more productive than when he took it. “

Not bad in 1913, not bad today. Certainly thought provoking!

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at