The freedom of self-sufficiency

Sometimes I think I do all my deep thinking in anecdotes, especially favorite anecdotes. For me, they do a much better job of encapsulating wisdom than a saying, even a pithy one. Some I return to again and again, and on occasion I’ll see something new.

One I like comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, which describes a year or so in Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood. At the end Almanzo is offered a chance to apprentice with the carriagemaker in town. Pa Wilder tells Ma about the offer over supper, and Ma is not too enthusiastic about the idea. [Emphasis added]

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—”

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to be nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—he’ll hever be able to call his soul his own.

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.

“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”

“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” Mother cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”

“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy’ll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”

I love Ma Wilder’s defiant opinion here that the farmer is king because, unlike a merchant or laborer, he does not have to truckle to other people for his living. On my more idealistic days I like to think that this was the prevailing opinion in 1830—but, if so, how far we’ve come!

But I’ve always been uncomfortable with the suggestion of rugged individualism here. Often those who champion agrarianism for its emphasis on self-sufficiency are accused of putting too much value on not needing to depend on others. And sometimes  the accusation is valid. Is self-sufficiency merely the route to personal sovereignty, the blissful state of being able to say to anyone and everyone, “You’re not the boss of me!”?

I was talking this over with Chris on our latest long drive, and suddenly it hit me. The good of self-sufficiency lies not in being free to say no on a whim, but in being free to say no when necessary. Self-sufficiency puts a man in a position where doing the right thing will not cost him his living.

I went back and re-read the passage from Farmer Boy, and was pleased to see that this thought is in there.

Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.

He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.

“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.

Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.


8 thoughts on “The freedom of self-sufficiency

  1. Love it! Yep, how far we’ve come :-(.

    You might be a bit early with the 1830 – Almanzo was born in 1857, and Laura in 1867. (Yep, I was just reading about Laura’s life over the weekend!).

    You know what’s been doing my head in since reading about her?

    Laura grew up in the pioneer days with covered wagons, horses, no running water, etc. But she died in 1957. Sputnik went up that same year. The movie “Grease” was set in 1959, just two years after that.

    Can you imagine the changes Laura saw across her lifetime? Covered wagons to ’57 Chevies. The telegraph to Sputnik. The little prairie girl saw nuclear bombs dropped on Japan.

    That’s mind-boggling.

  2. Interesting you should post this, I was listening to a sermon by Michael Bunker on Sunday while on a road trip. He talks in depth about the road we, as Christians, have put ourselves on and how the world now controls us instead of having the opportunity to see God’s Providence.

    The Underground Church series is interesting, look forward to listening to more of his stuff (

  3. Amen, how far we’ve regressed since then. People today think that if you aren’t working a 8-5 job somewhere, you are lazy and NOT truly working. We’re battling this with my parents right now, our Dd is working many different trades in relation to our small farm, making money and building clients, yet they don’t think of this as a job but rather a hobby

    Hobby, living, job whatever it’s working for us :o)

  4. “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders…” 2 Thessaalonians 2:9

    -the apostle Paul speaking of the ‘end-times’.

    “..counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders…” sums up what the ‘modern’ world really is quite nicely.

  5. I will ponder this some more but my initial thoughts are as follows.

    I read those books when I was little and always thought about that. However as an adult I sort of disagree with the idea. Farmers grow food (some of which feeds themselves and sell the surplus) while wagon makers make wagons. However they are both producing something to sell to somebody.

    Part of selling anything to anybody is relationships. If Almanzo’s mother had yelled at the butter buying guy he might not come by their house next year. There are lots of farms out there and he could find one to make up for it easy enough. If someone is a problem to deal with folks might be more inclined to deal with someone else who has a comparable product. If they are really hard to get along with people will not deal with them even if their own financial self interest dictates that it would be wise.

  6. I have to disagree with Ryan. While farmers and wagon makers both produce, only the farmer can live on what he produces. The wagon maker will starve without food, for which he must trade. A farmer is not dependent for his living. Sadly, that’s a word which lost its meaning as more and more modern people shifted from working to live to working for money.

    Sure, the farm is more prosperous because Mr. Paddock buys from the Wilders. But if all their “customers” disappeared. They would still have plenty of what they need.

  7. I found this article via a link from another blog post (

    I enjoyed your take on the “why” of self-sufficiency, and it helped me crystallize my thinking a bit more on the topic. (In fact it inspired me to a related blog post.)

    While I find the concept of living in a fully self-sufficient manner very appealing, it is a considerable hurdle for the majority. Our country is a long way from having a majority of self-sufficient agrarians.

    However, America does need citizens that are more self-reliant and take more personal responsibility.

    Thus, a good interim goal is to get people to realize their dependence, and to take steps to simplify and become more independent.

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