Farmers and Miners


Stone Walls of Malham CoveWhen you walk the fields and woods of Vermont, where I grew up, you often encounter long stone walls. These walls were built stone by stone by farmers clearing their fields. The effort put into these walls, three feet high and hundreds of feet long, is staggering. By one estimate, there is enough stone wall to circle the earth four times. Sixty times as much as in the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Every spring, the plow would reveal new rocks. Every fall, the farmer would take these rocks and move them to the periphery. And every spring, there would be fewer rocks. The earth, or perhaps the devil, had a nasty habit of surfacing more rocks every year, but such was the life of a farmer in the stone-filled fields of Vermont. A price to pay for a rich soil.

Driving through Ireland, even more years lie behind the walls. You can almost tell which lands were taken by the British and which were left to the Irish by the size of the stone walls. In the poor, Irish areas, the stone walls dwarf those of New England, monument to the suffering and the industry of the Irish farmer.

But stone by stone, the farmer made his fields better every year. Better from the perspective of the farmer anyway. The deer and the quail might beg to differ, but the farmer knew only fields. A field that yields to the plow is a good field. A field that reveals the bones of the earth and breaks plow and harrow is a bad field. There’s no room for discussion on that point.

When the farmer’s eldest son became a man, the field would be a neat green, easy to plow, just a few rocks heaving to the surface every winter, impelled by water and frost. And if that son could handle more land, he would start clearing the rocky field that he would pass on as productive field to his son, better than he found it.


Open pit coal miningThe miner’s resource, however, doesn’t replenish. It doesn’t improve. If the miner has something to pass to his progeny, it is the wealth or poverty acquired from a life of digging in the ground. This is especially true for the open pit mine. Whole mountains of Appalachia are gone, the land unfit for crop or tree or deer or quail. When the miner is done with the land, it has less value than when he found it, not only to the quail and the deer, but to his eldest son as well.

Not to criticize miners. We need both. As the bumper sticker says: “If it wasn’t farmed, it was mined.” All the implements of our modern life are the product of mining. Very few computer parts are farmed. I don’t blame the miner. I blame myself and all of us who chose to buy all this crap.

Metaphor and Frame

But the miner versus farmer frame is useful. At any given moment, are you mining, or are you farming?

I came to this frame by observing my neighbor. He had a vacation rental empire, now lost to foreclosures and short sales. The house next to mine is a gorgeous log home. He did no maintenance for decades, even though it earned him well over $100,000 per year.

The roof leaked. The logs were rotting. When the back porch was too rotten to be safe, he didn’t fix it. He sent an employee out with a chainsaw and cut the porch off. One of his employees told me that oven didn’t work. Rather than buy a new oven for $700, he would wait until a guest complained, deliver a large toaster oven, and refund the guest $200 and get bad review. And yes, his one-time new manager told me they had the lowest ranking of any lodging company in the region.

He was mining his house.

It was a resource to be used up and ultimately discarded, in the sense that he sold it for one third what it was worth, leaving the buyer to make $450,000 in repairs, more than he paid for the house. And so it was with most of his houses — two dozen in all. They should have been worth millions, but they were in such bad shape, almost none of them qualified for bank loans and were sold at bank sales or auction for whatever cash price they could fetch.

He was mining his customers.

Did those customers repeat? Did they tell their friends what a great experience they had? Of course not. He had to go find new customers every day.

He was mining his employees.

A few stayed with him over the years, but generally, they turned over fast and the ex-employees I spoke to typically described it as the worst job they had ever had. Low pay, no benefits, one day off per month in high season.

One of the main products of his business is disgruntled guests. He’s a miner. He takes the income he can out of the house and and the customer and puts none of it back. Like a miner who’s done with the land, it has less value than when he first arrived there.

Mining is Everywhere

Customer mining is common in the hotel industry. In my mind, the ever more common resort fee is just a form of customer mining. It hides the true price of the room. Customers hate it. But it brings in a lot of money.

A certain hotel that, ahem, I know well, insists on removing prices from its online menus. The restaurant managers are afraid that if they show their (very high) prices, people will not come to the restaurant. And in fact, pricing is the main complaint about the restaurants. But a miner wants to get customers in the door, extract the value from their wallets, and then move on to the next customer. Hiding your pricing from your online menus is just another form of mining.

Again, if you’re willing to use up a resource and treat it as non-renewable, mining does bring in a lot more money, at least in the short run. There are some businesses where mining makes sense. If you live in an Olypmic city and you sell Olympic paraphenalia, that’s not really a long-term business. That’s a mining operation. You get what you can out of the international visitors flocking to the Olypmics and, the games over, you pack up the mule and the pickaxe and go looking for the next strike.

Choosing Farming

When we started our cabin rental in Yosemite, we resolved to be farmers. The main reason we’re farmers is not to make more money, though I believe that in the long run we do. That said, when I talk to miners, they think we would earn a lot more as miner. I’m sure they’re right. In the short run.

The main reason I want to be a farmer is simply that it is a lot more pleasant to farm customers than to mine them. I was hugged by three guests in a row a couple of summers ago. In eight years in business, I have yet to be yelled at by a customer. Mined customers need to yell, because miners need to be yelled at.

But consider my mechanic. They told me it would be $587.69 to have the brake work done that I needed. But on my rusty old truck, parts kept breaking. They ended up with over eight hours of labor (at $95/hr) and over two hundred dollars in parts. When I showed up at the desk, I expected to pay $1,000 to $1,200. He pulled out my worksheet and said “$587.69.”

“Really?” I asked.

He gave me a pained look and said “Yeah, we have a lot of labor in this one. But the main thing is that you’re safe.”

I’m pretty sure he lost money on that deal. Several times, I’ve gone in asking for something expensive and they’ve said “you don’t need it yet.” One time, Mike asked, “What’s your tolerance for breaking down and needing a tow?”

I said “Pretty high, why?”

“Well, it won’t hurt anything to just run with this for another 5,000 miles. There’s a tiny chance you could break down, but it’s unlikely and the labor on this is huge, because we have to pull the axle. But 5,000 miles from now, this vehicle calls for a routine service that involves pulling the axle. If you fix this now and do your routine service later, you’ll pay $300 in labor both times. If you wait and do it with the routine service, it will cost you just $25 for the part. No extra labor.”

I know that hurt. But the thing is, I don’t even price tires anymore. I buy from him. I don’t price any work I need done on my car. I go straight to him. And now, I go to his son. Because when he honored his price, he was doing the hard and unpleasant work of picking rocks from the field. And he left his son a much easier field to plow than the one he started with. I don’t need convincing anymore. I’m a rock that’s already been moved. And I’m not going anywhere else until the glacier comes or something truly significant breaks my trust. But since the father taught the son the hard art of clearing rocks, I continue to get the same amazing, honest service I always have.

Ask the Question

Again, I’m not really judging. For me, farming is more comfortable than mining, but that’s me. What I think is important is to have the frame, to ask the question: am I farming or am I mining?

Where I see this go wrong most often is when people think they are farming, but if you study their customers and what they say about them in private, you can see they are mining. Or perhaps they are farming most of the time, but when it comes to the hard and unpleasant task of carrying rocks to the wall, they resort to mining. They push the horse and dull the plow and wear out the ploughman and leave the field worse than they found it.

The problem is that if you think you’re a farmer in the long run, but today, in the short run, you’re a miner, then you’re just a miner. Because the long run is made up of short runs.

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