Cato on “Laying Out and Stocking the Farm”

The continuing saga of Cato’s Farm Management book published by Forgotten Books.

Cato suggested the following ‘disposition’ of your estate. First assuming a spread of 100 jugera (about 66 acres).

  1. a vineyard
  2. irrigated garden
  3. an osier bed (a bed of willow trees)
  4. an olive yard
  5. a meadow
  6. a corn field
  7. a wood lot
  8. a cultivated orchard
  9. a mast grove ( grove of nut/acorn producing trees)

“In his youth, the farmer ought, diligently to plant his land, but he should ponder before he builds. Planting does not require reflection, but demands action. It is time enough to build when you have reached your thirty-sixth year, if you have farmed your land well meanwhile. When you do build, let your buildings be proportioned to your estate, and your estate to your buildings. It is fitting that the farm buildings should be well constructed, that you should have ample oil cellars and wine vats, and a good supply of casks, so that you can wait for high prices, something which will redound to your honour, your profit and your self-respect.”

** sure i’d like to paraphrase Cato’s words and writings, but he is very much succinct and to the point – quite certain i cannot improve. I will press his point above as to buildings be proportioned to your estate. Too many people today (and apparently in Cato’s day) overbuild! For example, a ranch does not need barns! Yet, most farms and ranches today are covered up with outbuilding and barns which only cost money in initial build, depreciation, and maintenance. The farmer who surrounds himself deliberately with stuff and work, has little regard for family time.

What about your dwelling house? Cato admonishes to “Build your dwelling house in accordance with your means. If you build well in a good situation and on a good property, and furnish the house suitably for country life, you will come there more often and more willingly. The farm will then be better, fewer mistakes will be made, and you will get larger crops. The face of the master is good for the land.

(as an interesting aside, Pliny quotes Cato as advising to buy what others have built rather than build oneself, and thus, as he says, enjoy the fruits of another’s folly. Cacoethes edificandi is a familiar disease among country gentlemen.)

My take on cacoethes edficandi is a given in human nature and if you have the opportunity to take advantage, go for it. However, a couple of drawbacks to that are 1) often the estate being sold is priced to include an overbuild, so it can’t be afforded anyway – a lot of ranch and farm land falls in that category now with only the very, very wealthy able to afford such properties which are impossible to run at a profit for cropping or livestock. 2) in our area, anyway, there are next to no nice homes, so building is a must to have something safe and worthwhile in which to live – yet the admonishing is twice listed here – a) build within your means, and b) avoid folly.

More layout tips:

Plant elm trees along the roads and fence rows, so that you may have the leaves to feed the sheep and cattle, and the timber will be available if you need it. If any where there are banks of streams or wet places, there plant reeds, and surround them with willows that the osiers may serve to tie the vines.

My commentary on the above is that we would never plant trees (and not elm – they are highly diseased in our area now) in a fence row – as the trees grow, they’ll knock over the fence, branches will fall out and smash the fence, and eventually grow around the barbed wire which will make the tree unsafe for use in a sawmill (wire in a log is a dangerous situation for the sawyer. Note Cato does not recommend trees along stream banks or wet places. Many people think trees stop erosion in these areas, but this is entirely untrue. Deep rooted reeds and grasses will hold the banks against fast moving water much better. Livestock can also ‘walk down’ any steep banks allowing these deep roots to take hold. Stream banks with wider more gentle slopes encourage water to slow down and not allow erosion. Trees simply fall over as water erodes the soil out from under them, then logs and branches become unusable and tend to clog up ditches allowing deep wallows and stagnant pools.

Cato goes on:

Set out the land nearest the house as an orchard, whence fire wood and faggots may be sold and the supply of the master obtained. In this enclosure should be planted everything fitting to the land and vines should be married to the trees.

Near the house lay out also a garden with garland flowers and vegetables of all kinds, set it about with myrtle hedges, both white and black, as well as Delphic and Cyprian laurel.


As an example, Cato sets forth an “olive farm of two hundred and forty jugera (160 acres) ought to be stocked as follows: an overseer, a house keeper, five laborers, three ox drivers, one swineherd, one ass driver, one shepherd; in all thirteen hands: three pair of oxen, three asses with pack saddles, to haul out the manure, one other ass, and one hundred sheep.”

Comments included are that as labor becomes more expensive, the slow, but steady oxen should be replaced with faster working, yet more costly, teams of horses. And in more modern times, we now use tractors which don’t even require drivers because labor cost is becoming more and more prohibitive.

Well, i hope you are enjoying the wisdom of Cato’s thoughts on farming, homesteading, ranching. Although he lived 2000 years ago, the concepts, precepts, and business acumen he shares is still spot on. I plan to share more of this clever book in upcoming blog entries. Check out the numerous classic reprints from Forgotten Books.


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