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Evaluating profits can be tricky

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in the country — the red clay hills of upstate South Carolina, to be exact. The countryside at that time was dotted by small farms, mostly cotton with a smattering of corn, small grain and pasture to support various livestock enterprises, which ranged from small herds of cattle, a few goats, yard-run chickens, and the occasional slop-eating hog.

A 100-acre spread was considered a large land holding and owners of such tracts were alternately admired for their good fortune and assailed for “putting on airs” among the common folk, most of whom subsisted on 30 acres or less.

Money on these small farms was as rare as dollar cotton and when folks found something that consistently earned a few extra dollars, they mostly kept at it until too many others got involved and flooded the markets. My folks tried bell peppers for a year or two and, as luck would have it, hit the market at the exact lowest point of the seasons.

But two uncles, Purvis and Lester, always worked the angles and found ways to prosper in often trying circumstances. But “prosper” to Uncle Purvis and Uncle Lester meant something entirely different than it might have for more industrious farmers. As long as they had enough ready cash, produce, hay or livestock to barter for the wherewithal to feed the scraggly pack of mixed breed hounds with which they chased possum, raccoon and fox across the width and breadth of Anderson County, they considered themselves prosperous.

And each was dedicated to the notion that he could always beat the other in finding ways to prosper with the least amount of physical labor. Farming their meager patches of cotton and corn was mere necessity and a burdensome interruption to their main line of work, swapping stuff.

One time Lester happened on a good deal for a strong, young mule, purchased it for a few pigs, a couple of bales of hay, three plowshares and an old rusty Model-T Ford. It was the workingest mule he'd ever seen and could break ground, cultivate and pull loads in the farm wagon better and quicker than the old sway-backed plow horse he had used for years. The mule improved efficiency so much, in fact, that Lester had more time to devote to hunting and trading.

Of course Purvis was jealous. He coveted his brother's mule and vowed to trade him out of it, which he did. Somehow or another, Purvis had gotten hold of a registered Bluetick hound, which was rumored to have the best nose, the most musical voice when chasing a varmit, and more stamina than any hound in the county.

Lester, of course was jealous of the hound. So they traded. Neither was satisfied, so they traded back. Of course they couldn't just swap even and maintain any sense of having bested the other, so they added more to the pot. Purvis threw in an old shotgun but demanded that Lester sweeten the deal with a dozen banty hens.

After the trade, neither was completely satisfied that he had come out ahead, so they added more stuff to the ante and traded back. They each began to amass a good collection of horse collars, pocketknives, barbed wire, farm tools, and an occasional bit of cash, when available.

The enterprise went on for several weeks until the mule hardly knew where he would bed down from one evening to the next. But one day when the mule was temporarily in Lester's possession a farmer from another county came by, said he'd heard about the mule and, upon inspecting the animal, offered Lester $50 cash for it.

That much money represented a lot of dog feed and shotgun shells, if he still had a shotgun, which for the moment he couldn't remember if he did or not. Of course, he took the cash.

Of course Purvis was furious. “Why did you get rid of the mule,” he asked. “We were both making a good profit from him.”

It seems to me that two lessons can be learned from Lester and Purvis. One, it's never a good idea to abandon a profitable enterprise. And two, it makes good sense to know when you're actually making a profit and when you're not.

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