Friday, February 26, 2016

Stages of Learning in Farming - Becoming the Expert

By season 10 or before, you may be able to quit your day job if that is your goal. You have developed a playbook for your farm. Many farm families have off farm income and that is OK. But if you want to farm full time you will need a plan to do so. How much income will you need, what is the scale of your operation that will generate this level of income? Will you need farm workers? Have you achieved this goal? By year ten you should be approaching your basic farming goals.

Even so, there is much more to learn on the road to becoming an expert.

I have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in most fields. I thought maybe this was an urban legend, but turns out there is some solid research to back this up.

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell mentions the "10,000 hour rule". The 10,000 hour rule states that the key to success in any field is related to practice for a total of around 10,000 hours.

The Making of an Expert, a Harvard Business Review article indicates a similar finding in Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's research.. The things that Dr. Ericsson found to correlate to the success of superb performers were intensive practice, devoted teachers, and  enthusiastic support from their families. His evidence showed that experts were always made, not born. The journey to superior performance required tremendous diligence and tenacity. The process takes at least a decade in most instances. In farming this would be 10 seasons of very intense and intentional practicing the craft of farming and learning as much as possible about the your area whether it be vegetables, row crops or animal husbandry. In farming this is rarely a class room experience, due to the hands on nature of farming. However, the class room can fill in the gaps in our understanding at key points along the way. I would love to take some advanced horticulture classes to answer some of the questions that I have had over the years. Maybe Land Stewardship Project can offer some advanced topics with guest lectures from the University of Minnesota.

A genuine expert has the following attributes:
  1. Consistently superior performance to that of others.
  2. Concrete results and successful outcomes.
  3. Their results can be replicated season after season. This is often more challenging in farming than in most other fields because of the variables involved (more on these variables later).
To achieve this you must exercise "deliberate practice" and think deliberately to improve the skills you already have and extend the reach and range of new skills. The Land Stewardship Project and courses like Farm Beginnings can help extend the learning process.

It is interesting that people often assume that an expert achieves "overnight success" when in reality they have been practicing the skills of their success for many years, training and preparing. It is important to find coaches and mentors, these teachers may change over the different stages in your training to more advanced teachers. Expert coaches help accelerate the learning process and provide constructive feedback. Customers like chefs will also improve learning for the vegetable farmer.

I think this is amply reflected in the field of farming and I have seen my own level of expertise grow as I have invested time in learning and as I have practiced the craft season by season. This is why it is good to get several years of experience in farming before seeking to make a full time living. You do not have to become an expert before you can make a living at farming, but you must develop a basic competence.

It takes years of experience to understand what works and what doesn't work in farming. This is because of the variations in seasons, weather, markets, locations, soils, climate, varieties and farmers. I call this the enrichment of adversity.

Reading will shorten the assimilation of information somewhat as you can learn, from the knowledge and mistakes of others. See my post on some of the top farming books for my learning and operation. Your list maybe somewhat different. I offer my list as a point of demarcation as I am always looking for good books and I hope you are too.

Keys to Success

The learning curve is more than just information. Information is the foundation, but there are other factors that are keys to success. For example, management, relationships, tools, timing, and execution.

Management is critical to the farm, especially for organic farming. You have to know what is going on out in the fields because there is less margin for error (you can't just spray the pests or weeds). I like to walk the fields daily to watch for pests and see what needs to be weeded. A quick pass with the hoe, or tiller, or chickens (to eat the bugs) at the right time can save a season of grief fighting weeds and pests. A walk through also lets me check progress on what the workers have done for the day and mentally start the list for tomorrow. I also find walking through the fields to be relaxing and I often take one of our teenagers along for some relationship building time.

Relationships are a part of the farming operation. A supportive spouse and family will go along way towards the success of the farm. Having good relationships with farm workers is also a stress reducer. I can always tell if a worker is not a good fit with our operation because we feel stressed due to some factor, and it is not always that they don't work hard. Sometimes it is how they communicate, and usually they don't communicate well, or maybe they don't take feedback well. Sometimes they have developed a less than passionate attitude about their work and you can tell they really don't want to be there. I have learned that you need to have a discussion with this worker about how they feel about the job.  They maybe frustrated with the work but don't want to let you down and plan on sticking out the season even though they are negatively affecting others on the work team. I like to think of it as opening the door towards them doing something that they can be passionate about.  If I initiate the conversation, usually they will run through this open door, they are happier and so is everyone else that was working with them. In some cases we can fix the issue that was bothering them and salvage the worker (and the significant investment in training).

Customers are a key relationship for the small produce farmer. Many farmers just take a truck of corn,  beans, steers or tomatoes to the generic market and the end customer is nameless and faceless. This has led to the commoditization of agriculture, where someone other than the farmer decides what seed the farmer plants, what fertilizer the farmer uses and what feedstock the product becomes.  This results in generic product and low commodity prices where the farmer only receives a small portion of what the end product is sold for. A new generation of farmers have resisted this trend and are marketing directly to the consumer through farmers markets and the Internet. It used to be that the farmer knew all his neighbors and did not have to market himself or herself to their customers. Specialty grains, grass fed beef and organic vegetables are all being marketed directly to "the eater" by creative farmers.  For example, I like the farmers market, because it provides a connection to the customer and builds the farmer to consumer relationship. It also provides immediate feedback and can be an excellent marketing laboratory for trying out new ideas. I wouldn't even know about things like arugula or black garlic if it wasn't for some of our customers. If you want to be on the leading edge as a vegetable grower, work with high end chefs. Listen to their needs and learn what it takes to serve them. This will influence your whole operation towards excellence. Selling directly also give you a larger share of the dollar (maybe even 100%) for a premium product.

Tools and equipment are a key requirement for farming. I recommend a pay as you go approach. Figure out what the farm budget can afford and prioritize the acquisition of tools to fit within this yearly budget. For us this amount was approximately $5000 per year. I did buy a tractor for $7000 the first year, which exceeds this, but I paid cash from personal savings. As I mentioned above, I would also strongly recommend that you not go into debt to start your farm, it can be done. I had a used Troy Built Horse tiller that I bought for $500 the first few years. When we moved to the farm I quickly wore the Troy Built out. I purchased a BCS tiller made by Ferrari for $4000. This is a walk behind tractor with a live PTO and ten years later we are still using it. It has held up extremely well for our heavier use. One year we bought a used walk in cooler that fit within the $5000 dollar budget. I bought this used from a dairy Coop which was transitioning to different equipment, they let me remove the equipment over several months and make several payments as funds were available during the season, with no interest. They were just happy to help me out. Another year we got a tiller for the tractor to speed up the field prep. I bought this used as well, it was a very heavy duty high end tiller that had been used to decap turkey bedding. The finish was rough and the back shield was rusted through. I redesigned the shield and had a blacksmith build me a new better one. I repainted the unit (with a brush) and it looked like new, almost. For my $500 investment I had the equivalent of a $7000 tiller. We are still using it 12 years later.

Timing is important, I suggest you organize your planting schedule ahead of the season. Season extension can be a very profitable approach, but I suggest you focus on mastering the main season for the first few years. After farming for 20 years I still don't have a permanent green house. But I am very good at extending the season with hardy varieties, which I would not have gotten good at season extension had I started with a hoop house.

Execution of the yearly plan can always be improved. One of the reasons I like farming is that there is always room for experimentation. I think it is as important to eliminate things that don't work for you as it is to focus on something new. The things that aren't profitable or aren't working (maybe you just don't like the prickles on the zucchini) should be pruned from the portfolio.

Make sure you have proper insurance both health insurance and liability insurance. You want to protect the legacy you are building.

I get the fact that if you are doing something you love you don't want to take a break. But, take time for a vacation. I'm especially bad at not doing this. You don't need to do this at the peak of your season. But do plan for some down time at a time that works in the rhythm of your operation. The vacation could be educational like going to the Organic Growers Conference sponsored by MOSES at the end of February in LaCross, WI,  or you can choose to do something totally removed from your farming organization.

Farmers tend to enjoy, growing things, but marketing can be fun too. We got our children involved in our marketing plan and they were great experimenters. One summer our daughter Jenna must have tried 15-20 different ways to market basil: small pots, medium pots, large pots, basil baskets, different varieties, clumps of basil, 2 for, 3 for, mixed with other herbs, basil tea, fresh basil, dried basil, basil leaves, basil on the stalk, well you get the idea. Just when I thought you couldn't possibly sell another basil plant she would come up with a way to sell several more flats on a single Saturday. Amazing and very educational for her. She now has the sincerely held belief that she can sell anything to anyone, well at least Basil. That kind of attitude exudes confidence, is exciting to the farm team and is unstoppable in the market place.

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