Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lessons in Farming I - Every morning is the dawn of a new error.

The strange thing about the entire process of leading a field day at the farm is the way it encouraged me to think more about how things are done on our farm (and other farms).  And, since our hope was to provide help to aspiring or newer farmers, we thought hard about what kinds of things might be most useful for them to here (and how it might be best to present them).  The incredible thing is how much I wanted to say that I couldn't manage to get said in the time people were at the field day.  It's just a good reminder that farming is a non-trivial process.  It is also a good reminder that there are many ways to successfully (and unsuccessfully) farm.

In any event, I came across some sayings I used to have on my office door when I taught at University of Minnesota at Morris.  And, I was struck by how well these could be used to make some points about what we do on the farm.  We hope you all enjoy these!

Every morning is the dawn of a new error
A comedy of errors - yet things will turn out ok.
As a computer science professor, I tried to drill the counter intuitive concept that "successful" tests were those that found errors in computer programs.  Of course, most people think that tests are successful if the program works as intended rather than when it breaks.  So, you can see the uphill battle I had to fight.  But, you can see why this saying was on my door at the time!

With farming, it is my opinion that you aren't being innovative enough if you don't make mistakes.  Now, of course, there are mistakes and there are mistakes.  But, my main point is as follows:

1. There is NO "silver bullet"

2. Farming isn't and should NOT be easy. 

To say that is - or to try to make it so - ignores the complexity that is our natural world.  The natural world is complex.  Simple solutions that are used with no forethought or observation tend to lead to bigger problems.  It's a little bit like the exercise equipment that advertised the ability for you to exercise in "one effortless motion."  Ya.  That's how you get into better physical condition - expend no effort.  Riiiiiight.

On the other hand, the complexity of nature and the world should be a comfort to us - but you might have to wait to read my reasons why under the last heading.
3. Every farm has key differences that force the need for solutions that are unique to that farm.

So, if you want to become a better farmer, you need to be willing to learn, to experiment and innovate.  The very nature of each of these (learning, experimenting and innovation) makes it likely that there will be errors.

An example would be the area in the photo above.  Our first error had to do with planning on reconfiguring this field with swales in preparation for a new high tunnel.  The wet and cold Spring set the excavator back in his schedule.  We held back planting here both because of weather AND because we intended to get this excavation done.  The result is that we had to do some last minute rotation changes.  It also meant that this field didn't get the attention it should have early in the year. 

Error number two had to do with how we dealt with the weed pressure that developed as we let the field do its thing early in the season.  We disked in the field and then tilled the planting beds with the BCS.  There was no gap between these two activities.  In our defense, the wet weather had compressed many of our activities - and we abided by the maxim that the best time to do activity X on the farm is when you are doing activity X.  Why?  Because sometimes you just don't have the ability to do things during the optimal time period.  It would have been better to let the weed seed bank deplete itself a bit before planting so we could flex tine the bed and get stale seed beds going.

Error number three?  We didn't set up irrigation right away on these rows.  Hey, it had been pretty damp up to this point, so we weren't thinking about irrigation.  But, of course, what happens when you wait?  Well, weeds start to grow.  Now, you have to weed before you run your drip tape.  Which means you can't irrigate crops that need it until you weed.  Assuming you have time for that.  And, when it gets dry and the ground gets a bit harder than you would like.....  Ah, you get that point.

The fourth error is simply embarrassing.   However, I include it because it is ridiculous to even pretend that mistakes of this kind don't happen on our farm.  Don't get me wrong.  We usually do pretty well - but things can happen.  The thin patch of green at the left is where we planted some eggplant.  They are still there, sort of.  But, what happens when a person is disking the next area to be planted, weeds have gotten into the already planted rows and that person is driving the tractor and begins thinking about what his crew needs to be doing next?

Um, yes.  I disked over the row of eggplant.  Ups.  The bad news, we lost about a quarter of the plants and the remaining plants are not very strong.  The good news?  I woke up real quick and reminded myself that I never work with equipment with less than ALL of my attention on the job at hand.  Much better to sacrifice a few eggplant than any of the more expensive or horrifying errors that could happen with distractions while using equipment.

We hope you enjoy this series of posts.  This is the first of six parts  Up next: I don't have a solution.. BUT I admire the problem.

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