Saturday, June 23, 2018

Man with the Plan?

Every so often, we get asked a question about what we do on our farm that makes me think a little harder after the conversation is over.  The question that got me going this time was presented by an individual that may have only been trying to encourage conversation rather than a deep philosophical exploration.  In any event, what this person got was probably what was wanted; a short, pleasant conversation that may have only scratched the surface of what could have been said.  What I got was a headache afterwards as I tried to figure it out for myself...

The Question:

What would you say is the most important task for you on the farm?

Whoa!  Are you sure the farmer is up for this one?
Whether I was right to do so or not, I immediately discarded a whole host of tasks on the farm that are critical items.  These are the daily farm chores that really need to be done.  Inspector (shown above when he was a kitten) might argue that feeding the cats should be at the top of my list.  And, in reality, it is at the top of our list every day along with feed the chickens and turkeys, water plants, get water to birds, open and close high tunnels, etc etc.  But, in the grand scheme of the farm, none of these is inherently more important than any other.

I suppose I could say planting, harvesting, weeding or any other crop specific task, but while they are all also critical, they aren't the most important by themselves.  Equipment maintenance?  Record keeping?  Habitat management for beneficials?   Weather monitoring?  Sales?  Building repairs?  Mental health?  Creating really good playlists to work by?  Being able to NOT scratch where it itches? 

Planning Wins the Day?

It actually didn't take me long to conclude during the conversation that planning was actually the most important task I perform on the farm.  Every day on the form has a VAP (Very Ambitious Plan) in some form or another.  I do not always write one out formally, especially when there is a large and very specific project that will dominate the day.  For example, I do not think I wrote anything specific out when we built a high tunnel.  But, anytime there are more workers on the farm than myself, there needs to be a plan that I can convey.

The Chalk Door - just one way to tell everyone what's up at the farm.
There is so much going on at the farm during a typical June day that the process of planning can be a project all by itself.  For example, our June 19 VAP had over 50 items on it.  Item one was "morning chores."  I only say this to point out that the list did not include a separate item for each daily task (such as scoop the litter box...).  With some of Tammy's family visiting (and wanting to be involved) the plan involved eight different people in some way, shape or form.  A good plan is one that keeps everyone as busy as the want to be (if they are visiting) or need to be (if they are part of the crew).  The plan also needs to consider resource availability.  After all, the lawn tractor can't be two places at once.  Or, at least, that seems to be the case on our farm - even if we try REALLY hard to put it two places at once.

The Plan Within the Plan

Planning for a single day usually has a basis within the plan for the week (or for some series of days).  I can tell you that we have a plan every week, and that would be true.  But, it is more likely that our plan covers three to five days with any accuracy.  It seems that I cannot predict how things will go well enough for any of our weekly plans to be terribly accurate towards the end of that week.  Essentially, the weekly plan occurs whenever the prior weekly plan is completely unhelpful for the upcoming daily plans. 

You might ask why we can't adhere to our weekly plans better (or why Rob can't manage to plan better so the weekly plan works).  Go ahead.  You can ask.  But, you know I'm going to answer even if you don't!

I'll give one example and that should be sufficient to explain how this can happen. The forecast called for a very low chance of less than a half inch of rain on Monday.  The rest of the week was supposed to be dry with seasonal temperatures.  Instead, we get three to four inches of rain over a couple of days.  Suddenly, the plan that called for prepping seed beds and numerous other things that need somewhat drier soil was entirely out of the question.

In short, things happen.  Weather can alter what you can do.  Equipment breaks.  We will discover tasks that must be done NOW even if we didn't plan to do them "now."  Blackflies can get so thick that we have to run screaming into shelter every hour or so to stay sane (I wish I were joking about this one).  Some items take longer than anticipated.  Others don't work out the way we planned and they have to be deferred until we solve another problem.  It's just the way it works.

So, just imagine how the entire season's growing plan must look when we compare to what actually happened at the end of the year?

Failure of Plans and the Need for Contingency Plans

You've got to figure that we probably spend some time with contingency plans since there are so many uncertainties in the first place.  And, you would be correct.  We do create contingency plans.  Most of our 'formal' contingency plans are created as a part of our season plan.  On the other hand, our daily VAP usually includes contingency items on it should conditions prevent something else from being done.  In other words, each VAP has more on it than we can hope to complete simply because we need items on our radar should we need to make a change.

Surprise Lilies are actually pretty predictable, as far as surprises go
If there are even chances of rain or dry weather, we often create separate plans for the actual weather conditions.  For that matter, if there is some sort of variable that could influence what we do, we'll try to account for it.  But, no matter how hard we try - we can still find ourselves in 'unplanned territory.'

When Contingency Plans Fail

After letting myself think about the original question as I wrote this post, I have to amend my answer to say that adapting is actually the most important task I perform on the farm

There is a practical limit to how much time one can plan without actually performing the tasks in those plans.  There is also no such thing as a perfect plan.  It's a matter of coming up with a set of plans that will be good enough most of the time. Then, WHEN (not if) they fail, you simply do your best to adjust and make the best of it.  After all, when plans A, B and C are off the table:

Rob: "It's time for plan D."
Crew Member: "What's plan D?"
Rob: "There is no plan D.  So, let's do this..."

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