Monday, August 10, 2020

What It Feels Like to Fail

What do you get when you put people who have high expectations for things that they do, ideals that they wish to live up to and an opportunity to own and operate a small, diversified farming operation?

You get a perfect recipe for those people to learn what it means to fail - and to fail frequently.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Ambition gets us into trouble every season... No, wait.  Ambition gets us into trouble every day at the Genuine Faux Farm.  After all, we are the folks who created the daily VAP (Very Ambitious Plan) that included our lists of things that needed to be done.  Our ambition comes from a combination of having high ideals and expectations along with a daily/yearly case of Farmer Delusional Syndrome.  In short, we keep setting ourselves up for ambitious task lists because we have a syndrome that allows us to see how things could work IF ONLY we could manage to push ourselves to excel at least 23 of the 24 hours of each day.  

I am sure you realize by now that some of what I am writing is a bit 'tongue in cheek.'  I am poking some fun at ourselves because we do set a high bar and we actually do know that we cannot accomplish everything we would ideally like to accomplish.  But, I would be foolish not to recognize that we will always expect a lot from ourselves.   And, I suspect this would be a true statement for most others who own or operate a small, diversified farm.  People who do this sort of thing tend to work very hard and they tend to set pretty high goals.  By virtue of the nature of the beast - they also become quite familiar with failure.


Because if you don't fail regularly at this job, you aren't trying hard enough.

Opportunities to Fail

Our farm has so many wonderful opportunities for failure every single season.  If you do not quite understand what I am saying let me spell it out with an example.

Every succession of every crop you grow in every season that you grow it, could - for any combination of reasons - end in a complete and utter failure.  For the sake of argument, let's look at the lettuce crop.  In our most ambitious lettuce growing season, we planted twelve successions of lettuce.  Each succession had five varieties.  If you look at it this way, you now have sixty (60) opportunities to fail with your lettuce in a single growing season.  Just imagine the opportunities to fail if you are growing thirty different crop types, with an average of five varieties in each and with anywhere from one to twelve successions of each crop type.   That is easily hundreds of opportunities to fail every season.

This gets even better because there are so many WAYS you can fail.  Not all of the causes of failure are under your control.  In fact, a significant number of them are not something you can do much about.  And, usually, if you are a fairly good at what you do, it takes several issues to result in a complete loss.  Sometimes, you can successfully grow out a crop and still find failure when you are unable to find homes for what you have grown before it goes bad (hint, this is one reason for animals on the farm).

I gave myself sixty seconds to list the number of ways we have experienced failure with a vegetable crop and this is what I came up with:

too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, spray drift, weeds, pests, diseases, poor germination, transplanted too early, transplanted too late, transplants too old, failed to irrigate, irrigation broke and flooded part of the field, windstorm, hailstorm, deer, rabbits, woodchucks, raccoon, cultivation equipment malfunction, mulch lifting up and beating young plants to death, bad genetics in purchased seeds, inconsistent moisture, worker misunderstanding instruction, farmer giving unclear instruction, mistake on plant or row spacing, other chemical incursions, improper fertility, soil composition imbalance, shortage of available labor hours, lost sales or inability to generate sales, harvested crop placed into a dirty meat cooler by mistake, turkeys or chickens breaking out of pasture and into field, harvested product not cooled quickly enough, seed trays blown over by the wind or otherwise damaged, something dropped on a stored crop (or the stored crop dropped), rodents in the stored crop and even a perfectly good batch of speckled lettuce being thrown by the destination kitchen when they thought the speckles meant the lettuce had 'gone bad'

Do you know what is sobering about this list?  This focuses only on vegetable crop failures on the farm.  This doesn't address failures with livestock, equipment, book keeping, marketing, building maintenance, pollinator and wildlife support, soil health, neighbor relations and a work-life balance. Yikes!

The two of us have given ourselves plenty of opportunity to fail since we started raising poultry and vegetables on our farm in 2004.  And, for good or bad, we have experienced our share of failures.  You might even be tempted to say that we are quite good at it!

Handling Crash Landings

Here is where I am supposed to impart wisdom with respect to how you land with your feet under you so you can emerge from each failure much better than you were before.  Well, we'll see how that goes...

Sometimes, the truth hurts - and so do many of the failures.  Frequently enough, very little good comes from a farm failure and it is pretty difficult to identify a take-away that can turn how you feel about the situation into a learning experience.  Over time, the scarring from various failures have become psychological callouses.  We have developed a thicker skin so the sting of certain failures doesn't hurt so much.

How many times have we thrown away trays of starter plants because we couldn't find a combination of resources and conditions that would allow them to be put into the ground?  Every season - often more than once a season.

Does it get any easier to toss those plants into the compost?  Not really.  There are always varying levels of regret and loss each time that happens.  And the day that I toss these plants and feel nothing will be the day I will mark as the moment I no longer care enough about growing green things to keep doing it.  There are callouses, yes - but the nerve endings are not completely numb.  I don't feel the pain as long as I might have in 2006, but it is still there.  What has changed the most is that I recognize the failure much more readily and I am quicker to process that failure and prepare to move on.

Who Dunnit?

I had someone ask me a great question during a presentation.  They wanted to know whether it was harder to deal with a farm failure that was your fault - or one that was not your fault.  I re-phrased and re-framed the question to this -

"Do you feel differently about a farm failure if there was something you could have done to prevent the problem from happening versus a failure for which there was nothing you could have done to prevent it?"

Over time, I have found that failures that come about because of something we did or failed to do are often easier to process on a case by case basis, but they sure can wear on you as they accumulate over time.  When we do not have to wonder why something happened we can get on to the figuring out how to handle it and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.  In other words, it is usually easier to move forward when you can point to something you did or failed to do.

The long term wear and tear from our own errors has more to do with our unwillingness and inability to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and our limitations.  If we can't find it in us to forgive ourselves, then our failures build up and weigh us down.  It would be great if I could say that I have figured out how to grant myself the grace I need on a regular basis.  All I can say is that I am continuing to work on it.

But, when something happens for which you have no control?   A plane sprays chemicals on your farm.  A hailstorm takes out your maturing crops.  In these cases, I find the feelings of loss are sharper and they are tinged with a sense that you have been violated in some fashion.  For example, when we lost crops to the overspray incident in 2012, we had to deal with a sudden "about-face" from crops that looked like they were successes to crops that were complete failures in moments.  It was a bit like walking down a quiet street, humming to yourself, only to have a truck barrel down the road, hop over the curb and hit you because the driver was texting. 

Failure and Opportunity

We have seen and will continue to experience failures at the Genuine Faux Farm.  Up to this point, they continue to frustrate us, worry us and cause us pain.  This is only to be expected because we do care, we do set high expectations and we try to operate withing the ideals we believe in.

Believe it or not - despite everything I have written thus far in this post - I see value in failure.

Failure gives me motivation and opportunity to learn and improve.  And, I greatly value learning opportunities.

Failure reminds me that things worth doing are not easy, but that when you succeed you have REALLY done something.

Failure brings with it the opportunity for redemption and forgiveness.

Success without failure is static and dead.  Failure without success happens when you don't look for the chance to learn, grow and seek redemption.  Here's to a healthy balance for the farmers at the Genuine Faux Farm.  Here's to a healthy balance for you as well!

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