Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Difficult Task?

I was presenting to a group of people at our farm a few years ago when one of the leaders of the group said, "So, I saw that Rob and Tammy were doing this and I thought - Hey!  If they can do it, so can I!"

I winced a little bit, but reminded myself to take it how it was intended.  This individual hadn't started up their own diversified, small-scale farm.  But, they had started gardening and raising some of their own food.  This comment was supposed to be an exhortation to others that they can also take part of raising food to support themselves.

Though I still sometimes feel like this sort of comment is a "Well - LOOK at them.  Shoot, if people like THAT can do it - ANYONE can do it for heaven's sake!"

I do cringe and sometimes take offense when people imply that what a professional does is simple, and therefore not something to be valued or appreciated.  And, before you take this wrong, I want to make it clear that when this happens to us with respect to our farm, it isn't usually someone who is deliberately trying to provoke us.  It usually comes in various forms:

  • What?  You want $X for one of those?  Heck, I could raise those myself for less than that!
  • Would you be willing to sit down and talk to me about raising _______ (fill in the blank)?  We want to stop spending so much on it.
  • So, you only have some poultry and you stopped the CSA... You must appreciate all of the free time you have now.
  • I can't believe you haven't gotten that done yet, we got that done in our garden WEEKS ago!
  • You don't grow that?  Why?  It isn't hard to grow.
  • You ran out?  Why don't you just grow more of that then?

Mr Aubergine Wants a Story

My Dad used to work for a paper company as a salesperson and he was quite good at what he did.  At the time he started this particular job, the sales records were paper-based.  But, as time went on, paper companies wanted to get sales details recorded into their computing systems.

To make what could be a long story less long, there was a significant period of time where sales were recorded on paper first while the salesperson took the order on the phone.  It was then expected that these paper records would be entered in the computer later.  The problem with that is obvious. What happens when a person is so busy making sales that they reach the end of the work day and the paper records have not been entered into the computer?

A short-term solution was, in this case, to offer a little bit of money to a certain salesperson's son (Rob) to come in and enter the backlog of sales.  Hey, I liked numbers, I could work with computers AND I could be taught... or so I like to think.

I remember entering piles of sales sheets.  Completing those that were straightforward and setting aside those I couldn't figure out on my own.  I believe I got through most of the backlog in a few days.

This brought forth an unwarranted and uninformed observation.  If an untrained KID could plow through all of that so quickly, why couldn't the professional salespeople manage such a simple task?

First of all - thank you ever so much for belittling that "kid's" abilities and for making light of an activity.  But, that's not quite the point of this whole post - so lets move on.

What is Difficult?

What makes a paper salesperson a good paper salesperson?  Let's start with detailed knowledge about all available paper products, their qualities and proper uses.  While we're at it, add in appropriate knowledge of each type of printing process and how those processes succeed or fail given certain paper qualities.  And, perhaps you should have a good idea about relative prices of comparable papers and knowledge about the supply chain - what can be available, how much and when?

And you're worried about data entry as a measure of their skills?  Really?

Let's bring it back to farming.

I have to take care of the poultry every day.  Is that difficult?

Well.  I have to make sure they always have water.  Is it hard to give poultry water?  No.  Not really.

I have to make sure they have food every day.  Is it hard to give poultry food?  No.  Not really.

We need to collect eggs every day.  Is it hard to collect eggs?  No.

Wash eggs?  No.  Package eggs? No.  Let the birds out at the beginning of the day? No.  Put them in at night?  Usually no....

My data entry for backlogged sales, while appreciated, was similar to having someone come and help us catch up on egg washing.  It's a confined task that can be learned with a little bit of training and periodic supervision.  If something odd happens, the person doing the washing can always check with one of us.  

In the end, the eggs get washed and it is tempting to wonder - now that isn't so hard, why can't the farmers keep up with that task themselves?  It really is NOT that hard.

But, if a person comes in to wash eggs and only wash eggs, they have the luxury of concentrating on a single task.  They don't have to figure out storage, sales, acquisition of cartons, egg handler's licenses, food safety regulations, liability insurance, marketing, delivery, record-keeping, projections for future production, and disposal of broken eggs.  

The egg washer is not the person who must make adjustments when predators find a way into the flock and they do not have to deal with birds that get out of their pasture and into the tomatoes.  They don't have to make adjustments to the amount of feed when necessary and they aren't the ones doing the chores each day.  

The egg washer is not making decisions about how to manage pasture area or when to move poultry from one location to another.  They do not have deal with frozen water and providing enough light so the birds keep laying in the winter months.  They don't have to procure clean straw for bedding nor do they have to clean it out and then make decisions about composting.

There is a weight of complexity that comes with the picture of the full job.  And suddenly that long list of "simple" tasks... becomes difficult.

And that is why it can be such a relief - and such a boon - when another person who is unencumbered with that complexity can come in and provide support for one particular task.  A task that isn't necessarily all that difficult, but still requires a little skill that can be acquired with a little training and some practice - especially if there aren't a bunch of distractions!

And Then - We Consider Scale

Then, there is the issue of scale and persistence.

A farm that raised laying hens with the goal of producing and selling 6 dozen eggs a day is a completely different scale than a personal flock of six hens.  Certainly, the backyard flock needs food, water, shelter, protection, egg collection and cleaning - just like the laying flock of 100 or 1000.  But, you should never, EVER imply to the farmer who raises 450 hens that you fully understand what they have to do because you have SIX birds.

Similarly, just because I came in to enter sales records for a few days during the summer months, I should not even think about making judgements that I know how "easy" a paper sales job must be.  We must acknowledge the fact that the professional lives that job consistently and persistently.  It's unfair to make a comparison with someone who hops in to do one task to help out for a short while.

Bringing It Home to Roost

I wrote this whole blog as a gentle reminder to me and to you.

It is always easier to go to someone else's farm and help with a task than it is to do that same task on your own farm.

Why?  Because you are removed and even insulated from the complexities that surround that particular task on that farm.  But, when it is your farm, you are aware of everything... and I mean EVERYTHING else that goes along for the ride with that one task.

Data entry is not just data entry.  Washing eggs is not just washing eggs.

And you don't get to quit for the day after the data is entered or the eggs are washed.

Each task may not be all that difficult.  But the job as a whole is.  So, the next time you are tempted to make light of what someone else has to do - resist that temptation.  Because you probably have no idea what you are talking about.


  1. Awesome post...I was just thinking about this on Saturday when Sue and I helped a local nonprofit "Feed the Hungry". We helped for two hours and we were exhausted! Some other people mentioned how easy the paid staff had it because "all" they had to do was direct the cars to us so we could load them up. I reminded them that the staff started at 8 am while we worked from 10 am to noon. There a million things that they were able to make look easy because they do this six days a week. And, they still had to work until 7 pm before their day was over. Thanks for the wake up call, Rob!

    1. I appreciate this response and used it as part of my follow-up blog on the topic that I had already started. I figured it to be a two-parter and it turned out better with your input. Thank you.

  2. Yes you are so right. This is the first year Ryan has told me NOT to find a job becuase there is so much I do here to make his and the kids life good. Its not the little things but all the things that make it work.

    1. And your job helping run a successful family is every bit as complex, difficult and... rewarding... as any job out there. I suppose too, that there is a difference for you between whether you feel that you WANT a job or whether you think you HAVE to have a job outside of the one you are already doing for the family. I suspect that if you and Ryan talked about it and you decided you wanted to do an additional something, then you would do that. Lots of respect to you both for figuring out what is working for you right now!


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