3 Principles for Beginning Farmers: Part ONE

Blog_3PrincCoop

The cart before the horse…

…or…

a model is a model.  Who doesn’t love a good tautology?   If you’re a beginning farmer, I’m probably not offering much that you don’t already know from experience.  That’s the first of several ironies at play here but, while this is structured like an advice column, I’m essentially testing my own ideas.  Feel free to comment, especially if you’re a farmer or a farm dreamer.

Allow me to quote myself from my previous blog post, “The challenge begins when we frame our models as the ideal rather than understanding those models as products of a set of principles from which decisions are made.”  Let me try that again: the goal is to understand another farmer’s end use tools as models in the development of our own tools.  I think that’s more to the point I was aiming at and hopefully I can clarify.  I do want to point out that, while I make a simple distinction between models and tools, there is a much more complex conversation to be had about that distinction.  The simplification is for purposes of the claim, the irony continues.

I’ve built nine different chicken tractors for layers and broilers.  Each design different that the one before.  I’m getting closer to my tool but I began with a Salatin model, along with a thousand other newbies across the country. For Salatin, his coop is not a model, it’s a time tested tool reflecting his production principles; some of which I share.  My most recent coops have diverged from the Salatin style based on features that work for our production principles, one of which is: manpower first, kidpower if possible.  That principle has led me to smaller, lighter coop designs that hold fewer birds but incorporate more family involvement.  The Carolina Homeplace tagline is, “Cultivating Family, Food, and Community…” Now, I can point out many ways we have not achieved the full fruit of that vision yet, but the point is that it doesn’t make sense to design systems that require the strength of several men or machines if we intend to increase family involvement in production.

The purpose of the chicken tractor example is to illustrate what I see as the most common beginning farmer mistake: farming (the cart) without a vision (the horse) or farming with too broad a vision.  Maybe that’s something like, “I want to grow food” or “my goal is to be a full-time farmer.” Neither of those statements is wrong, and, full disclosure, those are places we started, but the difference in progression from “producer” to “Producer” is not simply income or profit margins but refinement of the vision from which you will develop the principles that order your decisions.  Is there a set of principles that guides the development of your farm enterprises and systems?

The process, as I see it, goes something like this: high level vision, short/long-term goal-setting, ordering principles, model application, assess feedback and iterate, develop tools.  But this is a recursive process and, just as a reminder, different on every farm (remember: “if you’ve seen one farm, you’ve seen one farm”).  A model is simply a representation of real-world phenomena.  A starting point.  The tool is developed in real-time, responding to the feedback on the ground by making the necessary adjustments that are aligned with your principles.  Models are generalizable across applications. The proper tool is unknown until tested.  Even if you end where you started, you have developed a tool from a model.  Be careful not to misinterpret the process.  That is a short road to either tyranny by perfection or burnout.  And misinterpreting the process may cause you to advise others from an incorrect perspective.

There is a real, cautionary tale of the farming myth or farming orthodoxy and it is born from an individual experience incorrectly generalized and propagated as an end use tool rather than as a starting point model.  The idealistic farm lifestyle is a significant reason why many of us want to farm.  That lifestyle is real and deeply satisfying but it is also not easily achieved and requires intense work, planning, life balance, and resilience.  Navigating all of those challenges at once is where principles are critical.  I think the idealism of farming makes beginning farmers susceptible to myths of vicarious success through the employment of another farmer’s vision, principles, and/or tools.

Ironically, I’m generalizing across the beginning farmer experience and I’d love to hear comments from the whole range of experiences out there.  But, in short, my message is to do the intellectual work of developing a vision and a set of principles for your farm so that when you put your hands in the dirt to test a model, you can develop useful tools that improve your production.  Thankfully, there are a lot of good models and plenty of information on those models that provide a great head start.   Just remember that a model is a model.

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