3 Principles for Beginning Farmers: Part THREE…

…never let your jaybird mouth overload your hummingbird rear.

You may have heard some variation of the above Southern proverb or it’s economic counterpart about mouths and checks.  It’s one of my favorite expressions and outlines the truth that nature is authentic, which is the subtext of this last of three principles: learn the rules before you break them.  It seems inevitable, at the confluence of retail economies and instafame, that the prevailing marker of competence is self-proclamation.  I will try not to sound too curmudgeonly (‘ll leave the final verdict to my readers, all three of you), but I think the ubiquity of communication devices and platforms has allowed us to get too intoxicated on our minor successes (shout out to my previous blog post for the intoxication metaphor).

I doubt the small farm world suffers from any more or less self-promotion than any other current sphere of interest and I am not saying that self-promotion is categorically bad; I am not anti-profit. But when the landscape of information and community is dominated by virtual ecosystems, the pathways to perceived expertise can be difficult to distinguish from real expertise. Let’s not be quick to forget that food is produced in the real world not virtual space.  Karl Hammer, of Vermont Compost Company, speaks of earth and soil with a compelling combination of technical expertise and poetic wonder: we live in this life and our own definitions of divinity require that we never know all of it. The mass of our knowledge is dwarfed by the mass of our ignorance and that’s where awe and respect and even tradition come in. 

Natural ecosystems (an ironic qualification) have full measures of mystery built in.  We know so much yet so little of what is possible to know about life.  But we do know that nature has productive limits.  To learn the rules of nature’s production requires patience and observation.  Season upon season.  No shortcuts.  And, however valuable shortcuts to knowledge prove along your farm journey, there is no shortcut to expertise.  The work must be done.  Competence is knowledge tested in real conditions, not one test or two but enough to see patterns, to enable forecasting.

Conventional systems of production have put in the work.  I am no supporter of chemical intensive or extensive industrial agriculture but there is something to learn from every system.  Let’s not now, as new, exurban small farmers pretend that “we, the regenerative” have a corner on expertise as a corollary to our corner on knowledge.  I certainly think nature is a deeper well of information than any agricultural production system but I don’t think we do the world any favors by growing a garden for a season or two and then presuming we know how to solve the American food system issues.  There are plenty of keyboard cowboys in every arena but as a beginning farmer you carry a burden of responsibility to put in the work which takes time. Be patient.

None of that is to say we should not criticize the failings of other agricultural systems or the food system more broadly.  The bleak picture of health in America proves that need.  What I am saying is be mindful of the mass of our ignorance.  And, while social media gives you a platform, it is time that tests your knowledge, your resolve, and builds expertise.  Be aware of your productive limits in real and virtual spaces.  Be humble because farming can turn jaybirds into hummingbirds real quick.

The meta-principle in this series of posts and, in my farming decisions, is really to produce. Produce food of value.  Produce relationships of value.  Produce to connect others to what is meaningful.  Consume in such a way to honor the production of others and affirm their work.  I don’t know if we can do much more than that in this life.

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