Thursday, February 22, 2024

A dance for the ages: balancing art and science

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It is the farmers who navigate this dance through the agricultural year that leave a lasting legacy, writes David Eade.
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In this series, the lads ask if farming is more science or art. 

For many years I rowed competitively. In rowing, naturally talented people use long limbs and height to be effective. Anyone on the shorter side, like me, must employ different tactics. We graft to get results. 

The “10,000 hours of practice” rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, holds true for the grafter. Usually though, the naturally talented still lope past you, defying the rule and making things look effortless. 

The disciplined nature of the sporting world used to sometimes wear thin with me. Pre-race routines, set trainings, specific nutrition. But today, with the races long over, I appreciate that a disciplined process brings with it a strange love for the craft. It creates space for effective decision making and allows for joy to be found in the most boring of tasks.

In farming, much like sport, one often encounters the debate of natural talent versus grafting. People at the top of their game defy time. Michael Jordan’s iconic dunk, suspended in mid-air, mirrors the so called “10-day gap” that separates top-tier farmers from their average counterparts. 

But what in the moment looks easy has come from a combination of natural ability and graft. Experienced experts blend instinct with fundamental knowledge to achieve mastery as the technical becomes artistic.  

Case in point is our neighbouring farmer and his uncanny understanding of the seasons. His key decisions hinge on the slightest variations in weather patterns and all decisions flow from his innate knowledge base. 

His connection with the land is akin to an artist’s intimate relationship with their canvas. To me, he is the embodiment of the gifted farmer, whose natural talent sets him apart. Yet, this ability has come through seasons of repetition.

Feedback loops are almost instantaneous in sport, but take at least a season in farming. A rower can take thousands of strokes per day to consistently hone their craft. Michael Jordan missed more than 9000 shots in his career, including 26 match-winning shots. This constant repetition creates the muscle memory needed to perform under pressure.

Contrast this with feedback loops in farming. It will be 12 months from now until I get to practise my next attempt at sowing the perfect summer crop or practise our weaning strategy. If lucky, I might get 30 springs to hone my craft. Thirty years is a long time, but 30 repetitions are very short, especially for a millennial. 

A grafter’s journey is one of transformation, turning a start in the primary sector into a proud legacy. One cannot rely solely on grit and determination, the normal traits shown by a grafter in the sporting world, to bridge the gap between potential and mastery in farming. A scientific approach is required to fully grasp the complexities of a business model reliant on the natural world. Not scientific in the true sense of the word, but a curiosity to experiment and apply all learnings that come from it. 

Agriculture is an ever-evolving landscape. Adaptability is key, and farms that strike a balance between artistry and science thrive in the face of change. They are not bound by tradition alone, nor do they blindly follow the latest trends or technical advice from a salesperson. Instead, they carve a path that embraces the wisdom of the past while incorporating the advances of the present.

In the end, it is the farmers who navigate this dance between art and science that leave a lasting legacy. Their stories are always about pushing the boundaries of their chosen field. It is in their footsteps that future generations of farmers will tread. 

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