Saturday, December 2, 2023

Is farming art or science?

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Do we follow a farming formula like cooks, or get creative like chefs, asks Phil Weir.
Willie Wiese says consumer discretionary spending around the world remains subdued due to persistently high inflation.
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In this series, the lads ask if farming is more science or art. 

Art and science are two of humanity’s most outstanding and exciting achievements, but for very different reasons. 

Whether the work of Elvis Presley, Pablo Picasso, Dr Dre, CP McMeekan or Isaac Newton, artistic trends and scientific discoveries are fundamental in defining our histories and shaping our societies. 

Both art and science are attempts to comprehend and then explain the world around us. 

However, often they are portrayed as being concepts as compatible as oil and water. 

Recently a decent chef came to our place. We rode around on motorbikes and talked about food, farming and family. I shared how our sheep and beef farm works, he shared food trends and what were some crafty cheats to impress dinner guests. 

We had plenty in common when we shared views around inflation, skills shortages, the real adult challenge of parenthood and excitement about shaking a wet spring and spending some time in the sun over the summer (it was agreed an inch of rain every Wednesday night would work for us both). 

As hosts, it was one of the rare occasions when we were not on lunch. The obligatory fruit cake with a cup of tea on arrival was offered, but we left the meal making to the expert.  

Prior to lunch a fire was prepared, and when noon came, we sat around the open fire and had beef, potatoes and a salad, fare often shared by our family. 

The food, however, tasted better – likely due to the different salts and herbs to what would normally accompany our beef. Sitting around sharing this meal, I thought about the parallels between farming and cheffing. 

What was apparent was that a chef is clearly differentiated from a cook. A chef, like any good cook, understands the science of food. There is an understanding that temperature, salt and fat work together and react with proteins and carbohydrates to turn ingredients into food. 

Any cook can follow a recipe and take a range of consistent ingredients in defined portions and create a meal that is very, very good. 

Feedlot beef globally can often be paralleled to the work of a cook: it is housed on a feedlot, corn with a few “herbs and spices” are mixed through the rumen, and consistent grain-fed beef is produced. These steaks taste good, but like the difference between the work of the cook and the chef, they lack the artistry to make them truly wonderful. 

Science at its core is objective and based on data. It follows the scientific method and allows for results to be repeated. Agricultural science in New Zealand has a proud history.  

For the past 150 years, this work has formed our understanding of the relationships between the many components of our farms. We apply its principles daily. The relationship between soil nutrients and pasture production, the relationship between pasture (quality and quantity) and animal production (meat growth or milk production) are examples and we need more of it.

Uniquely for us in Aotearoa New Zealand, we don’t base our beef on corn, corn and urea-produced corn. We farm to the climatic conditions. These conditions include long-term climate trends such as warming, shorter term global weather systems like El Niño and constant micro-climates created by each of our farms, being one of a kind. 

A scientist might suggest disciplined management can navigate these uncertain conditions. 

Yes, to a degree, but if I come back to my new chef mate, his interest when inspecting our paddocks was not in looking for a round, rolly Angus the same as all its mates, or the weed-free ryegrass clover sward I proudly displayed. He was looking for a point of differentiation. 

He was looking for the imperfect to mould into a masterpiece. He found his muse in a striped dairy beef “Taranaki Tiger” I forgot to hide. 

Through this lens, I was better able to celebrate the joy of farming. It is the imperfect that creates beauty and value. The imperfections and blemishes are what make it real, and being real is what we need to base our marketing stories upon. 

Yes, we will need to be armed with all the scientific credentials, just like cooks, but it is the real artistic stories of chefs that make farmers artists. 

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