Saturday, July 4, 2015

Last year's mistake

January 1999

Agriculture remains, for the most part, an annualized business - a cycle that starts in spring and ends in winter. Farmers feel this rhythm at an almost molecular level, and as we age, I have found, adapt most of our lives to the circle of years.

We speak of years as distinct entities and treat each new round of months as a “new ball game”. But underlying this succession of business and personal cycles are some constants that I find both help and harm my efforts to get ahead in my profession.

One of the strongest such tendencies is the absolute horror of the “successive mistake”. This is the concept embedded in the “Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me” proverb that seems to have been universally taught in rural America. The repeated mistake is not just unfortunate - it is shameful, and professionally embarrassing.

Sounds reasonable enough. But if you look closer at what this syndrome implies, it may not be so straightforward. Successive mistakes deserve personal blame only if they are truly identical, which rarely happens. The world seldom delivers matching circumstances, a problem that plagues forecasters of events as divergent as economics and fashion. Without the repeat of initial conditions, there can be no repeated mistake, just similar outcomes, which cannot be blamed on a character flaw.

Moreover, thinking in terms of mistakes and triumphs oversimplifies a much more complex range of outcomes. I find increasingly, rather than right or wrong moves, I am confronted with a bewildering array of similar appearing choices, any of which might get me where I want to go. Looking back on these decisions, I have also noticed that the results would have been likewise a mixture of good and bad news. Some would work better than others, and some, even after the fact, defy labeling. Was paying that high rent better than losing that ground? Maybe. If I had planted more short season corn, would my yields have improved? Depends.

In short, mistakes, recent or not, are getting harder to identify clearly. Worse still, things that were a bad choice in one instance, could easily be the optimal choice in a set of circumstances only slightly different. Nowhere is this more frustrating than in the area of marketing.

The instinct to avoid last year’s mistake gives a strong undercurrent in my marketing decisions, I have found. In 1998, for example, not selling early (before harvest) was a bad idea, and holding on to 1997 crop was even less fruitful. I now feel an eagerness to dump my 98 crop as rapidly as possible, since declining prices is the scenario I can imagine. When I get these itches, I often interpret market signals illogically.

Therein may be the center of the problem. My middle-aged memory tends to focus on last year to the exclusion of previous years. In the last few years, I have tried to compensate for this by writing down in January both a few simple Goals for the upcoming year, and the “Great Lessons” (profound truths revealed to me by experience) from the past year. It makes for both interesting and confusing reading.

For example, I have been engaged in an ongoing debate with myself (the kind you always lose) over two production topics: what population to drill beans and how much N to apply. Reading my past pronouncements on these problems over the last decade, I have discovered I have firmly resolved to “never again put on more that 140# N” followed shortly by the vow to “never use less than 180#”. Similarly, I have alternated in my so-called “Great Lessons” from 160,000 seeds/acre to 240,000, with equal conviction each way.

It could be that: 1) I’m getting my shorts in a knot over fairly trivial issues, and 2) many of my “Great Lessons” need an expiration date. Much of what I do is a simple response to the preceding year, to avoid the embarrassment of a double fault.

Much of what we decide now in farming will have to be done looking forward, not back. Just as Jerry Gulke is always harping on responding to today’s market, rather than trying to predict tomorrow’s, there may be few fail-safe guidelines that will ensure success. I am beginning to suspect also, that being aware of my own personal mental prejudices when I make decisions could be the best “Great Lesson” of all.

Looking for the “right” answer might be a waste of time, too. What I need are some answers that are “right enough”. I also need to lighten up about my mistakes, even the second time around. If my best analysis tells me to plant the corn deeper than usual, even though last year that was a blunder, I need to decide which I trust more - my brain or my pride. The object may be a process to find answers, not a specific answer.

Last year’s mistake is a bogeyman  I need to outgrow. Ruling out a legitimate course of action because it wasn’t the greatest tactic last season diminishes the choices I have for this year’s problems. And I need all the ammo I can get.

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