Friday, July 3, 2015

The dwindling herd

September 1997

This spring I was faced with a difficult (for me) decision: to hoe or not to hoe. After planting my corn acres in relatively good conditions (especially compared to the past few years), a typical spring thunderstorm dumped .75” of rain on my fields in about 15 minutes.

The result was unpleasantly familiar. A mild crust formed on the soil that would represent no problem to a vigorously growing crop, but in Illinois, 1997 would not be remembered as a spring for vigorous growth. I walked over the fields, digging and looking, trying to form some plan of action. Finally, with some reluctance, I hooked up to my rotary hoe.

In our soils, rotary hoes are a tool both embraced and shunned. I have never been a big proponent of their use, based largely on the personal sentiment that, like chiropractors, they seem to work best for those who believe in them. I do not. Would I do more harm than good? Am I panicking? Is it too early?

Doubts continued to plague me for some time that afternoon as I worked, until on the horizon, I saw another fast-moving cloud of dust that could only be raised by another hoe. By late afternoon, I could see two more neighbors hoeing. 

My relief was palpable. The fact that my colleagues (and I knew, of course, who they were by the machinery and location) had made a similar decision added badly needed justification to my own. The familiar feeling that “if the other guys are doing it, I can’t be too far off” flooded me with renewed confidence.

Then it began to dawn on me. I don’t have that feeling much any more. As my farm, along with everyone else’s, has evolved down an individual path, the lack of farm-to-farm similarity makes comparisons difficult. What may be a good idea for my mode of farming will not be a good idea for my neighbor.

Furthermore, the urge to conform to some group average did not fit well with my self-image of the rugged individualist, making Spock-like rational decisions. So while I was glad to see Marc hoeing, I was embarrassed to be glad.

We used to be a community of almost identical farmers using identical tools to grow identical crops. Under such constraints, there was a certain logic to going along with the crowd. At least, there was some cover to hide under when things went wrong. Landlords, like predators, had a harder time picking on the guys in the center of the herd. On the positive side, since the largest repository of farm knowledge was held in the form of experiences and memories, one effective way of tapping this knowledge was to follow the lead of the veterans. The accumulated body of wisdom of the group had great validity during times of slower change.

Unfortunately for tradition, the pace of change has increased markedly in agriculture.  As a result, the herd has gone off in a dozen different directions. To find a truly valid comparison for my farm would mean matching up tillage, machinery, chemicals, crops, fertilization, and other factors to be valid. Then too, soil types and weather would have to be the same. 

There are other problems to finding a herd to belong to. First of all, there are fewer farmers now in my area. Then we separate those with similar tillage. I no-till soybeans, but some-till corn (my own definition of using a finisher). Glancing around to see if I should be planting, for instance, means I had better be looking at somebody with identical residue and soil before taking comfort with their actions. If I was no-tilling corn on my ground, in comparison, I would have to consciously not be part of the herd when starting to plant corn.

It gets more complicated. When should I be spraying post-emergence on soybeans? This depends now on which of a jillion products in what combinations on what row-width beans you have. Waiting until Joe gets started may not have any relevance.

I could go on detailing the uniqueness of my operation, but this is a cerebral, not gut, analysis. What I want to feel is some relief from faltering self-confidence that has previously been gained by observing others. Whether valid or not, we are not yet beyond making competitive comparisons with our neighbors.

It would seem I’ve lost my herd to hide in. Some new way of judging my performance on the fly will have to be found to replace the practice of shooting for an average, or middle-of-the-pack position. This step necessarily produces an increased sense of isolation and personal responsibility.

Farming by traditional community guidelines was not always easy. The “accepted” practices may have called for costs you didn’t feel necessary, for example. But it at least reduced the number of difficult decisions made alone. It also reduced the amount of information (i.e. scouting, researching, asking, calculating, etc.) that you had to dig up. 

I had also thought I had moved beyond this type of peer pressure. At my age and stage of career, it should be no problem to make decisions solo. I was kidding myself. Luckily for me, however, I’ve learned to cheat the system.

By enlarging my “community”, to include friends and acquaintances far from Chrisman, I have effectively made a bigger herd to hang out with. In this larger group, I have found several farmers who farm in a similar manner, to whom I can compare my actions and results. It is quietly reassuring.

Nor is it all that illogical. The compulsion to be part of a group similar to myself has forced me to widen my vision, in the process gathering more information in more ways. This data in turn helps my decision-making process. It could be that - all jokes about waistlines aside - my herd may not be getting smaller, it’s just spreading out.

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