What lessons have we learned on the farm? Here's a few of the best ones.
March 31, 2022
What do you remember from your high school biology class?
I'll start. Admittedly, not much! But I do remember a chart illustrating both photosynthesis and plant cell functions. I studied it, and studied it, and studied it, and I could not make sense of it. What was chlorophyll? What was a chloroplast? Why did any of this matter?
And then, when I started seeds a few years ago, it clicked. All of those charts and diagrams that I couldn't figure out...made sense when I learned to actually grow something. And I thought: Why couldn't they have just taught it that way?
I imagine many of you have stories like that. Maybe you can't remember why you ever found certain concepts or tasks so difficult. Or maybe you've tried to educate your children differently, so that they don't feel that same confusion.
Within my day job as a college instructor, there's lots of research discussing this idea - of learning by doing. But you probably don't need peer-reviewed research and statistics to show you the merit of this. For most of us, we figure this out through our life experiences.
It's certainly been that way on the farm. In fact, many of the things we "know", we learned by doing things wrong the first time.
How did we learn the right time to put our broiler chickens out in the pasture? Well, we learned it the hard way, by putting them outside too early. One year, we got fooled by that mid-March heat wave that always comes along, and tempts everyone to think that spring is finally here.
Of course, as many of you know, that heat wave is often followed by a severe cold front. So that particular year, we found ourselves outside, in freezing temperatures, with hail raining down and howling winds, strapping on tarps and trying to weigh down the tractors in the field. And so we learned that it's best to wait out the storms and frosts of March.
Or there was the first time our pigs got out of the fence, in the summer of 2020. Everyone had warned us - you don't want to be chasing pigs through the woods! - and so I panicked. I did chase those two pigs, round and round the outside of the fence, through the blackberry thorns, until I finally stopped to consider that chasing the pigs was going to be a losing, bloody battle.
So what did I do? I got a bucket of food. And I sat, and waited. And I learned that pigs will cautiously come back, and let you ease them right back in, if you just stay quiet and wait.
I've been thinking about this often as we start another growing season. The difficulty of learning by doing is that it often involves making mistakes. We learn by doing something wrong first.
And yet this is a difficult reality to face. Many of you, like us, have jobs where making mistakes can mean the loss of life. It's a fine line to walk. And my personality type is one where I want to shrink from the risk. Maybe, if there's a chance I'll do it wrong, it's better not to do it at all.
It's been a process to work through those feelings. I've nursed my fair share of weak chicks in the brooder, only to feel helpless at their deaths. Those of you who have grown up or been around farms know that death is constant. It's a good teacher, but it doesn't make facing it any easier.
And yet, we learn to lean in, and find out a little bit more, and try better. Because learning by doing isn't just about the disappointments or mistakes. It's also about the joy that comes from seeing animals and land thrive when you've learned to care for them well.
It's an exciting time on the farm. We've got new pigs in the woods. We've got our first batch of broiler birds in the pasture. We're looking forward to everything that we'll learn by doing this year.
What lessons have you learned? What do you know now that you had to learn by doing? I'd love to hear from you.
All the best,