What Makes a Good Farmer?

What are the attributes of a really good farmer? Would they include a penchant for order and neatness? A single-minded focus on efficiency and yield maximization? A bullet-proof resolve in the face of risk? What about drive for expansion and scale or technical proficiency? While some or all of these may currently inform our rating of farmers, I want to propose some alternative attributes in response to this question. But before getting there, some context is needed.

One of the formative ideas, probably the most important one, that shaped our thinking when we started Blue North in 2011, and which fundamentally shapes what we do to this day, is understanding farmers as the key role-players in determining the sustainability of food supply-chains, and, by extrapolation, the sustainability of mankind as a whole.

Sound a bit grandiose? We think not: Farmers stand at the interface between the natural system and its inherent productive potential, and mankind’s dependence on the outputs of that system. We easily forget that dependence; we experience food, not as the product of our tilling, plowing, planting and tending, but as hygienic, wrapped and graded items only as far away, and requiring of effort, as a trip to the closest retail outlet.  In spite of the fact that the modern age has allowed the majority of people to live geographically disconnected from primary food production, our dependence on primary agricultural output remains obstinately steadfast and immutable.  We may live with the illusion of being unshackled from the drudgery and toil of farming, free to live in the “knowledge economy”, but it remains an illusion. As Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act”[1], and all we have done in effect, is outsource our food production to a few, very important people, farmers.

Two factors further magnify the importance of farmers: Firstly, farms, unlike factories, are non-uniform. No two farms are the same; their uniqueness a function of their particular soils, slopes, aspects, drainage, altitudes and micro-climates. This means farmers, unlike factory managers, have to be sensitive to, and learn to manage within, the tolerances of a very specific “place”. A critical coupling, therefore, exist between a farmer and the farm, resulting in the emergence of, often uncodified, site-specific knowledge, solutions and adaptations. The second magnifier is that agriculture represents the largest physical manifestation of negative anthropogenic impact on the planet – mankind’s antagonistic relationship with planet Earth is no more evident than in the vast scale of transformation of natural landscapes for agriculture.

This means that we cannot think about sustainability in general without deep consideration of agriculture, and we cannot consider “sustainable agriculture” without contemplating very fundamental changes to the way that we “do” agriculture. And the key actor at the center of this change is the farmer.

In short, there is a lot at stake and a lot rests on the shoulders of a very important but relatively small community of individuals. It is appropriate, therefore, to more deeply consider the question “what makes a good farmer?” in a bit more depth, and I want to propose, as a start, the following six attributes;

a. A good farmer is a systems thinker, able to perceive and understand the linkages between the farm’s productivity and the social and ecological dimensions of the farm; clear about what the farm depends upon and what its impacts are and how these need to be managed. Systems thinking also implies an understanding that the farm is not an isolated “island” but part of a larger integrated social and biophysical systems – the landscape or catchment – whose “health” is critical to the well-being of the farm, and vice versa. This demands that a farmer’s scope of thinking and management extends well beyond the legal boundaries of the farm.

b. A good farmer builds financial, social and natural capital. Warren Buffet’s patient approach to investing provides a useful analogy; the aim being to build capital to a point where one can live off the interest, necessitating a long-term view and avoiding eating into the capital base or putting it at risk. This stands in stark contrast to market speculation-based investing, high on adrenalin but fraught with risk (and poor performance measured over the long-term). Good farmers apply this thinking and approach not only to their financial capital, but to the management of the farm’s natural and social/human capital, understanding that short-term erosion of these capital stocks fundamentally weakens the farm, while consciously nurturing and growing them is essential to the farm’s productivity and viability in the long-term.

cA good farmer builds buffer capacity: Related to the above, this is about building in a “margin of safety” into the different aspects of the farm that collectively reduce its vulnerability to external shocks. In the current age, efficiency is often the ultimate measure of performance, and the building and maintaining of “buffers” can seem counterproductive, even wasteful. But good farmers understand how important buffer capacity is. In the financial dimension this is about maintaining sufficient levels of financial reserves to be able to continue as a going-concern through periods of low production, low prices, market closures etc. In the social dimension it’s about investment in the farm’s workforce beyond the menial, to those things that really build human potential, and which build the collective wisdom of the farm, in so doing endowing the farm with adaptive capacity – the ability to quickly perceive and effectively respond-to changing conditions.  In the ecological dimension it is about restoring and maintaining areas of natural diverse vegetation and biodiversity (such as biodiversity corridors, riparian buffer zones, diverse cover cropping etc.) even when at the “cost” of reduced areas for production. This sustains and strengthens key ecological processes (for example pollination, pest & disease suppression, soil conservation, flood suppression, nutrient cycling etc.) which reduces the farm’s sensitivity to environmental changes and shocks.

d. A good farmer is a master in delayed gratification: Good farmers play the “long game”, sacrificing short-term gain in favor of long-term stability and strength. Building required financial, social and natural capital as well as sufficient buffer capacity takes self-restraint and patience. Good farmers are also deeply attuned to what constitutes the natural pace of the farming system and are sensitive to anything that risks “forcing that pace” above a level where capital stocks risk being undermined. The use of fossil-fuel based agrochemicals and fertilizers is a case in point; while they provide a quick and convenient solution to a particular pest or nutrient deficiency in the short-term, injudicious use (forcing the pace) comes with the real risk of erosion of the natural and human capital of the farm. Just think of the long-term cost to farms of pest & disease resistance, water eutrophication, soil health decline and chronic illness in workers, for example.

e. A good farmer is a great observer/listener, looking out for and sensitive to feedback from across the system. Typically, financial and operational reporting is available, and most farmers rely on these feedback-loops to assess and manage progress. Good farmers know, however, that this information speaks for only part of the system – providing an incomplete and potentially distorted picture. Sensing the state of natural and social/human capital, the well-being of flows from these stocks and the farm’s impacts on them, the suitability of buffers for each etc. requires a step well beyond financial and operational reporting. It calls for a more nuanced approach of greater sensitivity. It requires time with employees building relationships and reliable, open and trusted communication channels. It requires regular time in-field, becoming sufficiently attuned and sensitive to subtle shifts in the farm’s ecological processes, interactions and dynamics. It also speaks to concerted efforts to build performance metrics and reporting that show the financial, social and ecological in an integrated and holistic way, not as disconnected components.

f. A good farmer is an innovator par excellence, able to take on board feedback, and to develop, test and implement the actions necessary to maintain the farm’s ongoing well-being. This attribute means no tolerance for complacency while demanding tolerance for the unavoidable discomfort associated with ongoing change. This capacity to drive ongoing improvement and perpetual learning is essential within a context of accelerating change and pressures from within the social, political and environmental spheres within which farms exist. Innovation equates to adaptation, and farmers have to be masters at managing adaptation in order for their farms to successfully evolve and survive in the long-term.

Ultimately, and in summary, a good farmer is a steward, a custodian of a more complex system then many of us dare to contemplate, yet one that we are utterly dependent upon. They deserve our keen interest, sympathetic support and deep respect.

Please let us know what you think of these and if you feel any important attributes have been missed. It’s an important conversation for us to be having.

[1] Berry, Wendell. What Are People For?: Essays (p. 145). Counterpoint. Kindle Edition