Mastering Farming

Rusty and Sue Nuffer have been farming organically in the Ozarks for over 35 years. When I first asked Rusty to lead a session at our conference, he declined, saying that he wasn’t sure if he had worthwhile knowledge that he could pass on to other farmers. It had been a rough year for them, with a long drought and greater market competition. Instead of feeling wise, he just felt old. 

After my conversation with Rusty, I thought, “If he doesn’t have anything to teach other farmers, then who possibly can? Does anyone know enough?”

Malcom Gladwell, in Outliers, describes the need to be deeply involved in an activity for a long period of time before mastering it. Based on a study of musicians that showed there were no “naturals” who effortlessly became great, Gladwell says, “…researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.”

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again,” according to Gladwell. “Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

After reading about Gladwell’s book, I wondered if the 10,000 hour rule could be applied to farming. When I was in my 20s I apprenticed on a sustainable farm for three full years. The assumption of the program was that a person needed to experience all the seasons of a year at least three times to begin to understand a farm. Interestingly enough, this added up to approximately 10,000 hours. Yet, at the end of three years I was nowhere near being a competent farmer, let alone a master.

In farming, maybe more than any other profession, there are numerous arts, crafts and sciences to master. There are the crafts of growing plants, animal husbandry, equipment usage and maintenance, business and financial management, and marketing, among others. There are the sciences of botany, entomology, soils, ecology, etc.  And there are the arts of understanding a particular eco-system, of anticipating weather conditions, of outwitting the wild animals in your midst… The list goes on and on.

If it takes 10,000 hours to master each of these skills, can anyone live long enough to be a master farmer? Probably not. Yet there are long-time farmers who have a great amount of wisdom. They have witnessed many seasons, paid attention to their land and plants and animals, and applied arts and sciences to the raising of good food. 

Southern SAWG is fortunate to have several of these farmers leading educational sessions at our 2012 conference. People like Walt Davis, Ann Wells, Will Allen, Cathy Jones, Paul & Alison Wiediger, Alex Hitt, Hana Newcomb, Jay Fulbright and Katie Pitre may not be master farmers, but they have acquired enough skills in 20+ years to master aspects of farming.  

While these folks may still get their butts kicked once in awhile by drought or disease or changing markets, they all have built long-lasting farm businesses on the practice of good stewardship and the production of healthful food. At the Southern SAWG conference we ask them to share what they’ve learned, but we don’t set them up as unfailing masters.

By the way, Rusty Nuffer finally agreed to present a couple sessions at our 2012 conference. If you attend, just don’t ask him about the summer of 2010…