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The Practitioner's "Why" is More Important Than their Practice

I recently attended an invitational, farmers-only discussion on organic practices. Ten farmers in the room represented farms from 32 to over 4,000 acres. Post-collegiate farm experience ranged from 3 to 60 years with the group’s total farming experience exceeding 250 years. Organic farming experience totaled about 150 years. All ten had grown up in farming. If you calculated that farm kids used to start raking hay by age 8, then this group had almost 450 years of lifetime farm experience. Seven of them used livestock in their rotations. Only four had imported any kind of fertility -chicken or turkey manure from off farm– which has become a common practice for large-scale organic farms.

Eight of the ten, including the oldest farmer in the room, said that they were “still learning” and “trying to figure this out”.

As the discussion meandered through successes and challenges, we found parallel discoveries.* Farming conversations, like so many other industries, often focus on specific practices –the how.

As members traded ideas and experiences around the room, what emerged was that the divergences in techniques didn’t stem so much from whether or not a method worked on its own, but rather how it fit the practitioner’s philosophy.

Most were open to new techniques if they could adapt it to their outlook. Others remained steadfast in making or waiting for the conditions that fit their method.

In a field full of variables, belief and determination play an outsized role in success. We talk about the how, but don’t often acknowledge how much our individual “why” and personality influence outcomes. I’ve seen the phenomena before –in Iraq.

Marine company-grade infantry officers in the mid-2000’s received very similar training, discussed the same books, studied the same 28 Articles of Counterinsurgency, and went through the same pre-deployment work up exercises with their units.

How they implemented what they learned depended not only on where they ended up in Iraq, but on the personalities of the commanders themselves and their units. Different company commanders even in the same local area (like two farms on either side of the road) implemented different levels and methods of engaging Iraqi locals, different techniques in using (or not using) their vehicles, and different missions behind their patrols. Even though the they all received similar training, and shared similar external circumstances, individual commanders contrasted significantly in their interpretations and responses to those circumstances.

Many of our challenges today– in agriculture, the environment, food systems, or organizational change in general– come with innumerable variables and the clash of paradigms from our different regions, fields, and experiences.

Everyone wants to sell solutions to these problems (and others). Before you buy into their how, see if you can learn their why. Be wary if they show no interest in yours. Your why is the foundation of your success.

Understanding each other's why will be the foundation of our collective success.

*This is not an article about organic farming, but for those who care, the five who had been using roller crimpers as part of their no-till soybean systems had abandoned crimping rye for the last two or more years and experienced higher soybean yields without crimping, opting to harvest the rye over the beans instead.

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