Friday, November 15, 2013

When you talk to a farmer about their farm...

live, healthy piglets.  Easy to write about
There's something that is worth saying, dear internet reader, about what you read on the internet about farms.  As someone who writes a farm blog, the hardest thing that I have to write about is where I failed at something.

And by failure, I'm talking about stuff that I made a bad choice on or picked a bad direction, or even those cases where I'm not particularly to blame, but I failed anyway.  The weather, accident, disease, whatever the issue was, when things don't go right that's when it gets hard to put it down in the blog. 

So I'm reading a discussion about farming economics, and the author says "Well, this is a mashup of the experiences of this farmer I knew" - stories that the farmer had related to the author, and I sat there after reading this, and what I heard in my head was "um, you didn't hear the whole thing from that farmer. "

That's particularly true about revenue numbers.  In all honesty, only the tax man and I know what I made on my farm, and that's true of every farmer you see out there.  I talk about the economics of what I do from time to time, and I scoff at people who claim to be paying off a million dollar investment with 100lbs of cheese a week, but in all seriousness, even if you ask a farmer directly about their operation you'll rarely get a straight answer.  Or a verifiable answer. 

So when this woman trotted out some revenue numbers that I presume she'd gotten from her friend, I was a little skeptical.  Strike that.  A lot skeptical. 

Old school farmers in this area are extremely laconic, but a typical discussion of farming economics goes like this: 

  "Hi Bob!  How's the farm?"
  "oh, you know...  the corn went in late, and that cold snap... probably lost it all"
  "Oh, that's terrible!  what did you do?"
  "well, we waited a while, and some of the corn came back, but the cows broke down the fence and ate it all!"
  "gosh.  so what happened then?"
  "Well, there was a little left, but the combine broke and we didn't get it all out of the field"
  "so... not so good?  "
  "no, terrible.  lost that crop three times this year"

But I know for a fact that the corn in question was the highest yield this guy had ever seen, but if you'd taken his statements at face value, he's going broke multiple times every year. 

Blog farmers, however, have a different take on the same issue
  "I have selected my corn crop out of seeds I saved from the finest genetic stock, and my corn is the best corn that's ever been grown, and I have people fighting and dying to buy my corn from me!  and if you read carefully, I'll tell you all of my corn secrets!"  And it's usually accompanied by very carefully framed shots on the single corn plant that managed to survive to harvest.  Oh yea.  they bought their seeds from the same vendor as the old school guy. 

I've exaggerated a little here, in both examples, but not much.  Whether it's sheep or corn or pigs or random vegetables, take the claims you see on the internet with a grain of salt.  No one is going to tell you all of the facts; read between the lines a little.  If the average commercial sheep herd is producing 1.87 lambs per ewe, someone with 30 sheep who's producing triplets everywhere... well, a little suspect. 

My best sources for information are the publications put out by either agricultural colleges and universities or small government-funded research projects like SARE.  As you look at your farming practices and results, and compare it to the internet, don't be surprised if your animals don't do as well as the reports.  Don't be surprised at all.

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