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How farmers learn – From SOPs to stomping onions

July/August 2017


If I ever learned in a steady, methodical way I don’t know, but I do know that the way I learn now is in fits and starts, in a pedagogical version of what evolutionary theorists call interrupted equilibrium. Nothing changes for ages then, boom, I learn something. 

Two things put me in mind of education and learning at this time: one is the education special that Janet Wallace has assembled for this issue. Comprehensive, intriguing and, well, big, it offers a range of courses and seminars that should appeal to anyone interested in livestock, crop production or farm-related marketing.

The other thing was the arrival of a standard operating procedure (SOP) that accompanied a used irrigation reel we recently purchased. Hand-written by the previous owner, the SOP detailed every single step required to move, set-up and turn on the reel without a.) stripping the gearbox or b.) needlessly driving the tractor and reel over irrigated beds. As if the detailed text was not enough, Brock, the former owner, had included images to identify various lever positions etc. You’d have to have the IQ of a root vegetable to successfully use the reel if you followed the SOP instructions.

Boom! I’ve struggled for years on how to teach new employees, or even friends who want to help on the farm for a few days, on using equipment or the way we do things. Brock’s SOP, or a version of it, has solved a major problem. I can easily see the use of SOPs for diagnosing and fixing a problem with the feed auger system into our hog barn, preparing the farm store for opening, or any of a number of other system-related aspects of the farm.

Actually, learning is the easy part. Implementing is the real challenge. I can’t tell you how many management intensive grazing schemes I’ve studied over the years, but failed to implement because I didn’t have the wherewithal to follow through. Maybe we need two special features in this issue—learning and doing.

Here’s an example of something that was easy to learn and to implement: several years ago a retired firefighter named Brent started to help us in haying season. He’s a handy guy but hadn’t worked with haying equipment before so was learning each step. I explained as well as I could how to rake hay into windrows for the baler, which can be tricky on mountain-squeezed Vancouver Island fields as they vary from kidney-shaped to ovoid, pear, square and L-shaped with a blob on the end.

As I baled, Brent raked until he got to the inevitable point where the rows crossed or required a bit of fancy tractor work. Instead of carrying on and making a hash of things, he drove to the top of a knoll in the field, stopped, and studied the situation. Now, maybe it is because I’m jittery by nature, or maybe it is because after you’ve dealt with four alarm fires and car accidents nothing phases you, but whatever the reason he seemed marvelously composed.

After a few minutes Brent had a plan and raked the remainder of the field in a way that was both efficient and easy for the baler.


Since then, whenever faced with a problem and not much time to deal with it, I go to a knoll—real or in my mind—and think things through.

There’s another way we learn and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it has something to do with memory, or more precisely sensual memory. Think: your mother showing you how to sprinkle flour on the counter before rolling out bread dough, or a brother showing you how to reload a grease gun. In our family there is a great grandfather that no one knows a lot about. His named was Robert. My father recalled being a boy and Robert showing him how to plant onions. It was important that you stomped the soil in around the bulb. So Robert showed my father how plant onions, and I learned from my father.


Learning. Go figure.