A Zen sage said “choosing is a sickness of the mind”, and certainly dithering over things, when it’s not one’s choice of entertainment (AKA “shopping”), can be a debilitating habit, but DECIDING is not a sickness but moving forward.
Nonetheless, decisions can be catastrophic or they can be fortunate and not knowing which they’ll be can be intimidating enough to freeze the soul.
There may be no sure way to foresee where a decision will lead, but often you can see if you’re heading toward a dead end or onto a path with more forks in the road.
My father made a permanent decision while in the Army, when he had a large likeness of a woman’s face tattooed on his arm with the name “Helen” beneath it. My mother, Margarete, got to share it with him for forty-five years. Let’s call this sort of choice, an irreversible one, a tattoo decision, and its companion on the other end of the spectrum a henna decision—one that holds for a few days, but eventually can be replaced. As you make farm decisions you should have this spectrum in the back of your mind—tattoo or henna? Does the choice at hand increase possibilities or limit them, expand or diminish freedom to make other choices?
If I plant just one crop, then one ill-timed hailstorm, one insect outbreak, one fungal or disease problem can wipe my entire year out (a hard frost on the peonies, a bad spider mite year on dahlias, or, recall the Irish Potato Famine, so devastating because the entire population planted a single cultivar, one susceptible to the blight). Planting one thing makes for fewer decisions—it’s easier to grow eighty acres of nigella than one acre of 80 different species—but the danger of total catastrophe is always there.
Devoting your product to just one market is a tattoo decision. Setting up your business for commerce with a large wholesaler or supermarket chain certainly eases things in one sense, but also means you may not be able to recover when policy changes occur or managers change their minds. You can easily be left with a field of unsold flowers, scrambling for buyers who may not exist.
You can make decisions that seem to simplify things but which complicate them in other ways. Every time I buy a small item at a store these days I’m reminded of the rural grocery store where I bought penny candy as a child, when the aged owner could make change and complete the transaction much more quickly than the cashier with a computer does now—never mind if the power goes out, making the store unable to operate. Easy as the computer system has made some things, in other ways it’s presence defies common sense, making some simple transactions not only difficult but impossible.
It’s not just computers—any piece of technology can simultaneously ease and confound. When I worked on a large commercial farm in the 1980s, for instance, potato harvest took the general form of a two row harvester, a two row side-digger (also called a windrower) that added to the harvester’s rows, and a host of trucks to move product from field to cellar, where a dozen more employees sorted rocks and clods from spuds. For our six hundred acres we had two side-diggers and two harvesters to keep six trucks running back and forth, so if one machine broke down the others could keep the harvest process going, the trucks busy, the cellar crew working. A harvester could dig two rows if a windrower broke down, a side-digger could work doubly hard to keep both harvesters going, or two side-diggers could make six rows if one harvester was down.
As is the way of capitalism and technology, “better” and “bigger” came along in the form of a four-row side-diggers (even wider combines and windrowers exist now, loading trucks in a couple minutes—it used to take us twenty). The boss decided to eliminate two tractors and two operators by buying one four-row to take the place of the two old school windrowers, run one combine to pick up six rows at a time. When everything worked smoothly, that turned out just fine.
But breakage occurred—chains broke, rollers wore out, dirt clogged the machine, a truck or tractor got stuck and held up the entire process. The cellar crew stood around and did nothing, the six truck drivers sat waiting, the sorters on the combine took an extra lunch, and the threat of a hard, crop-ruining frost seemed ever closer. Becoming more efficient became less efficient because there was no slack in the operation where quick changes could be made.
The computer can be a tattoo, that four row windrower can be a tattoo. Anything that deprives you of possibility, that makes you more dependent, may make your life easier on one hand and more difficult on the other. Take evolution’s lesson from the
Panda’s cul-de-sac—its diet is exclusively bamboo (somewhere along the line it eliminated pecan pie and shrimp gumbo from its table, a drastic mistake), making its existence dependent on that plant. If bamboo goes extinct, so does the panda. Make decisions that instead take you down widening paths with multiple opportunities, as the coyote and cockroach have, eating anything, living anywhere, adapting along with the environment—and surviving, against all odds.
If you make your operation dependent on doing things a single way, on selling a single product, on selling to a single buyer, then any small hiccup can shut the entire process down. Keep alternative avenues open.