This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
I’ve been thinking about competence and skill, about how many things I’m competent at, and the smaller number of things for which I’ve developed true skill. The honing of practice that creates a blade sharp enough to slice through the tasks, an evaluative mind that can see and understand problems and seek solutions. They say that 10,000 hours makes an artist, and as we sojourn through our 14th season of full-time farming, a quick back-of-the-napkin low end calculation puts me around 30,000 hours engaged in this labor of love.
Looking back on the learning lessons, the good times, the hard times, I can see a gradual increase in competence in the many aspects of our farm and homestead. The basics begin with water and power; water is one of my best skills, yet one that still confounds me and makes me feel like an idiot every single year. Power is my weakest area, I have basic electrical training from when I worked in construction but I’m rusty and lack the confidence needed to troubleshoot or upgrade our off-grid systems.
When it comes to water I separate it into three areas in my head; indoor plumbing, outdoor plumbing, and irrigation. I can manage pumps to get water from its source over hill and valley to arrive at storage tanks, from whence it moves via gravity to the faucets that begin the irrigation systems. I don’t have a broad understanding of the field of irrigation, but in our highly specialized context I’ve developed enough skill to be quick, efficient and capable. I’m pretty good with irrigation and outdoor plumbing but terrible at indoor plumbing beyond the rough-in.
As I think about the spectrum from beginner to competence to skill, I reflect that in many areas I land in the competent category, and I recall the old “Jack of all trades, master of none”. I’m a decent rough carpenter and framer, but I’m not patient enough for finish carpentry. My traits don’t lend themselves to fine aesthetics, and the older I get the more I realize just how utilitarian I am.
I want things to function, to do the job for which they’re intended, but I don’t much care how they look. One of the ruminations I have is that part of the shift from competent to skilled involves how the project looks at the end, where skill results not just in function but in beauty. I’m learning to ask myself “what would it look like if I took the time to make it beautiful?” or “am I being competent or skilled here?” These reflections help me slow down and do a better job, thinking more about the future and less about checking things off the list.
As I get deeper into the work of animal husbandry I start to realize how little I know and how much I have to learn. My friend Meadow says “listen to that little voice that says ‘hm that fence doesn’t look tight’ or ‘they might be able to get through that gate’”, because when you miss those cues you’re more likely to have catastrophe on your hands. When I’m going too fast because there’s too much to do, that voice doesn’t get the chance to surface, and I live the old saying “if you can’t find time to do it right you’ll find time to do it twice”.
Animals will test you in unexpected ways that will make you gnash your teeth and cry tears of frustration and sometimes rage. It’s so easy to put livestock in a mental box and set of expectations, but living beings are nonconformists to our mental constructs and I’m still learning the hard lessons they have to teach.
Perhaps the area I’m coming to feel most skilled in is managing the rotations and growing of crops along with all that entails. Building living soil and fertility, providing irrigation, sowing, transplanting, tending and harvesting. Each year I get better as I learn more of the ways to make things go right, and adjust from the lessons of things that go wrong. Crop failure, human error, poor timing and weather are all variables that need adjusting to, and the practice of time is what builds first competence and then skill.
One of the most important aspects of skill is to know that things will generally work out, and that there is a solution for any problem. The calm that this perspective engenders is critical to survival in the small farmscape, helping to keep anxiety low and productivity high. Each day is an opportunity for more practice, more learning, more skill building. As always, much love and great success to you in your journey!