Food production: the intuitive farmer is the farmer of the future

Justin Platt, founder and managing director of agricultural technical services companies Zylem and RegenZ, says that farmers don’t need more knowledge, but rather better ‘knowing’.

Food production: the intuitive farmer is the farmer of the future
Although intuition is involuntary, it’s also informed by experience gleaned along the way.
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The modern focus on scientific and intellectual farming approaches has significantly advanced food production. Innovations such as fertilisers and machinery have enabled food production to keep pace with a booming population, and advances in the preservation of food have resulted in access to a greater variety of food all over the world.

However, in this drive to produce more and more food, acknowledgement of the impact of these activities on nature’s balance and resources, and an improvement of the situation, have largely been neglected.

The industrial, technological approach to farming works on a never-ending cycle of interference. Pesticides and herbicides destroy beneficial soil microbes and organic matter, which leads to plants not being able to optimally take up and use naturally available nutrients in the soil.

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This leads to farmers using more synthetic fertilisers, which leads to degraded, acidified and compacted soil. Poor soil quality causes unhealthy plants to become diseased, and in response, farmers apply more pesticides and herbicides. And so, the vicious cycle continues.

It’s no secret that a large proportion of agricultural soil is severely degraded, and we need to farm more sustainably if we want to feed our futures. I would argue that instead of basing management decisions on a purely rational and cognitive approach, farmers need to harness (and trust) their unique intuition.

What is intuitive decision-making?
Intuitive decision-making means making decisions naturally (using your gut feeling), without the use of formal tools and procedures. It is a fast, involuntary and sensitive action that seems to bypass the brain’s functional cognitive processes, while taking prior knowledge and experience into account.

Modern mainstream agricultural research, on the other hand, takes a rational approach to generate empirical, tangible knowledge for increased yields, regeneration and sustainability. While helpful in supporting farmers’ decision-making to a degree, these technological tools fail to factor in more complex, dynamic variables.

Several scientific studies indicate that farmers don’t often use formalised, cognitive decision-support tools to make practical management choices; many prefer to rely on their intuition, resulting in both qualitative and quantitative benefits. Producers, in other words, often work off their gut feelings, which become more reliable as they learn what works on their individual farms.

I have found that I learn more from farmers than from lectures, consultants, and peer-reviewed scientific papers. What I’ve seen in over 30 years of working with farmers is that those who farm ‘intuitively’ report numerous beneficial outcomes, including:

  • Earlier disease detection;
  • Lower chemical inputs;
  • Increased nutritional value of crops;
  • Longer shelf life of products;
  • Higher input efficiency in plant production;
  • Reduction in the use of antibiotics;
  • Lower veterinary costs;
  • Improved immune responses;
  • Efficient feed conversion rates; and
  • Minimised impact on the environment.

Although the role of intuition in decision-making has long been studied and debated in fields such as neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry, the use of intuition in an agricultural context has received little attention in scientific research.

However, I believe that intuitive decision-making could have significant implications for modern management choices in South African agriculture, especially when it comes to improving farm efficiency and transitioning to regenerative farming.

Anyone who has worked closely with producers will know that challenges to farm management are more complex and site-specific than can be accurately represented by standardised scientific models and analytical methods. Thus, farmers must often rely on their intuition and access to tacit knowledge that offers an understanding of customised, holistic solutions.

Although intuition is reflexive, it’s also informed by science and teachings, as well as experience gleaned along the way. This puts farmers in a position to inform their unique understanding and management of their local environments.

For example, instead of dumping bags and bags of nitrogen fertiliser onto crops in the hope of a better yield, an intuitive farmer may pick up that these fertiliser applications are negatively affecting soil microbes.

All soils, microbes and fertilisers are unique, and in different environments there are varying interactions between these elements. Therefore, using his or her inherent intuition, a farmer may choose to employ task-specific microbes and biostimulants that will facilitate the solubilisation of fixed nutrients from decades of inorganic fertiliser applications.

As we enter a new era of food production, the challenge is not to simply produce more food, but to simultaneously optimise human health, ensure the protection of our food chain, and sustain life on our planet.

Farmers are increasingly coming under pressure to make management decisions that are both efficient and ecologically sound. I encourage them to complement analytical processes with their own intuition, which is often more accurate in their circumstances and more closely connected to nature. Plus, it’s free and easily accessible!

The farmer who embraces the regenerative approach will, after digesting all the information on the topic, be able to choose a path that is best suited to his or her budget, risk profile, and gut feeling.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

Justin Platt has been involved in the agricultural services industry since 1979. He is an active participant in industry bodies such as the Fertilizer Association of South Africa and Potatoes South Africa. He is also one of the few Southern African-registered consultants for Brookside Laboratories Incorporated in Ohio, US.

* Email Justin Platt at [email protected].