Choosing a farming course and teacher

Good farming can be learned. This web page will help you choose a good farming course and teacher.

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Farming is one of the most complex things humans do. Done well, it involves more knowing and more understanding of more things than almost anything else humans do.

Even if you were born a farmer, you can always learn more.

So where is the best place to learn? One of the best places is in the real world of the farm and another is from a course or book. Smart farmers use both.

So how do you choose a good farming course and teacher?

To run a farm well you need skills in areas such as:

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What this means

Here is an expanded version of that list of some of the skills farmers need to be successful:
A successful farmer has to be a generalist or universalist rather than a specialist. They need a broad and broadening understanding of the relationships between things (Things in this respect are, say, cattle, vegetable beds or a peach orchard) and a good basic handle on the workings of the things, plus relevant detailed knowledge of some aspects of the things as required.

Compare this with an expert or a specialist and you get some idea of what makes farming such a challenging and interesting business and profession. The expert may know one field almost completely and have relatively few surprises.

Farmers are often confronted by surprising events and developments in one of their many disciplines. The adaptability makes such a farmer good at coping with climatic, economic, agronomic and social challenges.

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So how do you choose a course and a teacher to help you improve your farming?

A good place to start is with your needs and wants

Below here are sections on assessing a course and one on assessing a teacher. Each has a set of questions to consider. You are not looking for a set of perfect answers, if there is one. Instead the aim is to get a good handle on your teacher and course so you can make an informed decision.

Looking at the course

Does the course cover what you want/need?

Is it based on teaching or learning?

Processes are not as important when you are deciding on whether to do the course, the outcomes will tell you more about the course.
This is because you may do a particular process and achieve little if the process is run poorly or if you do not participate well because it does not suit your learning style or you are not in a good state for learning on that particular day. You can do something about your end of that, but little about their end of that. However, they can do something about their end of it if you ask them to do so.
The learning outcomes will tell you what you should get from the course. The course provider should be able to tell you whether you personally will be likely to achieve them and what you will need to put in to do so.

Knowing or understanding?
Some people set out to learn about farming by learning the 300 facts, tools or other pieces of knowledge that they think it involves. Unfortunately it isn't that simple: This linear view of farming might work except that a farm is a biological system in the middle of All of these are relatively unpredictable. Understanding is about the only way to tackle farming. If you gain even a small understanding of how each of these systems interacts with your farm's biological and financial systems, you have some chance to adapt to changes outside the farm. Otherwise, you are doomed to be confused, out of business or worse.

How were other people assessed who have done the course? If the assessment is thorough, the people who complete the course satisfactorily will be capable of doing what the course supposedly teaches. If not, who can tell whether they are capable or not? So unless they are assessed well, the claims made for what you will learn are hollow.
Sometimes the easiest way to assess a course is to work alongside one of the graduates. First assess whether they are a suitable learner to compare yourself with. If they are, the results they got should guide you in what you might get.

A good mix of practical and theory?
All of the skills, attitudes, understanding and knowledge a good farmer needs can be taught. Then comes the fun part, putting it into action. Unless the course is part time or you do practical work in the course, there will not be enough trying it out in reality to provide good support for your theory learning. Practical without theory or vice versa adds up to much less than half of both. Trying it out is one of the most important steps in learning better farming.

Does it take you to a variety of farms with a variety of farmers who do things differently from what you are taught in class as well as to some who do things just as the teacher says it? There is no one true path to good farming and if anyone thinks they've found one, please don't tell me. I like the open-minded approach and the lack of dogma that comes from a variety of people doing a variety of things and getting a variety of results, all of them working.

Your modes of learning and learning style?
Will you learn how to learn (or how to do it better if you are already a good learner)? Do you already know how you best learn? Will they help you to explore this key area?

Structure and format
Will the class/group structure work for you? Can you do it externally on the web, by mail or in a local group that meets frequently plus a central summer school or similar so that you can connect with the source and get the cross-fertilization of ideas that happens in such a meeting of minds?

Location, resources etc
Is the location suitable for you? Can you get there, are the resources OK? A good library, other resources, supports etc that work for you can make a big difference.

The teacher

Look for the key Es that lead to good learning

  1. Enthusiasm: Are they fired up with life, with teaching, with the subject? Do they care?
  2. Expertise: Do they know what they are doing, do they know how to farm well or farm organically or whatever you want to learn?
  3. Engagement: Do they connect with you in a way that makes you want to do the course? This isn't charm, nor is it sales technique. Rather it is the sort of connection that will value you as a person and a learner, regardless of how good or bad you are at learning, at the subject or at anything else. You will be valued as an individual rather than as another object to educate or another means to a pay packet. This sort of engagement with you plus your own enthusiasm will engage you to do the course
  4. Empathy: Are they able to understand and have a feeling for you and your needs. Do they understand where you are coming from? One very successful teacher summed it up: "Learners don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
  5. Enterprising: are they prepared to learn, take risks, change? Do they look beyond their own experience?
  6. Not a patient teacher?
    But not necessarily a bad one.
    The legendary golfer, Sam Snead, supposedly told one pupil:
    "Lay off for three weeks...

    "Then quit for good."
    It may have saved the pupil a lot of hassle and time and allowed them to divert their energies into something that was worthy of their efforts.
  7. Extension: Can they communicate with you clearly? Do they deliver the course such that learning is effective, though not necessarily easy? Teachers often need to push learners a bit to get a shift. Don't be put off if this is what you need. Education should be a challenge, should light your fire rather than fill your mind with facts. There is often a need for a major mind shift when moving to an integrated form of farming. This is particularly so for organic farming where there are few effective fallbacks in the form of chemicals to use if things aren't going as you would like.

Sample learning outcomes

Below is a brief excerpt from a set of learning outcomes for an organic farming course I wrote and taught. I gave out the full version of this plus the method of assessment at the start of this one-year part-time organic farming course so that people knew where they were headed and how they would be assessed.

There were 41 learning outcomes in 7 modules taught one night a week plus one weekend a month for a year. The weekends were spent on a variety of farms, most run by very good farmers, all different and growing a huge range of crops between them.

Some of the farms were not organic, but were chosen because we could learn a lot on them about farming well.

Much of the learning took place on the farms and in the bus as we traveled to the farms. The evenings of theory set the scene for the practical and observation aspects of the course.

The main project used for assessment of whether each learner was achieving the learning outcomes was a running exercise in developing farm management skills.

Each learner had to produce a satisfactory result such as by taking the assessor to a farm they were managing successfully or by developing and demonstrating an understanding of how to manage such a farm.

As a result, they had the potential to go on from there and manage a farm, rather than just knowing a bunch of things about organic farming that they may have had no ability to apply.

So, now to the handout:

The aim of this course is to train you to understand and manage organic farms well. The course is not about the day-to-day, hands-on operation of the farm. You had at least the basics of fencing, driving tractors, milking cows etc before you started this course. Learners starting this course need to be reasonably experienced in or have a good understanding of conventional or organic farming. If you are unsure about your skills or experience, please talk to me.

The course is for people who run farms or who are considering starting farming or becoming employed in farming and who wish to do so organically or reduce their chemical use and/or improve their management of the farm.

Learning outcomes are the result of successful learning, the things you will be able to do by the end of the course if you learn what is there to learn. They do not describe:
The standard against which all your work is checked is the Australian National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce. To pass the course, you need to be assessed as able to do all the things listed below
(and more - there are only 7 of 41 learning outcomes in this brief example). That may sound scary but that assessment will happen in class, the field and in any written or oral work you do as part of the course. There are no formal exams or tests. It is generally painless and invisible - you won't even realize you are being assessed.

Please also remember that most of the learning outcomes are about traveling towards something rather than being at some place of totally perfect management. Below are the learning outcomes for (about a sixth of) the course: comments in brackets after each learning outcome give you some idea of its significance to you. The learning outcomes are in increasing order of complexity, although they don't necessarily come in that order in the course.
  1. Learners will be able to describe the major methods of organic farming. ("Describe" in this case is fairly unimportant and a bit limp, but the importance of this learning outcome is as a base for others that come later.)
  2. Learners will be able to describe the relationships between plants, soil micro-organisms and animals. (Note that the learner is now describing something that the learner has observed first hand on their own or someone else's farm, rather than read in a book or heard in a lecture.)
  3. Learners will be able to create mature compost of a high quality. (Ah, now we are doing something - some real farming work and we are ensuring that it really works by assessing the quality of the result the learner gets rather than what they say they can or will do. No longer just head work.)
  4. Learners will be able to record information relevant to problem solving in a form that ensures that the information will be usable by them 6-24 months later. (Here the learner has to take the observation a step further and start planning for the unseen future. Skills learnt earlier in the course are being extended.)
  5. Learners will be able to develop paddock sequences (rotations) that provide maximum advantage for following crops. (The learner is using one mental tool - a set of rotation development techniques to create a real-life tool - a weed-free bed or a bed high in nutrients for the next crop of vegetables etc.)
  6. Learners will be able to integrate the management of plants and animals to the advantage of desired plants and animals. (A more complex tool used with a more complex set of enterprises.)
  7. Learners will be able to identify ways of extending their understanding and knowledge to improve their management of the farm. (At this point we have turned inward to the ultimate area, growing our ability to grow ourselves. This is using humankind's best tool, the brain, to improve itself and that is the aim of any decent course, in my opinion.)

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Why learn how to farm better?

If farming will be reduced to a computerized, satellite-navigated operation with you using a computer to supervise a bunch of robots and tractors as they do your work, surely all you need is a mouse and a computer manual?

Even if your sort of agriculture goes that way, will it eliminate skill? The changes we face in agriculture today can only be met with a high level of skill.

We went through the dumbing down phase between the arrival of cheaper herbicides and the early 1990s when farmers started to get fed up with formula farming or farming by numbers.

Besides, the high-tech farm will be vulnerable to all the problems we have when we use computers just to surf the net or write a letter - crashes, viruses, funny little glitches that make the screen or printout look odd. But if the computer makes your field look odd because it gave this spot too much fertilizer or too little, that's different.

Plus anything that depends on a high level of technology is ripe for computer bugs and sabotage.

Will the massive capital investment return enough to pay for itself and its inevitable upgrades? What about when you have a drought, crop failure or a major pest problem? What about when the market is poor for your crop?

Computers can design jumbo jets, fly them and land them.

Farming takes a smarter mind than that.

A suitable next step might be:
Assess what areas of learning you would like to tackle next, perhaps by looking at where you have the most difficulty in your farming now and most years. Think about how you might fill in the gaps and come to a better understanding of whatever is creating the problem or limitation that leads to this area of greatest difficulty.

If you are looking at a printed version of this page and you would like to visit it on the internet and get a stack of other info that may assist you, the full web address is

Related info:

Learning from pests

SWOT analysis to boost profit

Using SWOT to beat a major weed

Beat pests by using advantage

Do weeds come to heal the soil?

Non-inversion tillage as a herbicide

Understanding the causes of weed problems

Weed control without chemicals

Green manures

Ground cover

Selective grazing


Green manures in orchards and vineyards

The boiling frog principle

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Good farming can be learned. Even if you were born a farmer, you can always learn more.

The best place to learn is on the farm or from a course or book. Smart farmers combined or possible methods of learning and all possible sources of information.

Farming is one of the most complex things humans do. Done well, it involves more knowing and more understanding of more things than almost anything else humans do. To run a farm well you need skills in areas such as:
As a result, good farmers tend to be good at learning from nature, from other farmers, from their own mistakes, from reflecting on what is there and reflecting on what is not, from books, magazines, field days, broadcasts, the internet and from courses.

Computers are great farm assistants, but they are a long way from being good farm managers.

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All material on this website is copyright 2007 Michael Burlace, The Organic Exchange Pty Ltd and others as shown. Material on this website may be downloaded and printed for your personal use only.

FarmRef and Organic Exchange are registered trademarks and Info you can walk out & use is a trademark of Michael Burlace.

This page was updated on December 27, 2007