Farming by numbers

When modern farming replaced a whole range of measures and systems with programmed responses - usually chemicals to kill "pests" - did it stop being real farming?

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Is farming by numbers real farming?

Perhaps the easiest way to answer that is to look first at painting by numbers.

Is painting by numbers real art?

Some people are mainly interested in ends rather than means, in results rather than in the way they get the results. Such a person working with a child may be more interested in getting the child to paint a picture than in helping them develop artistic skills and independence. So they get the child painting by numbers.

This involves giving the child a printed drawing with numbers printed in the different parts of the painting to represent various colors that the finished painting "should" have. Where the child sees the number 1, they are supposed to paint blue. Where they see the number 2, they put yellow, for 3 they apply red etc.

By the time they are finished, they may have a picture that looks like it was supposed to look. However, they did not create anything, they just followed instructions. At the end of this, perhaps the child can follow instructions. Perhaps they can paint between the lines and maybe they have learnt some brush skills. But the child hasn't necessarily learnt anything of use apart from that. Next time they will probably progress in brush skills but little else.

Other people want children to develop their own styles, skills and ideas. So they teach them how to paint in a way that allows the child to do more than fill specific spots with the "right" colors. At the end the child has more power to learn from their own actions, possibly some better feelings about themself, has learnt something about color selection and has had a chance to experiment. Next time they will probably progress in several areas.

The early results may not look as attractive as the completed paint by numbers painting, but it is the child's own work and the first step in a creative strand of life. This child is better equipped to express what they see think feel and experience than the other child.

So, back to farming by numbers

A lot of modern farming is like painting by numbers. As one farmer put it:

"The craft of farming has been reduced to the shorthand of chemicals."

When farmers ask for advice on how to deal with weeds or how to get good crop yields they often get a response with a similar approach. But instead of the numbers referring to different colors in the paint set, they refer to different chemicals in the shed or barn. Now 1 = herbicide, 2 = superphosphate, 3 = insecticide etc. By following the instructions of the adviser, the farm will bear a resemblance to the original idea of farming. This is similar to the situation with painting by numbers where the result resembled the painting on which it was based.

However the aim of farming used to be to grow things. What results from farming by numbers is usually a lot of killing, a lot of spending, and not a lot of growing.

Instead of growing their skills, farmers have handed over to the adviser the responsibility for decisions and for keeping the skills of farming alive. This adviser cannot see the farm, nor can they see how it responds to the chemicals. Only the farmer can and is therefore the best person to manage the farm.

Farming by numbers is part of what some people see as the dumbing-down of farming. It doesn't matter who prescribes the paint colors or the chemicals, it doesn't give the person doing the work much power.

So some farmers started reclaiming the decision making and learnt as much as they could about
But none of this changed the basic problem. This was:

The farmer was no longer deciding how to manage the farm

Chemists, marketing people and advisers had the technology, gave the instructions and knew or didn't bother to know the negative consequences of using this technology in this way.

So some of these farmers started to relearn how to manage the farm in tune with the needs of the natural and farmed environment. All done on the farm by the farmer. You can see this in the The interesting thing is that it hasn't just happened in Western agricultural systems. For a different set of circumstances and sometimes for different reasons, some poor and starving Third World farmers have taken back their power. They're reclaiming the fringes of deserts and improving farming systems and their understanding.

The result is more food, better soils, more families surviving on the land and an increase in productivity per head as well as in overall productivity.

All this plus more power to the farmer

Related info:

Beat pests by using advantage

Understanding the causes of weed problems

Weed control without chemicals

Lance Armstrong

The boiling frog principle

Reading land capability

Choosing a farming course and teacher

Do weeds come to heal the soil?


Pasture legumes are special

Return a third to the soil

Selective grazing

SWOT analysis to boost profit

Using SWOT to beat a major weed

Learning from pests

Why sheep cross the road in front of vehicles

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This page was updated on December 27, 2007