Will We Ever Get Good at This?

If organic subsistence farming is a sound strategy for us, as we believe it to be, we must get better at it. Whether we can may soon graduate from interesting puzzle to life-and-death touchstone.


As you know by now, Amanda and I began our little experiment in subsistence farming from a base of zero knowledge. Although Amanda had dabbled with flowers at our suburban home, I had never grown anything, and neither of us had ever successfully grown anything edible.

Malcolm Gladwell launched a bestseller on the back of a simple premise, that you need to practice 10,000 hours to get good at something. Gladwell did so without the benefit of any empirical research, thus demonstrating he’s probably a liar, so you’re welcome to quibble with his assertion.

Everyone believes that HIS job is different (read that more complicated), so it takes more time. I can make that case for organic and subsistence farming, calling as it does for simultaneous familiarity with food crop recognition and planting methods, when to harvest, how to save seed, how to recognize and discourage pest insects, how to recognize and nurture beneficial insects, how to recognize and sentence weeds to a brutal, painful death so palpable you can hear them scream, not to mention composting, dumpster diving, hydraulics, geometry, fire-building, tool maintenance, and lots more. I won’t do that, though, because most people wouldn’t understand anyway. Let’s just say it’s 10,000 hours.

Note that we’re not talking about mastery. I don’t have any hope that we could start in our mid-50s from a base of zero knowledge and master this work during our lifetime. We aspire instead to attain mediocrity. We wish to be journeymen subsistence farmers. Mastery will be reserved for those so fortunate as to have devoted a lifetime to learning.

We planted our first garden in May of 2009. We were reading voraciously about growing and farming before then, but even then we were not yet living on the farm. So you could argue for earlier or later, but let’s compromise and set the date when our learning began at May of 2009.

A person who works a 40-hour week works 2080 hours during a 52-week year. Amanda works more than that in her farming work, sometimes much more, and I work less. Again, to balance it out, and because I lack the data or the patience for more specific analysis, let’s say we’re devoting 2,000 hours per year to our learning to be subsistence farmers.

So now we can mark our calendars for May of 2014 and say that, if we maintain our present rate of learning, we will be reasonably competent subsistence farmers by that date. Whether we will be successful at it is an entirely different question, dependent as it is (and always will be) on climate, soil quality, and Providence.

Our experience so far is encouraging. We were comically bad when we started. We planted the tomatoes wrong, lost most of our sweet potatoes to the deer, and lost too much of our precious topsoil to the rain. But we’re a little smarter now. Long after the gardeners we know nearby have shrugged their shoulders and moved on to other endeavors, Amanda is bringing in baskets of food from Veg Hill daily. We’re still harvesting delicious watermelons, several kinds of squash, lima beans, okra, and a few peas here and there. We’re getting better at this. We’re still novices, but we’re no longer beginners.

When we attain the level of reasonable competence, we can always hope that others will say appreciatively that one or both of us has “a green thumb.” This is our culture’s way of explaining why some people seem to have a certain “touch” with plants, why whatever they grow just seems to be stronger, healthier, and more beautiful than the plants grown by their neighbor. We, and now you, will know better. If we manage one day to be reasonably competent farmers, it will be by the grace of God and hard work, in that order. It certainly won’t be because we were born knowing.

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