An Urban's Rural View

Take an Older Farmer to Lunch

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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When it comes to information technology, California produce grower A.G. Kawamura is no Luddite. Satellite navigation steers his tractors straight. Bluetooth keeps him in constant contact with his foremen, usually in Spanish. When he decided to grow asparagus, he looked up how to do it on the internet.

Yet embrace the new though he does, the loss of the old troubles him -- in particular, the loss of the "irreplaceable" wisdom of older farmers as they bow out of agriculture. "How do you get that information out of their head?" asks Kawamura, who at 59 is just a hair above the median age for a principal farm operator. "That's the resource we need."

In pursuit of that resource, he breaks bread frequently with a neighboring farmer who is 90 years old.

In ancient times, most information was transmitted orally. Back then humans were better at memorizing and telling stories. They had to be: There was no way to "look up" information. What we learned we learned from those who knew more than we did because they had lived longer. We listened. We asked questions. We remembered what our elders told us.

Mass literacy eroded these debriefing skills. Computers further eroded them. We still listen and ask questions and remember but not as much or as well as our forefathers.

These days the young and the old no longer see as much of each other. In most families they no longer live together. Children spend far more time on the internet than with their grandparents.

If the parent or grandparent is a farmer, the separation puts at risk what Kawamura calls "that knowledge base that's in his head." I admit, this problem was not on my radar screen before I interviewed Kawamura. This thoughtful, innovative, farmer (see my profile of him in Fortune,…) has made me think about any number of problems I hadn't realized were problems.

When he talked about this one, he struck a chord. It brought to mind the famous dying words of the android Roy Batty in the science-fiction movie "Blade Runner." Ticking off astonishing events he had witnessed in his short life, Batty lamented: "All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears, in rain (…)."

It is not just farmers whose "moments" will be lost, to be sure, and it's not just mortality that's the problem. Any time an employee quits, her organization "loses valuable experience and know how," writes consultant Kevin Desouza in his book "Managing Knowledge With Artificial Intelligence (…)." The older and more experienced the employee, the greater the loss.

In agriculture, though, rapid aging makes the loss-of-knowhow problem especially acute. The average American principal farm operator was 58.3 years old in 2012, an increase of nearly 8 years since 1982 (…). The non-ag population has aged as well, but not to the same extent.

Kawamura has learned many things from the 90-year-old farmer down the road. Example: He has learned that a hurricane ripped through Southern California in September 1939, a revelation that encouraged him to do more research and conclude, "There's going to be another one. We're probably overdue for one."

Could he have figured this out by doing research online, without bothering to consult his neighbor? Sure -- if he had known what he was looking for. A neighbor will sometimes answer important questions you didn't think to ask.

And the neighbor will sometimes sense from your body language that you didn't understand what he said and need to have a point elaborated. Computers may be able to beat world champions at chess but they aren't good at interpersonal skills. In many respects the title of a new book has it right: "Humans Are Underrated (…)."

"How," Kawamura asks, can a farmer "know a region and all the things that could happen in a region?" He answers his own question: Take an older farmer to lunch.



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