Why Farmers Must Think Like Librarians

November 23, 2016 02:39 AM
Why Farmers Must Think Like Librarians

We’re experiencing more episodes like this on our farm: Aaron gets a puzzling alarm on the combine after difficulty with the header control. The message says the central ground sensor is malfunctioning, but our platform doesn’t have a middle sensor. 

He calls the dealer, but the service manager is understandably busy. While waiting, he idly searches for “middle sensor fault JD 630.” The top result shares another farmer’s solution—recalibrate the head controller. The procedure is in the manual, and before the service manager calls back, we are rolling again.

It could be a noisy washing machine or the location of the ABS sensor on a grain truck, but our work is becoming eerily similar to a librarian. Knowing how to find answers, more than knowing the answers outright has replaced pliers as the go-to tool. 

Alternative Information Sources. It begins with online search engines such as Google but also involves skill in specifying search terms and filtering results to optimize efficiency. In the process, we are changing how we depend on traditional sources of information.

In the combine example, Aaron effectively bypassed local information, something not unnoticed by machinery companies. Although far from a total replacement, “librarian” skills significantly reduce our need to find and communicate with the right person. 

In my day, we all knew the best area mechanic or attorney or electrician. It is fair to say smartphones have devalued much of the accumulated wisdom of such experts, although certainly not to zero.

In a time of intense pressure on margins, adding to in-house knowledge has always been a good idea. Farmers flock to meetings, workshops and short courses to learn during the off-season. This is still a valuable exercise, especially because of the side-benefit of community building. Yet the speed and breadth of information available to us when we become our own librarians is game changing. Learning such skills makes subsequent leaps of efficiency more likely. 

As reaching for the phone to search instead of call becomes our first instinct, we can make solutions not merely faster and cheaper but, for better or worse, we remove the interpersonal frictions that occasionally bog down progress. It’s been a long time, but it used to be farmwives often hated to go for parts simply because they were not treated respectfully by grumpy parts managers. Although that is unheard of today, there still can be some hassle and impatience as we struggle to explain the problem to an expert.

I am not saying dealers aren’t doing everything they can, especially during crunch season, but the issues of distance, available manpower and complexity can overwhelm the most professional operation. With competition among farmers often manifesting as a speed event, every moment matters or seems to.

In addition, just as a good librarian would differentiate between propaganda and reliable sources, farmers who source their own information must master separating wheat from chaff in search results. Disproving false information can be even more valuable than finding good information.

The Cost Of Convenience. These information skills are not without a price, though. As individuals become less dependent on others for facts to make decisions, some of the interdependence of our culture dissipates. Ask financial consultants what readily available investment data and advice has done to money-manager fees. Entire layers of expertise suddenly become redundant. The parallel with the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation is hard to ignore.

There will always be a need to know the right people to get the right information, but I think increasingly that information will be about other people, not things or wealth. Democratizing information could be every bit as disruptive as democratizing politics or religion. But it seems just as inevitable. 

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