Perspective: The Growing Value of Brainwidth

October 30, 2013 09:13 AM
JohnPhipps Perspective

From the moment I first tasted the Internet, my appetite for bandwidth was born. For those of you with a real-world life, this means faster data flow between my computer and deeply important websites like Scienceblogs or xkcd, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language.

However, there might be a parallel that could be advantageous to our farms: increased brainwidth. This term is used to refer to capacity, manpower, energy or time in relation to the task at hand.

Say you want to try cover crops because magazines are full of articles about them, your friends are talking about them and a neighbor planted some. The problem is your time and attention are over-taxed with harvest, machinery, marketing, parenting and organizational work. Sound familiar?

You, my friend, have a brainwidth problem. While this is not new, agriculture is drifting toward information processing and away from mechanical innovation. In fact, the demand for brainwidth is reflected in comments like "I can’t wait to get on the chisel plow so I can get away and think!"
My weekly commute has become less about 60 minutes of terror on I-65 and more of a scheduled time to ponder problems. Friends have come to expect "eureka!" calls from me on the road, as this time to concentrate allows me occasional inspiration.

Maybe we can do things to maximize our available brainwidth to yield faster, better solutions to farming’s increasingly complex challenges.

"You, my friend, have a brainwidth problem. Agriculture is drifting toward information processing and away from mechanical innovation."

Make a Schedule Hole. You probably don’t have a commute, so try to create a block of time as isolated as possible each week. More importantly, make sure you have a way to capture the sporadic sparks of insight that occur when your brain has some room to run. It’s important to recognize the distractions we must cope with when trying to make good decisions.

Keep expanding your range and capacity. Make learning an integral part of your professional career. While there are multiple ways inside our profession, from Corn College to peer groups, added brainwidth might also be achieved by using the burgeoning world of online education on topics from economics to history. Many are high quality and even free. With tablets and smart phones, education can be tucked into spare moments.

Multiple Processors. Add a whole brain—or several. In forming a joint farming operation with a neighboring family, we have discovered that involving more minds brings greater computing capacity plus new perspectives and experiences from which to draw. Solution speed takes a quantum leap, and the hassle factor drops drastically.

You can always "rent" some extra brainwidth (consultants, etc.), but keep in mind this is value that could be captured if you could expand in-house capability. Choose which tasks are within your grasp to learn and assign others to outside expertise.

Expand your social network outside of ag. Input from non-farmers can be enormously illuminating, not to mention entertaining. Learning to see from a different cultural perspective can minimize
circular thinking and inefficient biases.

Take care of your support mechanism. If your brain is busy coping with physical problems that could be alleviated with better living habits, it won’t be able to take advantage of efforts to increase brainwidth. In fact, regular exercisers often report their best thinking can come during a long run.

As small business owners, we have to wear many hats and deal with a wide range of crucial decisions. Farmers seldom have the luxury of specializing in just one area of expertise. Finding ways to broaden our information gathering and processing skills is not only a key skill for future success; it is a path to lower anxiety and greater satisfaction.

John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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