In praise of inefficiency

Efficiency is one of the pillars of American culture, and it has attained status as one of the unassailable trademarks of a good business, so it’s with some shame and frustration that I’ve been reflecting recently on the ways in which Joshua Farm is terribly inefficient.  There are times when these inefficiencies feel like failures, but only when I compare the farm to the “norm”: large scale, monoculture, industrialized farms with a singular focus on profit.  Sometimes I have to talk myself out of a slump, deconstructing the glittering appeal of efficiency to find value in our alternate path.  Here are three areas which demonstrate the worth of inefficiency.

Farming would be a much simpler, efficient task if we only grew one crop.  It’s tantalizing to think about sometimes, when I’m trying to keep track of the 40+ varieties of vegetables we grow and pay attention to their different preferences for water, soil, spacing, fertility, harvesting, etc.  With just one crop, we could have specialized tools (think combines or mechanical cabbage harvesters), streamline operations, and become experts in that one thing.  On the other hand, we’d be in trouble if the market dropped out on that crop (think about the tons of spinach that were thrown away after food safety recalls), and I think it would be downright boring to only do one thing.  Sure, we could plant nothing but blueberries or broccoli, but who wants to pick blueberries 8 hours a day, five days a week?  The other upside of diversity is that it mimics nature.  At its best, farming emulates a diverse ecosystem, in which each part plays multiple roles and supports the whole.  That kind of intricacy isn’t possible with just one or two crops.  Diversity safeguards against threats from disease, drought, and pests.  The appeal of great swaths of singular crops, whether Kentucky bluegrass in the suburban landscape or acres of corn in Iowa, is not the same kind of awe inspired by walks along the Appalachian trail or peeks over the rim of the Grand Canyon.  The former are amazing because of the completeness of humankind’s dominion; they have lost much of what could be considered natural, though they still exist in nature.  Oh wait.  That was a soap box.  I’ll get down now. 🙂

We embrace diversity at Joshua Farm in the variety of crops we grow, the perennials we plant for beneficial insects, the rotation of crops, and the multiple kinds of each crop.  There is more we could do, such as interplanting and adding livestock to the menagerie, but we exist within other limitations (such as the need to keep vegetables in distinct plantings for the sake of the people who will be picking them), but we’ll continue to find ways to diversify.

Let’s face it, small is inefficient.  It would take me the same amount of time to develop my complex crop plans in which I planted 100 acres of each crop as it does when I’m only planting 1250 square feet.  Similarly, a teacher or preacher puts the same amount of energy into preparing a lecture whether 5 0r 500 people attend.

If we wanted to get the most work done in the least amount of time, it would probably be in the farm’s best interests to hire skilled workers who are highly motivated and paid by the piece (as many agricultural laborers are).  Instead, we hire high school students who receive $8/hour, and we rely heavily on volunteers.  Both groups generally require significant training, and the opportunity for error is increased by trusting novices with important jobs.  However, we value the experience that people gain by working at the farm more than the product of their labor, and so we willingly (most of the time) pay the price for inefficiency.

Still, we’re working to develop systems that make work flow smoothly, eliminate redundancies, and minimize inputs (yes, I can speak “business-ese” with the best of them).  One of the things I try to teach the youth is that there’s a difference between working smart and being lazy.  It’s working smart to organize your workspace so you can sit, or at least don’t have to take lots of steps.  It’s working smart to carry one watering can in each hand.

I’m struck by the synonyms that are associated with efficient, kindly provided by Microsoft Word:  well-organized, resourceful, not wasteful, effective, useful, ecologically aware, economical. Through those lenses, maybe efficiency is more palatable and attainable than I thought.

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3 Responses to In praise of inefficiency

  1. David Goliath says:

    Well said. =]

  2. Stef says:

    I just love reading these posts!

  3. Greg says:

    Mr. Berry would be proud.

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