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business models, strategies and technologies

Exploring farming decisions

Farming often involves weighty decisions, taken quickly by very few people. This makes it an interesting field for exploring decision-making structures.

Decision-making on a farm

I was born and raised in London, and my points of reference once used to be exclusively urban. Nowadays I live way out in the Danish countryside, and I’ve spent many years witnessing decision-making structures in Danish agriculture from the sideline position of the interested spectator. In modern times, most Danish farms have incredibly few employees in relation to how much work has to be done, and how much capital and investment are involved. This means the chain of command is often remarkably short and “agile”, to swipe sideways to management-speak.

It would be easy to roll out the usual townie prejudices about such decision-making structures, but (most) farmers have my solid respect because their decisions are usually based on hands-on familiarity and direct action rooted in the big number of different skills and capabilities they bring to bear.

Innovation comes in many forms

So what would happen if a farm had 10,000 different bosses, either as a display of über-democratic overkill or as a social media experiment in involvement, inclusion and collaboration?

This kinda’ happened at MyFarm, an 18-month project carried out in the UK in 2011–12 in conjunction with the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire. Wimpole was originally designed in 1794 by Sir John Soane (the architect of the Bank of England) and commissioned by Philip Yorke, the 3rd Earl of Hardwick. The Earl bought all the latest agricultural thinking to Wimpole and it became a demonstration farm extending over 25,000 acres, introducing new and improved crops, and using the latest machinery to improve efficiency.

Wimpole Estate main house

Wimpole Estate main house

The Wimpole Estate is now one of three working farms owned by the National Trust, and its history of innovation meant it was considered an ideal context for such a forward-thinking project. The Wimpole estate of today, extending over just 2,500 acres, is commercially self-sustaining and well on its way to converting to organic cultivation. Many of its arable fields feature grass and clover to improve soil fertility and do away with fertilisers. The plan is for these fields to then be part of a five or six-year rotation of organic wheat, barley, oats, mustard and pulses.

The 1,200-acres of Wimpole Home Farm is a lowland, mixed farm consisting of several historical thatched farm buildings and a modern farmyard that’s home to rare-breed livestock that include shire horses, sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and poultry.

Farming gone social? Enter public participation

But the real 21st-century innovation at Wimpole may well not lie in the methods of cultivation, the crops or the farm animals. It lies in the decision-making structures and a tiny sliver of public participation being cautiously introduced by the MyFarm project in 2011. For a GBP 30 annual fee, 10,000 online subscribers got the chance to become virtual farmers, voting electronically on selected farm decisions. Each agricultural dilemma required a democratic vote of all the registered subscribers, with a clear majority carrying the day so that the decision got enacted.

The decision-making options put to subscribers were within parameters dictated by climate, current legislation and the requirements of the environmental stewardship scheme that the farm is signed up to, as well as the heritage protection granted to the estate. Decisions affecting the long-term viability of the protected estate were definitely not to be within the remit of subscribers, who were only involved in a total of 15 votes in the course of the 18-month experiment.

The voting procedures were limited to fairly general issues, based on discussions of pros and cons such as which crops to plant, which animals to buy and whether to introduce measures such as new hedgerows to help wildlife. Other decisions billed for possible consideration included whether to carry on harvesting a wet cornfield and incur the additional cost of drying the grain, or to delay the harvest and see if the weather gets better. Decisions actually taken included opting to grow clover to help boost chalk pit fertility, which in turn helped boost the wheat yield, and choosing rare breed sheep over a more commercial breed.

At the time, the MyFarm project was heralded by the BBC and British media as “FarmVille meets reality”, but – as the scope of decisions indicates – the nitty-gritty turned out to be much more modest. The MyFarm website featured video updates, webcams (LambCam, RamCam, monitoring the birth of new horses, etc.), information about farming and expert opinion, and subscribers were also entitled to a family visitor ticket. So all this was hardly radical, really.

Big perspectives

The National Trust declares that it is the biggest single farmer ín the UK, with 200,000 hectares in production. According to the director general of the National Trust, ” We’re entering into it very much as an experiment,” and the MyFarm scheme is ”all about reconnecting people with farming, giving them the chance to get involved with and feel part of the farming community and farming life and give them a greater understanding on how the food they eat gets to their shopping basket.” There are indeed big issues involved here.

According to the president of the National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom, ”The National Trust’s MyFarm project is an opportunity for a wider audience to see some of the competing priorities that 21st-century farmers have to manage.”

Well, it may serve some kind of purpose as a farmer-appreciation exercise and an agricultural consciousness-raising jaunt, but the overall usefulness of this project turned out to be very limited, and the issue of how the dynamics of maintaining interest and recruitment would pan out once the novelty had worn off were neatly sidestepped by the time-limited duration. The benefits lay more in the token social involvement and self-understanding among subscribers than in any alleviation of decision-making burdens or real payoffs for the farm.

Before its time

Although I am a gullibly naïve admirer of the National Trust and its many initiatives (not jaundiced by UK residency and the growing ambiguity of public opinion about the way it marshals its mission) this was a project with severely limited transparency. Us mere mortals were never to be given any insight into the financials, or the “real meat” of agricultural decision-making. Participation and collaboration were never to be central to the business model, merely a decorative frill of involvement and inclusivity.

The most deep-seated innovation in this project probably lies in the basic idea of attempting to turn traditional agricultural decision-making completely on its head, and using modern social media thinking to conjure up greater involvement in the ultra-practical business of farming. Unfortunately, it was an idea before its time, before social media became seriously mainstream. Its aspirations now seem a bit clunky and superficial, icing on the cake rather than key value-building ingredients in the business model.

The MyFarm project may not have been the answer to agriculture’s managerial future, but it was an interesting preliminary exploration of some of the issues.

External info
http://www.my-farm.org.uk/home (now closed)