Between the Rows: The Right Prescription

Published online: Apr 26, 2022 Articles, Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the May 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

“Just aim for that tree straight down there,” Grandpa said, pointing west. “Do that, and you’ll be fine.”

He was coaching me on how to properly lay the hand lines in our alfalfa field. This would be my first solo mission with the 40-foot lengths of pipe, and, as a 10-year-old farm kid hungry to prove myself, I was eager to get a move on. I squinted in the direction his index finger indicated. I knew that, along the bottom end the field, a tangled, natural hedgerow of wild rose and willows grew up out of the creek, punctuated only occasionally by low elms and Russian olives. From a quarter mile away, it was all sort of a blurry green-and-black mass to my eyes, but I wasn’t about to admit that to my proudly farsighted grandfather.

About a year earlier, I had been fitted with my first pair of glasses: round, purplish-blue, face-dominating, very mid-’90s. In an instant, my world had completely changed. If you’ve ever gone through the same experience, you know what I’m talking about. It was no surprise to me that trees had thousands of leaves; I had spent plenty of time climbing them, after all. But it was certainly news to me that you were supposed to be able to see those individual leaves quiver in the breeze from a hundred yards away. The first sight of a plane’s contrail contrasted against a clear sky was mind-blowing. And catching a baseball was suddenly a very simple task.

But, at this particular moment, up in the hay field, even with the aid of my peacock-hued spectacles, which tree Grandpa wanted me to aim the irrigation pipe toward was an absolute mystery. I figured I’d just point the pipe in the right general direction, then course-correct once the tree in question made its way into my apparently limited sight. My line couldn’t possibly be that far off course by then. No big deal.

“All right,” I nodded. “I can do that.”

With that, Grandpa trudged off to change the second line, halfway across the field. I got to work. Even as young as I was, the pipe itself wasn’t that difficult to move. Dad and Grandpa had taught me the technique, and I fairly ably disconnected each length, carried it to its new home, and reattached it, all the while examining the horizon for the tree that was supposed to be by Polaris. About a third of the way down the field, I spotted it. Sure enough, my aim had been a few degrees too far north. But now I could point the rest of the line to the compass tree, and we’d be in good shape.

Sometimes solutions are found right in front of our noses, sometimes on the horizon. Or they may reside somewhere between our noses and the horizon.

The final results, however, were predictably unsatisfactory. The next morning, when we went to change the water again, Grandpa pointed out the thin brownish strip running most of the way down the hay field, baked under the unforgiving high desert sun. Even with my evidently still-suspect eyesight, it was obvious that some of the alfalfa hadn’t been watered.

Turns out, I needed a new prescription. And for a few years after that, I was given progressively more powerful glasses and contacts with each annual visit to the optometrist. By the time I reached high school, things had pretty much leveled off. Even so, to this day, the eye doctor usually feels the need to tweak the ol’ prescription up or down a little bit with each checkup.

In today’s agricultural world of GPS-guided tractors and variable-rate-irrigating/data-collecting/self-reporting pivots, the need may not often arise to find a literal landmark to keep yourself pointed in the right direction. Technological innovation has made farming a more precise, more efficient, more sustainable endeavor than most of us dreamed of even 20 years ago. Those advances have been made (and continue to be made) by people willing to expand their metaphorical vision, and even to adjust it when need be.

The most successful people in agriculture—whether they’re farmers, consultants, salesmen, engineers, or anything else—are constantly checking the horizon, as it were. But they understand that not all the answers reside at the end of their vision. Problems arise all the time right in front of our noses, and we need to find and implement solutions quickly. Sometimes those solutions are also right in front of our noses. Other times, they may be somewhere between our noses and the horizon. There are times when it’s necessary to admit when we’re wrong, times when it’s imperative to stick to our guns, and times when we need to just admit we have no idea.

Success simply doesn’t come about by intentional, ignorant shortsightedness. But nor does it come by perpetually looking beyond the mark. Call it flexibility, call it adjustment, call it fine-tuning, cognizance, adaptability or self-awareness. I like to call it finding the right prescription.