Learning by doing and tuning in your intuition. 

Jason Horner, Seed Sovereignty Coordinator for Ireland, reflects on the importance of hands-on experiential learning…

The idea for this piece came about by way of a short conversation between some of the Seed Sovereignty team coordinators recently. We were talking about how we learn as growers, usually from bitter experience, and it made me reflect on my journey and how I got to where I am today. 

In the early days I learnt most of my growing from a mixture of books and other growers (there were no training courses in those days and no internet). There was lot of trial and error and process of elimination. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years that I have occasionally used online resources as we previously had such poor internet coverage here. I never relied on, and am still uncomfortable with, YouTube and Instagram as a source of knowledge. Call me a Luddite if you want but I would say that once I got growing the best mode of learning over the years has been to do and re-do until I got something right. 

In the beginning I worked with Billy Clifford crop sharing on half an acre in Kenmare. For most of those early years we learnt from each other and in the off season would invariably visit another local grower. West Cork was a pioneering area of organic growers in the mid 90’s and Tony Miller, Paul Schultz, Manfred Wandel and Johnathan Doig all hosted us on informal farm visits. 

We were always experimenting with different ways of doing things and aimed to improve our speed and efficiency of work and the quality of our produce from one year to the next. We tried different varieties, different techniques, we kept notes and records but basically, we were learning by doing. We also shared what we learnt with other growers. That’s something very special about organic growing: the openness of growers one to another. 

We were very much in touch with the soil, our sites and the climate of the time. Over time we learnt to intuit weather patterns, soil conditions and established optimum planting times over the many years of pushing the boundary of what was possible. It worries me that with the increasing amount of technology available growers are losing this ability. We become overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. It appears to me that that there is an overload of conflicting and contradictory resources on growing making it difficult for people to figure which one to believe. I am beginning to think that less is more. Perhaps a handful of resources is better than all that the interweb of things can throw at you. 

For growers today discussion groups, farm walks, field schools and WhatsApp groups all have their place with aiding people to share information. Peer to peer learning is hugely important in getting new ideas out there and people inspired to try them. However, any information resource will only bring you so far. This is where experience and intuition come in. As we all know every site, soil and local climate is different. Even with the best resources available it ultimately comes down to us as growers as to how we implement the knowledge we gain from them in the context of our different farms. In this reality every grower is very much on their own and that is where the skill in growing is. 

Seed saving presents an even greater challenge compared to growing vegetables. We must learn about the full life cycle of the plant and everything required to nurture this to produce a good seed crop. I currently use about four seed books for reference- John Navazio, Carol Deppe, Jo Newton and Suzanne Ashworth- and consider this enough to help me learn these complexities. Growing a crop to full term is trickier than growing for vegetables crops, some seed crops are easy enough and others much more difficult. To get a good seed crop the nutrition, ventilation and irrigation must all be optimised throughout the lifetime of the crop which in the case of biennials is often 18 months (a lot longer than the average 100 days for a veg crop).  

Growers’ observation skills must be honed even further for detecting early onsets of pests and diseases. This is where learning by doing really comes into full focus and it can take several trial seasons before you get a crop right. I still haven’t managed to save a good Basil seed crop despite several tries, and it took me three seasons to get a decent crop of lettuce seed here in the West of Ireland. By making those small adjustments year on year, figuring out the right environment, correct nutrition, watering regime and plant spacing to produce the best seeds on your type of soil with your local weather (which is unpredictable at best) is not easy. It takes time and care. 

Since I first started saving seeds in 2008 I have grown out many varieties I was not previously familiar with, often conducting 3 or 4 way trials to assess how these varieties measured up to an existing one. Trialling has introduced me to many varieties I would otherwise not have seen and helped me to find French Bean, Pepper, Onion, Leek, Beetroot, Garlic and Lettuce varieties that do very well here and are good to save seed from. Also having been a Seed Guardian with Irish Seed Savers I grew a lot of varieties about which I knew nothing, a real test of ability. 

 Trials are one of the best examples of learning by doing especially if growers are considering seed production. I like to challenge growers to try a few new varieties alongside existing ones every year. As a community we will need very resilient, adaptable varieties over the coming decades and finding them is part of this work. Growers should always be looking at what varieties other growers are using and what other options are out there. Give these new/unknown varieties a chance and you might be surprised at the results. 

I think we need to open our minds to the possibilities that locally saved seed is better than that which we can buy from the glossy seed catalogues. These seed catalogues give little, or no provenance and the seeds almost certainly come from a climate not like our own. We should learn how to save a few seed crops, get in touch with our intuition and hone our instincts to make decisions about crops without too much help from technology. Take notes, photographs and keep records. Walking crops regularly is so important too, it’s all about observation. 

I hope this doesn’t sound too prescriptive it’s not meant to be, I am trying to flag to people the tools that help you to attune your intuition. It’s about being in and observing nature on a regular basis and then applying that to your growing practice. I realise that it takes a lot of time to build up this confidence in and reliance on your own decisions, the different things I have mentioned are just ways of helping you get there. They all feed in together to make for a skill that no technology or book can emulate and that will serve you well all through your growing career.