“So what do you do in the winter?” This question typically comes up in a discussion of what my job entails. Agricultural research, and more specifically plant science, is not too difficult to describe over a cup of coffee. Though I will admit the conversation has changed over the course of my career as fewer and fewer folks today have a hands on familiarity with getting dirty in a field. And this decreasing familiarity prompts some folks to be genuinely curious about what goes on ‘out there’. The short answer I typically give relates to our efforts to improve the varieties of soybean that farmers plant. Evaluating prospective varieties in agricultural fields over the summer is a picture more easily painted than say holding forth on the merits of various plot protocols for heritability estimation. With this picture now in place some might smile and change the subject. But there are still some among us who will take this image and with a little reflection come back with the curiosity to wonder: “So what DO you do in the winter?” It’s a fair question. Even row crop farmers with no livestock to take care of get asked this.
There are plenty of things to take care of over the winter. Evaluate the previous season’s results, plan the next season’s research, and maintain equipment are easy things to point out. Among the less obvious winter chores – seed character evaluation, disease screening, and winter nursery work. These latter activities deserve their own closer inspection so for now I’ll table them for a future discussion. Here I want to focus on what gets rolled into the notion of developing a plan for the next season’s research.
Resource allocation. We all have to deal with this concept. Look no further than your wallet for insight. If its fat, you have lots of choices and allocation among these choices is fairly simple. If the wallet is thin, you have harder choices to make. Now realize – just about all wallets are thinner than we’d like. Consider our global resource base (peak oil, potable water, feeding nine billion, etc) and the thickness of our collective wallet starts to weigh on the process. An interesting aside – even the plants and animals we live with are weighing environmental resources and making tradeoffs. We needn’t consider their resource allocation as planning per se, but understanding the nature of their responses to resource availability can inform how we get on with our own efforts.
Budgeting. Not my favorite activity, and I’ve sometimes wondered why it isn’t a four letter word. But digression aside, planning without a budget is often a fool’s errand. As I’m a big enough fool anyway, I’ve no room left to make unfettered plans. For what it’s worth, there are folks you’ll find yourself dealing with who love budgets. Appreciating their concern can go quite a way toward peace and harmony in your relationship with them. If you dislike budgets as much as I do, roll up your sleeves and get on with it. When the strife is o’er…
Opportunity cost. I get this one. Simply put, once you decide to go down one path you are simultaneously choosing to not go down a different path. Multitasking is not the solution, it only delays the inevitable. You can try as many paths as you have resources for… but over time other paths will present themselves and you’ll have to choose. Bummer. But this economic reality is true for everyone. If you manage to choose paths as well as your competition, you’ll be fine. Pay attention, look at your choices from several angles, and once you make a choice be satisfied with it. This is not to say you’ll never have regrets or come to a place where you’ll change your mind. But don’t burden yourself with fear of potentially missing another opportunity while putting together a plan. Life’s too short. Potentially new paths are not the enemy.
Time is an important resource. The expression ‘time and tide wait for no man’ … though sexist is spot on. On one hand, time is pretty easy to budget. You and your competition only get so much of it. On the other hand, time in nature is not fungible. As plants grow and develop over the course of a growing season you have to be prepared to do your research in a timely fashion. Mulligans are for golf. Plant breeding is mostly a numbers game. The more plants you evaluate, the more progress you’re likely to make. When making plans for a season’s research you have to weigh in timeliness. Plant too little and you may regret the opportunity cost of having the time to have done more… plant too much and you miss potentially important data. Yeah, I know – in the last paragraph I warned not to fret the unknown. And I’m not going back on that advice, but so long as you’re measuring the heft of your wallet while making a budget, don’t overlook the value of time while making a plan.
Mother Nature. If you’re not on familiar terms with her, you should probably look for another line of work. Planning and allocating resources in the face of potentially inclement weather is just the way it works. Par for the course the mulligan crowd might say. I have no truck with the woman – we get along famously. Direct sun on a hot August afternoon will make you sweat. Drink more water, wear a hat, remember those plants you’re working with… they put up with it without complaint. You can too. Rain can make you change a plan. But without some rain your crop will have serious issues. So rain is both blessing and curse, but more the former. Plan on it. For me, Mother Nature is much more than the weather. She is the combination of all the forces in nature that we still don’t control – or choose not to control for reasons of cost or other consideration. Lack of rain can be substituted by irrigation, but irrigation has a cost. Pest organisms present themselves courtesy of Mother Nature. Deploying chemical pesticides is one way to defeat pests. But where’s the fun in that? Ok, I’m exaggerating. We kill weeds any way we can. But we don’t use seed treatments in our breeding plots. Seed treatments are for crop production, and plant breeding is not crop production. We even go so far as to deliberately make plants sick, and Mother Nature has to cooperate in the effort. Mother Nature may not always be on your side, but without her we’d be worse off. The resourceful allocator will learn to love her and plan with her in mind.
There’s still more to doing resource allocation well, but I seem to remember mentioning a cup of coffee at the onset… and mine’s getting cold.