Two Lincoln University researchers have been researching the role intuition plays in farmers’ decisions and how it can be improved.
Dr Peter Nuthall and Dr Kevin Old, from the Department of Land Management and Systems, have had their analysis of farmers’ intuitive decision making published in the international rural research journal Rural Studies*.
Data was gathered from over 700 farmers.
“Farmer intuition has never been analysed to this extent before,” Dr Nuthall said.
Research has shown farmers make the majority of decisions using their intuition. They do not formally analyse each decision, but use their mental powers to decide on what action to take.
Using intuition, or gut instinct, might be unusual for academics but it isn’t peculiar to farmers, especially those brought up in the business who learned by watching and working with their parents.
“Sometimes the decision is instantaneous, but in others a range of thought levels are brought to bear before acting. Good decision intuition is not a mysterious process,” Dr Nuthall said.
“Profit and other assessments show some farmers are good intuitive decision makers, others not so good.”
Farmers with little experience, whether they have good potential intuition or not, find it difficult to make good decisions.
The handicap of inexperience won’t just be the preserve of farmers either.
I don’t know any successful business people who haven’t made mistakes. They’re more likely when they’re inexperienced and if those mistakes aren’t learning experiences.
What’s differentiates the successful from those less so, is the willingness to trust their gut, make decisions, act on them and learn from any mistakes so they don’t repeat them.
Dr Nuthall said the intuition process often uses what is called ‘pattern matching’, where the brain uses experience to match up past events with the current decision problem.
“The farmer’s intuition then comes up with what the brain believes to be the correct action.”
However, intuition is more than just pattern matching, he said.
“Intuition develops with a farmer’s thought process, self-criticism and review.”
The new research showed how farmers can improve their intuition.
“Obviously the farmers’ technical farming knowledge is important as a forerunner. But equally is the attention to carefully observing the state of the farm and the relevant markets,” Dr Nuthall said.
“Observations must be accurate and cover all the issues important to any decision. And the farmer must be good at anticipating the path ahead — looking ahead skills are critical in assessing alternative actions to solve any decision problem. These all tend to be inbuilt skills”
He said these skills can be improved with attention and practice.
“A farmer should analyse all past decisions and take on board any lessons on offer. Discussing past actions with colleagues and family helps improve mind held patterns and produce good solutions.”
I’m not disputing this reasoning but I think a lot of the analysis is unconscious.
Good farmers live and breathe their businesses, observing and thinking about what they see. They read about farming, go to field days and discussion groups and learn from their own experiences and from others.
Farming is a particularly risky business with many variables which are out of farmers’ control.
Those who succeed use their brains but, like other business people, they are also guided by gut instinct.