I'm helping to teach a Beginning Farming class here in Auburn - last night was the first session. As an introduction, my friend Allen Edwards and I described our beginning farming adventures. I'm not sure how useful it was for the class participants, but I found it to be an enlightening exercise to consider what I knew when I started, what I know now, and how much I have yet to learn!
So much of small-scale farming is skill-based. Farming takes an immense amount of knowledge, yes; but it also takes a wide variety of physical, observational and mental skills. Take stockmanship - the ability read, understand, and handle livestock. A good stockman understands livestock behavior and is able to quickly observe subtle changes in this behavior. A ewe with droopy ears, for example, may be sick. A restless, pregnant ewe may be getting ready to give birth. Animals that are laying down and chewing their cuds contentedly probably have had enough to eat.
We purchased a small group of feeder lambs when we first moved to Auburn in 2001. They were extremely wild - so wild, in fact, that we took to feeding them in a small pen so that we could be sure to catch them when we were ready to have them processed. The combination of their wildness and our inexperience was probably stressful on the sheep; it was certainly stressful on us! Fast forward to last November. Our border collies and I loaded 60 sheep and goats into our trailer in a cul de sac - no fences, no pens - just good dogs and a more experienced stockman.
I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of a number of mentors. Our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, has taught me a great deal about stock handling and animal behavior. Our friend Ellen Skillings has helped me understand how to use dogs effectively and how to evaluate the health status of a group of sheep. Much of what I've learned has come from simply trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding). Based on what I've learned in the last 20 years that we've had sheep, I'm sure I have a great deal more to learn, as well!
The practical aspects of sheep-raising, I think, must be learned by doing. College courses, workshops, and other formal situations are useful introductions, but real skill development comes through repetition and through trial and error. I suspect other types of farming are similar. While these skills were once passed from one generation to the next when kids worked alongside parents and grandparents, most young people who are interested in farming today don't have this opportunity. To me, on-farm internships and apprenticeships are critical in filling this need.