Here’s the scene: It’s late. Maybe 2 a.m. And you can’t sleep. You roll this way and that. You change pillows. You count sheep. When nothing works, you lumber out into the living room and click on the TV. Here’s a stroke of late night luck: a movie that you’ve always meant to see but never have is playing. It’s a bit near the end, but who cares? That’s when it gets good anyhow. Let’s say for the sake of our scene that it’s Tombstone and you tune in just in time to hear Wyatt Earp tell the bad guys that he’s coming, and that hell is coming with him.
Wyatt Earp is a tough guy, right? The movie ends and yes, you’re pretty convinced that Wyatt Earp is just about one of the coolest lawmen of all time. What you don’t know though is exactly how he came to be that person, because you only caught the end of the movie. You don’t know about his past-life sliminess or about the personal grief and loss that clarified his character and drove him to steeliness. You know the result, but you don’t know the context.
This is the thing with yield monitors. We’re all so tuned in to these monitors, but they provide only one part of the story. That part is the end, which is of course very important, but it is still just one piece of a very long story indeed. They show us the completion of the character that is our growing season, but they say nothing of the backstory.
But what matters is the outcome, you say? Friend, I disagree, whether we’re talking about movies or about our fields, and especially if we’re talking about our fields.
Recognizing the backstory of your yield sheds light on what went well and what went wrong, and it clues us into the why of these things. Without a backstory, we’re simply left to guess what caused an area of high or low yield, and we risk perpetrating revisionist history.
Let’s say that you’ve tried a new hybrid, but your yield monitor reveals that your experiment wasn’t so successful. Your blame is likely going to fall on that hybrid, right? It’s the most obvious correlation, and it was the thing you changed from last season. In the absence of information, these are our default modes: we look toward the obvious, and we look toward the change, with which we always feel some level of discomfort. But what if your low yield actually isn’t due to the new hybrid? What if your soil was ponded there or if an insect invaded or what if you even mismanaged it a little? The hybrid may have actually performed extraordinarily well given the situation, but you wouldn’t know it. And you’d probably never plant that hybrid again, though perhaps it could have become a key player in your operation.
Backstory, friends. While you’re spending your days in the cab of your combine, look for the backstory. Bring your records with you and take some notes about what you see. Whatever scouting reports you received throughout the season, your visual assessment is absolutely vital to understanding what happened in your fields this season. Where are the plants thin? The stalks puny? The weeds thick? Where did the deer suddenly burst forth looking wild and quite satisfied?
In the end, I’m beating the same drum I always beat during harvest. It’s easy to turn up the music or lose yourself to your phone. Don’t. Be engaged in the moment. Take notes. Because the things you’ll see—you’ll forget them in five or six weeks, when the details will matter the most as you plan for next season. That crucial information will be lost to the ether, and I am unfortunately not telepathic. Yet.