During a recent conversation, a friend asked me why farmers and ranchers always seem to be working on predicting and planning for the future, even more than most entrepreneurs.

It’s because farmers and ranchers can view their horizon, figuratively and literally. We know how to dream. And yes, we’ll low-ball our dream (bring it into focus) if our ag loan doesn’t come through, or is less than we asked for to launch the vision. Arizona farming is a place to have a vision, just look at our sunsets.

Horizons against a big farm field and under an even bigger sky help us see the future with a broad perspective. (Photo courtesy Yuma Farmer Jonathan Dinsmore)

Another way to say this, farmers and ranchers have a vision because they can see the horizon. Out on the open range, a rancher sees far away and he or she thinks of the possibilities. A farmer, checking his fields, sees a clear line on the horizon where his crops are growing; he too sees the future, the possibilities. Out, away from the crowds and urban sprawl where horizons are hard to define, one can clearly think and imagine bigger tomorrows under a great open sky.

Delving even deeper into my theory, I came across an article by Walter Frick in Harvard Business Review called, “What Research Tells Us About Making Accurate Predictions.” According to the article, we do know far more about prediction and what the future holds than we used to, including the fact that some of us are better at it than others. But, it’s also a learned skill that gets better with practice.

One of my favorite examples in farm and ranch country involves our generational farm and ranch families and discovering that so many of them predicted and saw the potential in this barren Arizona land long ago including anticipating that the land would grow houses as well as crops and animals, but agriculture had to come first.

Some famous research on prediction came out of the University of Pennsylvania by a Philip Tetlock. His seminal 2006 book Expert Political Judgment provided crucial background and is an actual guide to better predicting and visionary planning.

Tetlock explains that one style of thinking that seems to aid in predicting involves those who prefer to consider multiple explanations and balance them together before making a prediction perform better than those who rely on a single big idea.

I can remember our own family farm, how dad and mom would consider multiple options, then “ruminate” on the options before they acted upon their and the farm’s future. To me, this seemed altogether natural and appeared to be the way so many other farm and ranch families I’ve known over the years operating. Perhaps some of this is simply that natural order of things. After all, our futures are on the line.

We’re told that top predictors manage to improve over time. And those that research this field suggest that certain factors make all the difference.

Domain expertise helps. This is not surprising. The successful farmers and ranchers I know are expert at what they grow and raise. Plus, they’re constantly educating themselves on their farming and ranching practices. Even without the Ph.D., some of our aggies have Ph.D.-level knowledge of their agriculture area they focus on.

Practice improves your predictive ability. The top-performing visionaries become consistently more accurate suggest the researchers and only become more so over time. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. When you give yourself more time to understand your future (to view your horizon) the better you can calculate your future.

Intelligence helps. The forecasters in Tetlock’s study were smart. It really helps in the beginning. But it appears that once you get your groove on, working your future becomes natural.

Open-minded people make better predictions. While some psychologists see open-mindedness as a personality trait that’s static within individuals over time, there is also some evidence that each of us can be open-minded depending on the circumstances.

Faith plays a part. Okay, this one is mine and it has no basis in research, at least the research that came from Tetlock. This is just the anecdotal experience that I sense from the farm and ranch families I know. Our agriculture families have faith in their ability to make their future bright, as a matter of survival they’ve got to “have faith.” It might be even more critical during these tough times related to economic conditions in agriculture and more

Why? It’s all about the horizons we as farmers and ranchers can so clearly see in our own places. Certainly, part of it begins with a dream. Dream big, but plan conservatively since we have to convince our banker. 

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