I first learned the term “gateway skill” while reading Chris Schwartz, of Lost Art Press. Schwarz wrote several years ago that “sharpening [hand tools] is the gateway skill to a wider world of woodworking.” Once you can sharpen tools effectively, it’s much easier to use them, and use them well. I’ll vouch for Schwarz’s statement from personal experience. Since it worked for me in woodworking, I wondered if the gateway skill concept would translate to other endeavors.
In the years that I worked for the Farmer Veteran Coalition, helping recent veterans transition to farming, I looked for a gateway skill in farming. Was there one thing we could pass on to a beginning farmer that would set him or her up for success? Successfully raising crops and livestock—just the production, not even including the business end—requires such a broad array of skills that I haven't narrow it down to one that would lead to all the others. The skills required for farming remind me of a Robert Heinlein quote:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
I was headed somewhere else with this post, but I noticed something while re-reading the quote: the skills are a mix of thinking and execution. Now I’m wrapped up in that thought-and-execution idea. I just spent fifteen minutes unpacking a box of books and flipping through Marine Corp Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-3, Tactics. (Yup, I just fell down the rabbit hole).
I’m not thinking about a single skill any more, but there is a framework for understanding the thinking and execution cycle. The framework comes from combat, but it can apply to a whole spectrum of endeavors —including farming.
Hang with me. More to follow.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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