Lincoln University researchers Peter Nuthall and Kevin Old have been examining how Kiwi farmers make their decisions, the role intuition plays, and how it can be improved.

Their analysis of farmers' intuitive decision-making covers 10 pages in a recent edition of the international rural research publication Journal of Rural Studies.

And Dr Nuthall has written a 232-page book The Intuitive Farmer: Inspiring management Success which communicates business ideas and strategies in novel form.

The book tells the story of a group of farmers and its meetings covering a range of management challenges and skills associated with intuition.

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Guided by meeting facilitators, the farmers sort out each other's decision problems, learning and taking on board the lessons.

It is believed to be the first such book applied to agricultural management practices.

Data for the Journal of Rural Studies analysis by the two Lincoln University Department of Land Management and Systems researchers were gathered from more than 700 farmers around New Zealand.

Dr Nuthall told The Country the farmers were anonymous, selected to meet occupation specifications recorded by the Department of Statistics. He was sure quite a few of the farmers were from Northland, but couldn't say how many.

"Farmer intuition has never been analysed to this extent before," Dr Nuthall said. "It's a pretty important area. Farmers don't sit down with computers and calculators. Research has shown they make most decisions using their intuition.

They do not formally analyse each decision, but use their mental powers to decide on what action to take. 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 and hopefully we can develop systems to help farmers improve their intuition."

A university statement about the research said profit and other assessments showed some farmers were good intuitive decision-makers, others not so good.

Farmers with little experience, whether they had good potential intuition or not, found it difficult to make good decisions.

Dr Nuthall said the intuition process often used what was called "pattern matching", where the brain used experience to match 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 was more than just pattern matching. It developed with a farmer's thought process, self-criticism and review. The new research showed how farmers could improve their intuition.

"Obviously the farmers' technical farming knowledge is important as a forerunner. But equally vital 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 factors all tended to be inbuilt skills which could 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," Dr Nuthall said.

* The Intuitive Farmer is available from online book sellers such as fishpond.co.nz, amazon.com and bookdepository.com.

* The Journal of Rural Studies analysis is online at sciencedirect.com/science/journal/07430167