“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
In the 1880s, vineyards in the Médoc district of Bordeaux, France, had a problem. People passing by the vineyards would steal grapes from the vines. Vineyard managers came upon a method to discourage this theft. They sprayed the vines along the roads either with a mixture of copper sulfate and lime or with copper carbonate. These sprays made the grapes appear unappetizing. Now passersby were more likely to leave the grapes alone. Problem solved.
Professor Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet, a botanist from the University of Bordeaux, had been working in grape vineyards trying to solve grapevine problems caused by insects and diseases. In October 1882, Professor Millardet walked through the Saint Julien vineyard and noticed the leaves near the roadways were green and vigorous, while those away from the roads were dead. The healthy leaves had a bluish residue that was not present on the dead and dying leaves. Intrigued, Millardet contacted Ernest David, the manager of the vineyard at Châtaeu Beaucaillon, and learned the blue residue was the 1880s version of a “keep out – no trespassing” sign. Additionally, the bluish residue was controlling a disease known as downy mildew.
And thus, the first commercial fungicide, Bordeaux mixture, was born from a chance observation. As word of this discovery spread, many people began to experiment with different copper mixtures and different ways to get the mixtures on the grapevine leaves. Bordeaux mixture proved to be an effective way to limit the disease and improve wine production. As an aside, Bordeaux mixture also proved to slow the spread of the dreaded potato late blight, which was ravaging potato crops in both Europe and the U.S.
The field of science is full of chance observations. The American physicist and Nobel Laureate Douglas Osheroff said, “Most [scientific] advances require both insight and good fortune.” Put another way, some of the greatest advances have been influenced by observations that were not under the control of the scientist.
Some of the greatest scientists acknowledge the role of failure in their work and how failure is necessary before success can be found. It is in careful observation of things that don’t work that a person can come to understand things that do. But to do this, a person’s mind must be prepared. When an effort to do something fails, instead of thinking, “That was a waste of time!” it is better to ask, “Why did this fail?”
Crop and livestock producers exemplify this principle. I recently attended a conference where a panel of potato growers were talking about how they were incorporating green manure and cover crops into their crop rotation. Over and over, the panel members shared frustrations, problems and challenges they had faced in trying to make these crops work in their systems. Every panelist shared at least one observation that came by "accident” that helped them get to the point of success. Learning from the accident would not have happened had they not been prepared.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, some potatoes in eastern Idaho were being decimated by a disease called pink rot. The organism that causes this disease had been controlled by a widely used fungicide known as metalaxyl. However, repeated use of metalaxyl resulted in populations of the pathogen resistant to the chemical. Just about every fungicide that might be effective against the pathogen was tested, and the results were discouraging.
Several researchers were working with phosphite-based fungicides. These products were labeled for use against pathogens like the one that causes pink rot. But they also failed in the early tests against the disease. Then, a positive result was observed. A series of field experiments were conducted at three locations, and one of the three locations had success. It would have been easy to ignore the one lone success because so many other tests had failed, but the researchers looked closely at the positive case and realized a mistake had been made. The rate of the fungicide in that trial had accidentally been doubled due to a mathematical error. Fortunately, phosphite-based fungicides are very safe, and doubling the rate does not cause a safety issue for human consumption. From this accident, a new tool was developed to aid potato growers in their efforts to avoid pink rot.
If you try to improve your farming or ranching practice and it doesn’t work, realize you had a good learning opportunity. With eyes open, who knows what great things you will learn from failure?
Note: The story of Millardet and Bordeaux mixture was adapted from The Advance of the Fungi by E.C. Large.