Speakers: Holly Whitesides of Against the Grain, and William Lyons of Bluebird Farm
Location: Watauga Country Agricultural Center
Description: Holly and William highlighted what data points are worth recording over the course of a season, and provided insights into how that data can be organized and utilized in order to plan ahead for the coming year.
The Planning Cycle
To start, track data for planting, production, harvest, and sales. Make sure that this becomes a routine habit. You may find it easier to handle, especially if you have other workers helping you, to create a "hub" where data can be logged after one task is completed and before the next is begun.
Holly recommends a whiteboard with these fields: 'Date', 'Crop/Field', 'Task' (such as greenhouse, transplanting, direct-seeding), 'number of people', 'number of hours', 'total time', and the initials of whomever completed the task. This information will be transformed into a hard-copy in Excel at the end of the day, along with a photo of the board as a backup.
William, on the other hand, prefers to keep track old-school style, with paper and pencil in the field, and spoke of the importance of tracking the time spent on each task.
Others may find it useful to use their smartphones. When it comes to sales data, digital tools such as QuickBooks, Square, and many others are a useful tool that should not be overlooked. Whatever style you prefer, be sure that you only record what is useful, or can actually be acted upon. It's easy to record too much in the fear that you'll forget some small detail that may be of importance later, but once you find your own rhythm and ways of doing, you'll begin to cypher out what is the most important information for you.
Sort and interpret data. You will find that Excel is your new best friend, as it offers a visual of what data you have collected, as well as the ability to sort and re-arrange with ease.
If you need a relative way to compare different crops, calculate:
(Total Year's Income) - (Total Year's Expenses) / (Hours Worked for X crop)
To examine the "rent" that a crop pays, calculate:
(Total Year's Income) - (Total Year's Expense) / (Number of Beds of X crop)
Crop Relative 'Rent'
Potatoes $30 $128
Strawberries $17 $740
Lettuce $52 $580
When analyzing the above data, consider the amount of hours that were put into all aspects of producing each crop, and have a conversation with yourself or your partner(s) as to whether or not improvements are necessary/worthwhile, whether more or less should be grown, or whether a certain crop, for you, is even worth growing at all. Armed with facts, figures, and knowledge, you can now begin to plan for the incoming year, and create a targeted plan.
A lovely landscape of Against the Grain.
Mapping the plan. It may be helpful to spread before yourself (on the floor or a large desk) the following:
So. Now you have your plan listed, mapped, and entered onto a calendar that will be displayed in plain sight - perhaps next to the coffee-pot - now what?
Execute the plan! Everyone can relate to a decent plan that never was, life gets in the way and things don't always work out the way you planned them...and that is okay. However, you'll be closer to your desired outcome if every weekend you have a meeting with that calendar and coffee-pot, and make a list of all the work that needs to be completed in the following week. If something the prior week wasn't completed, circle it, and make that task a priority for the coming week.
Lyons and co. hard at work.
Other notes of interest
Always seek to find a balance between what you want as a farmer (what makes it all worthwhile), and what you see the market demanding (because you need a profit to stay in business) - if you feel really passionate about a certain product, don’t be afraid to push the market a little bit, but recognize your limits.
Compost, and therefore livestock, is your friend. Even if you aren't keen on animal processing, livestock performs other functions as well: trimming, clearing, tilling, pest control, and manure. You will want to compost said manure before adding it to your fields in order to rid it of any diseases that may be lurking, but adding organics to your soil is the best remedy for poor conditions, regaining pH and nutrient balance. You can think of livestock feed as investing in compost, investing in your soil.
Keep your beds as blocks of the same size. This will be a big help when it comes to rotating. As an example, Holly's rows are 4' on center, 125' long, with 3 rows in a bed.
Last but not least, only diversify your products if it works for you. Don't stretch yourself too thin. Get comfortable with the basics before branching out. This is your gig, so do what is best for yourself and your family.
Here are copies of Holly and William's powerpoints from the Roundtable.
Written by Courtney Elks, Intern with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture's CRAFT program.