Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Learning to Farm

It takes years of experience to understand what works and what doesn't work in farming. This is because of the variations in seasons, weather, markets, locations, soils, climate, varieties and farmers.

Reading will shorten the assimilation of information somewhat as you can learn, from the knowledge and mistakes of others. See my post on some of the top farming books for my learning and operation. Your list maybe somewhat different. I offer my list as a point of demarcation as I am always looking for good books and I hope you are too.

The learning curve is more than just information. Information is the foundation, but there are other factors that greatly influence success. For example, management, relationships, tools, timing, and execution.

Mangement is critical to the farm, especially for organic farming. You have to know what is going on out in the fields because there is less margin for error (you can't just spray the pests or weeds). I like to walk the fields daily to watch for pests and see what needs to be weeded. A quick pass with the hoe or tiller at the right time can save a season of grief fighting weeds. A walk through also lets me check progress on what the workers have done for the day and mentally start the list for tomorrow. I also find walking through the fields to be relaxing and I often take one of our teenagers along.

Relationships are a part of the farming operation. A supportive spouse and family will go along way towards the success of the farm. Having good relationships with farm workers is also a stress reducer..

Customers are a key relationship for the small produce farmer. The conventional grain farmer just takes his truck of corn or beans to the elevator and the end customer is nameless and faceless. I like the farmers market, because it provides a connection to the customer and builds that relationship. It also provides immediate feedback and can be an excellent marketing laboratory for trying out new ideas. I wouldn't even know about things like arugula or black garlic if it wasn't for some of our customers.

Tools are a key requirement for farming. I recommend a pay as you go approach. Figure out what the farm budget can afford and proritize the acquisition of tools to fit within this yearly budget. For us this amount was approximately $5000 per year. I did buy a tractor for $7500 the first year, which exceeds this, but I paid cash from personal savings. I would also strongly recommend that you not go into debt to start your farm. I had a used Troy Built Horse tiller that I bought for $500 the first few years. When we moved to the farm I quickly wore the Troy Built out. I purchased a BSC tiller made by Ferrari for $4000. This is a walk behind tractor with a live PTO and has held up extremely well for our heavier use.

Timing is important, I suggest you organize your planting schedule ahead of the season. Season extension can be a very profitable approach, but I suggest you focus on mastering the main season for the first few years. After farming for 15 years I still don't have a permanent green house. But I am very good at extending the season with hardy varieties, which I would not have gotten good at had I started with a hoop house.

Execution of the yearly plan can always be improved. One of the reasons I like farming is that there is always room for experimentation. I think it is as important to eliminate things that don't work for you as it is to focus on something new. The things that aren't profitable or aren't working (maybe you just don't like the prickles on the zuchinni) should be pruned from the porfolio.

Farmers tend to enjoy, well, farming. But marketing can be fun too. We got our children involved in our marketing plan and they were great experimentors. One summer Jenna must have tried 15-20 different ways to market basil: small pots, medium pots, large pots, basil baskets, different varieties, clumps of basil, 2 for, 3 for, mixed with other herbs, basil tea, fresh basil, dried basil, basil leaves, basil on the stalk, well you get the idea. Just when I thought you couldn't possibly sell another basil plant she would come up with a way to sell several more flats on a single Saturday. Amazing and very educational for her.

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