January 19, 2017 – CRAFT Farmer Round Table – Rates & Techniques – Facilitated by Jamie Davis of A Way of Life Farm

What is a Farmer Round Table? They are open, farmer to farmer discussions geared toward a specific advanced farming topic, facilitated by one of our own CRAFT members. It’s a place to share ideas and experiences on a deeper level than we can get into at the CRAFT farm tours. 

We asked CRAFT members to come with as many rates as you have and are willing to share! Those might be harvest rates, hoeing, weeding, thinning carrots or anything else that is an often repeated standard procedure (changing tractor implements, greenhouse seeding [50s, 72s, 128s, etc], trellising tomatoes vs. cucumbers).

Bring something that you think you do particularly well (efficiently) and something that you cannot figure out how to make faster.  For example, you may think that you harvest kale really fast, but then you find out that someone else’s average rate is double your best rate. Likewise, you may not think that cutting lettuce represents you at your most efficient, but someone else may be on the brink of firing that crop because the harvest of it is so inefficient. Then, once we’ve made these discoveries, we can get into the details of tools, techniques, and standards that might be influencing the different rates. Feel free to bring any tools or pictures to share of things you think help your efficiency.

No matter what farm it is there are routine tasks that we do daily, weekly, and if we can find ways to do those things quickly we can save a lot of time. What are things that we have to do all the time – washing eggs, watering starts, harvest rates, planting rates, etc? Then, we can compare what we do well to see if we really do it well. We started off by going around the room and sharing answering the question, “What is one thing you feel like you do efficiently/well, and one thing that you can’t figure out how to get better at.”

Jamie Davis from A Way of Life farm and our facilitator for the evening started us off with an example. At a Way of Life, they log their harvest time and quantity. They don’t log all of their labor hours, but they do log how many hours are spent harvesting per crop and yield and note the time when switching from one crop to another. This lets them know when to stop a crop. Also, Jamie is not necessarily there to see how the harvest went, but he can look back at the numbers and be able to make a decision. He can also know how to better direct apprentices, and create a teaching opportunity. Is there something they should be doing faster, need more direction, etc?

Highlights from the Discussion

Vegetables:

  • You have to think of pace, and how you pace yourself. I can do a task at this speed really well/thoroughly but may be a bit slower than other crew members, so how can I get faster without losing the ability to do the task well? And, also helps me know where I am in comparison to the other workers. Are they all quicker, but less thorough?
  • Cabbage, at harvest time it’s one of our best yielding crops. We could harvest 188/lbs an hour 2.5-3 lb average (75 heads at $2/lb). Keeping Tom Elmore’s $100/hour rate in mind, which means you ought to be getting $100/bed yield. So for us, we have 50x4 beds, which is 200 sq. ft., and means we need .50 cents/square ft. We don’t plant a crop unless you can project making .50cents/sq ft plus $100/hour at a market.
  • Our harvest rate includes harvest and post-harvest. At harvest, they are cleaned up a little and put straight into the wax box, loaded into a cart and then the prep shed. Then, onto a scale, logged, labeled and into the cooler – that’s where the average rate comes from.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, spinach is one we’ve never been able to get right. Should we keep growing spinach? Our rate is 3.6-4.8 lbs/hr, washed and bagged ready to sale. If our price is $9/lb = $40/hr. We grow the leaves as big as we can, and pinches leaves with both hands. I’ve picked 22lbs/hr – once. It was awesome, and if we could keep it at that it’d totally be profitable! But, typically it’s not like that. We are transplanting now, which really means that it’s  not worth it because it takes so much longer to plant, we spend hours transplanting spinach. And, we grow the starts ourselves.
  • Some farmers have grown spinach before but given up on it now.
  • We sell ours at $12/lb which helps, and we also don’t bag it, which helps it seem more worthwhile. We also wear thick latex gloves to keep from cutting ourselves when we harvest, helps them go faster because not afraid of getting cut. And as a bonus, it keeps our hands warmer on cold days.
  • With crops like spinach and radishes, so much of the rate depends on the health of the stand, if they look terrible it really slows you down.
  • We used to use rubber bands in the field, but realized it would damage the leaves so now with Italian dandelions we will bag ½-⅓ lb at the market instead and have much less damage.
  • Has anybody tried whole plant spinach? Seems like big growers do that based on what we see at grocery stores. How do they make that work, leave it until it almost bolts? We tried it once but had to get it just right and if the weather wasn’t right it wouldn’t be doable.
  • Most farmers seem to have a tough time growing spinach here. We try to tell customers that spinach doesn’t grow well here. It needs to be above freezing, but below 70 for two months. It grows well in places like Michigan, but tough here.
  • Initially sold only wholesale instead of retail, and we know it is faster to cut a head of lettuce than cutting lettuce leaves. Now we’ve found selling direct that people like salad mix so much that they don’t buy heads of lettuce from them, would rather buy from others. We resisted going to salad mix, and of course, the harvest is easier with heads but seemed to be what people wanted. Labor cost obviously way lower for head lettuce, transplanting is the same. We can charge $10/lb for salad mix and $4/lb for head lettuce. We bag at the market.
  • We think about the rate we are selling at the market, also. By the time we show up we have a good chunk of time already invested in it – 2 people/10 hrs (includes driving and packing). So we know how many $/hr we need to to make it profitable.
  • From the Healthy Profits Healthy Farmers website, we were introduced to the idea of using a  square mesh bag inside a 10 gallon pot to give it shape. We harvest braising mix and salad mix into the mesh bag inside of the bucket, fill ⅔ full. This goes to the washstand (Lowe’s Utility Tub), contains the lettuce for easy washing without extra leaves being left. We transfer the lettuce mix into plastic bags that are the same size as the mesh bag with holes in the bottom for easy draining. Then, the mix is transferred in a box inside an ice chest for rapid chilling. Often salad mix is still cool when it goes into the customer’s refrigerator. We try to do 3 bags/hr which is about 15lbs/hr at $20/lb. We reuse the plastic bags about 10 times, just making sure there is no plant material left in there, and hang them to dry so they’re ready to go next time.
  • Two crops where we feel like yield/area was really good, but not sure about yield/time digging them out were potatoes and sweet potatoes. We used a potato plow to scoop them out and then boxed by hand. With a crop like potatoes it was all excellent, and it can all get stored and sold so maybe it’ll be worth it. One day we did 60 lbs/hr into a box/hr and onto the truck (not counting into the cooler). In the box is ready for market. Stored unwashed, and regular potatoes they’ll wash before going to market. That was slow and frustrating, because sink area was busy. Washing means spraying through blub crate, and turn them over.
  • Usually we do that with sweet potatoes wash and let dry before storing. This year we didn’t have time to wash it all and they seemed fine. Takes a lot of time and space to wash and dry. We have a root/chain digger, so we got them out really fast, and boxed up. We thought it would be bad washing later but it wasn’t. We washed the day before and let them drain w/ fan over them overnight, and they were dry by morning. Even if had already washed them they’d have to go and sort them to get out any bad ones, so we would end of spending some of that time anyway. And, we may have given better product just getting them out of the field faster.
  • Seems harder to keep track of rates for crops that are harvested in big quantity at a time, not as routine.
  • W grew cucumbers in a high tunnel and some out in the field this year. We harvested about 1500 lbs of cucumbers, only one planting in high tunnel, and 3-4 out in field. We harvested 750 lbs from the high tunnel and the other half from the field on the ground. In the tunnel, it’s easier to harvest and we got better quality. What about time for putting up tunnel, trellis, etc? We would still need to factor that into rate. And, in field we roll out plastic, hoops, row cover, etc. not same maintenance as tunnel but still significant.

Livestock:

  • We do intensive grazing with sheep and with fencing we either need to take more time rolling out fencing single strand electric spoils or we need multiple ones which gets expensive. We did some cost analysis with the sheep, and we are in the red. It’s not really due to  time but more the cost of feed and the heritage breed which doesn’t produce a ton of meat.
  • We try to manage feed costs by culling the stock. If it’s not raining for a long time we will harvest more of the herd, matching herd size to grass resources, because once you’re feeding sheep their profitability goes down fast.
  • With chickens we want to change up, we’ve been pasturing our egg chickens, following the sheep with them. It takes a lot of time and effort and have to carry food/water to them. They are more susceptible to predators, and we’re not moving them often enough to keep them from ruining the pasture. We’re thinking of dedicating a space closer to the house for them. Right now we have a coop on skids, and  move it with a tractor. We surround it with electric net fencing which is within a larger electrified pasture with guard dogs and sheep.
  • If the chickens are free ranging their egg production goes down because they have more to do, more to distract them, but production goes up when the space gets smaller because they are getting a higher portion of their protein from feed.
  • With livestock we’ve found the most important rate is how to not spend time on it. The biggest bills are infrastructure and feed. With egg chickens our main chores are checking to make sure its ok, then collecting and cleaning eggs. Their water is gravity fed from a big tank, and feed brought in 1 ton at a time. Spring is way easier with cleaning eggs because the birds are on cleaner pasture. We do vegetables in the morning (7:30 – 1) and then have someone help me in the afternoon 2-5 or 2-5:30 ~ 6-7 hrs a day spent on livestock. We are taking care of 8 breeding hogs, 30 meat hogs, 20-30 piglets, 30 sheep, 500 full size broilers, 500 baby meat chickens and 200 layer hens. This includes watering, feeding, procuring feed, egg boxing, breeding. Totals up to about 40 hrs/week. Animals are like one salary on the farm. Up to 50hr/wk in the summer, and it goes down in the winter. Spending the money on good infrastructure can sometimes save you on time and energy later on. With beef cattle, we put up nice paddocks and only have to run a wire between the fences to section it off. Only 1 hr work a week.
Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.