CRAFT WNC Farmer Round Table
Facilitated by William Lyons of Bluebird Farm
Farmer Round Tables are open-discussion group conversations geared toward our farmers about a specific 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 met again at the Carolina Farm Credit office on February 5th for our second winter Farmer Round Table. We focused discussion on the tough decision to fire a crop or system on your farm. How do you know when enough is enough with a crop or enterprise and it’s time to let it go? William prompted our discussion with a short exercise running some income and production numbers to frame a decision-making process with these basic understandings:
- If we want to transform the food system, then more food needs to be raised sustainably. That won’t happen if it’s not economically viable. We must pioneer a financially viable farming system.
- Money encompasses inputs and techniques, allows for direct comparison by reducing to a common denominator. Every choice we make uses different amounts of space, takes different amounts of time, has varying costs, and results in a range of product.
- For each task and project on the farm we are managing space, time, and money to produce results
- Space + Time + Money = Product
- Firing a crop or technique is just a math problem, but you can’t do it if you don’t have your numbers.
As William pointed out, thinking about money can be intimidating, but at Bluebird farm they like to consider it a puzzle. You’re not going to earn a living by accident, so in order to be economically viable it helps to put some thought into the flow of money on your farm, and that in turn will help you gauge which crops or enterprises are making you money and which ones aren’t. From there you are able to make an informed choice as to whether to continue with that crop or enterprise OR what you need to do to make it more efficient.
We began with a big picture stance looking at an example for how much you want to be able to pay yourself, and what the farm will need to make to meet that goal.
- If you’d like to be able to pay the salary for two farmers at least $25,000/year you’ll need the farm to net $50,000/year.
- If you have 5 acres in production then you’ll need each acre to net $10,000; If you have 2.5 acres in production you’ll need each acre to net $20,000
- Therefore, if the two farmers each work 5,500 hrs/year then it doesn’t make sense to have any enterprise on your farm that doesn’t earn at least $9/hr
After forming your baseline income and doing some record keeping on things like yield & time. It can be helpful to consider if it’s better to fire a crop or fire a technique. For example at Bluebird Farm, they aren’t able to make the hourly rate they need if they were to grow their own transplants. It is more cost effective in their case to buy them. Also, they’ve found it more cost effective to take their chickens to be butchered at the Foothills Processing Plant instead of doing it themselves. A decision like this might not feel cost effective because it’s cash going out of your pocket, and that you’re not paying yourself – but if you can’t do something fast enough or it’s a task that drives you crazy then it might be easier & more cost effective to hire that task out. This is also helpful when thinking about your labor costs. Labor is the single biggest expense on any farm, therefore examining how you manage your time for each crop from planting to harvest, and focusing on improving your time and efficiency can have positive same benefits to your bottom line.
This decision-making process can help you decide when it’s more valuable to stop harvesting a crop and turn it in – firing a crop for that harvest, not firing it entirely. If you figure out some average times for how long it takes to harvest a particular crop, and how much of that crop you need to meet your income goals, once it begins to take too long to harvest that amount then you know it’s time to move on. The added costs of plowing & re-planting are typically not as much as not being able to pay yourself your needed hourly rate. Also, if a crop isn’t performing for you it can be helpful to think this is a crop you need to get better at and it’s worth finding out how other people are making it profitable for them.
Since firing a crop or technique is just a math problem, finding a record keeping system that makes sense for you is important. Keeping track of what you’re putting in and what you’re getting out of it and how people are spending their time. Some farmers have the interns write down how long they perform each task each day in addition to their harvest yields. The challenge is actually taking the time to make sense of and put to use all that data once it’s collected!
Thank you all for sharing your inquisitive thoughts and honest experiences, thanks to William Lyons for helping facilitate such an interesting & needed discussion, and thanks to Carolina Farm Credit for welcoming us into their meeting space. Until next time!
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, 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. She also brings experience 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. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.