We gathered on a damp Thursday evening in April for the first Twilight CRAFT gathering of the season. But, we were fortified with an eagerness to learn about Crop Planning and tasty beverages from New Belgium Brewery. For this Twilight CRAFT, Cedar Johnson from Goldfinch Gardens and Vanessa Campbell from Full Sun Farm shared their strategy and process for planning out their crops for the year. They walked us through all the different things they consider as they set their plan for what to grow.
It can be difficult to create a crop plan if it’s your first year farming because you don’t have much growing or marketing experience to pull from to tell you what the market wants and what you need to grow. However, it’s good to go ahead and start nonetheless, recognizing that things will go wrong with your plan at some point and be prepared to be flexible and make changes as needed. But, having a plan each year will build on itself and gain value as you grow. Helping you learn from past mistakes and successes so you make better decisions in the future. Each year you’re able to look back at your plan, and make adjustments for the coming year. A well thought out crop plan helps you know how much seed to purchase, transplants to grow, and bed space needed in order to meet your market needs.
Cedar started us off explaining that crop planning has a lot to do with personalities. Each farm has its own way of approaching a crop plan, and its important to find a method that suits your work style and makes sense to you. Crop planning is a “space and time puzzle”, Cedar said. You know what you’re going to sell, you can figure out how many days it takes for a crop to mature, and you know how much space you have. So your task is to fit all of those pieces together. But, she acknowledges it’s not a perfect science. “There are perfect farm theories, and then you have your farm and what you’re able to sell,” she said. So in many ways “A crop plan is an aspirational plan”, as Vanessa put it. There will be deviation based on weather, and what you can actually get done, but having a plan will help you stay organized, provide a weekly to-do list, and potentially save you money, time and energy. The key is taking good notes on when the plan didn’t work and when it did and using that information to make a more informed plan the next year. Planning also helps if you have employees on your farm. Then everything isn’t trapped in one person’s head. Its all written down and tasks can easily be delegated and shared.
Cedar has been farming with her partner Ben at Goldfinch Gardens for 8 years, so “we’ve had lots of chances for failures and some successes,” she said. They have 2.5 acres in production each year, and do a lot of crop succession throughout the growing season. An online CSA, where the customer choose what they want each week, and restaurants are their primary markets. They’ve found that these two markets differ significantly in what they want. For instance, the CSA members prefer regular green beans, whereas the restaurant’s want more specialty crops like the dragon bean. And, their crop plan has to accommodate those different varieties to meet their market demands.
For Cedar, her crop planning process starts with a review of her notes from the previous year. She’ll type up the handwritten notes, paying particular attention to the ones she marked as “next year,” seeing what was good, what was a failure, what should be timed differently, etc. Then she’ll use that information to plan out her crop maps. The maps are organized by week number, not dates. She prefers week numbers because dates change year to year. April 15th is on a different day, but week 16 is pretty consistent. Next, she creates her greenhouse seeding schedule based on what she knows she needs to produce from her maps. The last step is using an excel spreadsheet to create the master plan which consolidates everything, and helps her make a to-do list for each week. When the week comes she’ll copy down the plan, then walk around and make adjustments based on the actuals, and take notes as the season progresses.
At Full Sun Farm, Vanessa and her partner Alex have been farming for 17 years and have about 4 acres in production each year. They grow vegetables and cut flowers for two farmers markets and a CSA. They encounter a similar conundrum as Cedar when it comes to their cut flowers because they grow flowers for weddings and brides who tend to want white and blush colored bouquets, whereas market customers like more color. So “It’s a balancing act,” as Vanessa puts it.
Vanessa’s crop planning process starts at the end of the season when they look at all their sales records from markets. They keep track of everything that they sold at each market. Those are the records they are most diligent and consistent with keeping. Looking back at those numbers they are able to analyze them and see where the holes might be. For example, they might notice that they didn’t have lettuce these two weeks, why not? How can we fill that in? Or, we sold out of this one thing, how can we plan to bring more then. Then, she’ll sit down with Alex, and any apprentices that are staying through the winter and get their general impressions from the year. They talk about what was difficult, what did they love/hate harvesting, what worked, etc. and go through crops one by one.
Since she knows how much she needs to produce for her markets, she can then pick out the number of beds she needs per crop, i.e. she’ll need 12 beds for beets if she wants to grow them all season. She can order seeds based on the bed number, and backs into her crop planning from that angle. Then, Vanessa creates her sowing schedule in an Excel spreadsheet. She organizes it by crop from A-Z, first. Then, she can re-sort based on the date, and has a usable to-do list for each week. Then, she sorts a third time by transplant date which will tell her the # of beds she needs by May 15th, and she’ll assign those beds in a crop map. For Vanessa, the main value of the map is to make sure she has enough space for everything that they’re growing.
I’ll end it there, but needless to say, it was an informative Twilight CRAFT! We are incredibly grateful to Cedar & Vanessa for sharing their robust knowledge and expertise on crop planning with us. We’ll see you next time!
WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information and to join, click here.
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. 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 dancer, baker and avid adventurer.