I’ve written three farm plans now, and I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it should go at this point. (Full disclosure: Out of these three farm plans, only one has been moderately successful, so, you know, your mileage may vary going forward. I have a confidence-shattering suspicion that I may be better at writing farm plans than actually implementing them, but failure is how we learn, hopefully).
A farm plan, for the uninitiated, is a great way to plan the next year out to maximize your efforts. It’s a method of creating a path to follow.
No matter what your reasons for farming — income, self-sustainability, fun, etc. — a farm plan will help you establish a baseline for success and a plan of action. A plan of action will be immensely invaluable come mid-summer when you are as busy trying to figure out what to pick and what to plant.
Everyone loves winging it — there’s something to be said for just jumping in and getting your hands dirty — but at the end of the season, when you are all beaten up by a rough season, you’ll be able to look back and actually know, for a fact, whether or not you’ve had a successful season. You can still go off script, it will actually be a bit easier to
So, here’s the basics of what you need to know to start a farm plan and most of these tips apply to any size operation — whether you’re doing a 2 acre microfarm, a backyard garden or a 500 acre commodity operation — there’s something in this list that will help.
Yes, it is December, but guess what: In many parts of the planet, you can start growing in January if you want. Even if you don’t, getting a plan on paper early gives you a chance to do revisions whenever you want. Hear a great idea about growing Jerusalem artichokes? You’ll have a better chance of getting that done if you start planning now than you would if you decide to change up the plan in March. And besides, when your growing season starts, you will be too busy putting crops in the ground to actually plan out what crops you want to put in the ground come April.
Know your purpose
Whether you want to make thousands in farming or feed your family of six, then you will need that it writing. You want to know why you’re taking on a monumental and back breaking task. Also, if you know your purpose, then it will give you a metric to work from.
Want to make money? Then you will need to know what things cost and how much money you will get. If you want to feed your family, then it will be best moving forward to think in terms of cost per calorie. A family of six needs nominally about 2,000 calories per person, per day. That means for 6 people, you’ll need to produce 12,000 calories per day. And you will need to keep up with how much it cost to produce those calories and how to best spend your money to produce what you need.
Make a calendar
Depending on where you live, planting times vary from crop to crop. While you can look up each individual planting date for your crop each day, it is a lot easier to make your calendar in a spreadsheet program — or even in a pocket calendar. So you can just wake up every day during the growing season and know exactly what you’re going to do that day.
While you’re at it, include significant dates (farmers market days, CSA days, holidays, etc.), a fertilizer schedule and harvest dates. Nearly every reputable seed provider offers dates to maturity, which means you can plan your harvest times to the week. This will make it a lot easier to plan in the future: When the growing season gets busy you’ll have a lot of overlap of harvesting and planting. You’ll want to know where that overlap happens to make sure you get the most out of your growing season.
You need a plan for how you’re spending your money and what you’re getting out of it. Your initial farm plan should include a budget and the basics of that budget should include income and expenses and show the difference between them. If you don’t have that information, you may overspend — or under spend — and be forced to give up on your project prematurely.
You can be the best grower of cabbages in the world, but if you cannot afford to keep growing cabbages, you will stop growing cabbages. Even if your goal is not making money, you still need to know how your money is being spent. It’s easy to lose sight of your money if you don’t have a viable plan for it starting out.
You need a plan in place for record keeping from the outset. Whether its a daily journal, or a elaborately mapped out system of spreadsheets, you need to keep track of what you’re doing and when. Your records should include some basic information: What did you plant? When did you plant it? Varieties planted. Soil amendments. Sales records (where necessary). Calories produced, etc. No matter what data you record, remember: More is better. You can always ditch data at the end of the year you don’t need, but you cannot go back in time and record data you didn’t know you needed.
All plans have to have wiggle room. Let’s say you wanted to get some kale in the ground in the beginning of February. Well, you didn’t, because the weather got bad, or your husband got sick, or you just got too tired to deal with it. Don’t chuck the whole farm plan. Just make a note in your records and — more importantly — forgive yourself. Farming and homesteading are really, really hard.
If it wasn’t everyone would do it (and they probably should, at least on some level). So, you’re going to have to be flexible. Things don’t always cooperate when you’re trying to grow food. Remember, that element of surprise is one of the reasons that we’re into this lifestyle. If you can’t forgive yourself, you will quit. No one wants that.
Links and resources:
Here’s a list of great resources, including tips and templates that will help when you make your own farm plan. And, if you’re interested, send it to us. We’ll share your plan with our readers on our blog and hopefully we can all learn a little bit from each other. I’m putting the finishing touches on my farm plan right now. As soon as it’s done, I’ll post it on our blog and we can all learn from each other.
- Farm planning resources: Includes links to business plan models and more. Mostly focused around the economic side of farming.
- Farm planning and record keeping: Provided by the NC Cooperative Extension office, includes Excel templates and tips on crop scheduling.
- Farm plan workbook: From the Oregon State Cooperative Extension. Printable pdf that walks farmers through the entire process of planning a farm.
- Permaculture design course: A video series introducing viewers to the art of Permaculture design. Excellent lecture series by Will Hooker, a professor of Permaculture Design at NC State University.