As I thought about this column, I felt the added pressure of the uncertainty of the times we are living in. I believe planning for the future and trying to figure out where the opportunities are going to be is much harder than in the past. Still, I go back to my most basic touchstone – that people need to eat before they do anything else and what we produce is extremely important.
Our industry is so diverse in size of operations, production practices and modes of marketing that making suggestions that fit everyone is hard. One all-around suggestion is to review the past season and see what worked and what didn’t work. This annual review is so important to begin planning and to see if changes are needed in one’s operation. The review can be broken down by categories: how varieties performed; weed, insect and disease management; irrigation; fertilization; equipment; labor; post-harvest procedures; marketing strategies; and accounting. On a larger scale, it might be field operations, greenhouse operations, accounting, sales/marketing and labor. A thorough review of each of these categories provides a good base from which to begin planning for next year and developing budgets that are accurate and realistic.
With the continued adoption of season-extending technology (high and low tunnels, greenhouses, row covers), many growers are still harvesting and marketing crops this year and so they might need to start planning while still being involved in production and marketing of a current crop. One question growers could ask is “Does this technology fit into my operation, and should I think about utilizing this technology in my operation?” Cash flow for a longer period might be a positive aspect of season-extending technology.
Checking over one’s equipment is certainly a priority, as is fixing issues that maybe were not fully addressed during the heat of the growing season. “Do I need to purchase a new piece of equipment or good used equipment?” This includes everything: tractors, tillage equipment, planters and transplanters, sprayers, harvesting aids, weed control tools, fertilizer distributors, coolers, small hand tools and any other equipment that needs maintenance. Given the delays in the supply chain, it’s better to get started earlier if a new piece of equipment is needed for next year. The prices of all inputs on the farm are up, some over 50% or more, and that’s certainly another consideration in preparing a budget.
Things seem to be returning to normal with winter meetings and trade shows, so penciling those onto one’s calendar would be a good idea. The winter shows need to part of your planning process, as that’s where you can gather new information, compare notes on the past season with fellow growers and (perhaps) enjoy a vacation also. I like to get the latest information on new varieties, updates on pest (weeds, insects and disease) management and a copy of the new vegetable guide.
Your planning will need to have a sharp pencil when figuring costs for next year. Remembering that farming is a business and that knowing your cost of production is critical for marketing strategies and pricing of produce. Financing in today’s environment is critical to the success of one’s operation. It’s important to be able to adjust one’s price to reflect the cost of production plus a return to the grower. You can’t go way outside the boundaries of the going price to be competitive, but maybe figuring how to command a premium for your produce is another method. Reducing your cost of production is the other way of making your crop bring the return you desire.
I checked in with my friend Bob Jones Jr., who with his family runs Farmer Jones Farm at the Chef’s Garden in northern Ohio. He reminded me that he considers himself and his brother businessmen that are farmers. He has his operation organized into six departments across field operations and greenhouse. He monitors his operations and continually evaluates them. He said hoping for a better future is not a strategy that can be applied to farming. Bob is applying the principles of regenerative agriculture, coupled with measuring the nutrient density of his vegetables, as his blueprint for his planning for the future of his farming operation.
Regenerative agriculture is based on various agricultural and ecological practices, with a particular emphasis on minimal soil disturbance and composting. It’s all about the soil. That’s what Steve Groff of Cedar Meadow Farm is all about. Bob has been following what Steve has been doing for some time. Steve has been using the nutrient density of his vegetables as an indicator of the results of his cover cropping and minimal tillage and he believes in the future to be able to command a premium for his vegetables.
This is the strategic planning that Bob has been doing for his operation. He set up a lab on his farm to measure the nutrient density of his vegetables and is comparing it to USDA’s figures (which tend to be low). Bob has 400 acres but only 125 acres are in veggies. He allows two years of cover cropping and then plants vegetables. This way he is tying up carbon in the soil. What is even more novel is that he has hired a doctor to work with him on another marketing strategy – food as medicine.
I’ve talked about this before, but Bob is taking it a step further, to where certain minerals or elements are beneficial for helping treat certain diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, etc., and Bob is preparing baskets of these vegetables for these diseases. He ships them out directly to customers. This planning is changing the way that Bob farms and he looks forward to documenting the increased nutrient density of his veggies due to his husbandry of his soils, use of cover cropping, etc.
Marketing vegetables because of their increased nutrient density and as medicine, and farming similar to the time before chemical fertilizer and proving that you can accomplish it, is what Bob and others are not only planning but are doing today. They’re planning to do even more in the coming years.
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