Last winter I started writing about each step of Hippo Camp (our annual business review process), then lost steam as the pandemic hit Vermont. I'm picking up a year later with Step 7: Crop Plan, but rather than do a deep dive into crop planning (because there are so many great resources out there already), I'm going to give an overview of WHY the plan flows from review, to goals, to budget, to marketing plan, to crop plan and beyond. In case you are following along and creating a plan for your own business, I'll pop in a few resources (including links to the previous steps) and personal anecdotes along the way.
Let's start with a review of where we've been in the planning process. First, we sat down with our farm teams and made lists of everything that felt like an Achievement, and everything that felt like a Disappointment from the previous season. We took the list of Disappointments and turned it into action items for the coming season through a "stop doing, keep doing, start doing" exercise. We then put dollar amounts to those action items in the form of an investments list. We also used those items to help design goals for the coming season, goals that included aspirations for financial earnings, production improvements, and system refinements. We then took those goals, investments, and real numbers about how much money we as owners need to earn from the business and created an ideal budget for the year. With that gross number in mind we looked to a marketing plan, which created a roadmap for how to reach our aspirational earnings goal. If the plan felt unrealistic we adjusted the budget by removing investments, reducing personal income, adjusting systems to reduce expenses, or increasing production or markets to create new revenue streams. Now that we're confident in who we are selling to, why we are selling to them, and what they'd like to be buying, we are ready for Step 7, our crop plan.
If you are in your first three years of farming, a crop plan can feel incredibly daunting. We used a number of books and online resources to create our first plans.
My favorites are, in no particular order:
Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers by Frederic Theriault and Daniel Brisebois
Sustainable Market Farming by Pam Dawling (dates for Southern growers)
The LEAN Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables by Ben Hartman
The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier
The Year-Round Hoophouse by Pam Dawling
Storey's Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables & Herbs for Market by Keith Stewart
Growing For Market (a monthly publication)
Anything from Eliot Coleman (depending on what resources you're looking for. IE Winter growing etc)
Johnny's Selected Seeds Growers Resource Library
I will say that each of the above resources is just that, a resource. They should not be viewed as plans that can be carbon copied to another farm to achieve equal success. I repeat, you cannot (unless you are incredibly lucky) photocopy one of the crop plans or growing methods from these resources and expect identical results. Instead choose one or two that follow farms in similar growing regions or with similar growing styles and use that information as a starting point.
In order to create a new crop plan, or to adjust a previous plan, start with your marketing plan. Look for specific crop needs and specific dates that those crops are needed. For example, we usually grow head lettuce for a summer camp. The camp needs 150 heads of lettuce each week from mid July until September. I will plug 150 lettuce heads into my crop plan for the second week in July, then use the DTM (dates to maturity) from the seed catalogue to count back to see when I should start the seeds. (Don't forget to account for time in the greenhouse if transplanting!) I always add 5-25% extra to my seed number to account for loss so that I'll be sure to have 150 when the time comes. In our first few seasons we did this exercise with each customer and each crop that we thought they would buy. Of course, these were complete shots in the dark at first, but the goal was to have something on paper. As the seasons went on we were serious about keeping track of our actual DTM (because some times of year it's more or less days than the package says), our actual number of lost plants (so that we could adjust down from 25% loss if needed), actual yields, and customers' actual preferences. After doing this for a few years you will eventually have a plan that needs annual tweaking rather than an annual overhaul. It's a slog at first, but it will happen!
Once the crop plan is finished, the next steps flow much more quickly. Step 8 is a fertility plan, which can range from "add compost to each bed" to a carefully concocted mixture of amendments, adjusted by crop. This part is super personal because it depends on your personal preferences re fertilizers, and what you have access to in your area. We took soil tests to our local university extension office and came up with our first fertility plan with a researcher there. We have a fairly complicated plan that is catered to each plant family and is dependent on what field we are planting into. This level of detail is not necessary! We started more simply (compost and a general 5-4-3 organic fertilizer), then got more complicated as we learned our soils and crop needs. We also called up our local fertilizer company and asked them to make a base mix for us so that we weren't mixing so many ingredients for each crop.
The next step is to revisit your Disappointments list and see if there are any systems that you can talk or walk through and improve. Ben Hartman's LEAN farming books are great resources for this (linked above). You'll get the best return for your efforts if you start looking at your washing and packing processes. More resources on wash/pack efficiencies can be found at UVM Extension's website. You can even find a walk through of our farm there! it's a few years old, but gives a good overview of how we set things up.
The last few steps put your plan into action, and calendarize your plan so that you don't forget all your great ideas when the season gets going. First we create our ideal weekly schedule. That might look like: Monday work day, Tuesday harvest and CSA, Wednesday wholesale harvest and deliver, Thursday harvest and CSA, Friday workday, Saturday farmers market. We then use that weekly schedule to determine how many people hours we need and on what days, then write out job descriptions, and start the hiring process if need be.
Lastly we get out a calendar and write in important dates (taxes due, first farmers market, first day of the aforementioned summer camp, etc). We also write in goal review days, dates that parts of certain projects should be done, and budget review days. Of course, this is an ideal calendar, but putting dates in now helps our future selves remember what we set out to do this year.
That just about sums it up, my friends! Drop questions in the comments and let's chat more!