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Crop Planning For Intensive Market Gardens: Succession plantings, soil health, and your bottom line

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 March Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell

Greg Maslow, Newton Community Farm’s first farm manager, is now in his 7th season. “Seven years ago I was given the goal of growing 40 grand on an acre,” he said. Today he aims to grow $80,000 on a single acre. He attributes his ability to meet this goal to an aggressive schedule of bed flipping, aiming to grow 2-3 cash crops per season per bed. In Greg’s field plan, the number of beds he needs to produce planned yields comes out to more than twice the number of available beds.

In order to accomplish such high production goals and to satisfy his five different marketing outlets (CSA, farmers’ market, farm stand, wholesale accounts, and a food pantry) on only one acre, Greg operates with a very tight planting schedule and therefore relies on very thorough crop plans. He also uses those crop plans to build redundancies into his system which act as insurance against the myriad of potential shortfalls that can happen in the course of farming.

Seven years ago, Greg bought a packet of crop planning spreadsheets from Brookfield Farm for $25. The excel documents (one blank, one with Brookfield’s information, plus a set of instructions) forms the foundation for Greg’s own crop planning system, which he of course tailored to his own operation, adding ingenious customizations along the way. (For instance: a spreadsheet designed to be identical to the Fedco and Johnny’s order forms that automatically fills out his seed orders.)

But before he delved into the particulars of his crop plans, Greg asked his audience, “Why make a crop plan in the first place?” The answer may seem obvious, but there are actually many distinct reasons to make a crop plan, which may differ depending on the particular farmer and the farm. Nevertheless, the range of reasons for having a crop plan actually reveals the various features that make up a good crop plan. Greg’s reasons for having a crop plan are: to know what to plant and when, know how much to plant, and for record keeping.

To really know what to plant and when means that you not only need to know when to put plants in the ground, but if you’re growing your own transplants, the plan should differentiate between direct-seeded crops and transplants, and should take into account when the greenhouse seeding takes place. Therefore you will also need a greenhouse planting schedule as a part of your overall set of crop planning spreadsheets.

In the case of Newton Community Farm, almost all crops are started in the greenhouse (even crops like beets, spinach, and peas), which helps to maximize field space and fit more successions into a single season.

Another important aspect of planning when to plant is to carefully consider when you want the product to be ready. Basic considerations include first and last frost dates, whether the crop is direct-seeded or transplanted, and when the soil conditions are workable. But as Greg emphasized repeatedly in his talk, one should carefully consider this question: “What are my markets?” Understanding your markets can help you be strategic about when to plant specific crops, so plan backwards from when you are going to want to be harvesting specific crops for different markets, and also take into account how long you will be able to continue to harvest that planting (how concentrated is that specific variety’s fruit set?). Finally, how long you will be able to store the crop?

Knowing how much to plant, Greg says, is important for your farm’s financial planning. The basis for this question lies again in your markets. What are your markets, and how much do you want from each market? Remember to take into account the condition of your farm and its soil when you set your yield expectations.

Record keeping is also essential for farm financial planning. It goes hand in hand with planning for quantity, since by keeping good records each year you can begin to develop and refine realistic expectations for yields on your farm, and improve your future planning.

All of these considerations manifest in Greg’s actual planning spreadsheets (Excel), which he demonstrated by taking us on a tour. Within his workbook he has a page for each field representing planned rows, and another eleven pages:

• Crop Plan. Calculates yields needed for each type of crop, for each market (ie CSA, Market, Farm Stand etc) by week and in total. Also calculates the total planned value of the CSA share and other market sales, total crop value and total beds needed to meet yields.

• The Planting Schedule. A field and greenhouse schedule, listing the planned crops and varieties with their maturing time as well as beds needed. The field planting dates are listed, greenhouse seeding date, seeds per cell, number of trays needed, and tray size. There are also columns for record keeping, such as actual # of trays planted, actual # of beds planted, actual seeding and planting dates and a column for notes.

• Seed Order Basis. Calculates the total number of seeds needed per crop by compiling data on number of beds needed per crop, number of seeds or transplants per square foot, and the number of seeds needed per cell for transplanting plus variety, source (i.e. Johnny’s, Fedco) and item number from the catalogue.

• Seed Order Part Two. Specifies varieties, calculates seeds per oz (or lb, as needed), oz/lbs per unit, and calculates number of units needed.

• Johnny’s and Fedco Seed order Forms. Four spreadsheets that are seed order forms, two for Fedco and two for Johnny’s, which are designed to look like the companies’ standard order forms and which automatically fill them in by importing data from the Seed Order worksheets.

• Weekly CSA: Planned share items, by week.

• Cover Crop Seeds: Serves as a reference for, record of, and seed inventory for cover cropping.

• Field Planting Schedule: A simple, stripped down field planting schedule with dates, crop, variety, direct or transplant, field, and spacing.

One of the many ways that Greg has tailored his crop plans is to implement what he calls “built-in redundancies,” which are his way of safeguarding against the many micro-calamities (equipment failure, pests and disease, weather and drought, misguided yield projections) that are possible in the daily reality of farming. For instance, he plans to  produce extra seedlings of each variety, in case of greenhouse production failures, as well as overestimating the number of row feet needed for each crop (and hence the quantity of seed needed per crop.) Although his seed order is already calculated to account for those extra row feet and seedlings, he includes an excel formula in his seed order spreadsheet that automatically adds a percentage of extra seed to his seed order. Here is another example; in his share value, he plans on a discounted crop value in case the crop is less than perfect, and also plans for a share value that is higher than the price of the share. These redundancies are completely intentional and provide buffers at every stage of production that safeguard against the reality of imperfect conditions in the daily reality of farming.

Among the resources Greg recommends for farmers starting out on their crop planning journeys are books (in particular, Knotts Handbook for Vegetable Growers) and seed catalogues (Johnny’s in particular contains a lot of helpful resources and information) and the internet. But the absolute most helpful resources he has encountered in his own years of farming, he says, are his fellow eastern MA farmers, who have been more than happy to share resources, information, and advice. Emphatically he advised the room: “Ask other farmers.”

Greg is willing to share his crop plans with other farmers, but because they are built from Brookfield’s plans, he asks that you first purchase the Brookfield Farm crop plans ($25). To get a set, go to http://www.brookfieldfarm.org/CropPlanning.cfm.

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