In the peak of the summer, when the sun is shining and the garden is lush, working outside should be enjoyable and soothing.
However, many vegetable growers can feel overwhelmed trying to get the next succession plantings in the ground and keeping on top of the weeds, while also having to harvest for CSA shares and farmers’ markets. That’s in addition to harvesting onions, garlic, potatoes and other heavy roots for fall and winter sales. When there is more work than can be accomplished and all the tasks seem important, it’s easy to get a bit testy. And then someone tells you the solution is better crop planning— knowing how much and when to plant to meet your market demands.
Through good planning, you can avoid wasting your work on crops that won’t sell. To plan towards a less stressful growing season, you need to know what times of the year you’re overworked and when you’re least happy. Keeping a simple farm journal is the way to do this. With a good farm journal that is easy to use, you can plan a seasonal schedule that balances your workload through the week and throughout the growing season.
With a good farm journal that is easy to use, you can plan a seasonal schedule that balances your workload through the week and throughout the growing season.
Weekly to-do lists
Most farmers start each day with a list of what they want to get done. The first step in working towards a saner seasonal schedule is thinking in terms of weeks instead of days. As such, you should start every week with a plan of what you’d like to do. This plan should not be only in your head, but also somewhere visible where it is accessible to the whole farm team.
Every week, at Tourne-Sol cooperative farm, one of the farmers is in charge of writing the week’s todo list on a big blackboard. The board is divided into columns for each day of the week. First, the farmer fills in our CSA drop-offs, market dates and delivery dates. Next, the harvest times are added (i.e. we harvest on Monday for Tuesday CSA and deliveries, on Wednesday for Thursday CSA, and on Friday for the Saturday market).
Next, we add elements from our crop plan. The planning was done during the winter and printed copies were put in binders. Every week of the growing season, the blackboard shows what is planned for that week: greenhouse seeding; field plantings; areas to be ploughed/disked/rototilled; cover crops to seed; and more.
We add other tasks, including weeding, office tasks, bulk harvests (i.e. garlic, carrots, potatoes) and errands. Weather-sensitive tasks (like planting and bed preparation) are scheduled for early in the week. That way we can push them back if rainy weather interferes with our plans.
Once the board is updated, the farm team gathers to talk about the week, highlight key activities and add any tasks that might have been forgotten. Then we hit the field.
Keeping a farm journal As tasks are completed, we cross them off the blackboard and we erase them after they are transferred to our farm journal. Our farm journal is a binder with a page for each week broken into different categories (see example below). On each sheet, there are two empty columns labelled “plan” and “actual.”
We record completed tasks in the “actual” column. We jot down notes we’d like to consider for next year. We also note any periods that seem particularly hectic and whythey might be busier than usual. Our farm journal records the broad strokes of what has happened on the farm and becomes the template for future years.
Develop a seasonal schedule
Every winter, we take the past year’s farm journal and prepare the one for the next year. We transfer the highlights from the past year’s “actual” column to the following year’s “plan” column. This can be done on a computer or on photocopied sheets by hand.
During the next growing season, we consult the plan column in the new farm journal as we set the week’s to-do list to see what we did that time in previous years. As tasks are completed, we fill out the actual column. The following winter, we revise the plan columns in our farm journal with records from another year of farming experience.
After many years of keeping a farm journal, we have noticed that most tasks tend to occur at the same period year after year. However, some tasks are very dependent on spring weather. For example, although we usually plant our first peas around April 16th, last winter had so little snowfall we could have planted on April 1st. In cases like these, we note our standard date but also note the earliest we’ve ever planted in the appropriate plan columns: on the 3rd week of April sheet we would write “Plant Peas” and on the 1st week of April, we would write “Planted Peas 2010 – dry warm spring.”
Over time, we’ve also noticed which activities are more important to schedule precisely. These include tasks as diverse as laying down black plastic as early as we can to avoid late spring showers; cleaning onions in the greenhouse to liberate space to cure squashes; or preparing next year’s CSA registration form to distribute before this year’s CSA season is over.
As you revise your farm schedule, pay attention to the weeks in your farm journal that you have highlighted as unpleasant. Usually these correspond to when there is suddenly more work than usual and you scramble to get it done or to hire workers for a few days. Sometimes the solution is simply to get better at important tasks.
Overcoming harvest bottlenecks
Improve farming skills
New farmers struggle most with getting weeds under control and harvesting everything in time. If you have never worked on a commercial farm, there is a good chance your harvesting and weeding skills are far from efficient. Experienced farmers with good techniques and tools usually weed and harvest two to three times quicker than those who have never spent a season on a commercial farm. Since weeding and harvesting occupy such a large part of the vegetable growing, improving these skills will reduce your workload.
One solution is to work or volunteer on a commercial operation. Another solution is to focus on improving your weeding and harvesting skills. However, even if your weeding and harvesting improves, you still might have significantly busier weeks during the season. Your next step is to plan on balanced workloads during each week and throughout the whole season.
Start by balancing your workloads through the week. During the bulk of the growing season, this means scheduling deliveries so your harvest is spread through the week and each harvest is of similar size.
At Tourne-Sol, we have 100 CSA shares and a buying group on Tuesday; 160 CSA shares on Thursday; and a farmers’ market on Saturday. On each of these days, we distribute a comparable amount of vegetables; we therefore harvest similar volumes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Discover how to reduce the workload in your peak periods so you don’t need additional workers.
Next, compare your peak work weeks with the amount of work during other weeks. To balance your workload through the season, you have two options.
- You can identify your peak labour needs and then determine how to keep employees busy during other parts of the year so you do not have to suddenly hire extra workers. This might mean adding greenhouses or producing an early crop, such as sprouts, to create more early-season work.
- You could grow more storage vegetables to fill the end of the season. However, if you are a new farmer and haven’t developed your market, the extra payroll might be a heavy burden.
Good weeding practices
The alternative is to discover how to reduce the workload in your peak periods so you don’t need additional workers. Here are two examples of how you might go about that.
If the garlic harvest is the craziest time on your farm, you could reduce your labour needs by limiting the size of your garlic patch to what you can harvest with your normal team. Or, you could grow varieties with different harvest periods so you have less garlic to harvest at any one time. If you want to maintain your current garlic crop, you could choose to cut down on other tasks that compete with garlic harvest time—such as growing and picking fewer beans, or switching to determinate tomatoes to reduce time spent trellising.
Similarly, if the last week of May is extra busy as you try to plant all your beans, tomatoes, eggplants and cucurbits, you could push half the planting into the next week to reduce workload. Or you could plant one to two crops a week earlier and use row cover to protect them from frost.
You could grow varieties with different harvest periods so you have less garlic to harvest at any one time.
With time, keeping a farm journal of what gets accomplished from your weekly to-do lists will let you develop a seasonal schedule that meets your needs. How you fine-tune specific tasks and tackle seasonal labour requirements will be specific to your farm. However, you might want to look to more experienced operations for ways to increase your efficiency at critical skills like weeding and harvest.
The process of refining your farm plans is ongoing—as one set of challenges is overcome, another set will appear. With a good farm journal to track the changes in your farm’s evolution, you will be able to direct your farm in the direction you would like it to go.
Photo credits: Jacques Desmarais and Daniel Brisebois.