First, let me just say that we love farming. Everything about farming is intriguing and rewarding–even the problems we face. We talk about the process all of the time in how we plant a seed, see it sprout, transplant it, grow it into the end product, market it at the farmers’ market, and sell this product knowing it ended up on someones dinner table. We are still amazed at this. However . . .
In this segment, we would like to discuss two important pitfalls that we wrestle with more than anything–efficiency and infrastructure. The examples used can roll into a number of sub issues, so hopefully you can grasp what we are saying.
Efficiency is a very interesting one. It took us about half way through our first year of market-based sales to get a handle on this. Sometimes you go about doing things and understand there is a problem without really labeling it. That is how we were last year. We can remember running around like crazy and feeling as if we could never get caught up. By bringing on new tasks, some were desperately needed and some not so much, we are up valuable time and would be scratching our heads saying “there’s not enough hours in the day.” This rings true for many professions, but when one member of our farm also works a full time job, you can imagine how important it is to make every second count since only a few hours exist. To be productive also means understanding how to prioritize and get those things done that are necessary and leaving those other items to be completed as opportunities arise. A perfect example of this came up last night.
In an effort to have more produce for the coming year’s market, we expanded, which is a good thing, but it also meant tending to more areas with the same amount of time to do so. Last night, we spent a good portion mulching around our zukes and squash. Mulching is good for keeping moisture in your area so the southern sun that beats down does not dry everything up. Mulching is also a great weed control. However, in trying to get this new area ready to plant in, we now realize we did not have the right equipment to prep the area as needed. We say this as we stood at the edge of the area looking at the amount of grass growing in between the plants. Just using a tiller in an area that has been traditionally grass will just not do. The earth needs to be turned over at a more diligent rate to keep grass and weeds down. So as we are working in the dark covering grass and weeds using contractor paper, a thick layer of leaf mulch, and straw we were thinking how many other things were left not done as a result of not doing it correctly the first time. And we are still not done. Lesson learned: till with a tractor, plant a cover crop, etc.
Squash patch with just the paper between the rows
Squash patch with paper, a layer of leaf mulch, and a layer of straw
Infrastructure is another important area to examine. My understanding of basic business concepts is that you start small and invest more in equipment and other needs as you grow. In farming though, it appears this is in reverse. One example is the important of having a greenhouse/hoop house already established. It’s even more important to have a hoop house/greenhouse at the size needed to hold and organize seedlings and transplanted items to be sold or put in the ground. Knowing how much space you need based on what you plan to sell and harvest is greatly important. We learned this lesson the hard way as we continued to re-pot seedlings into bigger pots only to realize there was not nearly enough space. To help with the space issue, we brought out two portable greenhouses that can be purchased online that I kept around for just in case purposes (these are really handy if you don’t have a permanent structure, but they do need a little work to add stability). As we were taking these greenhouses down over the past weekend, we are calculating the square footage of each only to realize that we should have made our hoop house 10 to 12 feet longer. Since the hoop house is really the heartbeat of our operation, it’s important to be prepared. The good news is that many hoop houses can be built in an inexpensive manner, but this means time, energy, and resources that will need to be invested.
Our hoop house in the early morning while we pack up for market
We are always learning all about being flexible and constantly tweaking. When we find that something is not working or that it is taking more time than it is worth, we need to make changes. We need to put our focus on the crop that will bring in the most money, at least for the time being. So in addition to finding the most efficient ways to work, we are also expanding and trying new crops. Our next big venture will hopefully be a blueberry patch this fall. We’ve got the perfect spot for it! Now it’s just a matter of finding the time to prep the soil! We are working on gathering information on using a cover crop, as we have been told it’s effective at killing back grass and adding good organic matter to the soil. More on that later!