This is the very first monthly farm progress report! These reports will serve two purposes: first, they will help me stay organized and on track, and second, they will open the doors on the creation of a new farm. This blog is the primary place where I will be keeping plans, to-do-lists, data, finances, etc. In other words, the kinds of documents I would normally keep on my computer as text files and spreadsheets will simply go on this blog. It doesn’t make much difference to me, but that way the information is available for you to learn from.
During the month, the reports in draft form will be published as a live-journal of what is going on. You can see February’s report here.
When I do use spreadsheets, I’ll put them up on Google Drive and link to them from this blog.
These reports will follow a format of Expenses, Work Done, To Do, and Wrapup.
Before we get to the meat of it, a minor disclaimer about the title of this post. It encompasses farm activities in January of 2017, and all of time preceding it. I didn’t do all the reading this month. ; )
$83.93 for SPIN-Farming Basics book
$49.99 for SPIN-Farming Crop Profiles (This is one part of their second book. I didn’t need the other part of the book, so I figured I’d save some money. They have the individual sections of the book available at http://www.spinfarming.com/buy/get-beyond-basics, or you can buy the whole thing at Amazon.)
$200 for registration with the Washington Secretary of State. We are now holders of a UBI for JM Padvorac Farm LLC! That means I can apply for the business license, which will only be $20. We’ve held off spending money on anything else for the farm, because we can’t deduct expenses that occur before we actually get the business license. That’s one of my very next tasks.
$10 for shipping some seeds a kind plant breeder gifted us!
We don’t have enough land ourselves for this, so getting access to land was crucial. I had mentioned in a comment on Facebook that we were planning to start some kind of neighborhood farm / garden, and my friend Mary Anne Campbell saw it and said we needed to talk. She runs the National School of Academic Equitation about a minute down the road from us, and has some pasture space she is willing to let us farm on. She has a lot of enthusiasm about the project, and it is great to have her energy adding to it. I’ll write more later about how the process went between “hey, let’s talk about this” and deciding the nuts and bolts about where exactly to situate the site, access, water, legalities, compensation, etc.
I’ve been through the SPIN farming crop profiles, and am going through them again more carefully to start working up a plan for the beds and the relays (i.e. which crops follow others after harvest). This first year we don’t really know what the market is like for the different crops, so I expect we’ll probably significantly overproduce some things and underproduce others. We’ll track what happens and make corrections for next season.
This is complicated a little bit because the land we will be farming is not a flat, monotonous rectangle. It is on a slight, lumpy hill, with a tree or two, and some dryer areas and some muddy areas. This is fantastic, though. The natural variations mean that we will be able to align crops to zones where they will naturally be happier, and will need to do less irrigation or drainage work ourselves.
And the fact that it is on a hill would be an erosion problem for a tilled garden, but not for us. It’ll be fun to demonstrate how adaptable and performant farming can be when done in alignment with nature.
Up till this point, the vast amount of time has been spent in reading, researching, doodling, and dreaming. It has been very useful time for building a foundation. Here are some of the resources that have been the most useful in doing the background research and learning in preparation for starting our no-till farm…
Forums and Groups
I have learned an incredible amount from lurking in the shadows of groups and forums online, and by asking questions. I recommend joining and browsing some of these, and looking for more on your own. If you find the right watering holes, you can ask a question and get a number of well thought out answers and perspectives, not all agreeing with each other! These are my go-to places for when I need help:
- Permies.com forums
- Market Gardening Success Group on Facebook
- No-Till Farmer Success Group on Facebook
- Permaculture on Facebook
- Permaculture Entrepreneurs on Facebook
I’ve read some of these cover-to-cover, and skimmed others for particular bits. I highly recommend all of them, but if you are short on time I recommend the the first three: SPIN farming, One Straw Revolution, and The Lean Farm.
[No links here, affiliate or otherwise. Check your library or do a web search for the titles if you want to find the books yourself.]
- SPIN-Farming Basics and the crop profiles bit from SPIN-Farming 2.0, by Wally Satzewich and Roxanne Christensen.
I spent a few months in analysis-paralysis mode trying to figure out where to start. These two books were the answer. They are a bit pricy, but well worth it. They are concise, and lay out exactly what steps you need to take to start a successful sub-acre farm. They also have tables of data to help estimate expenses for different scales of operations, lists of materials and supplies with typical price ranges, and basically all the other numbers you need. For making a quick, rough plan for a business it is an incredible timesaver. It won’t teach you how to grow plants, but it does talk about how management practices of growing plants factor into a responsible, realistic business.
- One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
When soil is disrupted, it demolishes the incredibly complex web of life that is required to effectively store water and deliver nutrients to plants. The SPIN books above only talk about managing a farm by tilling, so if you want to go no-till, other resources are required. Because the author was farming in Japan, the specific techniques and planting schedules he talks about cannot directly be applied here, but the management approach he takes is revolutionary.
- The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman
I come from the software world, where lean practices are very common (or at least, very commonly aspired to). I’ll quote from lean.org: “Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” In the case of a farm, value means food that is ready for people to eat, and resources means your time, energy, money, seeds, water, tools, etc. In my opinion this book is absolutely required reading if you are starting a farm.
- The Market Gardener by Jean Fortier
This is in roughly the same category as the SPIN books, but a bit different. The author has a 1.5 acre farm in eastern Quebec, and has a very successful business of it. This book has a lot to say about the business practices of a farm, but spends more effort discussing the actual growing of plants than the SPIN farming books. He practices minimal tillage, which I like better, but I’d much rather go for no tillage. This is a much longer book, which makes it more useful for giving a feeling for what a small farm might be like – but it lacks the conciseness and immediately actionable data of the SPIN books. An invaluable resource, but if I had to pick just one to start with I’d go with SPIN.
- How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons
An important goal for me is to learn how to grow food in a way that is sustainable – and one of the clearest ways to do that is to minimize the inputs that you get from land outside your farm. If you can turn sunshine, rain, and soil into food, and also turn it into all the things you need to grow food, then you’ve got it made. Most of the market gardening books rely heavily on tillage (importing machines and oil), plastic mulches, large quantities of compost, and all kinds of other external inputs. Jeavons’ book is all about how to intensively manage beds to build fertility with almost no external inputs at all, and almost no tilling except when first creating beds. And the possible yields per space are impressive.However, his book as about growing a complete diet for oneself and family. It involves growing a lot of grains, which is not a practical moneymaker on a suburban farm, and the methods for growing vegetables are quite labor intensive. There is much to learn from it about minimal / no-till, and about inexpensively growing out transplants yourself.
- Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening by Will Bonsall. No duh, right?
Similar to How To Grow More Vegetables, this book is all about minimizing external inputs. Bonsall has come up with a variety of innovative techniques, and has a lot about weed management, creating trellises and supporting plants with resources on farm.
- The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe
She has an incredibly practical perspective on things. Like Bonsall, she has a lot of innovative techniques and perspectives on growing food on the human scale. She tills, but aside of that uses very little or no fancy tools or equipment, and grows a lot of food. Like Bonsall’s book, she talks about growing food for personal use, so a lot of it is not practical for a market farm, but in terms of managing the land with simple tools and human ingenuity it is a gold mine.
My, oh my. There is a lot of work to be done. It quickly feels overwhelming, and I have to constantly remind myself that if we just do one piece at a time, it will all happen. Starting a new business is very intimidating and scary, even if it doesn’t have a ton of risk.
This is our first year, and we are starting later than would be ideal. If I’m not careful, that stresses me out. Fortunately, we are not in a financial pinch where we need to make a certain amount of money from the farm – we’ve got our other income to live on for now. The goal for this year is to put all the pieces into motion, so we are running a real, honest to goodness farm business.
If we run out of time and don’t manage to get the tomatoes started early enough, or if we can’t prepare as many beds as we wanted, or if the farm stand is nothing more than a folding table for two months, it will be very disappointing. I’m worried that those particular things will happen. And I know that even if those things don’t happen, something important is going to fall between the cracks or otherwise mess up. We are complete newbies at this.
You know what? That’s what entrepreneurship is like. Sometimes it is exciting and a lot of fun, and sometimes it is disheartening and makes you feel like an abject failure of a human being. If you can push through the lows, incredible things can happen.
Anyway, I wrote that because I’m procrastinating about actually putting down in a list all the things we need to get done… because I know it is going to scare me. Oh well. 🙂
Most time-sensitive tasks to do
This is the stuff that has a time window. If we don’t do it by the appropriate time, either we lose an opportunity, occur expenses, or start making other stuff back up and have to wait.
- Apply for the business license
- Plan out beds that require transplants, so we can order seeds and get them started. Most important are onions, followed by the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and the other hot crops that have trouble maturing in our climate.
- Dig a trench and cover with floating row cover to provide a sheltered, frost-protected place for starting seedlings.
- Build or buy seedling trays
- Start seeds
- Put together and sign a formal contract with Mary Anne so that everything is 100% aboveboard before we start doing stuff on the land
- Get tarps/cardboard to smother weeds where the beds will be
- Lay out and secure tarps/cardboard to smother weeds where the beds will be
Most urgent tasks to do
This is stuff that we have to if we want to run a successful farm this season. We don’t have to get this stuff done right now, but if we aren’t working on it now, there’s no way it will all get done and we’ll be in trouble somehow.
- Ensure legality of a site for farm stand / parking
- Clear out the overgrown driveway that would be the best site for the farm stand (if that site is legal)
- Design the farm branding: logo, brand name, mission statement, business cards, etc
- Make posters and flyers
- Build a website that both sells and educates
- Set up an email list
- Set up a Facebook page
- Start marketing through various channels
- Build a farm stand
- Paint a nice big sign to go with the farm stand
- Acquire and set up hoses / sprinklers / drip irrigation
- Set up a post-harvest processing station
- Research Good Agricultural Practices and make sure our operations are following them and are safe
- Go through the legalities of volunteers/interns on the farm so we can make it a community project, not just our project
- Organize sound financial records so taxtime doesn’t sneak up and obliterate us
Smart stuff to do
This is stuff that isn’t going to create any kind of emergency if we don’t do it, but would be wonderful if we did. Little downside, decent potential upside stuff.
- Network with local people / community organizations / leaders
- Talk with the restaurant down the road
- Look into selling “farmstand credits” to help with cashflow before the crops come in
- Find a property owner or two who is willing to let us put up a sign in their yard on the road pointing ahead to the farmstand