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Crop Planning for CSAs

Posted: January 24, 2013

Early winter is the time to develop your crop plan for next year because it will soon be time to start seedlings and the whirlwind will begin. At a recent CSA day organized by Lehigh County Extension’s Brian Moyer, I shared some tips for crop planning. What follows is a teaser, just the first few steps of the crop planning procedure I put together based on the great crop planning information Josh Volk from Slow Hand Farm recently shared with us.

Goals in Planning

Time management is my major reason for doing extensive crop planning. The more you can organize during the winter, the smoother things go during the season. Another important piece is good data collection. We all want to continually improve our production. But if we don’t know what we did last year, it is hard to access what worked and what did not work. Of course there are plenty of farmers who are able to hold the important information in their heads. But when you are getting started it is often helpful to have a few things to go by namely: the seed order, bed preparation schedule, greenhouse seeding sheet, direct seeding and transplanting schedules, a harvest record sheet and a detailed map.

Why Spreadsheets

“I want to be a farmer because I don’t like to sit in front of a computer,” you say. Well, everything we are going to talk about today can be done with a piece (or 10) of graph paper and a calculator. John Jeavons’ book, How to Grow More Vegetables, does a nice job of putting a lot of relevant information on a few pieces of paper in graph form. This is a handy reference. But what it does not do is allow you to reformat the information according to what data you really want to see, or easily update it year to year. Josh Volk from Growing for Market says, if you were going to do something similar on paper, you would put each row of the spreadsheet on an index card. There would be an index card with each planting on it and all the corresponding yield, planting, seeding and ordering information. You could then arrange the index cards by planting date, by crop, by variety or by seed company order form. But it would take some time considering that you would have hundreds of these. With the computer you can just sort the rows depending on what you are interested in looking at.

The Process
– The process outlined here (and detailed here) is one shared with us by Josh Volk from Slow Hand Farm, frequent contributor to Growing for Market. When one of the farmers asked what Josh does differently than he does, Josh responded, “Probably not much.” This outline just gives those of us not familiar with forming spreadsheets and crop plans some handy steps and formats to use. The key here is we will form something Josh calls a “crop master” or master spreadsheet with all the information about our crops. From there we can create the seeding charts and the like and be able to easily update them when we get new information.

Collecting the Data – What data is available and where to find it will depend on where you are and what sort of operation you have. But there are a few likely places to look. The Cooperative Extension offices have a lot of information about growing crops in their production guide, but to get more specific information one of the best places to look is often the seed catalogs. They usually put very specific information about everything from the number of seeds per ounce to plant spacing.  Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers [3] is a good all around source for vegetable information such as germination temperatures, plant spacing, scheduling successive plantings and more. I like John Jeavons’ book as well, though his plant spacings are designed for intensive raised bed systems that don’t work in my field.

Everyone’s brain works differently, which makes it hard for us to use each other’s spreadsheets. I have included a sample here and there is another nice example available online from Roxbury Farm. For me it makes the most sense to gather all the data in the first part of my spreadsheet, and then I can work to process it into the other information I need. I love sitting down with my seed catalogs and thumbing through them to decide what I want to grow this year. The first 24 columns in my spreadsheet are all the data I think I might want about each crop. Everything from crop and variety to plant spacing, seeds per ounce, and ordering information. This may seem a little overwhelming at first. But, the nice thing is you won’t ever have to do as much work again. You will probably grow many of the same crops and varieties next year and you will have all the data right there.

Crop Planning Resources

Roxbury Farm  - One of the most experienced organic farmers in our region generously shares much of his farm information online. Originally designed to share information with employees they have a greenhouse schedule, field and seeding schedule and weekly share plan for a 100 member CSA. You will want to adjust for your local field conditions and experience level. Available at http://www.roxburyfarm.com/100-member-csa-plan.

Brookfield Farm - Dan Kaplan runs Brookfield Farm, a 520-share CSA in Amherst, MA and is a partner in CSA Works. Their spreadsheets are very comprehensive and you can modify everything from the numbers of share, to the width, length and number of rows per beds, to the number of weeks you want to give each crop to your shareholders. It calculates the above and gives you the number of beds and acreage you will need. To order disks with these spreadsheets send a check for$25 to Brookfield Farm, 24 Hulst Rd, Amherst MA, 01002. Or order online at http://www.brookfieldfarm.org/CropPlanning.cfm

Start Farming – Penn State Extension – Example spreadsheets and directions for how to create them available. The great trick with these spreadsheets is the easy to update “to do” lists they create. These spreadsheets are based on others produced by John Volk of Slow Hand Farm. The example spreadsheet is for a very small 20 member CSA.

North Carolina has some nice crop planning tools available at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/chatham/ag/SustAg/farmrecords.html

Ag Squared - AgSquared is online farm management software designed to help you plan and keep organized, effective records that help you make informed decisions. It was designed by Cornell in collaboration with growers. http://www.agsquared.com/

Theriault, F. & Brisebois, D. Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers. Canadian Organic Growers. 2010. This is an excellent book. I especially like that it starts with the triple bottom line, and has you work backwards from your profit goals. The crop plan is formed based on the marketing plan.

 “The Fantastic Farm & Garden Calculator" http://www.landshareco.org/tools/ This is a new tool suggested to me by the creator. It seems like it would be useful if you do not feel comfortable with excel.

Certified Organically Grown Professional, our site is http://COG-Pro.com. This is primarily for organic certification record keeping rather than crop planning.