Vegetable Growers Reflect on Improving Efficiency on Small Farms

Vegetable growers share their experiences about how to make the most efficient use of time, tools, labor and resources on the farm.
Vegetable Growers Reflect on Improving Efficiency on Small Farms - Articles

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Study circle participants share experiences around the dinner table.

The Penn State Extension Start Farming Team has begun another season of study circle meetings across the state. Study circles are gatherings held for new and young farmers establishing their businesses (in years 2-10 of their operation) who want to learn from each other and discuss challenges with invited experts, compare notes with peers, and network over a shared meal. Farmers help guide the meeting topics and discussion, from production practices, to business management and marketing strategies.

Chris Brittenberg and Aeros Lillstrom hosted the February study circle for western Pennsylvania growers at their Who Cooks for You Farm in Clarion County. Eighteen growers with a range of years of experience in farming gathered for a potluck dinner and discussion. The question on the table: what are the most effective steps that small scale farmers can take to improve efficiency? Here are some of the recommendations generated by the group:

  • Control weeds early. Weed control is often identified as one of the biggest challenges for beginning and establishing farmers, especially organic farmers. Getting on weeds early--when they are still small seedlings--is much easier, faster and more effective than waiting until they grow larger. The less hand weeding, the better. Plastic mulch is a very valuable tool for weed control on small farms. Controlling weeds not only helps the crop grow better, it improves harvesting efficiency as well.
  • Invest in the right tools and equipment. Vacuum seeders make quick work of seeding transplant trays. A flex-tine weeder can save a lot of time and effort in weed control. Portable poly wire electric fencing is fast and easy to set up, and can be very effective at keeping deer out of fields. Some growers report good results with single strands placed around smaller fields; others use double fences placed a few feet apart. A harvest-aid or conveyor belt can significantly speed up harvest and transport of vegetables from the field. Setting up the packing shed to allow for easy flow of product allows workers to focus on quality pack-outs.
  • Purchasing a second field tractor was an important turning point for one grower. Having two tractors available at planting means that tilling, pulling and mulching beds, and transplanting can happen much faster during very hectic times.
  • Maintain work-horse equipment. Major mechanical breakdowns of tractors, planters, trucks and other equipment can cause serious disruptions of work flow on the farm.
  • Keep tools organized. Setting up tool sheds and workbenches in an orderly and uncluttered way may take some effort up front, but it saves workers from having to waste precious time looking for tools they need to complete tasks.
  • Consider labor inputs carefully when choosing crops, varieties, and seeds. While your markets are the primary driver of the decision of what to produce, labor requirements should be another deciding factor. For example, non-trellising or determinant varieties of vegetables may be good choices when available. Pelleted seed may be more expensive, but can save considerable time and wasted seeds during planting.
  • Don't get bogged down--outsource. If certain tasks are extremely time consuming for you, consider opportunities for outsourcing to someone with a higher skill level or interest. For example, neighboring farmers may be available to do some custom field work. Or, you may be better off hiring a bookkeeper to keep accurate and up to date financial records rather than doing it yourself.
  • Pay attention to the numbers. Keeping production and sales records in a format that allows you to easily analyze profits and sales trends helps keep you focused on what is really making you money and therefore worth your time. A few keystrokes on the computer should help answer questions like "Am I making any money on selling parsley?" or "How do my sales to this restaurant this year compare with last year?". Keeping track of how long it takes to do a few key tasks can also aid in planning and time management.
  • Look for efficiencies in your marketing efforts. Explore what high value markets may exist in your area, such as direct-to-consumer sales, farm to table restaurants, or off-season markets that may pay higher prices. Being part of a grower cooperative or marketing alliance may bring efficiencies to product transport and account management. High tunnels, greenhouses or storage facilities can be used to extend the market season to take advantage of higher prices and lower competition.

Penn State offers opportunities for exploring, start-up, establishing, and next generation farmers. Visit the Start Farming website to find more resources.

This project is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Grant # 2015-70017-22852.