Crop Planning - One Farmer's Approach

Author: Josh Volk, Slow Hand Farm

Publish Date: Winter 2011

Every year in October, I start to think about planning the next season’s plantings. Plantings for a small CSA are complex: lots of varieties of lots of crops, multiple successions of many of those, and new ones to experiment with all the time. Thinking about the harvests first, I always want to spread things out over the season, keeping mid-summer harvests from being too overwhelming, avoiding gaps in early and late harvests, and generally providing a good mix every week of the harvest season. This is not so different from planning for direct sales at a farmers market, farm stand, or even in a kitchen garden.

In November I start to get things down on paper. I review my notes and records from the previous seasons. Actually, I don’t use much paper anymore; I mostly use computer spreadsheets which are easy to edit, easy to store, and easy to sort and to make automatic calculations on. Over the years I developed a system that I like, and that fits my needs.

The first step in my system is creating the harvest plan. I have one spreadsheet template where I keep all of those notes. Once I have the harvest plan, I use another template to create the planting plan. That sheet carries all of the planting information, seed ordering information, greenhouse propagation, and any other notes on each crop. My third step which is to map out all of the plantings, essentially doing a dry run on planting out all of the fields, figuring out where everything should go, how it will fit, and if I even have space for all of it.

This is a somewhat circular process. Often, when I get to the last step of mapping out the fields it becomes obvious that I need to adjust the harvest plan to make everything fit. In this case, I edit the first two steps until I get it right. By December or January, the seed catalogs have mostly come, and I order my seeds in time to start the first ones in late January.

There are a lot of considerations on what to plant and when. I definitely consider my market, first and foremost, deciding what I think I can sell and when, and how much it’s going to cost me to produce it. I also consider good crop rotations. Some crops may be planted more to support a good rotation, or to even out work flow rather than for the money they will bring in immediately. With the plan on paper it’s easy to see where cover crops will fit into the fields, and to make sure that I always have enough seed on hand. A written plan is easier to adjust mid season, as I can see how changes will affect future crops and make more informed decisions with less effort. I put high value on crop rotations as a way of reducing disease and pest problems, and in addressing weeds and fertility issues. By planning out rotations years in advance I can also avoid rotational problems due to poor placement of crops from year to year.

The plan helps keep track of all of the plantings, makes sure there’s space for everything, helps all of the crew to understand the work flow, and reduces my stress level during the season by limiting the number of tasks that I have to keep in my head and pass on to others. It also creates a template for record keeping which helps me improve my planning from year to year and even within the season. After years of farming I could probably get by without having the plan down on paper, but I know that it would be far less efficient and I would lose a lot of the information that is so valuable to me for future plans.