Crop Planning and Adaptation: How to Plan for Change to Achieve Success
This past weekend, I met my friend’s brand new baby. While he slept in my arms, she told me about his birth, shaking her head over and over, muttering, “I’m not sure why we bothered with a birth plan, because we sure didn’t follow any of it.” I grimaced, noting that similarly, my own daughter seemed to have her own idea of a birth plan that chaotically overwrote the one we so thoughtfully prepared. But farming has blessed me with many perspectives that apply to being a new parent, and perhaps the most significant is that making a plan provides you with critical knowledge, regardless of the outcome. It is the process of articulating your vision that helps you learn and prepare, and ultimately provides you with the knowledge to adapt.
Just like people say you forget what giving birth is like soon after you’ve done it (or why would anyone get pregnant again?), each winter we forget the chaos of the past season and imagine a picture perfect growing season ahead. A few winters ago, I spent endless hours crafting our crop plan, navigating the matrix of multiple spreadsheets to choreograph the seeding, planting, fertilizing, and irrigating of hundreds of vegetable varieties. Amazingly, that year, the ground dried on time and the first plantings went in right on schedule. Then we had a rain, more rain, and the farm flooded. By the third flood that spring, I was ready to throw my computer into the rising river. Our crops were lost, and so was our planting window. What was the point of all my planning? I might as well have spent the winter on the beach in Hawaii. Along with the devastation of flooded crops, I bemoaned the wasted effort, and felt frustration that there was no way to account for it. No one was going to compensate me for the extra work of redoing the plan once again. And no one was going to pay extra for vegetables that had been planned and planted three times instead of one. The occupation of farming seemed so terribly unjust to me that spring.
But once I got past whining about our situation, I realized that planning, and adapting an existing plan, is exactly what helped our farm survive—and even thrive—that season. I watched farmers that didn’t have solid plans lose their crops, throw up their hands, and look for other jobs. Being able to suffer a loss, regroup, and manipulate an existing plan provided the resiliency (along with other key factors, like stellar co-workers and an amazing community) we needed to move on.
We all have such different brains and ways of going about things that it is challenging to even try to suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to crop planning. There is a lot of great technical support out there for farmers to work on business or crop plans. There is even a growing wealth of sophisticated software and web based applications that can help farmers integrate crop planning with recordkeeping. But for me, spending the time working on a farm plan serves two functions: 1.) Those hours spent pouring through seed catalogues and researching growing techniques constitute a big part of my winter farm education and 2.) It forces me to organize information that I don’t have the time to address during the growing season. For instance, nearly every year, I question the first few seedings I do—(Why are we seeding so many trays of onions?!)—and I recalculate the numbers I crunched during the winter, and lo and behold, yes, that is the right number of onion trays. Thus, I have learned to trust my winter brain far more than my spring/summer brain.
Farm plans can take many forms, but since we are currently in the thick of winter, and it’s time to get a seed order together, here are a few simple tips to get a straightforward crop plan in motion:
1. You don’t need to be a technological whiz to create a crop plan. Spreadsheets are my favorite because they allow you to calculate and sort. Paper plans are also great, but the advantage of an electronic plan is that you can adapt it from year to year (and if it gets soaked in your pocket, you have a backup copy).
An example of the author's crop plan spreadsheet.
2. Start by listing the crops and varieties you want to grow. Then create columns for the most important relevant information you need to execute your ideal season. For instance, planting date, harvest date, seeding notes, etc. Seed catalogues are an excellent reference for this information.
Whiteboards or chalkboards can also be a helpful crop planning tool.
3. Make your plan a document that can be interpreted by anyone, not just by you. Even if you have a small operation, it can empower your co-worker, spouse, or volunteer if you can just hand them a plan that is mostly self-explanatory. It also is a form of security in case you need to leave your farm for an emergency during the season.
4. Keep the plan simple. You can build on it in future years.
5. Your short term goal should be a completed seed order in a timely manner. Use your crop plan to calculate the amount of seeds you need, to list all seed catalogue numbers, etc. This becomes a record that you can tweak for future seed orders, and also for your financial records, organic certification, etc.
Farming prepared me well for functioning with minimal sleep and heaving around a growing child, but more than anything, it taught me that planning is a process of collecting information to help you navigate the curves in the road ahead. I once went on a totally unplanned vacation with several friends, and at the outset, one of them said cheerily, “If you don’t have plans, nothing can go wrong.” At the time, I wholeheartedly agreed, but by the end of a week of hitchhiking, looking for places to camp, eating saltines and cheese, and generally spending most of our time trying to decide what was next, I realized that a little planning would have gone a long way. Likewise, we’ve probably all winged it for a few farm seasons and everything goes fine, but ultimately, that little bit of planning can help ease you through the unexpected.
Additional Resources for Crop Planning