10950564_1411717752461729_279353484_nEven if you’re not in the practice of making formal New Year’s resolutions, it’s hard not to get swept up by the bright feeling of potential that January 1st brings annually. For growers, it’s tempting to take this time off, to give ourselves a much-deserved break from the hard work of farming. But if you can muster the energy, there are some actions you can take now that will make life easier in the spring and help propel you into an even better next season.

Equipment Maintenance

Storing tools and equipment for winter should be a priority for all farms at the close of their season. Simply putting things away and leaving them until spring can still result in misuse and degradation over time.

Cleaning, greasing, and sharpening implements for tractor use is a good practice as annual maintenance during months when the equipment is not in use.

Hand tools should also be cleaned for storage. Any tool with metal working parts should be oiled thoroughly after cleaning, and rust should be removed. Winter is also the perfect time to sharpen any hand tools like pruners, shearers, hoes, or knives. Wooden tool handles should be maintained as well; if a wooden handle has started to crack or splinter, sand down the handle and apply a coat of varnish or linseed oil.

Improve Your Infrastructure

If you’re expanding and improving your production every year, then you’ll want to set aside time to plan on making infrastructure improvements, too. For instance, if you’re growing more seedlings each year, is your propagation house ready for a new skin? Are you the tables in your workspace an accurate height for sowing seedling trays? Is your flat filling station ergonomically and spatially efficient? Tweaking the design of these things even a small amount right now can help you drastically improve the daily activities of the farm when it’s the height of the growing season. Here are a few common farm infrastructure problems and ways you can start to improve them during the slow season:

  • Getting the most out of your propagation space. If you’re starting seedlings in January or February, then you’ll want to clean and organize your propagation space now. Farmers sometimes miss this window of opportunity and end up with space issues in late spring when houses overflow with seedlings.
    • Eliminate unnecessary equipment and tools from the space.
    • Hang a drop-down plastic sheet to isolate the space you have to heat when the days are the coldest; you can continue to move the sheet back as your space fills up with seedlings.
    • Double check your hoses for leaks, cracks and appropriate length/reach.
    • Test your heat source, temperature gauge, and heat mats if you have them and replace as needed.Utilize the space above you. If you are working in a smaller or shared space, consider creating high shelving or cross beams to maximize the empty space above your head.
  • Storage: do more with less. Finding storage space can be a common problem for farmers, especially those working on a small scale or on leased land. Organizing any space to make the most efficient use of it is the first step to maximizing your storage ability.
    • Utilize the space above you. If you are working in a smaller or shared space, consider creating high shelving or cross beams to maximize the empty space above your head.
    • Install tool hangers or shelving and designate spaces for specific items.
    • Store like with like. Instead of storing things haphazardly wherever they can fit, create a space where groups of things are easy to see and access.
    • Shore up your storage spaces so they are sealed against rodents. If your space cannot be made rodent-proof, store all potentially susceptible items off the ground or set traps. 
  • Irrigation. The best time to make permanent improvements to irrigation infrastructure is when the water isn’t flowing through it. Take the time now, and your frustrations will be diminished come summer.
    • Check your lines for obvious holes and designate first rate and second rate lines. Discard any that are too damaged to keep.
    • Make permanent repairs to lines that have temporary plugs or patches.
    • Tighten all seals and attachment locations on lines that are inactive.
    • Clean drip lines that have gotten plugged with soil.
    • Always store plastic and flex lines off the ground, preferably in a temperature controlled space to avoid freezing/thawing and damage from rodents.
  • Improve product flow in all work stations. Vegetable operations move a huge amount of product over the course of one season. With all the step from seed to marketable produce, the sheer volume of product moving around your farm is enough to boggle the mind. Paying a few staff members in the slow season to reconfigure your spaces for a more efficient product flow may prove to be a sound investment for the future.
    • Consider how you can design your work spaces to physically move product as infrequently as possible.
    • The flow of produce from field to wash station and wash station to cooler should be designed to run smoothly.
    • Whenever possible, design work stations to involve as little lifting as possible for you and your farm crew.
  • Research and order materials. Many of the projects you want to get underway for improved efficiency may have to wait until the weather improves. But what you can do in inclement weather is prepare your materials.
    • Search for the best deals on quality, quantity, and cost.
    • Order in bulk when possible to save on shipping costs for a re-order. (Note that this should be done only if you have the storage space to accommodate a large order of something, i.e. potting soil.)
    • Gather and organize your needed supplies and materials for each project and double check that you have the right tools to begin so you can take advantage of the weather as soon as it breaks.

Set Goals

An important part of improving any business is taking the time to review your data seasonally and determine where you’re losing efficiencies and can improve for a better triple bottom line. Making these determinations now and prioritizing them for making enhancements will help you have a broad view of how to advance your business over the subsequent months.

For small farms this might mean creating systems for more vigilant crop tracking on yields and waste; or standardizing bed sizes to maximize your planting space. Larger farms might look to cut their energy use by planning to simply invest in updated energy options; or creating a weekly usage plan for tractors that coincides with the timing of your crop plan.

Farms of all sizes should include a comprehensive review of the farm’s overall health, including soil analyses and fiscal achievements. These parameters will help you set feasible goals for the coming season, and create a sustainable farm business.

Resources:

The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook by Richard Wiswall

http://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2016/01/11/winter-farm-insurance/

http://www.finegardening.com/clean-sharp-tools-work-better