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Developing Systems on the Market Farm

by Chris Blanchard, Purple Pitchfork

We all have systems for getting things done – even the lack of a system is a system of sorts. Taking a critical look at how you do things with the intention of creating a replicable process that you can run without investing excess time and energy can provide a an opportunity to increase the reliability of your systems.

Good systems are a valuable asset on your farm, and worth investing in just as you would a piece of machinery or a new greenhouse. And even better: they don’t require a cash outlay to improve your bottom line and your quality of life as you create results with less effort.

Usually, we don’t develop systems to do things that we haven’t done before. Instead, we’re refining tasks that we – or our crew – already perform. But I like to go back to the beginning and ask, what outcomes do I want to create with this system? I find that sometimes I haven’t really taken the time to assess this carefully, which can result in leaving something out. If I was designing a system to seed carrots, for example, the outcomes I want to create might include:

Any time I define outcomes, I want to take a moment to define the parameters of those outcomes: will my row spacing be acceptable if it comes out at 17 inches, or does it need to be 18 on the nose? Does 18 carrots sprouts per foot of row mean 0.75 inches between germinated carrot seedlings, or will anywhere between one half and one inch, with an average of 0.75, be okay? For that matter, do I need 18 sprouts per foot, or can I just get by with whatever my Earthway seeder and the germination rate on my seed combine to give me?

I’m always tempted to go for perfection, but precision always costs either money or additional effort. If I’m using a wheel hoe to cultivate one row of carrots at a time, a slight variation of row spacing probably won’t present a real problem; but if I’m closely cultivating three rows at a time with a tractor, a quarter of an inch variation can make a significant difference in the amount of follow-up hand weeding that will be required.

Likewise precision spacing of carrot seeds can make a big difference in some direct-to-retail markets, since grocers like to have uniform carrots in bags or to display in bulk; if the market is large enough, it may make sense to invest in a seeder than drops seeds precisely one at a time, and in pelleted carrot seeds that are more easily singulated. If I’m putting those carrots in CSA boxes, some variation in size probably doesn’t make much difference; and at farmers market, providing size variation could even be an asset, since some customers will be shopping for soup carrots, and others will enjoy picking out the smaller ones.

Next, I want to look at the factors that go into creating the results I listed on a consistent basis. To reliably get 18 seeds per foot, I would want to think about:

When we lay this out for all of our outcomes, we may start to see patterns where outcomes and influencing factors interfere with each other. For example, if I use a one-row flame-weeder to burn off weeds that germinate before the carrots, and I use a seed-bed roller to create good seed-to-soil contact, I may not be able to see where the carrots are when it’s time to flame-weed. So, I need to figure out how to resolve that in order to get the results I want. At Rock Spring Farm, we mixed in a very low volume of radish seeds with our pelletized carrots; the germinated radishes marked the rows and got flamed off when we came through with the propane torch.

Likewise, irrigating with overhead sprinklers may promote soil crusting, especially if you have much clay in your soils, so you may need to figure out a workaround to that. Some small farmers use burlap sacks laid over the beds to absorb the pounding of irrigation droplets; other farmers opt for smaller sprinklers that create less of an impact. Or, you might choose to increase the frequency of irrigation, so that the soil never fully dries to allow that crust to form.

I want to look at what I can achieve with what I have and what I have available to invest. If you are using an Earthway seeder to plant your carrots, you’re pretty limited when it comes to options for changing the spacing of your carrot seeds. Will the investment in a more expensive technology or a more complicated procedure provide enough benefits to be worth making?

Of course, on the diversified market farm, few things stand completely alone. If you direct seed carrots, you probably direct seed other crops, as well. Will a new carrot seeding system work for your other crops as well? At Rock Spring Farm, we grew a lot of carrots for sales to stores, so we wanted a way to get consistent, precise stands. When we invested in a precision Stanhay belt seeder, we were also able to use it for beets, rutabagas, turnips, and winter radishes, which helped justify the extra cost of that hardware (it also justified the thinking we did about how to get a great stand of carrots!).

Most tasks take place after some tasks and before others, so I like to think about the systems that feed into the task under consideration, as well as those that are fed by it. Seeding usually requires that you provide some tillage beforehand, but do you need to do any something special for carrots? Maybe you don’t provide deep tillage on every bed on your farm, but want to provide it ahead of your carrots to provide additional loosening for improved root penetration.

Maybe you want to till further in advance than you would for most crops, so that you can create a stale seed bed. What system will you use to reliably remind yourself to prepare the carrot beds three weeks before you prepare a bean bed for seeding the same week? I liked to put it right on my planning calendar, especially for the big fall planting of carrots.

Looking at the systems that are fed by this task, I’d want to ask about how I’m going to harvest the carrots. If I’m undercutting the carrots for hand harvesting, or digging them with a fork, the row spacing doesn’t matter much. But one farm I worked seeded their carrots ten inches apart, but when they purchased a very cool mechanical carrot harvester mid-season, they discovered that it required a minimum of 11-inch rows to operate. Oops!

I really like thinking about the side benefits you can get with a good system. For example, can a carrot- seeding system be expanded to provide better records? At Rock Spring Farm, we used a full page to record seeding every variety, because it allowed us plenty of room to write instructions, record data about seeds and seed treatments, and to precisely map locations.

Finally, documenting the system makes it into a real system by providing a way to ensure that it happens the same way no matter who is performing the task or under what conditions, increasing the resilience of your farm. Written documentation creates the potential for delegation, whether that’s on a day-to-day basis, or just in case of emergency (delegation doesn’t always move downwards in the organization chart – it may mean that your partner can take care of a task if you aren’t available to do it).

Documentation may range from simply listing seeder settings, to the creation of a checklist, to a full narrative (or video) of how to perform every detail of the task. The best documentation incorporates all multiple levels – nobody wants to have to read every detail of the task each time they go out to do it (or to find the place where you mentioned the seeder settings), but having that available in addition to a checklist does provide additional backup in case of emergency.

I am an especially big fan of creating checklists to support consistent task performance. In market farming, it’s not uncommon to have a thousand things on your mind, and there are so many ways that a situation can turn stressful or more difficult – such as when the wind is blowing your seed packets around as a storm rolls up the valley. Having a quick way to check that everything is right without having to rely on your own mind ensures that you don’t leave out a critical step. Checklists provide a great way to support your future self so that when you’re not at your best – or things aren’t at their best – you can still perform at a high level.

A checklist for operating a seeder might include two parts, preparation and in-the-field. The preparation part might include:

In the field, the checklist for a set of Planet Junior seeders might include:

Taking time to think through the critical tasks on the farm creates the opportunity to increase your chances of everything going exactly the way you want it to. Or at least, of the things you can control going the way you want them to.

About the author: Chris Blanchard assists farmers, food businesses, and non-profits in the improvement, creation, and implementation of systems to maximize profitability and quality of life.He has worked in farming for the past 25 years, managing farms and operations around the country. As the owner and operator of Rock Spring Farm from 1999 - 2013, Chris raised twenty acres of vegetables, herbs, and greenhouse crops, marketed through a 200-member year-round CSA, food stores, and farmers markets. His newsletter, The Flying Rutabaga, and his podcast, Farmer to Farmer, can be found at purplepitchfork.com.

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