Posts Tagged: foothill farming
We like to get farmers and ranchers together and ask them this question: What could go wrong? Preferably after they've had a good night's sleep and a filling breakfast and at a time of year when their farms and ranches are relatively quiet. It is not the happiest of conversations, to say the least. But we feel that talking about farm and ranch risks, and hopefully, taking steps to create resilience in the face of these challenges, is critical to the success of agricultural businesses. Having a plan of action in the face of unforeseen crisis can be the difference between making it and losing it all.
Here are a few topics that came out of recent Risk Management discussions held during our Farm Business Planning short course and Farmer-to-Farmer Networking Breakfasts (for info on both of these events, visit our Foothill Farming website.)
Human Risk – What happens if you get hurt or sick?
This is not a fun topic. Knock on wood, you will be fit as a fiddle into a ripe old age. But what if? You need to buy health insurance. Period. You don't have the money or time to deal with being uninsured when you need health care. Take it from a gal who's racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, health insurance is well worth the investment.
You also need to have an Operations Manual. Do it right now! Write down each enterprise that your business relies on and the basics of keeping it functioning from day to day. It can be rough but should be enough information that a person could read the thing and keep everybody/thing alive. Print it out and keep it in an obvious place, like a binder that says “Operations Manual.” Tah Dah! Your business just became more resilient.
Now you need a designated person/persons who can read the Operations Manual and run your farm in your absence. Employees are a good place to start as they probably have a good idea already. How about a neighbor or good friend? Have them over for a cup of tea and show them where the operations manual is kept. Maybe walk through a typical feeding of the animals or watering the greenhouse. How about a farm buddy system? I'll be your emergency farmer if you'll be mine.
Marketing Risk – What if there is a sudden change to your sales outlets?
Marketing risk is a much tougher nut to crack and prepare for. We build our businesses around projected sales to retail outlets, restaurants, and farmers' markets. What if one of those outlets suddenly became unavailable? You've produced the product and may not have another buyer lined up, so what options do you have?
Jim Muck of Jim's Produce has a good strategy. He tries to always have three potential outlets for a farm product, e.g. Restaurant A, Restaurant B, and Grocery Store X. While he may have made a commitment to Restaurant A for the season, he knows that if Restaurant A were to go out of business both Restaurant B and Grocery Store X would likely be interested in the product he was supposed to sell to Restaurant A.
So what are your options? Would your wholesaler buy more? Do you have a relationship with a Farmers' Market Association that will allow you to attend a market at the last minute? How about a place that will always take a bulk order to make jam or salsa? As Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm says, a successful farmer must spend her time “100% farming and 100% marketing.” Take a moment to identify your most risky marketing outlet and create a back-up plan for that product.
Legal Risks – Are you above board with your employees?
If you aren't filing payroll tax and covering workers with workers compensation insurance, you're walking on thin ice (and technically, breaking the law.) While talk of the costs may have dissuaded you from hiring employees the right way, it's time to make the switch. And if you think you can't afford minor costs like payroll tax and insurance, you may have bigger problems in your production plans than you realize. These costs are insignificant enough that you should be able to pay for them if you can afford hired labor. The risk of getting busted for violating labor laws is significant and fines could very well put your farm or ranch out of business. Time to read up on how to follow the law (getting legal?.
Financial Risks – How well do you understand your Cash flow?
It is likely that your farm and ranch business goes through ups and downs in your cash flow cycle. Our work is largely dependent on the seasons and cycles of animals and therefore there are times when we have a lot of cash coming into the business and there are times when there is not a lot coming in. For many of us, when we have the least amount of cash coming is also when we have a lot of cash going out! Create a cash flow budget for your farm that shows the months across the top and different categories of income and expense along the side. You can then go through and project income and expense by month. This will help you plan for when cash is short, and budget more stringently when income is strong. Another strategy to weather a lopsided cash flow is to move major bills and payments to times of the year when you have income. For example, pay for liability insurance in August instead of February.
Production Risk – Do you have a plan for wildfire?
We farm in a part of California with a particularly high threat of wildfire. Now is a great time to get your wildfire plan written down and understood by all involved. Do all of your properties have at least two exits? What will happen to your livestock if you happen to be out of the area when a fire threatens your farm? Did you know that Cal Fire does not want you to leave sprinklers on when you evacuate and would rather you place buckets of water around structures? Do you maintain 100 feet of defensible space around all outbuildings? There are a lot of great resources available online to help you get started creating a plan. Start off by reading this Foothill Farming blog post on wildfire planning: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/?blogpost=19003&blogasset=24945
One of the most important parts of managing risk on your farm is preparing yourself for the emotional toll that accompanies all of these scenarios. By taking a moment to think through a list of potential risks and what actions you'll take in the face of these risks, you are making yourself more resilient. Understandably, an initial reaction to these scary situations is to avoid thinking about them altogether. By looking at these risks as hypothetical situations, we are training ourselves and our businesses to react effectively if and when we need to.
For more information on the types of risk your farm or ranch needs to prepare for, visit the Risk Management section of our Foothill Farming website: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/Farm_Business_Planning-_new_2/FBP_Risk_Management/Risk_Management/
As we farmers and ranchers determinedly pace the rows of trees, as we tread upon the fields of foliage and flowers, and herd our stock across green and brown pastures, an underworld of microbiology and geology hums beneath our feet. Hold a handful of soil in your hands and you hold billions of micro-organisms. More importantly, you hold the cornerstone of productivity on your farm. With all of the work required by the production of food and fodder, it is easy to overlook the significance of soil. It is also easy to postpone the improvements to the soil that can greatly impact the yields and health of farm plants and animals. It is vital for all farmers, ranchers, and orchardists to incorporate soil building into our annual routines.
The first and most important step in improving your farm and ranch soil is to understand the make-up of your soil and create an action plan for improvement. To do this, you will need to take a soil sample for analysis. To accurately take a soil sample for analysis by a professional laboratory, a very specific protocol must be followed. Please watch our recently published video on soil sampling for more information (https://youtu.be/eo2pS9mSZi8) We also have a publication on taking a soil sample for analysis available on our Foothill Farming website (http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/files/142586.pdf).
Once you have your results from your soil test, you will need to spend some time interpreting the information. This is often a sticking point for farmers- all of that chemistry and so little time to understand what to do. Soil is a complicated living system and making a mistake in what and how much you add to your soil can have dire consequences for your crops. That sounds scary, so no wonder farmers are intimidated.
The good news is that you can ask the soil lab that analyzed your samples to give you recommendations for soil amendments and application rates. If your farm is organic be sure to tell the lab that you want organic advice, otherwise you will get conventional farming suggestions. The soil lab, at a minimum, should be able to tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, you will need to apply in order to achieve good yields. Depending on the lab and the tests you requested you can also get recommendations for how much and what kind of lime to apply; if you need trace minerals like boron, sulfur, or zinc; and how many tons of compost you should add. Different soil labs use different test methods so it is a good idea to use the same lab to test your soil each year. In other words, once you get going on a soil fertility plan from one lab, stick with it. Soil building takes years so you must be patient and consistent in both your testing and following of the lab's recommendations.
You do not have to get recommendations from a soil lab. You can learn how to read your soil test results and then develop your own soil building plan. To learn how to read soil lab test results start by taking one of the interpreting soil test results workshops offered by the UC Cooperative Extension. Be sure to keep an eye on the event calendar on the Foothill Farming website for the next workshop.
Most of us have built our greenhouses to create warm places to start our seeds and grow our seedlings when the weather outside is cool. In a region that has seen snow on Memorial Day Weekend, the winter-time greenhouse is critical to establishing plants that are ready to go in the ground once the danger of frost has passed. But by July, these same structures can become oppressively hot in the heat of the day rendering them useless for plant propagation.
The vegetables and flowers that can over-winter in our region germinate, in general between 70 and 85° Fahrenheit. (There are a couple of exceptions, such as cabbage, which will germinate at temperatures as high as 95°F.) Starting these seeds in a hot greenhouse during August is a bad idea. Though some seeds may germinate, you will need to spend a lot of time watering and the risk of drying out your seedlings is very high. Check out the “Knotts Handbook for Vegetable Growers” for more information on germination temperatures and requirements (http://extension.missouri.edu/sare/documents/KnottsHandbook2012.pdf.)
A simple solution is to start your seeds outdoors. Yep, that's right- outdoors. Just move a few greenhouse benches outside (in a deer protected area) and start your seeds there. If temperatures remain in the high 90's, you may want to consider starting your fall starts in an area that receives afternoon shade. Seeds will readily germinate and seedlings will grow well adapted to the outdoor weather.
The larger the cell size, the slower the dry down. Try and use larger cells if you don't want to water multiple times a day. You will use more potting mix, but may be able to get away with one, well timed, thorough watering. If you are struggling to find time to water adequately, think about installing a simple, automated system. A battery operated, spigot timer can be purchased in most hardware stores and a “low-flow,” rotary sprinkler will emit small droplets that won't damage freshly seeded trays. Pound in a t-post and zip-tie the sprinkler to the top for a quick and dirty watering system. An online search will yield many options for a more advanced greenhouse watering system.
Another greenhouse cooling option is to place shade cloth over the plastic of your structure. Shade cloth is a knit polyethylene fabric that can be stretched over a greenhouse or hoop-house. It is reusable and available in densities from 30% shade up to 90% shade. A study by North Carolina State University showed that lower density shade cloth was as effective as higher density at keeping temperatures cooler (https://www.uvm.edu/~susagctr/resources/HighTunnels.pdf.) This is useful information considering the cost of shade cloth increases along with its density.
Whether you start your seeds in a well-ventilated, shaded greenhouse or outdoors, the main thing is to to keep temperatures and moisture levels optimal for seed germination. In the foothills, you'll want to have over-wintering plants in the ground by the end of September so if you haven't started your seeds yet, now is the time to do it!
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are great places to tell the story of your farm. In a recent survey conducted by Eat Local Placer and Nevada, 60% of participants chose “supporting local farmers” as the primary reason for purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables. Our community and your customers care about you and your farm business! By sharing photos, thoughts, recipes, the good times, and the bad times you are creating a way for local consumers to feel connected to your farm.
If you are already sharing your farm business on social media, it's a great idea to begin thinking strategically about how you post, when you post, and what you share. Everything that you share on the internet (including what you share on your personal profiles) affects your brand. And only sharing what you have for sale and when it is for sale is no fun for anyone- these posts will be regarded as SPAM and your social media profiles will lose attention. The better choice is to think about a larger strategy for sharing the activity of your farm, engaging your community by providing useful and interesting information, and also providing opportunities for people to purchase your products when available.
I like to think of posting to social media as story-telling. Many of you chose to be farmers because of the lifestyle it affords. That lifestyle, or at least a romanticized version of the farming lifestyle, is very popular right now. Share your life as a real farmer. Post a photo of your field when you first walk out in the morning. Post of photo of your farm-fresh lunch and include a recipe. Share your thoughts on the drought and its impact on local agriculture. You will gain followers (who are also potential customers) by providing information that is engaging and images that are striking.
I challenge you to not paint too rosy of a picture of your farm. Be honest with who you are and what life is like on your farm. Sharing the bad times may engage your community in a “call to action.” Check out the response our farm received when we broke the news about our high-tunnel blowing over in a windstorm. There may be some catharsis in sharing the hard times; so often we farm alone and can feel isolated and unappreciated in hard times when, in reality, we are a part of a community that is deeply invested in our well-being.
To craft a social media strategy that will help increase sales, follow these simple rules:
- Post useful and interesting information. Remember- you must be actively farming for your story to have value.
- Follow the 80/20 rule. 80% of your posts should be interesting and useful, 20% of your posts should encourage sales of farm products.
- Post regularly. Avoid posting erratically. Try to share a couple of times a day.
- Post at the right time. Posts between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. tend to be viewed by the most people.
- Share your personal life with intention. Everything you put on the internet affects your business reputation. Think wisely about the parts of your life you may want to keep out of the public domain.
- Have a strategy. Simply using a social media platform is not a marketing strategy. What, how and when you post is the strategy. Set a goal, like increasing sales of a new crop at the farmers' market, and then craft your posts with this goal in mind.
- Make your social media presence known. Follow and share other peoples' posts to increase your own visibility. Ask your friends to “Like” you on Facebook. Be sure to put up a sign at the farmers' market letting your customers know how to find you on the internet.
- Don't become addicted! There is so much information on the internet. Don't get bogged down by social media posting and don't spend too much time doing it. Set limits for yourself if you feel like you are spending too much time online. Those carrots won't plant themselves!
The benefits of social media are numerous. On a personal level, sharing through social media adds a creative element into your day and an opportunity for you to let others know about the life you lead as a farmer. Social media can help you to connect with the community of eaters that support your farm, many of whom are often eager for a deeper connection to the food they eat and the farms that produce it. Social media is a great way to connect with other farmers as well, both here in your own backyard, around the country and even internationally. Share the technical aspect of your work. Other farmers DO want to see a picture of that new irrigation header you just built or the insulation in your walk-in cooler.
Another very useful benefit of social media is the automatic record keeping that occurs alongside your social media posts. Just planted your next radish succession? Take a picture, post it, hashtag it so you can find it later, and voila- you've just make a very accurate record of a farm event. Just made a beautiful bouquet of today's best blooms? Take a picture, post it, hashtag it and you've just made a record of flower availability for years to come. These farm records are not a pile of partially filled out charts crowding your inbox; they are a beautiful, chronological display of your farming activities, easy to access, and stored on the internet for all, foreseeable time.
A note of caution: be mindful of what you make public on the internet. Try not to over share your life. Choose posts and photos that are both useful to your farm as well as interesting to the people that follow you on social media. Remember that people you don't know and may never meet will see your posts.
There are many platforms to choose from and the majority of them are easy to use from your smartphone. Twitter and Instagram are applications that were designed specifically for hand-held devices which means they are very appropriate for farmers to use in the field. A great thing about many of these social media sites (Instagram and Twitter in particular) is that they are fast and dirty (kind of like farming, except for the fast part) and won't take much time out of your busy day. A blog is a great way to tell your farm story, but it is also a considerable time commitment. It will take a few minutes to snap a photo and post it to the internet.
Whether it is through photos or words, tell us the story of your farm. We should all pause more often to appreciate the wonder, beauty, intensity, hilarity, pain and grit of our daily work.
Check out what some of our Placer and Nevada county farmers are doing on the World Wide Web: