Visiting la Ferme des Quatres Temps with Jean-Martin Fortier: AKA Disneyland for organic market gardeners!

Have you ever wondered how you might set up a farm in you had unlimited financial resources?

I had the pleasure of visiting la Ferme de Quatres Temps (FQT) last week. FQT is unique in that it was started 4 years ago by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm with the aim of both showing what was possible and at the same time disrupt some of the current barriers to the development of the diversified farm model in the province of Quebec.

The farm includes both a mixed livestock component as well as an 8-acre market garden designed and managed by Jean-Martin Fortier. Jean-Martin is the co-founder of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, author of ‘The Market Gardener’, and all around visionary and innovator in the small-scale local organic farming movement.

Farm tour at La Ferme Des Quatres Temps with Jean-Martin Fortier.

As part of their mission, the farm offers annual tours for farmers to showcase the latest innovations. Visiting Ferme aux Quatre Temps is like going to Disneyland in the sense that it’s like…. wow, this is how a small scale farm would be set up if we all had unlimited access to capital! At the same time, it is intensely useful to visit FTQ and take note of approaches and principles that can be implemented even on an average budget.

The 8-acre market garden is arranged in standard blocks comprised of ten 100 foot long beds. A flowering hedgerow separates each block to provide habitat for beneficial insects.

Now in their third year of commercial production, the farm grosses approximately 700 000$ with a farm crew of 12 people. The products are primarily sold via their stand at Jean-Talon market during the spring, summer, and fall as well as to about 20 restaurants throughout the entire year including in the winter months.

Winter greens production in a greenhouse that is heated to 0c. The crops are planted 4 rows per bed rather than 12 to help mitigate the risks of disease due to high humidity.
Silage tarps are used for occultation; the practice of reducing the weed pressure by stimulating the germination of weed seeds in a light free environment (where they will automatically be killed) before planting .
Landscape fabric is used to manage weeds for most transplanted crops that stay in the field 60 days or more.
Buried irrigation lines make it convenient to irrigate crops. This is essential, as this removes any friction that might result in crops not getting irrigated at the right moment.
Electric sprayer with a retractable hose for applying biological pesticides and compost tea.
The full line up of flame weeders. The one closest us (Farmer’s Freind) is the preferred model with its 5 burners, windshield, and the wheel on the bed (compared to the one with the wheels in the alley which in incontinent when the alleys are filled with crop residue, irrigation lines, etc.) The center one is useful in a greenhouse setting thanks to its lightweight, maneuverability, and the fact that it does not flame the edge of the bed (which is why it is not preferred in a general manner).
One of the most useful tools on any farm (along with the crop planning software) is the whiteboard where the week is planned out. JM meets with the 5 member management team every Monday morning to establish priorities for the week.
Wash station set up for efficiently washing salad mix. Bubbler on the left converted washing machine spinners in the center, and stainless steel basin on the right where the dried greens are dumped, sorted for weeds, and bagged.
Loading dock with a ramp for loading pallets of produce for delivery.
The van is loaded in the evening and the plugged-in refer unit keeps the produce cold through the night allowing the delivery staff to leave promptly in the morning without having to load the trucks.
Is any farm actually complete without a giant multicolored dancer?

I love how this farm demonstrates many of the principles of the 5 Pillars. The fact of working for a millionaire owner who has heavily invested in the farm had meant that there are well-defined outcomes that JM and the team are aiming for (aka Pillar 1) … both in terms of specific sales targets and in terms of the inovative mission of the farm.  To reach these targets, careful planning has always been the foundation (Pillar 2)… from the design and layout of the farm, to the crop planning process, to the weekly team planning session. Finally (and what is most inspiring about visiting such a farm) solid production systems (Pillar 3) are well implemented (Most notably the weed control system, the harvest and post-harvest system, and the Information Flow system).

 

 

**Please note that all amazon links here are ‘affiliate links’ meaning that I get between 4 and 10% of the sales depending on the type of product. Of course, this does not affect which products I talk about in the blog…. it’s just that if I’m going to put links anyways, I might as well generate some income while I’m at it!

Pillar 1: A clear and intentional vision of the lifestyle you would love to live on your organic vegetable farm.

Do you ever feel like you are serving the farm rather than the farm is serving you?

What would it be like for you to be so clear about why you are farming and what purpose the farm serves?

This is exactly what the first of the 5 pillars is all about. My basic premise here is that the farm is a tool. It is a tool we choose to use to live a certain lifestyle AND to make a certain contribution to the world we live in. The challenge we sometimes experience is that we are so busy with the daily operation of the farm that we lose sight of why it is we are farming.

This is where the 5 pillars of lifestyle farming come in.

Over the coming weeks, I would like to dive deeper into each of the pillars. The 5 pillars are:

Pillar 1: A clear and intentional vision

Pillar 2: A S.M.A.R.T. game plan for bringing that vision into reality

Pillar 3: Mindful prioritization of how we use time and money.

Pillar 4: Solid farm Systems

Pillar 5: Monitoring results and using Support.

Pillar 1 is all about knowing where we want to go, what outcomes we want to produce, what success actually looks like for us. Success is simply defined as doing the thing we said we would do, with clarity, focus, ease, and grace. Success is a highly personal experience. Comparison to others is a pure waste of time (it’s like comparing our intimate knowledge of our inner selves to the outer appearances of someone else.)

So, What is your farm for? What life would you love to live? What contribution would you love to make?

Here is an exercise I have found to be very useful in crafting a clear vision. I invite you to set aside some time in the coming week to reflect and develop a written vision. And don’t forget, this is not something static, this is something that is in constant evolution and will shift and grow as you progress on the journey of life.

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Crafting a Powerful Farm Vision*

What is a vision?

A vision is a clear and vivid declaration from your heart of the life you love… and intend… to live. It may pertain to an area of your life or to your project, farm, team, organization, community or the world.

Why craft your farm vision?

Remember, our definition of success is: doing what you said you would do, consistently with clarity, focus, ease, and grace. When you are clear about your vision for the lifestyle that you would love to live, you focus your energy and act on what’s most important to you and on building a farm that fully supports that lifestyle. Your actions consistently answer the question “what would someone with my vision do next, standing where I am standing?”

“Acting from” vs. “Acting toward” your vision

When you act from your vision in the present moment, you’ll notice your vision moving toward you. Action from your vision means using what’s available to you right here and now, to bring your vision into physical reality—versus seeing your vision as something vague “in the future”. In something as long-term as farming, it is refreshing to be able to plan for the future but live in the present.

How Your Vision Relates to Your Life’s Intentions and Goals

Your vision is an outgrowth of your Life’s Intention (an underlying aim, purpose, or direction that brings great meaning to your life). Your vision provides energy and clarity as you go for your goals. As we know, things in physical reality take energy, they are constantly changing and unpredictable. When we’re focused and engaged with our vision as it relates to our life’s intentions, it provides the motivation to continue taking action.

Criteria for a powerful vision

  • First person narrative vs. laundry list. Your vision is a story, with you as the main character.
  • From your heart vs. your head. Ask: what would I truly love? What inspires me the most about this? What would have me go to bed grateful and wake up energized?
  • What’s possible vs. plausible: Suspend doubt and concerns about “how” you will achieve it.
  • What you want vs. what you don’t want, what you “should” want or how to get there.
  • Vivid vs. abstract: Ask yourself, can I see myself in this vision?
  • Present-Tense vs. future-tense: articulate your vision as though it is happening right now.

Exercise: Creating & Using Your Vision Statement

  1. Take a blank piece of paper (or open up a word doc).
  2. Identify the Life’s Intention that gives this vision meaning and purpose. (See life’s intentions inventory.)
    1. What is your farm for? What life’s intention gives deep meaning and purpose to your farm? Chose one and only one!
    2. Write it at the top of the page and use it as the focal point for your Vision Statement.
  3. Imagine talking to a friend in 2-3 years into the future. You hear them say  “Seems like things are going really well for you! Will you tell me about it?”
  4. Now imagine answering them, “I’m glad you asked!” What do you hear yourself saying next? Write it down, painting as clear and vivid a picture as possible of your experience.
    1. What lifestyle are you living?
      1. What types of activities are you doing?
      2. What does your weekly schedule look like? How many hours per week are you working on the farm?
      3. What other interests are you pursuing passionately?
    2. How much money are you earning from the farm?
    3. What contribution are you making?
    4. What does the farm look like so as to fully support the lifestyle you would love to live?
  5. Go for “good enough”. If your internal voice of worry says anything about it needing to be “perfect”, simply say “thank you for sharing” and finish the current draft.
  6. Read your vision every day for the next 30 days. Ask yourself at least once a day, ideally in the morning: What would someone with my vision do today, standing where I’m standing?

* Vision instructions inspired by Jeremy Blanchard, leadership and life coach. Adapted specifically for use in the context of farming. 

My Vision for an Eco-Agro Neighborhood

I have a dream! To live, in a fun and nurturing eco-agro neighborhood! It’s a dream I have been pushing away for the past decade on the basis that it is not realistic…. but the vision just won’t go away. Throughout our travels over the past 2 years, I have not yet found a place like this. And so… and so the possibility I see emerging is that I am called to take the lead on such a project and use my creativity and enthusiasm to make this happen.

I wanted to share my vision with you. At the same time, I wanted to take this as an opportunity to demonstrate the O.P.A. framework I have discussed in past blog posts.

So here it goes!

Outcome: This is the ‘WHAT’ towards which I seek to focus my energy going forward.

  • I live in a neighborhood of 8 houses arranged in a hexagon according to the cardinal directions, each house 100 feet from the next. 30 acres of farmland and 20 acres forest  surrounds the living space with enough farmland for everyone to have individually or collectively farm should they wish;
  • Each resident would hold tenure over their residential lot, presumably they would own the lot;
  • The farmland would be placed in a land trust whose role is to issue long-term leases (20-100 yrs) to farmers seeking to farm the land organically;
  • 10-15 minutes drive from the center of a small dynamic college town;
  • 8 awesome households, at least 5 households with children and at least 2 older couples;
  • Cohabitating and participating in the organic development of community through the interconnected nature of cohabitation
  • In the center of the hexagon is the common area where children play in the mud, where we gather for potlucks and fires, where yoga, dance, and play occurs, where chickens live, and where we share a common space;
  • A road circles the outside of the houses, connecting them to the common parking lot and at the same time providing access to the farms.

When we lived on the farm in Dunham, there were tons of cool friendly organic farming within a 15-20 minute drive of the farm… but we rarely saw them. The people we ended up developing the most profound connection to were our neighbors across the road; a couple of conventional sheep farmers in their 60’s who drank Pepsi and had a huge open heart and mind. These are not the types of people you would expect us to develop community with, but by the nature of our proximity, this is what happened. the sense of community developed organically thanks to the interconnectedness of mutual support, of trading equipment, of helping each other fix stuff, of slaughtering our chickens together led to a deep and meaningful friendship. This is why I propose to launch an ‘unintentional’ community rather than an ‘intentional’ community. We don’t have to all be the same and have the same values; all we need is an open heart and mind and the interconnectedness of cohabitation will cause community to arise organically. 

I envision an initial eight household node, but this project could evolve to also include two and even three nodes of 8 households. I envision neighborhoods where at least 50% of the households have one or more member of the family operating a commercial farm.

Purpose: This is the ‘WHY’ that informs what I want to create.

  • To innovate what it means to live on a farm;
  • To live in the countryside and to have access to farmland, while at the same time benefiting from living in a neighborhood;
  • To be able to spontaneously engage in social activity without having to drive somewhere;
  • To provide a space where my children can grow up safely, be exposed to a diversity of people, where my kids can just run out and play with the neighboring children and I know they are safe and that everyone more or less has an eye on them;
  • To be able to farm without being isolated. To be able to cooperate with neighboring farms as we see fit;
  • To propose a new model of development in contrast to the current model of housing development that destroy and exclude nature and agriculture;
  • To mimic the rural and semi-rural villages of Switzerland where agriculture and housing co-exist in the same space.

Action: This is the ‘HOW’ of what I seek to create.

A list of actions to bring this vision into reality`. Not necessarily in chronological order nor in order of priority:

  • Form a core team of 3 people to take the lead on this project;
  • Research and implement optimal legal structure;
  • Secure funding to acquire land and implement the necessary infrastructure needs;
  • Locate and buy a property for the project;
  • Enroll residents in the vision and sell them residential sites;
  • Sign long-term rent agreements with those desiring to farm;
  • Have fun;
  • Seek advice and support from people with pertinent knowledge.
    • real estate lawyers
    • housing developers
    • successful co-housing and intentional community projects
    • visit similar projects

 

Are you with me!?  🙂

Do you have any suggestions or insights into such a project?

What vision is calling YOU that you may have been putting off for quite some time?

 

 

Broadfork farm: Being intentional, keeping it simple, and innovating!

This week we had the pleasure of stopping in for a visit with Shannon and Bryan at Broadfork farm in River Hebert, Nova Scotia.

With 4 acres of tillable land and less than 1.5 acre in actual production, Shannon and Bryan make a full time living growing organic vegetables and cut flowers and working 5 days per week (Sunday and Monday is their weekend). The farm basically follows a bio-intensive model except on a 7 year crop rotation including 4 years of green manure.

The thing that stood out to me was their desire to keep it simple. Specifically, the fact that they only one off farm marketing trip per week to the Dieppe, NB farmers market, and have no employees at the farm (except a helper at market on saturdays). They also sell to a couple of restaurants that either pick up at the farmers market or at the farm. The decision not to have employees is based on their desire for freedom and flexibility in their schedule… plus they both have had farm management roles in the past and have learned that managing employees is not what they enjoy doing.

Part of their success in keeping the farm simple is their willingness to adopt innovative techniques or to literally create them when needed. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate what I mean.

Shannon and Bryan are magnificently lazy… amongst other things, they do not like weeding. 😉 In addition to using landscape fabric to block weed, they also use a 2 inch ‘mulch’ layer of compost and plant directly into the weed free compost. I personally wonder about the long term impact on soil phosphorus and potassium levels in a system that would receive such large doses every year (which is not the case at Broadfork Farm, given their long crop rotation.)
To reduce the labor needed to spread compost, they had this self loading compost spreaded built by a local machinist.
This self loading compost spreader allows then to spread compost efficiently without needing 2 tractors or a front end loader. The spreader is capable of spreading a light dose but takes 3 passed to apply the 2-3 inch layer required for the compost mulch weed management technique.
The self loading compost spreaded drops te compost directly on the bed top without flinging it all over the place like a traditional manure spreader. One challenge Bryan noted was that the compost bridges if it is too moist. This could be addressed by the addition of a second set of beaters, or perhaps larger fins on the beaters.
Notice the overhead sprinklers in the caterpillar tunnels… a nice touch I don’t see often. Also notice that the tunnel is filled with foliage and flower crops for bouquets; a crop mix that tends towards the highly profitable crops which is a key strategy in making a full time income from the farm.
Sorghum-Sudan Grass (SSG) and forage pea green manure that will be mowed or rolled for the cucurbits that will be strip till planted next year with a landscape fabric mulch. We don’t often see SSG used in a green manure mix. I love the look of the frosted killed SSG with the peas just starting to climb up and dominate… I wonder what it will look like in a month! The SSG isn’t as tall as I would expect… late planting? Cooler maritime climate?
The use of silage plastic for occultation is so key for getting the weed seeds to germinate prior to planting crops!

Oh… and they have no internet or cell phones. I love it!! Talk about being a stand against the current IT addiction that is prevalent today! Instead, they use the local public library’s wifi 5 minutes away and have taken great advantage of the ability to schedule posts ahead of time to maintain an active presence on social media without bringing internet into their home.

All of these elements point to how intentional Shannon and Bryan are about building a farm that fully supports the lifestyle they want to live. From the very beginning Shannon and Bryan have been very specific about what they want to create with their farm. They mention the Everdale Farm Business Planning course as having been very helpful in starting out the farm with a clear plan of what they wanted and what they didn’t want. Building on that, Shannon and Bryan have made a point of finding new tools every year to stimulate the reflection and discussion of what they want and how they want to guide their farm.These range from holistic farm planning courses, to RRSP retirement planning questionnaires, to ‘backcasting’ (rather than forecasting)(ie, reverse engineering the next steps based on what your desired outcome is).. to name a few. The point is that every year, they make the time and space to reflect, discuss, and make choices about the direction the farm is headed in.

Broadfork farm is a wonderful illustration of many of the principles laid out in the 5 Pillars of Lifestyle Farming

Now, your turn….

What outcomes do you want to produce on your farm?

Where could your farm be simpler? Where might you be making things harder than they need to be?

What would a truly satisfying lifestyle look like for you?

3 ways for organic vegetable farmers to take full advantage of the fall to build a solid marketing system for next year.

As summer fades into fall, it can be easy to be tempted just coast through the remaining weeks of CSA deliveries and farmer’s markets. We can fall into the trap of thinking we are too tired to think about his kind of thing, that the die are cast for this year, that we just need to keep our head down and focus on the fall harvest…

With the rush of summer behind us, fall is actually a fantastic time to focus more of your energy how to better serve you customers and build a solid marketing strategy for the next year. Herein lies one of the key shifts I propose to you: to see your marketing efforts as a means of being of service to your clients. So often I meet small scale organic farmers who fundamentally see marketing as something dirty, sleazy, or ‘sales-y’. Alternately, there is this discourse called ‘they owe us… we work our ass off growing amazing food and saving the planet… food prices are artificially low due to the influence of agri business not having to pay for the ecological and social hidden costs of industrial food production’.

I’m not here to have a philosophical discussing around these issues…

My question for you is: are either of these mindsets useful for you in building a sustainable organic vegetable farm that fully supports the quality of life you would love to live?

Seeing marketing and sales as a means of being of service to our clients empowers us to play full out towards our goals! The fact of the matter is that your farm produces amazing delicious organic vegetables and that there are people out there who would would love to eat them! Whatever marketing efforts you do are fundamentally an act of service in connecting people with your farm.

Marketing is everywhere, it is everything we do, it is how we communicate about what we love, and about the change we seek to bring into this world.

Here are three things to keep in mind this fall so be of maximum service in your marketing.

The empathetic marketer

The key to being an illuminated marketer is to put yourself in your customers shoes and really understand getting to know them. This is actually one of the greatest strengths of small scale organic farmers, we actually have the opportunity to personally know our customers, and we actually care about them…. So let’s make the most of this!

Often we have a sense of what we think our clients are experiencing, but there’s nothing like actually talking with them about it. Over the course of the next weeks between now and the end of markets, get in the habit of discussing the following questions with your clients… and keep note of your observations!

Who are they? Do they have children? What is their income level?

What ‘problem’ are you solving for them? What stories do they tell themselves about buying their vegetables from you? What do they value about your farm? What do they care about in the world? What are their hopes? What are their fears?

Take notes on your conversations, including the specific words that they use to talk about why they love your farm. What you learn from these conversations will be invaluable this winter as you plan out your marketing activities for next year.

A great side effect of these types of conversations is getting to know some really wonderful people even better and building relationships.

Go out with a bang!

This is simple, the way you end the season will influence how people remember you and how likely they are to want to be your customer next year. Of course fall doesn’t have as full a diversity of crops as summer, but this is a time to really pay attention to displaying and presenting your products in a way that highlights the abundance the fall harvests.

What else could you be doing to provide maximal value to your customers from now till then end of your market or CSA season? Potlucks, community activities, recipes? Use what you are hearing in your conversations with customers see how to wrap up the season in a manner that leave a great impression on your customers.

Enroll people for next year, right away!

There’s no reason to wait till next winter to get people to sign up for next year’s CSA program. Starting 4 weeks before the end of the season, offer a means for members to sign up right away!

This same principle applies to your farmer’s market customers too. Find ways to get their email addresses so you can touch base with them next spring to let them know when you’ll be starting market. This is the time to be doing this… not in the middle of winter.

Another approach for market customers is to offer a market subscription program… essentially a hybrid between CSA and farmers market. In its simplest form, People pre-purchase a certain dollar value that they can then use at market in exchange for a certain % discount. Even if the amount they commit to is minimal, it serves to help get them in the habit next summer of shopping at your stand.

The key here is to get your clients to engage in some act that will increase the likelihood of seeing them next summer!

As you put these principles into action, constantly be asking yourself: How can I provide the greatest value possible to this person right now!?

Go make a ruckus!

Orchard Hill Farm visit: Horse powered organic no-till, draft horse drawn root lifter, and an amazing soil health.

On our recent journey back east from BC, we had the pleasure of stopping off for a visit with Ken and Martha Laing at Orchard Hill Farm in southwestern. Orchard Hill Farm is where my spouse Jolianne and I worked in 2009 during the summer after graduating from university. This is where we learned to farm with horses, and learned to live and work together as a couple 24/7. It was wonderful to be able to return to OHF after all these years and see the evolution of the farm (and show our son Milo our roots!)

Ken Laing with his latest apprentice… Milo, our 4 year old son!

Having taken their semi-retirement when their daughter returned to the farm to take over the vegetable portion of the farm, Ken and Martha now spend their time in the caribbean… just kidding, Martha is loving her time with her grandchildren and Ken has launch full steam into organic no-till research and is launching a custom grazing operation on 60 acres of the farm… yup, real farmer’s retirement!

This year Ken is running a randomized plot replicated experiment to compare different no-till approached to growing spring grains. OK… it’s important to note here that we what we’re talking about here is not really no-till, but rather reduced tillage. The point here is to find ways of managing crops that nurture soil health by reducing the amount of tillage.

In this trial, Ken is looking various winter-killer green manure mixes for the no-till planting of oats and barley in the spring: Buckwheat, oats/barley/peas mix, daikon, oats/barley/fava bean mix, and sorghum-Sudangrass (Sudex). As a control, he is comparing this to fall plowed hay field.

 

Strips of various green manure mixes for no-till planting of oats and barley mixed grain crop in the spring.
Me driving a home made no-till cereal seed drill used for planting small grains directly into cover crop residues, designed and built by Ken Laing at Orchard Hill Farm.

 

One thing I noticed was that there seemed to be fewer earthworms in plots growing the sorghum Sudan-grass. I took a quick look online and did I not see any mention of this. Have any of you noticed this on your farms?

This approach is also used to establish multiple successions of green manures without having to till it as much. For example, a sequence such as: rye (killed with roller crimper at milky stage in june) -> Buckwheat (killed with roller crimper in august) -> Oats and peas (frost killed).

Another no-till crop establishment technique Ken is playing with (yes, playing… if you could see him managing the farm… it’s like a kid in an amusement park!) is the classic rolling/crimping of cereal rye at flowering to kill it and create a mulch for a no-till crop…. in this case a plot of squash and one of soybeans.

Roller-crimper used to kill cereal rye prior to no-till planting of soybeans or squash.

The results for the squash have been sub-optimal for the past 2 years for reasons Ken is still searching for. After the first year, Ken suspected that the rye residue was immobilizing nitrogen, but additional fertility at planning the second year failed to correct the situation.

Organic squash and soybeans, no-till planted into roller-crimped cereal rye.

On the other hand, the soybeans look great and have fewer weeds than back in the day when Ken was growing soybeans and cultivating them! There were tons of pods, though they were filling out a little slowly. Who knows..? Looking forward to hearing back from Ken regarding yield when he combines them in the fall.

No-till planted organic soybeans with rye mulch still providing great weed control in late august.

Finally, I wanted to share these pictures of a horse drawn, single row root lifter that Ken built. He says 2 horses pull it fine for a shallow rooted crop like leeks or celeriac, but that 4 horses are necessary for lifting a deep rooted crop like parsnip. For carrots… it depends on how many rows need to be lifted and how long the carrots are.

Home made draft hose drawn root lifter.
Close up of horse drawn root lifter for harvesting carrots, parsnip, leeks, celery root etc.

The main challenge that Ken notes regarding implement a no-till approach in an organic system is that due to the challenge of controlling weeds without tillage, it ends up not really being no-till but rather an alternating of tillage and no-till. The result is that the benefits of no-till are not fully experienced. According to Ken’s nephew who is a conventional no-till farmer, the soil actually gets harder and less well structured for about the first 5 years of no-till.

How do we implement no-till on organic vegetable farms? Some of the techniques that excite me in this domain are the use of occultation using silage tarps and the use of deep mulch ‘living soil’ method .

What about you? How is your soil doing?

Are your tillage practices in line with your life’s intentions and purpose for the farm?

Where do you see an opportunity in your system to shift your tillage methods so as to foster soil health?

I love how dedicated our community of farmers is to implementing the changes our world so dearly needs. Remember, you play such a critical role in building the world we would love our children and grandchildren to inherit! You are part of a movement that is way bigger than just your individual farm….. Oh, and let’s not forget to have fun too!

Power to the playful!

Using budgeting like a GPS to guide your small scale organic vegetable farm or market garden to financial success… aka PROFITS!!!!

Money isn’t everything, but is sure is a dang useful resource!!

There are so many reasons we farm: to bring about a change in society and our environment, because we love being our own boss and working out doors, to create a wonderful environment to raise children, to grow vibrant nourishing food for our communities, etc. What an amazing set of life’s intentions this is!

And ultimately…. we need to make money from our farm or market garden so that we have the resources necessary to bring all these wonderful intentions into reality.

Your farm is a business! It’s amazing how profitable small scale organic vegetable farming can be when the key business systems are in place. You can make a comfortable full time living from organic vegetable farming!

The financial GPS

One key practice is making a budget and then actually using it to make decisions throughout the growing season. It’s a bit like a GPS, you can’t just enter your destination and forget about it, you actually have to look at the map and use the GPS to navigate to road to where you want to go.

Similarly, the real utility of a budget is to help you make decisions on how to use your money during the growing season. I see too many people make a budget and not take a look at it again till the following winter when they close their books and find out how much profit they actually did (or did not) make.

Instead, keep your bookkeeping up to date and every month (or every  weeks, depending on the size of your business) compare your actual results to you budget forecasts.

Are you reaching your sales targets for each of your sales outlets?

If not, what action could you take this week to boost your sales? Are there any new outlets or clients that could be explored?

Are you there any expense categories where you are spending more or less money that you had planned?

Given what you are observing, what could you be doing to adjust your spending so as to reach the goals that you have set for yourself? Notice we often have a tendency to want to buy the larger format of material so as to get a better per unit price. With an up to date budget, we know exactly how much money is left in each expense category. For example, if we need screws but our hardware budget is almost empty, we can just buy what we need rather than going for the 1000 screw box. Alternatively, we can look and see if there is another expense account where we actually over budgeted and thus can redirect some money to the hardware expense category and let ourselves loose on the mega-huge box of screws!

It’s amazing how much power we actually have over how we spend our money. Yes, there are some expenses that are non-negotiable, but you have much more agency than it may at first seem like.

Mid season re-budgeting

Another practice that is useful is to revise your budget forecasts in mid-August or early september. Now that you know the actual incomes and expenses for January through July or August, enter them into a new version of your budget. Next, take a fresh look at the coming months. What are you expecting in terms of income and expenses?

With this refreshed mid-season budget forecast, you now have a much clearer picture of how the fall will shape out, what sales targets you need to be hitting, and how much money you actually have to spend.

I know… you’d rather be out in the fields with your hands in the soil… and you probably have more urgent things to do… but budgeting is one of those quadrant 2 (non-urgent, important tasks) that will free up so much of your mental space and enable you to run your farm or market garden with clarity and focus.. and have FUN doing so!

What would it be like farm without worry about money?

Would it be OK with you if money got a little easier?

There’s never been a better time to master the energy of money than right friggin now.

Go make a ruckus!

The 5 pillars of building a small scale organic vegetable farm that supports the lifestyle you would love to live

We don’t often think of farming as a lifestyle business, but it absolutely is. There is some lifestyle that you would love to live and some contribution you would love to make to the world… and farming is the vehicle you have chosen to do so. Yes… chosen. It is so important to remember that farming is a choice you make. No one is forcing you to farm. The world will not fall apart if you stop. No matter how seemingly committed to the farm you are, always remember that there is a way out and that you are CHOOSING to farm. (through good times and bad, health and sickness, till death do you part 😉 )

Given that you are choosing to farm.. to use the farm as the vehicle to living a luminous life, there are certain foundational principles to insure that the farm you are building actually is supporting you in living the life you would love to live.

5 pillars of building a farm that fully supports the lifestyle you would love to live:

  1. Know what the farm is for! Be clear about the outcomes you wish to create, what lifestyle you would love to live, what contribution are you here to make? Lead from your heart, not from your brain… or more precisely…. Lead with your heart and manage with your brain.
  2. Put first things first: Now that you know what is important to you, build your farm around these elements… profit, family time, a specific contribution you want the farm to make in the world. Literally schedule out time ahead of time for these activities, start you budget with the profit you want…
  3. Have well designed farm systems that make it so the farm is operating smoothly and is working in support of your lifestyle and contribution goals. It is crucial that the activities be organised into coherent and well documented systems. The chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Similarly, the farm operation is only as strong as it’s weakest system.
  4. Put in place a network of mutual support and use it! No one is an island, though it may sometimes feel like you are.  
  5. Monitor, update, and adapt. This is the step that separates the sheep from the goats .. umm, what the heck does that mean 🙂 A vision and the resulting plan are only useful when they are used in real life. Monitoring insures that you are aware of how things are going. All too often we have a great vision or we make a great plan and put it on the shelf. The key is to us your vision inspired plan as a road map to creating the life you would love to live. To do so, you have to know where you are on the map, and you have to check in regularly to see if you are still on the right path, to see if that path still leads where you wanted to go, and to see if that destination is still a place you want to go.

River Run Farm visit: Top notch Organic weed control, beautiful mid-scale vegetable production, and high nitrogen chickling vetch green manure.

I just love visiting farms! Each one is so unique and it is so interesting to observe how each person chooses to build their farm as a reflection of their interests, personalities, and vision.

While on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, I visited River Run Farm…. yet another fascinating example of thinking outside the box. River Run Farm is in fact two farms in one. Having started out as a partnership, the owners realised that their friendship was more important and decided to each run their separate but parallel farm businesses. The 2 farms operate on the same land, sharing equipment and infrastructure, but marketing separately and each managing their own production in separate designated fields on the farm.

During out stay, we were hosted by side of River Run Farm operated by Noah and his partner, Ana. I was really impressed with what Ana and Noah have been able to develop in just 5 years. Here are some highlights that stood out to me.

Weed free organic vegetable fields

The first thing that jumped out at me what that they really nailed the weed control in their fields. The fields are properly tilled before planting to eliminate grasses and perennial weeds so that crops are planted into nice clean fields. Next, crops are cultivated regularly using scale appropriate, horse drawn cultivator units including finger weeders and beet knives mounted on parallelograms. I also noticed that they were thoroughly composting their manure (from the horses and cows) in regularly turned windrows that we covered with landscape fabric. Great job River Run! 🙂 Next on the horizon at River Run is looking at how to do all this using reduced tillage and even organic no-till. I look forward to seeing where they take this given what great results they have achieved in just 5 years.

Amazing mid-summer lettuce production

Coming from Quebec, it was quite surprising to see what beautiful, lush, huge lettuces were being harvested in the height of summer…. one advantage of farming in a cool coastal climate. I really appreciate how Noah and Ana have chosen to focus on crops that are well adapted to their eco-zone.

Noah and I (you can almost see those amazing lettuces)
Wow, talk about a beautiful place to farm!!

Chickling vetch green manure

As part of their commitment to excellence, Noah is working to integrate the systematic use of green manures and cover crops into their vegetable rotation. As part of this, he planted a trial plot this year testing out a dozen green manures to see what does best in his climate: Forage peas, Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, chickling vetch, sorghum Sudan grass (Sudex), barley, chickpeas, and lentils. All this to learn which green manures fit best in his system and which might be added to his current standard green manure mix of fava bean, oats, phasilis, and clover.

I love the use of phasilis in the green manure / cover crop mix with fava beans (aka bell beans), oats, and crimson clover.

We went out and dug some soil profiles in the green manure test plots to take a look at the root development… and wow! The chickling vetch really stood out in terms of amount of active Rhizobium nodules and root mass. I was particularly interested to note that it seems to have both a sturdy tap root AND a good amount of fibrous roots as well… Tap root to penetrate the soil, fibrous roots to stabilise the soil structure and feed the soil microorganisms with plenty of root exudates.

OMFG! Look at these nodules on the copious root system of the chickling vetch green manure crop!!
Chickling vetch green manure (approximately 2 months after seeding)
For comparison’s sake, here is the rooting system of the fava bean green manure seeded at the same date.

 

How are you using green manures on your farm? Have you seeded your fall green manures yet? What are the best systems you have found integrate the use of green manures systematically in your vegetable crop rotation?

Live long and prosper!   ?

3 tips for cultivating happy (and productive) farm employees

The capacity to recruit and lead teams of happy fulfilled employees is key to the functioning of farms, especially in the process of scaling up production and/or freeing up some of your time for your other interests.

The key is that happy employees are productive employees. Even more importantly than productivity is the farm atmosphere…. what kind of work environment would you love to be in every day?

Here are 3 tips for building a farm that nurtures and empowers the people working there:

  1. Acknowledgement and Appreciation: It doesn’t take much to simply recognize someone’s contribution and express gratitude. This requires slowing down a little bit since the tendency is to rapidly shift from one task to the next. It’s amazing how impactful a couple kinds words can be! (and an occasional case of beer or popsicles at the end of a hot day of work)
  2. Cultivating a sense of ownership and meaning: For most farm employees, farming is not just a job… it’s a calling. One of the greatest things you can do to nurture this, is to be very clear about your farm’s mission and communicate it regularly with your team. Welcome their input and incorporate elements that they suggest when appropriate. Also, a great way to nurture a sense of meaning is to create opportunities for employees to interact with the farm’s clients who actually eat the food you grow.
  3. Clearly communicate expectations, roles, and responsibilities: Our role as farm owner is to see the full potential in each employee and put them in a role where that full potential can be realised….. and then trust in that person’s capacity and in the rigorousness of the farm systems that we have put in place. In order to do this skillfully, it is important to build in dedicated times into the schedule for communication. A morning meeting at the start of each day is a great place to clearly communicate the goals and task for the day. In addition, it is important to make room for one on one discussion. Sit down at least once during the season for a conversation with each employee, one on one. This is important so as to give the opportunity to the more introverted employees to let you know if anything is up.

As the captain of your farm, you play the leadership role. Even if you are feeling overwhelmed… the staff needs to know that you are a calm and confident leader. We all need to know that the ship is in good hands!

Now the ball’s in your court!

How can you show your crew how much you appreciate their hard work this week?

What action could you take that clearly demonstrates the farm’s purpose and how it fits into the big picture?

How can you create a 20 minute opportunity to sit down and talk with your key employees?

Go make a ruckus!