My interview on the Thriving Farmer Podcast

I’m thrilled to share my very first podcast appearance with you! I first met Michael Killpatrick a number of years ago at a mutual acquaintance’s farm, and since then have always been impressed by the consistency, professionalism, and quality of his projects. Which is why I was honored when he asked me to join him on his podcast!

Check out my wide-ranging conversation with Michael Killpatick on the “Thriving Farmer Podcast”. Here’s the link. 

Your turn:

What are you getting out of this podcast so far? What do you see in this for yourself?

What is a small sweet step that would create the space to see your farm and life from a different perspective?

Enjoy!

Rest, recharge, and finish the growing season with clarity, focus, ease, and grace!

Alright, folks… it’s the final stretch.

By now, most of your expenses are behind you, which means that whatever sales you make here on out are pretty much gravy! The coming weeks are critical in terms of reaching your financial goals, leave a great impression for your clients to boost client retention next year, and prep the fields for next year.

And yet… 

And yet it’s been a busy summer! I know, you may be getting tired, that you may feel like you’re hitting a wall. It’s normal. In the last 2 weeks, 70% of my clients are hitting ‘burnout level 1’ (as one of them put it). 

What would it take to leave the farm for a 2 or 3-day vacation? 

What would it take to refresh, recharge, and come back with renewed energy and vigor for the fall?

What are 2 actions you are willing to take this week to create the time and space for some rest and recharge?

Summer is almost over, the seasons are shifting, and it is so important to take the steps necessary to be fully present and engaged at this time of year. 

Your mind is the most valuable asset of the farm, it’s time to recharge! 

PS: Do these types of questions interest you? Are you ready to take your personal and business skills up a notch? I’ve got just the thing for you! Join me and 5 other dynamic experienced farmers this winter to work together towards your goals. Here are all the details for the 2020 farmer-to-farmer coaching group

Getting to the root of the problem: Digging soil profiles to better grow healthy organic vegetable crops.

One of my favorite activities when visiting farms is to dig a soil profile (and I’ve had the pleasure of digging profiles all over North America over the past 3 years of #van life. It’s wild how infrequently I did this on my own farm, and how few farmers dig soil profiles to check out their crop’s roots. 

Our first reflex when observing a less than optimal crop is to look at surface level stuff: insects, diseases, fertilization, irrigation. While all these are important things to consider, soil and root health are often overlooked and can often be the root cause of the problem  (pun intended). 

No wonder these cauliflowers we half their normal size, there’s no root development below 4 inches due to soil compaction!

The idea is to dig a 12-16 inch deep cross-section trench the width of a bed, ideally in a standing crop or green manure. Once you have dug the hole, use a pocket knife to ‘refresh’ the edge by picking at it with the blade so as to see the actual soil condition and not only the smeared edge created by the shovel.

  • Start by poking the soil with your knife, starting at the surface and working your way down. How hard is the soil? Do you notice any change in hardness? Can you identify the different tillage depths based on how hard the soil is?
  • Pay attention to the roots. How deep do they go? Do you notice any roots that turn at a right angle and grow horizontally (an indication of compaction)? What color are the roots; white and healthy, or brown and necrosed? Is there any funkiness going on (such as nematode damage)? Is there a strong, identifiable taproot for crops where this would be expected? 
  • What evidence of biological activity do you see? How many earthworms and worm galleys are there? Is there undecomposed organic matter indicating anaerobic conditions and low biological activity? What does it smell like: sweet and earthy, or funky and anaerobic?
  • At what depth is the water table? (Ideally, you won’t find the water table at 12-16 inches… but I’ve been surprised before!)
  • We often assume our tillage operations are doing a good job, but it is so important to check it out for real. Dig a profile to check that your chisel, ripper, or subsoiler is actually doing what you think it is. 
Effect of compaction of organic vegetable roots (cauliflower). Notice the lack of roots below 4 inches and the roots that are growing horizontally.

By getting to the root of the problem, we can make sure to take actions that actually have the greatest impact possible… there’s no point spending time and energy on (insert input name __________) if you’ve only got roots 3 or 4 inches deep!!

Now that you’ve ascertained that there’s a compaction issue, it’s time to do something about it! This means using some type of tillage equipment to do some deep tillage. Usually, this means working the soil 8 inches deep using a chisel plow or broadfork. If you have serious compaction or ‘plow pan’ issues, you may need to chisel deeper or use a subsoiler. The general idea is to work at a depth that is 1 inch deeper than the compacted zone. The rule of thumb for deciding on the spacing between chisel or subsoiler shanks is to have 1.5 to 2 times the tillage depth (if working 8 inches deep, shanks could be 12-16 inches apart).

Here’s a great document on the subject of subsoiling.

Above all… dig a soil profile to verify that your tillage is actually having the desired outcome!!  

Similarly, it is so important to get to the root cause of any issue in our life. 

The problem is rarely the problem. Be curious about what is really going on!

  • The 5 ‘whys’: Asking and answering the question ‘why’ 5 times to get to the root cause of the problem (My profits are lower than anticipated, Why, Because market sales are 30% lower, Why, etc… 5 times);
  • Listen for the emotional needs behind what people are saying… not just to the issue they are seemingly bringing to you;
  • Be committed to reality. Are you more interested in your thoughts, beliefs, and opinions or are you more interested in seeing clearly what is present in this moment? 

Go make a ruckus!

Mid-Summer’s Financial Reality Check

I get it!! Summer is in full swing and you’re probably plenty busy surfing the wave of the growing season. Personally, this is a time of year I always loved on the farm– when I could be fully immersed in the richness of growing and harvesting the abundance that a well planned and well executed market farm can produce.

For many years, the last thing on my mind at this time of year was budgeting. I mean, budgeting is something you do in winter right …? Wrong!! On my farm, dialing in the mid season budget management was instrumental in allowing me to take my net income from 30k$ per year to 50k$ (and that, the year after my son was born, and my first year managing my farm without my wife.)

The fact of the matter is that this is a crucial time in terms of scoring our financial goals. The game is by all means not won, nor lost, at this point… Depending on your situation, it can go both ways. Arguably the biggest sales months are still ahead!

Thus the importance of bringing more focused attention to our finances this week.

  1. Where are your sales at? What % of your total sales target have you reached so far? Are you ahead or behind of last year’s % sales at the same date?
  2. What weekly sales targets will allow you to reach your goal? Don’t be fooled by a simple average. Weekly sales targets in August will obviously need to be higher than in June or October. Break it down by sales outlets so you can see which are ahead and which are behind. Communicate these targets to your market vendors… celebrate victories, brainstorm creative ways your staff can take an active role in scoring these goals.
  3. How are your expenses doing? What expense categories have you maxed out; which still have some budget available? What expenses can you minimize or delay till next year? It can be tempting to buy the largest format of supplies to ‘get a lower price per unit’, but please take into consideration your annual budget when making such decisions. The lower unit price of a box of 5000 screws when all you needed was 500 is not always worth busting your budget for.

By all means… don’t freak out if you don’t have the record keeping systems in place to allow you answer all these questions.

Progress… not perfection! We’ll work on those systems next winter together. 😉

Oh … and don’t forget to enjoy the ride! What would be a small sweet action that would be a demonstration of enjoying the small things in life and savouring the summer?

Achieving equity growth on your farmer mind/body balance sheet (aka self-care for farmers)

Ahhh, the balance sheet– everyone’s favourite topic and the sexyest of farm financial statements 😉

Equity=Assets-Obligations… remember?

As a farmer, your biggest asset is yourself.

Your mind, your spirit, your body. (Hereby referred to as your mind/body; alluding to the fact that separation of mind, body, and spirit (the holy trinity?) is an illusion)

And yet…

And yet it’s the farm asset that we most often neglect and fail to maintain and care for.

We do oil changes on the tractor, we repaint our houses, we fix leaks in the roof of our buildings, we grease the zerks on our machinery, we install drainage and level our fields…

Similarly there are simple actions we can take to care for our mind/body. It doesn’t have to take much time! Just 10 minutes per day makes an enormous difference!

Stretching, a quiet walk, listening to the birdsongs with a nice hot beverage, yoga, a quick swim in the pond, meditation, dancing in your pyjamas, prayer, reading a couple pages from an inspiring text, massage (self massage or with a partner), the list is endless.

The point is that this is such a personal topic– I can’t tell you what you need, but your mind/body knows! Create a 10 minute break in your day to look within and see what would just feel great to you.

What are you doing to maintain and nurture your mind/body?

How’s your mind/body balance sheet doing?

What are the major ‘obligations’ (debts) that are putting a strain on your mind/body?

What would it be like to set aside 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening for self-care?

Look within… what would just feel great to you?

Firing farm employees with clarity, focus, ease, and grace.

Firing an employee is one of the hardest things about being a business owner.

No one likes doing so. As if it were somehow bad or insulting or hurtful.

The truth of the matter is that it’s perfectly normal. It’s a normal part of being in business, and it’s normal to feel these emotions.

But what if there were a different way of seeing it?

What if it wasn’t about ‘firing’ anyone?

What if it were about being intentional about the relationships we choose to cultivate and maintain around us?

The fact of the matter is that our employees are the people we spend the most time with in our life.

When I look at it from the perspective of cultivating a relationship, I see how important communication is. Way before even getting to the point of ‘firing’ someone, it is so important to clearly communicate expectations and to create the space to regularly check in. If you see there is something that is not working, you need to let them know ASAP! People fundamentally want to succeed. Take the time to sit down and clearly communicate what is and isn’t working for you and what needs to change to correct the situation. Be clear on the time frame… 1 week, 2 weeks?

Oh… and by the way, you aren’t fooling anybody by not talking about it! Body language and attitude are so obvious and we humans are hard-wired as social animals to pick up on these subtle forms of communication. If there is something that is bothering you, you can be pretty damn sure your employee either already knows about it, or at least has a sense that something ain’t quite right.

I know it can seem like you don’t have the time for communication. I’ve been there. I know how there is always something more urgent to do than take 15 minutes for an employee check in– but it is soooo important. You don’t have the time NOT to do it!!

And be truthful– truthful with yourself and truthful with your employee. Embrace the truth of the matter. This can be challenging given the tendency of the mind to obsess on either guilt, judgement, or condemnation (thoughts like either ‘geez why am I thinking this, it isn’t that bad.’ -OR- ‘that person is such a ……’ -OR-   ‘I’m such a ….’)

What is more interesting to you, these ‘monkey mind’ thoughts, or squarely looking at whether or not this person and your business are a fit?

If it becomes clear that someone is in fact not a good fit for your business, let them know as soon as possible in a respectful, clear, and compassionate manner. As Chris Blanchard used to say ‘Hire slow, Fire fast’. It’s better to be short staffed than to have someone on board that’s not a fit for your team. I know it can be scary, but in my experience that person is probably slowing down the entire team and contributing to a tense and unenjoyable work atmosphere–and it’s amazing how often the right person appears once you create the space for it.

The key question is always: Am you more interested in what is missing, or in what is seeking to emerge in this situation?  

Weeding your 2020 and 2021 vegetable fields NOW!


When’s the best time to weed your crops? 2-3 years ago!! (Yes, I know, the real answer is when the weeds are at the white thread and cotyledon stage….)

This is the kind of Important yet Non-Urgent action that easily slips to the wayside when things get busy… especially while playing catch-up after such a wet, late spring as we’re currently experiencing.

I would like to offer a couple of simple questions for your reflection that can lead to some high impact, high leverage actions.

Where specifically on your farm are next year’s weed sensitive crops going?

The act of defining where your most weed-sensitive crops will be planted next year is surprisingly powerful. It is important that once you answer these questions for yourself, that you also communicate it to your farming partners and crew.

  • What crops are the most susceptible to weeds? (Ex: Carrots, Salad mix, onions, Insert your personal answers here)
  • What area of weed sensitive crops do you anticipate growing next year (approximately)?
  • Where specifically will those crops go?

What’s your plan to reduce the weed pressure in those areas?

Once again it doesn’t have to be complicated but as I learned as a Boy Scout when I was a kid: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’

  • What are your most troublesome weeds? What is their lifecycle?
  • Can you set aside some land for the whole season to focus on reducing the weed seed bank?
  • If not, what actions will you take to ensure 100% no weeds going to seed in this year’s crop on that plot? What actions will you take to optimise post-harvest tillage to set the stage for the weed-sensitive crops next year?
  • What methods and technologies are most appropriate to your scale? Silage tarps (occultation), bare fallow, mechanical cultivation, fast growing green manures, etc)
  • What are the key dates that you will need to hit?

What systems or tools would best support you to actually implement your plan this summer?

This is all well and good…. but it ain’t worth a rat’s ass if it’s not implemented.

  • What systems would support you to carry out your plan?
    • Scheduled in your calendar ?
    • Automatic email reminders and alarms? (Using the nw what nw ? do you mean no ? snooze function in gmail)
    • Delegating the plan to a crew member?
  • What tools and materials are necessary?
    • Do you have the cover crop seed on hand?
    • Is the necessary information clearly available to crew members in the form of reference charts etc?
    • Is your tillage equipment capable of tilling just 1 or 2 inches deep for stale seed-bedding?

For more on weed control, check out this blog post from last year on the subject.

Have fun!!

Let me know what you see in this for yourself in the comments section below or by email!

If you enjoy this content, please share my blog in your networks and on social media. Thanks!

Farm paradigm shift: From Management to Leadership

Hi Folks!! I’m gonna keep it short and sweet this week.

First off, I just wanna acknowledge the heck out of you for taking the time to read this blog. I know how busy you are so I appreciate your readership. It’s what makes this work worth it for me… Thanks for being here!

I wanted to offer a couple of follow up thoughts on last week’s blog topic: The paradigm shift from efficiency to effectiveness.

Last week’s blog was very much focused on effectiveness from a management perspective.

Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things’

Both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis

From a leadership perspective, effectiveness implies that your actions and goals are coherent with your vision for what is most important and meaningful to you. How heartbreaking it is to successfully reach your goal, only to realise that you sacrificed that which was most important to you along the way.

Your turn

What are those things that are most meaningful and important to you?

What are your core values?

Do your current goals and actions include and cultivate these elements in your life?

May the force be with you!

Effectiveness: A new paradigm to farm efficiency.

These days there seems to be nothing sexier in the local farm movement than efficiency (except maybe JM Fortier… he’s pretty dreamy) 😋

No, but seriously, efficiency is definitely a hot buzz word in the small farming community these days; with good reason too. Given the abundance of work to be done on a small scale organic farm it is obviously important to bring our attention to the best way of going about getting everything done in a timely manner. On top of this, labor is the greatest production cost in organic vegetable farming, accounting for anywhere from 25 to 40% of gross income (whether this is hired farm labor, or whether you are acting as your own source of labor, it’s still important to account for the work that goes into growing these delicious veggies!). Which means that producing more vegetables with the same or less labor is a great way to increase your profit margins and while money isn’t everything, it sure is a useful tool to use in accomplishing our goals and making a contribution in this world of ours!

What I want to bring to the conversation is that while efficiency is without a doubt important, what we’re really after is effectiveness. It’s important to understand this nuance.

Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything.

Just because you’re moving fast doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere meaningful.

Effectiveness: Moving beyond the paradigm of farm efficiency

To effectively explain this nuance, I would like to draw on the teachings of the late Stephen Covey, one of the greatest thought leaders of our times in this matter (check out his book; 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

Covey teaches that in order to be effective, we have to act in a manner that nurtures both production (P) and production capacity (PC). To illustrate this idea, Covey evokes the story of the golden goose.

A farmer wakes up one morning to find that their goose has laid a golden egg. Elated, they rush off to sell the egg. The next morning, and every morning thereafter, another golden egg is laid. The farmer is rich beyond their wildest dreams! One day, the farmer gets greedy and decides to slaughter the goose and get all the golden eggs at once rather than wait. The their dismay, there are no golden eggs within and all they have done is destroy the source of their abundance.

The golden eggs represent production. The goose represents production capacity. Focus too much on production and the capacity to produce will decrease. Focus too much on nurturing production capacity and nothing gets done. It’s like using a tractor to prep your fields but never doing maintenance. Soon enough the tractor will be scrap. Conversely, if you spend all your time maintaining the tractor, nothing is ever going to get planted.

The key to effectiveness is to think in terms of P/PC balance. The most efficient method (the quickest) isn’t always the most effective. What we really want is to be effective as we move towards our goals one step at a time.

5 Principles of Farm Effectiveness

Alright folks… I’m not here to tell you what to do. Anyways, each farm and each farmer is so unique that it would be futile to try and do so!

Instead, I want to plant some seeds for thought. Let these ideas sprout and grow! I look forward to seeing how you implement this on your farm! Here are 5 principles of farm effectiveness that a client and I distilled during one of our coaching sessions.

Beautiful, Tidy, and Organized

This is the principle of total completion. A task isn’t done till everything is put away, cleaned up, the row cover is on and the irrigation is ready to go. The day’s not over till all the doors are shut, everything is back in it’s spot, the records are filled in, and the next day is planned. This applies equally to the end of the day as it does to lunch time. It’s not lunch time until the tools are back in their spot.. even if we think we’ll be using them again this afternoon.

What would it be like to start each day and each task with a clean slate?

Enjoyment, Joy, Comfort, and Play

This is the principle of ‘girls just wanna have fun!’ Just kidding… sort of. What’s the point of all this if we aren’t enjoying it? Beyond that, being happy, engaged, and joyous unleashes the full power of human creativity and motivation in both ourselves and our staff. It is critical to build in time for rest and relaxation into the work day… otherwise we (and our staff) just find ways of resting anyways (think mind-numbing Facebook binge, basically unnecessary back and forth to the patchshed in the pick-up truck to ‘get something’). Also important to consider here is the importance of working in an ergonomic manner.

What would it be like to unleash the energy of enjoyment on your farm?

Optimized travel

This is the principle of ‘never go anywhere with your hands empty’. Every trip on the farm should be done with the smallest (most appropriate) sized vehicle filled to capacity and preceded by foresightfull thought (where am I going, what tools, materials, and information do I need to bring with me). This applies to manual movements too. When harvesting beans, my hands never move to the bucket unless they are 100% full, when harvesting tomatoes my hands never move to the crate with less than 2-3 tomatoes. Don’t be fooled by short distances (for all you bio-intensive market gardeners) and motorized travel (for all you pick-up truck and gator junkies)…. idle travel is waste no matter what way you cut it!

What would it be like for each movement to be fully optimized?

Speed/Efficiency (Rapid Action/movement)

This is the principle of ‘it’s time to boogie!’ Faster movements = get there sooner. This applies to everything from the speed of hands during harvest to how we walk… and everything in between. How long is this task taking? How many kg per hour am I currently harvesting? How many $ per hour am I currently harvesting? How many beds per hour am I weeding? On my farm, everyone wears a wrist watch. Not a cellphone in the bottom of the pocket…. a really honest to goodness wrist-watch! Time awareness is a skill to be cultivated.

What would it be like to work with full mindfulness of your speed?

Clear and fluid information

This is the principle of having the right information at the right time. This also means that the information is not just in your brain and that your employees have all the necessary information available for them to do a great job! This means production plans, seeding schedules, field maps, harvest sheet… but also Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and checklists! This information needs to be readily available…not somewhere in a dusty binder. Do you and your staff know what the top priorities for the day are and that employees know what jobs they’ll be working on and in what order?  BEWARE of walkie-talkies. While the are soooo useful, they can lead to complacency in terms of both communicating all the important info and in terms of thinking of all the necessary tools and material before going somewhere (oh… I’ll just call on the walkie talkie if I need something). Check out this other blog post of mine for more discussion of information flow. Also, taking the time to slow down and fully plan and communicate may seem like less efficient, but these simple actions pay tremendous dividends in terms of working effectively as a team and having fun doing so!

What would it be like to create a little certainty on your farm?

Implementation

What’s next? What do you see in this for yourself?

One thing that has been useful to some of the farmers I coach, is to print out these principles and post them at key locations around the farm (wash station, seedling greenhouse, next to the planning whiteboard).

I’ve prepared some bonus material for this blog post. Here’s a link to join the inner circle and get access to a printable ‘Effectiveness Cheatsheet’ I put together for you as well as a chart of typical harvest speeds that I thought might interest you.

Thanks for being here!

If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it with your friends and colleagues via email and social media.

Go forth and kick some ass!!

Cultivating a healthy relationship while farming with your spouse.

Farming with your partner or spouse can be such a rich and meaningfully experience. But it certainly comes with it’s a load of challenges as anyone who farms with their spouse knows.

Here are a couple of principles and tricks that I have observed to be useful both in my personal experience and from what I observe with my clients.

Have clearly delineated domains of responsibility

When I look at successful older farm couples, this is one thing that is pretty universal. Having clearly defined responsibilities means that each person has one area of the farm where they are the ‘boss’. This doesn’t mean that our partner doesn’t consult us when making major decisions, but it does mean that in daily operations we agree to let go and let them have their way in this area of the farm.

In fact, clearly delineated responsibilities is a good practice on any farm regardless of if we’re farming with our spouse. Let’s face it, there are simply too many elements for one person to juggle all by themselves effectively. Having clear areas of responsibility ensures that things don’t fall between the cracks.

When deciding on the distinct areas of responsibility, it is important to distribute the  different types of tasks intentionally between the partners to ensure that each person can have their share of fulfilling and interesting activity. In this way both the ‘fun’ and ‘tedious’ tasks are shared between partners. I encourage you to have an open and frank discussion about each of your interests, strengths, and learning edges rather than simply taking on traditional gender roles (that can be very detrimental to the long-term development and well-being of the partner who takes on the often more isolating, sometimes menial and difficult “family” or ‘office’ tasks.) A well-balanced partnership on the farm is a strength, so be open to creating the space for each partner to take on responsibilities that nourish and fulfill them, even if this means thinking outside the box or needing to learn a new skill set.

Structured times to discuss the farm business

It’s amazing how simple yet powerful weekly big-picture meetings and daily check in’s can be. This creates clear and specific times to discuss the business and opens up the possibility of having times that are not business related (ie. avoiding the classic ‘talking about the farm in bed as we fall asleep’).

While on the topic of communication, I want to highlight the importance of cultivating discernment regarding ‘Is this actually a business conversation or an emotional request or need?’

There are certain topics which at first glance may appear to be about the farm, when in fact they are are a request for some emotional need.

Take for example one of my clients. Her farm has been experiencing some rapid and highly successful growth over the last 2-3 years. Every now and then her husband will say ‘Geez, I wish it was just the two of us and that we didn’t have these damn employees to manage!’

Up until now she has been getting very annoyed with these comments because she was seeing them as a business conversation and going straight to solution finding mode and feeling resentful because they had worked so hard to build a viable business model and anyways, farming ‘just the 2 of them’ is not and never was a sustainable model. The breakthrough occurred when she shifted from seeing them as a business conversation and started seeing these comments and an expression of an emotional need. Her husband was not saying ‘I want to talk about downsizing our business’. Rather, he was expressing nostalgia and a need for connection and quality time together. When she was able to discern this, she was able to shift and engage in the conversation rather than just shutting him down for even bringing up such a topic of conversation (again).

The point is, don’t take things at face value. Make it a habit to ask yourself ‘Is this truly a business conversation, or is there an emotional need seeking to be expressed?’

Take time to nurture the relationship!

This is true of any relationship but is extra critical for people farming with their husband, wife, or partner. This includes regular time off to do an activity other than farming… and it doesn’t matter if this just means an hour walking in the woods or half an hour to go get ice cream. The important part is to demonstrate to ourselves and our partner that our relationship is important to us and that we are willing to dedicate some time just to nurture it. And don’t forget to have fun!!! Both while working and on your dates!

Your turn!!

  • What do you appreciate most about your spouse? What’s their superpower?
  • What time of the week would be best for your weekly business meeting? Post a paper in a visible location where discussion topics can be gathered during the week. Check out this post for more on effective meetings.
  • What are you willing to do this week to nurture your relationship?

PS: If any of you are hurting out there right now… I feel your pain. I know how hard it can be when there is strife in a farming relationship. You’re not alone! There is help out there. I strongly encourage you to reach out and get the support you need to take your relationship to the next level!! Send me an email and it would be my pleasure to support you to see what kind of support would be useful for you. (Most likely not coaching, probably something more like couples therapy.) There are many helpful resources and methods out there that I may be able to guide you towards.