by Chris Blanchard, Purple Pitchfork
We all have systems for getting things done – even the lack of a system is a system of sorts. Taking a critical look at how you do things with the intention of creating a replicable process that you can run without investing excess time and energy can provide a an opportunity to increase the reliability of your systems.
Good systems are a valuable asset on your farm, and worth investing in just as you would a piece of machinery or a new greenhouse. And even better: they don’t require a cash outlay to improve your bottom line and your quality of life as you create results with less effort.
Usually, we don’t develop systems to do things that we haven’t done before. Instead, we’re refining tasks that we – or our crew – already perform. But I like to go back to the beginning and ask, what outcomes do I want to create with this system? I find that sometimes I haven’t really taken the time to assess this carefully, which can result in leaving something out. If I was designing a system to seed carrots, for example, the outcomes I want to create might include:
- 3 rows of carrots spaced 18 inches apart;
- 18 carrot sprouts per foot of row;
- All seeds ¾-inch deep;
- Reduced weed pressure at germination (since carrots germinate slowly); and
- No weed seedlings in the row when the carrots germinate.
Any time I define outcomes, I want to take a moment to define the parameters of those outcomes: will my row spacing be acceptable if it comes out at 17 inches, or does it need to be 18 on the nose? Does 18 carrots sprouts per foot of row mean 0.75 inches between germinated carrot seedlings, or will anywhere between one half and one inch, with an average of 0.75, be okay? For that matter, do I need 18 sprouts per foot, or can I just get by with whatever my Earthway seeder and the germination rate on my seed combine to give me?
I’m always tempted to go for perfection, but precision always costs either money or additional effort. If I’m using a wheel hoe to cultivate one row of carrots at a time, a slight variation of row spacing probably won’t present a real problem; but if I’m closely cultivating three rows at a time with a tractor, a quarter of an inch variation can make a significant difference in the amount of follow-up hand weeding that will be required.
Likewise precision spacing of carrot seeds can make a big difference in some direct-to-retail markets, since grocers like to have uniform carrots in bags or to display in bulk; if the market is large enough, it may make sense to invest in a seeder than drops seeds precisely one at a time, and in pelleted carrot seeds that are more easily singulated. If I’m putting those carrots in CSA boxes, some variation in size probably doesn’t make much difference; and at farmers market, providing size variation could even be an asset, since some customers will be shopping for soup carrots, and others will enjoy picking out the smaller ones.
Next, I want to look at the factors that go into creating the results I listed on a consistent basis.
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About the author: Chris Blanchard assists farmers, food businesses, and non-profits in the improvement, creation, and implementation of systems to maximize profitability and quality of life.He has worked in farming for the past 25 years, managing farms and operations around the country. As the owner and operator of Rock Spring Farm from 1999 - 2013, Chris raised twenty acres of vegetables, herbs, and greenhouse crops, marketed through a 200-member year-round CSA, food stores, and farmers markets. His newsletter, The Flying Rutabaga, and his podcast, Farmer to Farmer, can be found at purplepitchfork.com.