Contingent Crop Planning

Contingent Crop Planning

Goals in Planning

Time management is my major reason for doing extensive crop planning. The more I can organize during the winter, the smoother things go during the season. Another important piece is good data collection. We all want to continually improve our production. But if we don’t know what we did last year, it is hard to access what worked and what did not work. Of course there are plenty of farmers who are able to hold the important information in their heads. But when you are getting started it is often helpful to have a few things to go by namely: the seed order, bed preparation schedule, greenhouse seeding sheet, direct seeding and transplanting schedules, a harvest record sheet and a detailed map.

Why Spreadsheets

“I want to be a farmer because I don’t like to sit in front of a computer,” you say. Well, everything we are going to talk about today can be done with a piece (or 10) of graph paper and a calculator. John Jeavons book “How to Grow More Vegetables,” [1] does a nice job of putting a lot of relevant information on a few pieces of paper in graph form. This is a handy reference. But what it does not do is allow you to reformat the information according to what data you really want to see, or easily update it year to year. Josh Volk frequent contributor to “Growing for Market” says if you were going to do something similar on paper you would put each row of the spreadsheet on an index card. There would be an index card with each planting on it and all the corresponding yield, planting, seeding and ordering information. You could then arrange the index cards by planting date, by crop, by variety or by seed company order form. But it would take some time considering that you would have hundreds of index cards [2]. With the computer you can just sort the rows depending on what you are interested in looking at.

The Process

The process outlined here is adapted from a process shared by Josh Volk from Slow Hand Farm, frequent contributor to Growing for Market. When one of the farmers I work with asked what he does differently than they do, Josh responded, “Probably not much.” This outline just gives those of us not familiar with forming spreadsheets and crop plans some handy steps and formats to use. The key here is we will form something Josh calls a “crop master” or master spreadsheet with all the information about our crops. From there we can create the seeding, transplanting and greenhouse charts and easily update them when we get new information.

Step 1 – Collecting the Data

What data is available and where to find it will of course depend a little bit on where you are and what sort of operation you have. But there are a few likely places to look. The Extension offices have a lot of information about growing crops in their production guides, but to get more specific information one of the best places to look is often the seed catalogs. They usually put very specific information about everything from the number of seeds per ounce to plant spacing. Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers [3] is a good all around source for vegetable information such as germination temperatures, plant spacing, scheduling successive plantings and more. I like John Jeavons’ book as well, though his plant spacing are designed for intensive raised bed systems that don’t work in my field. Everyone’s brain works differently which makes it hard for us to use each other’s spreadsheets. I have included a sample here and there is another nice example available online from Roxbury Farm. For me it makes the most sense to gather all the data in the first part of my spreadsheet. Then I can work to process it into the other information I need. I love sitting down with my seed catalogs and thumbing through them to decide what I want to grow this year. The first 21 columns in my spreadsheet are all the data I think I might want about each crop. Everything from crop and variety names to plant spacing, seeds per ounce, and ordering information. This may seem a little overwhelming at first. But the nice thing is you won’t ever have to do as much work again. You will probably grow many of the same crops and varieties next year and you will have all the data right there.

Step 2 – Calculating Yield Needed

Whether you plan to grow for a market or for a CSA it is important to try to grow an appropriate amount for that market outlet. In the case of a CSA this can be more than a little nerve wracking because you have pretty well guaranteed a certain number of people produce every week and they are hoping they don’t just get swiss chard every week. Yield calculations are never going to be perfect. But every year you will be able to get closer if you have a starting point. There are a few ways to do this but this is a feasible option.

For a CSA the data you will need is the # of CSA shares, the quantity you will give each shareholder in a given week, the unit, the number of weeks you expect a specific crop succession to produce, the # of varieties if you plan to plant more than one thing and give people a mix of say tomatoes, and whether the crop received multiple harvests or not.

Crop yield per planting you need = (# CSA shares) x (quantity/ share) x number of weeks

Step 3 – Bed/Row Feet per Planting

Next we want to know how much to grow to get that yield. I calculate this in bed feet. But if you are not in a bed system it works the same to calculate in row feet. Row feet per planting = target crop yield ÷ crop yield per 100 ft row ÷ 100 ft Bed feet per planting = row feet/planting ÷ # rows/bed

Step 4 & 5 – Timing Direct Seeding & Transplanting

To figure out when to plant each of these crops I work backwards from the target date I want to harvest. It may make more sense to you to work forward from the target seeding/transplanting dates to find the harvest date. If you work back from the target harvest date you will probably have to adjust for what is reasonable in your area in terms of frost free dates etc.

Seeding date = target harvest date – days to Maturity Transplant date = seeding date + days to transplant

Step 6 – Harvest Dates

You will need columns for seeding/transplanting date, days to maturity, weeks to maturity, and weeks of production.

Estimated 1st harvest date = seeding/transplanting date + days to maturity Estimated last harvest date = 1st harvest date + weeks of production x 7

Step 7 – Additional Transplanting Information

It is nice to gather here the information you will need when you are in the greenhouse – ie how many plants, the tray size and number of plants.

Step 8 – Seed Ordering Information

For this section you will probably want to make columns for the company, the number of seeds, the oz you need, seeds/ oz, minimum germination, cost and unit code.

Step 9 – Field Prep/ Cultivation

Field prep timing always depends on the weather, but it is nice to have target dates set for when you will want to do your field work. This is especially important when you have a cover crop to work in. Based on your experience of how long it takes for that cover crop to break down after you plow it in and if you plan to make beds you may want to have columns for 1st tillage, 2nd tillage, bed preparation, 1st cultivation and 2nd cultivation. I find it really important to have those 1st and 2nd cultivation dates on my calendar. With a hundred plantings to manage it is easy for me to forget to do that first cultivation when the weeds are tiny and then they get out of control.

Creating To Do Lists from the Plans

Now comes the fun part. It almost feels like magic. Once you have the data together you can easily pull from that data onto other spreadsheets to make to do lists. It is good to also add extra blank columns next to the tasks to record when things were actually done. It is good to make sure the sheet can be printed out on a single sheet of letter sized paper. That way you can keep a copy of everything handy in the greenhouse where it is easy to reach and volunteers or employees know where to find it. For example when a planting crew goes to the field they will have a clipboard that has the crop, variety, how many trays, the spacing and any other notes. These sheets can be sorted by date and field so all the plantings for that week are grouped together and all the plantings for a field are next to each other. That saves a lot of running back and forth to the greenhouse. The blank spaces make it easy for a crew to keep records and you to be able to understand them later

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