I’m as likely as anyone to complain about the long dark Winter, but I also appreciate how this season lends itself to introspection. The long nights give us time to reflect on what’s going well and what needs to change. For me this is a dangerous time, when my passion overtakes reason as I lay out plans for the following season. When the challenges of Summer are a distant memory, and I’ve attended inspiring workshops at the plethora of Winter farming conferences, everything seems possible! Luckily I have Craig, one of whose superpowers is gently tempering my excessive enthusiasm.
Each year I begin Winter with some light reading. In December I picked up “The Farmer’s Office,” by Julia Shanks, to help refine my use of QuickBooks and improve my ability to analyze what’s happening financially on the farm. I have also been working through “The Lean Farm,” by Ben Hartman. This is a fascinating look at lean principles, which originated in Japan and helped turn Toyota into the largest and most profitable car manufacturer in the world. I would never have thought about how these same principles could apply on a farm until Ben Hartman illustrated how they helped him and his wife reduce their farmed acreage and their work hours, while increasing their profits. Sign me up! Finally, I’m improving my grazing chops with Sarah Flack’s new book, the “Art and Science of Grazing.” She is helping us build our knowledge of the species composition of our pastures and the finer details of how grazing and trampling affect each species differently. These books are the beginning of getting energized for the next growing season, filled up with ideas of how we could do everything better.
Next Craig and I sit down to discuss the weak links in our farm. Farmers are in the unique position of turning sunlight into money via a chain of production that involves plants photosynthesizing that sunlightàfarmers harvesting the fruits of the plantsàpackaging them for saleàcustomers paying money for the farmer’s products (there can also be livestock involved in this chain of production). At all times, and in every enterprise, there is a weak link in this chain. Maybe it’s poor soil that limits plant growth, or maybe you produce a lot of beautiful products but don’t have enough customers interested to buy them. Investing in that weak link is a wise use of resources. Seems like common sense, but isn’t necessarily common practice.
Armed with a long list of things we could improve on the farm, we consider our biggest limiting factors: time and money. What can we realistically get done? What follows is a lot of time spent analyzing finances, researching products and ideas, and creating plans. And this is where I struggle: when laid out on paper, it’s easy to make something look reasonable…or even easy. I lay out month-by-month plans for each enterprise, for cash flow, and for grazing, and I give them to Craig to review. “See honey? It’s all do-able.” He brings me back to earth. “Uh, so we have 100 ducks arriving, lambing season starting, ginger seed needing to be cut and sprouted, and transplants needing to be potted up all in a 2-week period? All during your busy time at the office? And we’re hosting your college roommate then?” Right. I didn’t mesh the farm calendar with our social and work calendars. Hmm. Back to the drawing board.
Going back and forth in this way carries us through the rest of Winter, until eventually we arrive at a plan for the season that we both feel is totally reasonable. Quite suddenly Spring arrives and we jump into gear. As the growing season roars along, it becomes clear that even our scaled-back plans are insane. Of course! Because even with all the thought we put into them, we didn’t plan on the sprayer not working despite having 3 people try to fix it, and we didn’t count on getting the flu right as warm weather arrived, and we didn’t count on no rainfall for 2 months.
But that’s farming. More broadly, that’s life. Things may not go according to plan; in fact they rarely do. But that time spent planning was still invaluable. Reflecting on how our year went helped us have important conversations and think strategically about our business in a way that we can’t during the crush of the growing season. It also enabled us to start the growing season feeling grounded, like we were actually on top of things. That feeling may have been short-lived, but it was really great while it lasted.