Reviewed here: Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable GrowersBy Frédéric Thériault and Daniel Brisebois Published by Canadian Organic Growers Inc. 2010
The worth of a crop-planning book can't really be reckoned until said crops have been harvested. Still, having progressed through this book far enough to develop our crop plan for the year, I wanted to get some preliminary thoughts up for anyone considering a purchase. My partner Vanessa will do the honours for this segment. One of us will add to this post mid-way through the growing season, and then again at season's end. Vanessa, that's your cue to take over this post.
Some context: Jordan and I have just relocated to a lease arrangement on an established farm, and, in addition to supplying the owners with farm labour, will be starting a market garden business on about 1/3 acre of land. We had never used a formal crop-planning system so, wanting to start out on the right foot, we purchased this book, having heard great things about the authors and the farm they helped found--Ferme Coopérative Tourne-Sol.
Ok. So before I share a few thoughts, the table of contents:
1. Set your financial goals 2. Develop a Marketing Plan 3. Make Field Planting Schedules 4. Create Crop Maps 5. Choose Vegetable Varieties and Finalize Planting Schedule 6. Generate Greenhouse Schedules 7. Fill Out a Seed Order 8. Make a Field Operations Calendar 9. Carry Out the Crop Plan 10. Analyze Crop Profitability 11. Plan for Next Year
Prefatory Review: We really like the book.
Crop planning is an overwhelming endeavour, particularly for newer farmers like ourselves. So I was relieved to find that this book is a really comprehensive step-by-step guide that provides little to bedevil the reader. The guide holds your hand as you walk backwards from your farm's desired sales targets to your ultimate field operation calendar that outlines that week's requirements for planting, ground preparation, and fertility management. The authors use a fictional farming couple, Bruce and Hanna, and their farm's crop planning process to mirror the reader's own process, making the whole approach much less abstract. By the end of it all, you have in your possession charts that outline weekly projected harvest targets, field planting schedules listed by variety, crop rotation plans, greenhouse planting schedules, and seed worksheets that inform your final seed order. Basically, everything you need to go into your farming season with confidence.
I don't want to deceive you into thinking the whole process was painless. I had many hair-pulling moments where I found myself yelling at my computer. And the book. But I imagine that, until I've got more years of farming under my belt, crop planning is always going to be an exhausting job. So, the biggest lesson learned in our case was to give ourselves lots of time, i.e. avoid working under a seed order deadline. Whoops. Ok, now for my specific criticisms.
We were at first confused by the fact that fictional Bruce and Hanna were planning on grossing only 30% more than our own target, yet were farming on 5 times the land base. Are they poor farmers or are we wishful thinkers? The answer eventually revealed itself in the chapter on crop mapping when we learned that Bruce and Hanna were planning on leaving a section of their land fallow. So, my advice: write down questions and doubts as they come up; chances are the answers are just a page or two away. Also, read each chapter fully before actually starting to make your own charts. I found myself confused a few times when, again, the explanation was coming up. I just had to keep reading.
For the most part, I worked through each chapter, using the formulas and charts provided, without much trouble. But I did come across a few small things that irked me. For example, in the appendices, the authors provide reference charts with figures for dates-to-maturity, planting frequency, seeding rate, yield, etc., that are used to create all the final charts. Some of these figures are marked with an asterisk and/or a lower-case letter to denote a footnote stating planting specifications. I say and/or because I didn't find the use of them always consistent and was unsure once or twice of the correct figure to use. The only reason this matters is because the charts are all connected to the previous ones, so any figures that are entered incorrectly will affect each chart thereafter.
We also found that some of their figures seemed to conflict with our own (limited) experience; while their suggested planting frequency for cucumbers and summer squash is every 4 weeks, our experience has been that a single planting will produce sufficiently, even SUPER-ficiently, for the length of the season. But the reference charts are provided with the advisory that figures are recommendations only and are not meant to replace existing practices that function for your operation. Our advice: always keep your own growing conditions and practices in mind, making sure to use the planting figures that apply to your own set-up.
Lastly, since our own garden will be quite small this year, some of our weekly harvest targets are also small--according to our crop plan, this will translate to weeks where our charts tell us to plant 4 bed feet of lettuce or 5 bed feet of arugula. At first, this seemed quite silly, but what it told us was that we hadn't been planting at as high a frequency in our past experience, i.e. rather than planting 4 bed feet of lettuce each week, we were planting 20 bed ft in one go and harvest the bed for a longer period. So, this is our heads-up to other super-small-scale growers.
One of the most important aspects of this book is its ability to stimulate the reader to visualize next year's crop. For that fact alone, it's an invaluable guide for every new farmer. It also, however, provides great suggestions and tools for seasoned farmers, as well. We'll take a closer look at these in the next segment of our review, which we'll publish once we've had some time to work with the charts we've created.
October 12, 2011
We blinked and mid-season came and went. I'll be brief with a final review here: we owe gratitude to Frédéric Thériault and Daniel Brisebois for their book. Having run previous seasons on a make-it-up-as-we-go-along philosophy, we were very impressed with how easy a good crop plan makes your week-to-week gardening tasks, and how accurate such a plan can be in supplying your business with the right amount of crop. And now that we've gone a season using the crop plan, I think we'll be able to tweak next year's to our own needs and circumstances and come up with something even better. So, our thanks to Frédéric, Daniel, and Canadian Organic Growers. You helped make our first season less stressful to be sure.