Good Farming Accounting Pays Off in the Long Run


Imagine: You grow vegetables. It’s winter and, reflecting upon what will help you become a better grower in the coming season, you consider buying a roller-crimper. But do you have the cash flow to make it happen?

Or this: You attend three markets. What’s the value of each? Would it be worth it to drop one and put your time and energy toward developing wholesale channels?

Without good accounting, you may feel loath to take action or, conversely, you might jump in without context and lose money. Maintaining accurate financial records can feel like a pain, but doing so helps farmers better understand their business — including what’s working, what’s not, who might need more training and where and how best to allocate precious resources. In other words, what’s measured is easier to manage.

Most farmers know whether they’re profitable, says The Farmer’s Office author Julia Shanks. “The question is do they know how, and what can they do to improve profits?” Further, despite the knowledge of profitability acting as a “Why, bother?” drag on keeping financial records, doing so can help farmers maintain profitability over the long run.

Among her farmer and grower clients, Shanks has seen three common barriers: Farmers aren’t at a desk all day and regular bookkeeping takes more than five minutes here and there; it means sitting at a desk. Second, most farmers serve as CEO, COO and CFO, and what makes farmers good at farming is not necessarily the same as what makes a great bookkeeper or a skilled accountant. Third, “numbers are scary.” If those same folks were as intrigued by numbers as compost, they’d probably have chosen a different line of work. “If you look at an income statement, it’s just a sea of numbers with no meaning,” writes Shanks. “So, what’s the point of bookkeeping if all you can get out of it is figuring out how to pay taxes? So people avoid them.”

But when the importance of the numbers and what they mean hits home, then what? Keep your eyes on the prize — what do you want to learn from the numbers? Expect an initial slog, and plan to pay for outside help. Count on not knowing what to ask until you’re in the thick of it. Adjust accordingly.

Farmer Lee O’Neill didn’t go from 0 to 60 overnight. O’Neill and her husband Dave run Radical Roots Farm, Keezletown, Virginia. Their operates includes a CSA, wholesale accounts, a farmers’ market and plant sales. O’Neill had been keeping records in Excel before switching to the desktop version of QuickBooks. (Note: she did not transfer her numbers from Exel, which she felt was too complicated.)

With Excel, she couldn’t easily “manipulate the data.” The longer she has worked with QuickBooks, the more she’s been able to home in on the information she seeks — where is income coming from, what are the expenses, how are they consistent from year to year or how do they change? “Or I can look at each customer and study that as well at any point in the season. ‘Oh, this customer is this percentage higher in sales,’ and I can look at each item they order — is that up or down? You think you’ll know, but you can’t know without diving in there.”

Shanks doesn’t push any particular type of accounting software, but says that QuickBooks is robust for small businesses and allows farmers to get a better picture of what’s going on than a simple paper ledger or Excel because it does the math.

Good accounting can pay off
Accrual lets farmers see the whole picture.


By far the best step O’Neill took was to hire a QuickBooks expert to set up the system. It cost $500 but saved her hours of work. First, they created a chart of accounts (CoA) for each enterprise, which she says would have been hard to do without any experience.

Elaine Lemmon, staff consultant for Kitchen Table Consultants in Philadelphia, said setting up a proper CoA is important when getting started because it will later help farmers to see what they budgeted or planned for versus what actually happened. KTC’s guideline for CoAs is to assign categories only to those items that make up more than 1 percent of revenue. If sales are $250,000 annually, then anything $2,500 or less would not have its own category because it would not show any sort of trend well. But, she adds, farmers who want a more “granular” CoA would still be able to have that in QuickBooks, where the information could be collapsed for a quick view or expanded into the details.

Shanks recommends grouping expenses into five categories: cost of production, labor, general and administrative, repairs and maintenance, and occupancy.

As the farm business grows, these five can then be tracked across each enterprise. Shanks recommends tracking expenses that are greater than 0.5 percent of total revenue. Otherwise, “if you get too detailed, the benefit diminishes.” For example, she said, it’s important to know feed expenses for different livestock (meat birds versus layers versus pigs), but the different kinds of feeds for specific animals is not important. Shanks always proceeds with the following in mind: “What questions will I be able to answer by tracking an expense separately? And does it really help my business?”

Both Shanks and Lemmon mostly recommend tracking on an accrual basis because it’s easier to match revenues and expenses. The trick is to do so in the same time period, which gives the best evaluation of profitability, and may mean adjusting the fiscal year so that all related expenses and revenues are recorded at the same time. For example, says Shanks, a farmer with a CSA may get his money in one calendar year and incur the production expenses in the next. A livestock farmer could incur all her production expenses in one year and not gain income from sales until the following year. Accrual lets farmers see “the whole picture,” says Lemmon, yet doesn’t prevent them from running cash statements.

Gaining this information can help farmers better project what their expenses will be when so they don’t incur heavy expenses they aren’t prepared for.

“Cash budgeting for agriculture is particularly vital because of the long business cycle,” says Shanks. “For vegetable farmers, you’ll start investing in seeds and supplies in January and you may not see your first sale until May or June. You’re hemorrhaging cash for five to six months before it starts to trickle back in. If you don’t budget for cash, how do you know you’ll be able to get through this period? For livestock farmers the business cycle can take as long as two years from the time you get your first head of cattle until you make a sale. For an orchard, it can be five years.”


For O’Neill, the CoA she started out with in 2013 is not that much different today, but the items tracked have changed as the farm quadrupled its wholesale business. She has found tracking in that arena invaluable because it lets her look at each wholesale customer. “Are basil plant clamshells really worth it? $5,000 last year — it’s worth it. I can do that for each item I create,” she said.

When she reconciles at the end of the month, O’Neill looks at the profit and loss (P&L) statement, comparing season over season, to see how income and expenses stack up. This has allowed Radical Roots to drop certain crops — like okra — that cost more money than they yield and even to drop markets that weren’t serving them well and to ramp up wholesale. This included a market in Washington, D.C., a two-hour drive one way. Instead of the additional vehicle, fuel and added labor, they focused more on wholesale. One wholesale customer to whom they sell a clamshell mesclun mix was at a certain price point. After speaking with the customer, Radical Roots tweaked the price and doubled sales.

Over time, O’Neill has gotten better at knowing how to tag expenses, — such as separating out nursery expenses from expenses related to the farm, including how much potting soil goes to each in the spring.

At krauts-maker and fermented-juicer Farmstead Ferments in Scottsville, Va., founder Dawn Story said the expense categories do not include every type of raw green or vegetable that goes into the krauts because the bookkeeper is on-site once a week and that would be too much. Instead, there are bulk expense categories for greens, for packaging, for labeling and more. Income categories include a couple of area farmers’ markets, wholesale via farm stores, groceries and other markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic plus a few other states, as well as what is sold through its storefront, Farmstead Ferments Mercantile in Scottsville. Story, who also owns and operates New Moon Apothecary, switched to the online version of QuickBooks in 2019, despite the difference in price, because updates are automatic and information can be accessed and entered remotely, if needed.

Farmstead Ferments grows as much of its own produce as it can, but does have to buy produce from area growers, especially in the winter. Naturally, Story expects those expenses to rise at that time. Though she admits she could make deeper use of the numbers, she regularly checks the P&L statement to see what’s going on. “Say we lost some money,” she said. “I would look at expenses to see if any account looks inflated more so than the norm.” She would also look at sales to see, “Who didn’t order this month? Are we missing a major client?”

This approach came in handy early in 2019 when Story incurred larger advertising expenses. All the bills for advertising came in at once. She was able to negotiate to pay in installments on some of the larger invoices. She isn’t sure she needs records to tell her that, but tracking expenses over time has led her to order the most expensive supplies — jars — once a month. In a five-week month, she can adjust her ordering.

Story also likes to use QuickBooks to manage payroll. Analyzing that data has led her to conclude that it’s better to have more full-time employees and fewer part-time employees because of the tax burden. And speaking of taxes, she suggests that any software a farmer uses include different line items for local, state and federal and, in the Mercantile’s case, meal taxes related to sales.

Keeping accurate records can help farmers avoid tax mistakes. Last year, one of Shanks’ clients had a snag in his bookkeeping that caused him to overreport his revenue. But at tax time they caught the error, saving him $3,500 on his annual taxes, she said.

And among farming couples, proper financial record keeping could save a marriage. Lemmon, who farmed for 15 years, including a decade before joining Kitchen Table Consultants, says that one partner often handles the books while the other handles production, and they need to have a shared, data-driven basis for discussions. KTC consultants “spend a lot of time inserting ourselves between people” — with a one-page P&L statement, rolling cash flow and balance sheet, which shows assets, liability and equity — so that “nobody has to feel emotional, except to say, ‘I’m scared about our cash gap.’ There’s no blame. The piece of paper tells the story,” and they can make a decision together.

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Build Your Own Sustainability Network

By Richard Finzer
Excerpt from the book Maple on Tap

Looking back 150 years, nearly every American lived on a family farm. The family was very self-sufficient and raised their own livestock, vegeta­bles, grain and forage. They cut their own wood, tended their own orchards or fruit-bearing plants, sheared their own sheep, and some even made their own maple syrup.

Every individual and family, other than the 10 percent that lived in cities, strived to achieve a high level of self-sufficiency. But not everyone could master all the skills needed to be totally self-sufficient. The orchard man might have been a poor hand at raising livestock, but he still needed meat. The beekeeper also kept a few chickens, but had too many eggs for one family. The woodcutter had no talent for farming, but made maple syrup every spring, and his raspberries were the best anyone had ever tasted. But a person can’t very well live on a diet consisting entirely of syrup and berries.

Even in 1861, people specialized in what each knew best. But specialization is both a blessing and a curse, because you’ve got a “longage” of what you can produce and a glaring shortage of everything else. Now, just as it was in those times, everyone is good at something, but almost no one is proficient at everything.


So how did everyone survive back then? Easy. They bartered what they had for what they needed. Remember, most rural landowners were as cash-strapped back then as many are to­day. Our ancestors developed and used a simple formula: no money changed hands and everyone got a fair shake. That’s how true communi­ties are formed — mutual need and mutual benefit. Think of their system of exchange as socialism without the taxes, commu­nism without the torture, or capitalism without the money. A community is not a legally defined geo-political entity; in its purest form it’s a network of people sharing what they have for the things they desire.

How times have changed, or have they? Lately, the press is filled with stories extolling the virtues of sustainability, while urging support of local farmers and at the same time implor­ing consumers to regain control of what they eat. And up to a point, there’s much to be admired about those currently trendy points of view. But, I’m not a big fan of media hype or “environmentally conscious” buzzwords, because while buzzwords come and go, basic human needs and the desire to fulfill them are as old as the human race itself. So what’s this got to do with making maple syrup? Simple.

As a backyard syrup maker, your annual production might total six gallons. And unless you eat French toast for breakfast every morning, it’s doubtful you’ll use all that syr­up before sugar time comes around again. But maple syrup has tremendous value. As an example, one website I found online (and abso­lutely refuse to name) sells 8-ounce bottles for $14.95, and that doesn’t even in­clude the shipping charges!

Have you got enough of your own syrup to sell? That’s doubtful, and be­sides, unless it’s inspected by the agriculture depart­ment or its equivalent in your state, it’s probably not legal for you to sell it anyway. But assuming it was inspected, and as­suming you put it all up in 8-ounce bottles, even at $15 at a whack, you’re still only looking at a revenue total of about $900. Worse yet, if you sell it all you won’t have any syrup left for yourself! So rather than ending up with money and no syrup, why not try to build a community food network like the one I be­long to? Including myself, my community network of sustainability has seven members. And basically, here’s how it works.

Community Sustainability Network

I swap syrup for honey with my neighbor up the road. He owns less than an acre of land, heats with a wood-burning stove, but has no woodlot. However, he keeps bees and I have a large black locust woodlot, the flower nectar of which makes incredible tasting honey. Another neighbor, about equidistant the other direction, plants a quarter-acre garden and boards horses. He has no maple trees but plenty of manure. A third guy, a bit farther down the road, raises strawberries. Around the first corner from my house lives a fellow whose expertise at growing apples is very well known. An­other neighbor about a mile away raises chickens. I make maple syrup, own a 45-acre woodlot, and maintain a luxuriant black­berry patch.

Get the picture? The seven of us didn’t arrive simultaneously on the country road we share and we devot­ed considerable time getting to know each other. But once that happened we discovered to our mutual advantage that we could engage in a network of old-fashioned, cash-free country commerce to benefit us all. The math isn’t impor­tant. It’s the sense of community and trust that’s important. We each exchange goods with one another, have become good neighbors, and in some cases close friends.

Trust is the lynchpin. Our simple barter-based system couldn’t exist without it. My beekeeper friend has no honey in March, but he receives maple syrup from me, as do the apple grower, strawberry patch owner, and the vegetable gardener. After I deliver my maple syrup, I won’t receive any return of honey, fruit or vegetables for several months to come. So I have to trust that the bonds I’ve built will hold tight. The chicken guy won’t be canning any of my blackber­ries until late July, but despite that, I can still rely on receiv­ing my regular allotment of eggs, because he trusts me. Remove mutual trust from our little economic model, and the thing collapses like a house of cards.

Can you and your neighbors emulate our enterprise? I don’t know. What I do know is that you’d be a fool if you didn’t try.

Lastly, from a sustainability standpoint, it’s nearly impos­sible to think of anything more sustainable than making your own maple syrup. Unlike a garden that must be replanted annually or chickens that must be replaced as the older hens end up on the chopping block, once a sugar maple tree reaches the minimum tapping diameter of 16 inches, it may be tapped annually for the next 100 years or more.

Want to learn more? Find Maple on Tap at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

About the Author

During four decades as a writer, Rich Finzer worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, technical writer and freelancer. His work has appeared in nationally distributed magazines such as BackHome, Dollar Stretcher, Living Aboard, Life in the Finger Lakes, Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, Naval History and others. He has penned more than 1,000 articles, humorous essays and feature stories.

Richard Finzer

He was also a guest lecturer at Syracuse University on the subject of writing in the commercial environment. He resided on an 80-acre farm near Hannibal, New York, where he made maple syrup every spring for more than twenty years, since 1991. He loved dogs, cutting his own fire­wood, and his wife of 36 years (not necessarily in that order). He cannot, however, abide the taste of peas. Rich Finzer passed away in 2019.

How Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.SA.

There is a new climate paradigm in town, and it is bringing radical changes to farm fields across the nation and around the world. On the short list of weather craziness is heavy spells of unexpected precipitation, more frequent and severe floods, fluctuating temperatures, crop-killing droughts, devastating super-storms and unpredictable “zone creep.”

The Carbon Dilemma

Once referred to as global warming, climate change was first brought to the attention of the majority of the American public in 2006 with Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, which warned that global warming trends were directly linked to rapidly increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere. Of course, Gore didn’t invent global warming any more than he did the internet, because scientists have been discussing and studying the phenomenon since the latter part of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850).

Avoiding the deluge of climate data is near impossible these days, but some still don’t fully understand what climate change is or what it means for the world, much less for farmers. The short explanation is that weather patterns are not the same as they once were and affect various regions in different ways. These changes are thought to be caused by the build-up of excessive amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.

Conversely, there are some in the scientific community who steadfastly claim that these alterations in the climate should be attributed to nothing more than the natural cycle of earth’s climate, which has been in motion since the dawn of time.

For those who believe in the modern theory of greenhouse gases, carbon is among the worst of the offenders. The most common explanation of how these greenhouse gases got into the atmosphere in the first place points at pollutants from as many sources as you can imagine, including smokestack industries, automobile emissions, general over-consumption, and, of course, belching cows. And while this article is not meant to address the question of why the weather is changing as much as how it is changing and what farmers can do to get ahead of the curve, we would be remiss if we didn’t briefly touch on the issue of carbon from the farmer’s perspective.

Carbon is one of the primary building blocks of life on earth – without it, life as we know it will cease to exist. The overall plan to sequester, or lock up, carbon in various ways should and does naturally lead to ecological farming. In a 1971 interview with Charles Walters reprinted in the May 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A., the illustrious Dr. William Albrecht succinctly explained the carbon issue when he said, “You’ve got to maintain the living soil and not a dead soil. And the moment you start putting nitrogen on the soil, you burn the carbon out. And you burn out more than you put in.”

Albrecht went on to explain that it is reduced carbons (carbon atoms bonded to oppositely charged elements in the soil) that hold all of the other attributes of healthy living soil, like minerals, nitrogen and microbes, together. Albrecht concludes that when the carbon is gone, the living soil is dead.

Sadly, this profound truth perfectly describes the soils that most conventional farmers grow their crops in. Depleted and dead soils need to be force-fed tons of chemical fertilizers year after year. This leads to chemical-laden food with low nutritional value and an atmosphere filled with carbon that has been burned out of the soil. With roughly 900 million acres of farmland in North America alone, many believe that it is time for America to stop conventional carbon-burning farming practices in favor of carbon-sequestering, sustainable farming practices for all forms of agriculture.

Soil erosion after heavy rains
University of Vermont Extension’s Joshua Faulkner standing in some serious erosion from heavy rains. (Photo by Vern Grubinger)

Research in the Fields

To understand the real-world impacts climate change is having on farmers, I turned to Alissa White from the University of Vermont. White obtained her B.S. from the University of California Santa Cruz, where she studied agroecology and sustainable agriculture.

Over the course of 15 years, White has worked in farming, horticulture, education and community organizing and is currently enrolled at UVM as a Doctoral student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. White also serves as the university’s liaison to the USDA Northeast Climate Hub and as a Graduate Student Climate Adaptation Partner (GradCAP), working on climate adaptation in agriculture. In this role, she works with UVM staff and USDA Hub leadership to develop a digital library of information based on their research that can be shared with other academics, scientists, agencies and farmers.

“My work at the University of Vermont is all about community engagement,” she said. “Bringing farmers’ perspectives and voices into the research process and making sure that there is an ongoing conversation about what matters to them.”

White’s engagement also includes participation in UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), the principles and goals of which focus on understanding and seeking solutions to issues surrounding food systems.

Her contribution to the ALC is the New England Adaptation Survey for Vegetable and Fruit Growers, which is funded by USDA/SARE grants and advised by Joshua Faulkner, farming and climate change program coordinator for UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. White says her survey seeks to understand how diversified vegetable and berry farms in the northeastern U.S. are adapting to the increasingly extreme weather associated with climate change and what resources they need for resilience.

“When I first started working with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, my job was to interview stakeholders that had been involved in research on agricultural climate resilience in Vermont and identify the needs for ongoing research. One of the big lessons from that work was that different kinds of farms have very different vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies to climate change. There are some universal ideas, but farmers want information that’s relevant to their specific context,” she said.

White describes the two phases of the work that she and her team of undergraduate students have undertaken in the last three years: “The first phase was a regional survey which asked farmers to identify the changes they had made in response to extreme weather, changes they were planning to make, what they thought the most promising and innovative ideas for dealing with extreme weather were.” This part of the 2017-18 survey is available online.

“In the second phase of the research, I went back to the farming community and held focus groups,” she said. “The purpose of those conversations was to ask farmers to identify what kinds of resources they need for resilience. We just finished the focus groups and are working on the final report this summer.”

Impacts of Climate Change

When asked how the climate had changed in her region and issues that farmers were experiencing because of those changes, White said that the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events in the region is “the big story for the Northeast.” She also pointed out that summer droughts were becoming more common and were projected to intensify in the future.

This model is very similar to the one related to me by Dr. Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Blumenfeld summed up the current and future trends for the Midwest by saying that the overall trend is wetter with more severe storms in spring, with hotter summers, punctuated by occasional drought and high humidity, which encourages mold on grain and cereal crops.

He also said that the extreme cold winters, typical of the region, are becoming less common. Blumenfeld feels that the changes we are currently seeing are simply the ups and downs of cyclical change and that the earth is simply going through another natural adaptation in the climate.

He encouragingly said, “It’s important to remember that right now is not forever. There is always variability along any trend and ,one day, even this one will change.”

White also believes that these trends will continue.

“These weather extremes are projected to intensify in the future,” she said. “Drought and excess moisture are responsible for over 70 percent of crop losses reported to the Farm Service Agency in recent years, so these two precipitation extremes of too much water and too little water are shaping how farmers make decisions.”

She also says that farmers in her area now require irrigation during the summer months, which wasn’t typical of the area before. “Excessive rain has caused a lot of problems for growers with washed-out seeds, big increases in erosion, ponding in new areas, wetter soils that restrict plant growth and tractor access, increases in fungal diseases and nutrient losses.”

White also said that many of the farmers she has surveyed have told her that the wetter springs have forced them to delay planting. This has been a huge issue this spring, with dire predictions of shortages of commodity crops this fall coming from various agencies.

“A friend of mine at the University of Maine did the math and calculated that based on historical weather data, farmers have fewer field-working days than they have historically,” said White. “I think this is really interesting because some people talk about the overall warming associated with climate change and think that we might get a longer growing season in these northern climates, but that’s not what is happening on the farms. It’s really the opposite. Farmers have been planting later because the soil is too wet to get out there early and they can’t be out in the field through the season as much because the soil is frequently saturated.”

She continued by saying, “When I spoke with farmers in Pennsylvania, some of them reported that they had received three times their annual average rainfall in the last year. They said their fields were too muddy to run a tractor through and too saturated and soupy to even plant crops successfully. Farmers reported that fields with tarps, hoop houses or row covers were the only places they were able to plant and harvest. I think it was tragic for them, and knowing that they might see more seasons like that is disheartening.”

According to White’s Adaptation Survey from 2017-18, farmers in the Northeast have seen a 71 percent increase in heavy precipitation events and an overall increase in high-rainfall events, leading to more frequent and damaging flooding. Heavy precipitation and late spring frosts are causing delays in spring plantings. This is only exacerbated by hotter and drier summers that lead to heat and water deficit stress for crops. These factors and others are also leading to increased pest and disease pressure.

This particular scenario is playing out across most of the Northeast, Midwest and Northern Plains regions with slight variations in extremes. Because of the overall increase in heavy rainfall events, erosion is a major problem across the board, including in the Southwest and Southern Plains. One of the big problems for those in the Northern Plains and lower Midwest regions is an increase in humidity. This is wreaking havoc on the harvest and storage of grain and cereal crops, which are showing a marked increase in incidences of mold.

Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is a simplified way of describing a system in which strategies for managing resources during a time of uncertainty include continually observing and analyzing problems and carefully planning and modifying the solutions based on their effects and other variables.

When I asked White about some of the adaptive management practices that farmers in her region were beginning to adopt in order to deal with these uncertain times, she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is that farmers are thinking about their farmland through a new lens. They are paying more attention to where the low points are, which fields are wetter, and looking at the way water flows across the landscape to limit erosion and direct water either away from fields or to places where they can store it for times of drought. Farmers in my region also use many different soil building strategies to create soils with really good structure.”

Healthy soils act like sponges, absorbing water when it is abundant and moving it to plants when they need it most. They are also better able to handle erosive rainfall events, hold nutrients, increase drainage, and allow the farmer to get into the field earlier in the season. Not only are farmers in her region building healthier soils, but they are taking more intensive steps to protect them from loss of topsoil, nutrient leaching and erosion.

“Farms that have clay soils or steep slopes are adopting the use of raised beds to increase drainage and reduce erosion, and many farmers are investing in hoop houses, row covers and mulches to protect crops and soils from excessive rain,” she said.

White mentions that many of her interview subjects have taken advantage of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) incentive programs to help them invest in high-tunnel infrastructure, which don’t generally get waterlogged in heavy downpours and can be used to start seedlings and help farmers diversify their income.

The work that GradCAP student researchers like White do are supported by the USDA’s Climate Hub, which in turn supports farmers with a wealth of adaptive management resources. The site is broken down into regions and includes a plethora of articles and information for each. Topics covered include everything from erosion control to biochar production to weather and climate considerations for dairy producers.

Even though there might be some reluctance from a small segment of eco-farmers to turn to the USDA for help, the diversity of topics on this site won’t leave anyone feeling left out of the discussion. In fact, this is where researchers in sustainable ag, like Alissa White, can share their findings with farmers trying to deal with the impacts of climate change on their own.

White also said that in addition to soil building, many farmers are investing in irrigation infrastructure that includes plastic drip tape and, increasingly, plastic mulch, which is usually used for weeds and erosion benefits but is recently more appreciated for its additional benefits during drought.

“Many farmers regret the amount of plastic waste that this creates,” she said, but they are also using lots of different strategies to create new water sources around the farm, too. Some are building ponds and drilling new wells, while others are setting up water catchment systems. Many also reported placing water tanks or barrels in new places on the farm

Of the many concerns related to weather, heavy precipitation and drought ranked among the highest in White’s study, with 72 percent of respondents saying they had already made adaptive changes on their farms for heavy rainfall and flooding events; and 66 percent who had done so for drought conditions. Some of the most common actions included irrigation, drilling wells, mulching, reduced tilling, adding or increasing cover crops, improving soil health, reducing the use of herbicides, avoiding bare soil, using drought or moisture-tolerant plant varieties, staggering planting times and planting more perennial crops.

White said, “Farmers reported growing more perennial plants because they can handle the weather extremes better than annual crops. This is a strategy that the survey data correlated to be significantly associated with farms that have steep slopes, so we know that they are often used to protect soil and hold it against the forces of erosion.”

One of the main ways that farmers in her study are approaching heavy precipitation and all it entails, as well as drought and irrigation problems, is by controlling, catching, and containing excess water using time-tested methods that most farmers can accomplish on their own.

Some of these techniques include catching rainwater from buildings and high-tunnels into barrels, diverting stormwater to storage ponds for later use in irrigation, creating raised rows for crops, and generally slowing runoff to prevent erosion. This information and much more can be found in the New England Adaptation Survey online.

The key to all this, said White, is strategic whole-systems site planning.

“Create a map of your farm, identify the key opportunities and challenges, plan for extreme weather, think long term and start talking to other farmers about how weather patterns are affecting your crops,” she said. “Extension and NRCS staff are well suited to help farmers with site planning and often have engineers that can help with field and farm-scale water challenges.”

White also strongly believes that farmers themselves are among the best people to turn to for solutions to tricky problems.

“Farmer-to-farmer groups are one of the best resources that growers have for dealing with climate change, and I suggest farmers look to other farmers who grow similar crops and have similar site conditions for ideas. Farmer organization conferences are also a wealth of information on ways to deal with new problems and often feature workshops about new management strategies,” said White. “And if you think your community would like to do a survey like the one we just did in the Northeast, I’m happy to help.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is the editor of Show Me Oz (, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen HerbsA Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Preserving a Way of Life with the Cooperative Model

By Wayne Wengerd
This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Most of us Amish baby boomers grew up on family farms. We were farmers. We were born on the farm, or somewhere close by. The farm provided food and shelter. It was where we gathered for worship. We got married on the farm. Our elders died and were buried on the farm. We lived and breathed farming. It was what we knew and did. Everyone expected that we would someday own and operate our own farm.

In addition to providing the family’s income, the farm was considered the ideal setting to raise and nurture children to adulthood. Those of us who grew up on family farms can attest to this. One of our first responsibilities was tending animals. At a young age we were introduced to the cycle of life. We quickly learned the facts of reproduction, the miracle of birth and the stark finality of death.

A short 50 years ago, 90 percent of Amish families in North America were farmers. They lived and retired on the income from their small family farms. Today, less than 10 percent farm for a living. This transition from farming to other occupations is cause for concern — even alarm — within the community. The further we stray from our agricultural heritage, the more we acquire the social ills of the world around us.

Soil samples are collected from individual fields and sent to an outside lab for analysis. The lab reports are analyzed by Green Field Farms’ trained field specialists. They make recommendations for a custom blend of soil amendments to balance the soil for the intended crop.

Adapting to Change

On January 20, 2003, a group of 20 Amish farmers and business owners from Holmes County, Ohio, assembled to discuss these concerns. How did we get from there to here? What happened? What changed? What has this transition from farming to other occupations done to us, to our culture, and to our way of life? Is this where we want to be? If not, are we willing to do something about it? And, finally, what can be done? What will it take?

After much deliberation, the group reached some conclusions. Fifty years ago, the way we farmed was not so different from other American farmers. Most farms were small and diversified. Today, though, the trend is to ever-larger factory-like farming operations. Most Amish communities also face a lot of development pressure — from outside and from within the community. Land prices today make it impossible to buy land and pay for it by conventional farming. We concluded that our small family farmers can’t compete in the conventional farming arena.

The high cost of land means that our farmers need to produce more value on fewer acres. To be sustainable, farmers need to be able to pay for land with the income from farming. This requires a premium for their products. The question, then, is this: who is willing to pay a premium? And what are they looking for? Seeking answers to these questions, the group conducted a feasibility study. Our research indicated that 50 percent of Americans really don’t care what they eat as long as it is quick, cheap and good-tasting. These are obviously not the customers we are seeking.

Our research indicated about 20 percent of the remaining 50 percent care about what they eat — enough that they will pay a premium. They want good, wholesome, safe food from people they know and trust. In other words, they want to know who is making their food. The Plain Community has the land, the people, the skills and the knowledge to make what these customers are seeking. Our rich farming heritage has been developing for centuries and goes all the way back to Europe.

A Working Model

How do we connect the Plain Community to the consumers who are willing to pay a premium? Ideally the consumer buys directly from the farmer, and the farmer sells directly to the consumer. This model works for some, but in real life it usually isn’t practical for both. Like my brother Henry Jr., who operates a certified organic dairy on the home farm, says, “If I wanted to sell direct to the consumer, I would build a store. That’s not my goal in life — not what our family wants to do. We want to farm, to milk, to care for our cows.”

organic vegetables
A broad variety of seasonal organic produce is grown and packaged on Green Field Farms’ member farms.

Historically, when faced with great challenges, the Plain People respond by working together. Barn raisings, work frolics and mutual aid are typical examples of group efforts within the Plain Community. In this case, our community created Green Field Farms Co-operative to be the bridge between our farmers and the consumer. It is an effort to work together as a group, pooling our resources to accomplish what otherwise was not possible.

Green Field Farms is a legally organized, member-owned business entity situated in Holmes County, Ohio. Membership is limited to Plain Community members who use traditional horse and buggy as their primary mode of transportation. Members purchase equity in the co-op and must be approved by the board of directors. Financing of operations comes from a local bank with collateral provided by board members. A percentage of profit is retained for growth; the rest is paid back to producing members.

The co-op is governed by a 20-member board of directors, which meets quarterly. The reason for the large number of board members is to provide broad community representation. Five board members are elected annually to serve as the executive committee and officers of the board. The executive committee meets two or three times a month and is responsible for providing vision and leadership for the co-op. Numerous committees are appointed and assigned to lead and direct projects as needed.

Keys to Cooperative Success


Determine the need and/or problem. Don’t waste time fixing what isn’t broken. Our problem was easy to identify: our farmers were unable to compete in the modern farming arena.


Define the objective. Determine what you are going to do — and why. We wanted a premium for the items produced on our small family farms in order to preserve our way of life.


A collaborative effort can accomplish what is otherwise impossible. Don’t underestimate the power and strength of community. Avoid being a lone ranger. Collaborate with people that share your values and principles. Get everyone to pull in the same direction.


At some point, thoughts and ideas must be put into shoe leather. An action plan needs to be developed. Action items need to be identified and prioritized. Define what needs to be done, in what order, by whom and when.

Vision & Mission:

The vision is “why” — the reason we exist. The mission is “how” — how we will accomplish our vision. Write them down. Keep them short and to the point. They will be your guiding documents when making decisions.


Organize as a legal entity. By-laws and operating agreements need to be developed to specify organizational structure and functions. Consult with legal counsel that has experience in such matters. They can assist with state filings and other legal requirements.


Determine who is eligible for membership. Think about who is best able to achieve your vision and goals.


Choose someone to lead that has leadership ability, is good at organizing and communicates well. The board of directors should govern and provide vision to the organization. Develop a qualification policy for directors.


Do market research. A simple feasibility study identifies your potential customers and what they are looking for. It avoids wasting time and energy trying to sell to customers that don’t have interest in your products.


Food safety is paramount. Develop written production standards and a practical record-keeping process. Today’s customer wants to know how their food is made. They are concerned about how you treat your animals. You need documentation to back up your claims. Clearly document how products are grown and processed.


Build relationships or partner with other organizations that share your vision. Legal, financial, accounting, insurance and marketing resources will be needed. Don’t forget processing and packaging. Build on existing relationships; develop new ones as you grow. Don’t burn bridges — you will have to cross them again someday.


Develop a data bank of resources you can tap into when needs arise. Challenges will come and you’ll need help. Someone or some organization can probably help you.

Your Name:

Choose your organization’s name with care; put some thought into it. Remember, someday you may want to sell the business or move it elsewhere. Make sure the name easily transfers or is portable. Steer away from using a person’s name or being too location-specific. Choose a name that is easy on the tongue.


Strive to develop a strong brand that will be recognized in the marketplace. Create an eye-catching logo that’s easy to identify on the store shelf. Choose a design that works equally well on a sign, a business card, or a pen. Ideally, your brand is a composite of your name and your logo.

Marketing & Sales:

Define your customers and determine what they want. Focus on filling their needs. Listen and provide solutions to their frustrations and problems. Tell them what makes you different. Always sell your story, not your product. Make it easy to do business with you. Price your product to make a fair profit. Generating sales is mostly about offering a good product, being nice and working hard.


It is tempting for directors to volunteer time and effort for the daily operations of the co-op. This might be needed when starting out, but as the organization grows it is important to hire staff to do the work. Directors should focus on leading and directing. Hire good people and pay them well. If you can’t afford to pay your people, the organization is not sustainable.

Operations Today

Incoming products and packaging are owned by the co-op. All real estate and equipment is leased from a separate entity, owned and controlled by a group of 10 local investors. Growers are paid for incoming product twice a month. A percentage of the sale price is retained by Green Field Farms to finance marketing and administrative costs.

Day-to-day management of the business is overseen by Aden Yoder, the co-op’s operations manager. Office staff take care of bookkeeping and accounting. They also act as the vital communication link between members and the office. Field men take calls and make regular field calls with growers. They are trained specialists and have resources to provide solutions to most grower problems.


Certified organic vegetables make up over 50 percent of sales and are our flagship product. A broad variety of seasonal organic produce is grown and packaged on member farms. Product is picked up at the farm and shipped to the 12,000 square foot co-op warehouse. After being cooled and sorted, produce is loaded out for distribution throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast.

Other items on the growing list of products offered by Green Field Farms are raw milk cheeses, brown eggs, kale chips, puffed spelt, maple syrup and maple water. The product line continues to evolve as more farmers are added. All products are grown on member family farms meeting USDA certified organic standards. Training, record-keeping for traceability and regular third-party audits ensure food safety throughout the process from farm to store.


Growing high-quality, nutritious organic produce requires good management practices on the farm. Well-balanced soils are essential to growing shelf-stable, nutrient-dense healthy produce. Since problems cannot be fixed by using chemical inputs, organic growers must rely on other techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control. In response to the needs of produce growers, Green Field Farms developed our own in-house soil amendment program. This provides control of product quality from soil to store shelf.

Soil samples are collected from individual fields and sent to an outside lab for analysis. The lab reports are returned to our office and analyzed by our trained field specialists. They make recommendations for a custom blend of soil amendments to balance the soil for the intended crop.

Bulk soil amendments are stored in our warehouse, custom-blended and delivered to the farm in bags or totes, or are bulk spread directly onto farmers’ fields. This program has proven a valuable resource for produce growers and area farmers. The program is available to both members and non-members.


The Plain Community’s dairy farming history goes back hundreds of years to when our forefathers grazed their cows on alpine meadows in the Swiss Alps. Today, our communities are still dotted with hundreds of small family dairy farms. In the last decade, many of our dairy farmers transitioned to certified organic — a natural fit for these smaller family farms.

dairy processing facility
With a goal of providing an outlet for organic milk, co-op members took a leap of faith a couple years ago, following a dream of processing and marketing Green Field Farms-branded fluid milk. In June 2018, the first batch of milk was processed and packaged in a new, locally owned, state-of-the-art processing facility.

With a goal of providing an outlet for organic milk, co-op members took a leap of faith a couple years ago, following our dream of processing and marketing Green Field Farms-branded fluid milk. In June 2018, the first batch of milk was processed and packaged in a new, locally owned, state-of-the-art processing facility.

The plant was designed, sourced and built from the ground up utilizing local talent and labor. To preserve the naturally occurring nutrients in milk, Green Field Farms milk is processed using low-temperature vat pasteurization. The milk is non-homogenized, keeping it closer to its natural state and making it easier to digest. Milk is packaged in glass bottles to better preserve quality and freshness. Instead of adding to landfill waste, we collect, sanitize and reuse the glass bottles.


The biggest challenge is always how to get products to the consumer before they rot, spoil, or expire. Someone must pick it up at the farm and take it somewhere. Most of it must be processed and packaged before anyone will buy it. Product must be distributed to multiple locations so a multitude of customers can see and buy the products. And finally, someone must stock and sell products. Keep in mind that no one is willing to work for free! All the players in this game want to be paid for their work. This is called marketing.

Green Field Farms’ marketing program requires that all branded products be grown by member farmers. Customers want to know who is making their food. The name “Amish” is often exploited by outsiders. How should we convey the message that it was truly grown on an Amish farm without exploiting who we are? The horse and buggy “Seal of Authenticity” assures the customer that what they are buying was grown on a Plain Community member farm.

Marketing products produced by our Plain Community farmers was the primary purpose for creating Green Field Farms. We employ and train our own marketing and sales staff. Marketing and promotional materials are developed in-house. Sales people work from the office and/or travel to customer locations as needed. Co-op members and staff help with in-store product demos.


The co-op provides resources for our growers, and Green Field Farms-branded products are recognized for high quality in the marketplace.

A diverse group of people came together, combining their talents and resources in this effort to preserve a way of life. Observing young families working together at home and on the farm, and being able to pay for their land by working the soil, is reward enough. It is the way Plain People respond to challenges.

By Wayne Wengerd. This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Wayne Wengerd is one of the founders of Green Field Farms — a cooperative of organic farmers that started in 2003 in the Holmes County, Ohio, Amish community. Wayne served on the Board of Directors for 14 years. He is also the founder of Pioneer Equipment, Inc., a company that manufactures horse-drawn farm machinery in northeast Ohio. He currently fills an advisory and consultation role for both organizations and is actively involved in numerous philanthropic projects throughout the community.

For more information on Green Field Farms, call 330-263- 0246.

Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day by Cody Holmes

The book Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day, by Cody Holmes, provides real-world examples of the success that holistic management systems can create a for your ranch.

Using his personal experience, author Cody Holmes describes the practices that he has found both successful and profitable for ranching cattle, while working only three hours a day.

Many hard-working men and women have wanted to make a living ranching in the cattle industry, but have struggled with very little success. Holmes has found that to be truly successful, the critical factors are your decision-making and planning abilities.

In this book you will learn about:

  • Using diversity to find stability and security
  • Taking a whole-ranch approach to management
  • Letting cattle improve your soil
  • Maintaining a better quality of life while cattle ranching
  • And more!

The excerpt below discusses step-by-step processes for holistic management in agriculture.

Copyright 2011, softcover, 187 pages.

From Chapter 12: Holistic Systems for Stockmen

I began reading Allan Savory’s book Holistic Management quite a few years ago. Ever since then I find myself skimming that work several times each year. Other authors’ words began to make more sense once I opened my mind to the thought that holism may have some credence. I have found that some farmers that appear to be most successful have been practicing in some­thing of a holistic manner even though they may never have heard the word used before.

Holistic is a very simple term to me. It comes from the base root of the word whole. It is in this con­text that I attempt to describe the real meaning of the holistic system of farming that I believe in so adamantly.

Holistic systems for stockmen can be read about and taught through observation and practice. We learn that no single aspect of the ranch can be managed in isolation — as suggested by mainstream agriculture. The practice of raising bigger weaned calves year after year doesn’t take into consideration that these bigger and bigger weaned heifers eventually make bigger and bigger cows. These big cows eventually become unproductive and consume more in feed and maintenance than the value of the calf they produce. This single-trait selection — or the lack of taking all things involved on the ranch into consideration when making changes — is the opposite of holistic farming systems.

Rancher's cow in field
Holistic systems for stockmen can be read about and taught through observation and practice

In the early years of my ranching experience I began to watch one particular farm neighbor. He raised his family on a small cow/calf ranch with what income the ranch could provide. They appeared to have an average lifestyle from an economic stand­point, that is they lived like most the other families around except he did not have to go to work each day to support the ranch.

The ranch supported the family. Bob had no farm machinery and spent no time during the busy hay time in May like everyone else working 16-hour days baling up hay to feed in winter. What little hay he fed in the winter was custom baled. I farmed next to Bob for only about seven years, and it was only the last few years that I began to see that he did not do what everyone else was doing. I moved on to a larger farm and began leasing larger and larger farms.

I began doing the things that I saw Bob doing on his farm in my operation. Learning came very slow to me and I have no problem admitting my reluctance to education. But I was certain that machinery was a great evil and had no place in a livestock operation. I began grazing further and further into the winter without feeding hay. I also found that if I could allow the grass to grow kind of wild it would produce more forage in the long haul. This was hard for most people to accept. With the belief that our farms should resemble golf courses, this became a prob­lem for most of my landlords.

Author Cody Holmes standing in high grass as part of his holistic management system
Dense, waist-high, multi-species forage is what Holmes is looking for with his holistic management system.

I remember one particular landlord who was in his 90s and was very set in his ways. I was leasing about 1,600 acres from him at the time for my cow herd. He had sold all of his equipment except his 15-foot brush hog and 150-horsepower tractor. About the time I would get a few paddocks of grass knee high, he would chop it down to lawn height. I could not convince him of my need for that tall forage this winter.

His holistic goal of his ranch was not the same as mine. My goal for that ranch was for it to produce as much forage as possible. He wanted it to look freshly mowed most of the time. He had made a lot of money from buy­ing and selling farms and little to none from livestock produc­tion. He was good at what he was doing, but it was not really ranching. He also did a good job of keeping the tractor suppliers, feedstores, vets, and other input salesmen in business.

All of these challenges helped educate me in the holistic sys­tem of farming. Through my experiences, continued reading, and talking to good farm managers I began to formulate this system that once and for all could make livestock ranching prof­itable.

By using the holistic systems approach, and not simply looking at production as an isolated event, my ranch began to turn around.

After looking more closely through the holistic point of view, I realized I could not make this work the way I wanted it to on rented farms. In order for me to function holisti­cally I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch. This can only be done through ownership of the land. Holistic land planning is a multi-year program and short-term leases lead only to frustration and disappointment. This does not mean that farm leasing is not practical and necessary for the cash-limited farmer in the early stages of growth. But the long-term plan must include land ownership for success. With holis­tic systems in place, profits from a productive livestock opera­tion can pay for the principle and interest costs of purchasing that ranch.

I designed the Ten Steps to Holistic Systems with ranch profit in mind. It encompasses over 35 years of personal, practi­cal experience meshed with the insights and contributions from many different authors and farmers I have come across in as many years. As I list these steps try and visualize how you can incorporate these steps into your holistic plan on your farm or ranch.

Step 1

Determine who the decision makers are in the organization and utilize all their efforts to compile the group’s holistic goals. This is a written document of one to three paragraphs stating the purpose and desires of the decision makers. This short letter format should be posted where it can be observed daily, such as on the door of the refrigerator with the valuable pictures of the decision maker’s family. I believe Allan Savory best describes this by categorizing these goals into three distinct areas:

  • quality of life,
  • forms of production, and
  • future resource base.

You can break down your holistic goals into these three areas of how you see the future arriving. Remember to keep the lists short and precise. And only the decision makers make contributions in this area.

Under the heading of Quality of Life write out in just one or two sentences what you would like to get from the organization. That is, list how you see the farm contributing to your quality of life. This is not a list of weaning weights or cow numbers, but a list closely related to personal benefits.

Under the heading Forms of Production write out in what form you see the organization or farm producing revenue, if revenue is part of the quality of life you seek. Again do not limit yourself to a certain breed of cow or chicken, but more gener­ally species or types.

Under the heading Future Resource Base write out how you see your organization or farm taking shape in the future. More specifically, describe where you would like to see it go or look like and what the resources or farmland may look like once you get closer to where you want to be.

One of the main reasons I use this list of holistic goals is to verify that for each movement I make each day that that move­ment, decision or project is moving in the direction stated in these goals. If I have this list posted on the wall or the refrigera­tor I can easily question my task at hand to determine if what I am going to do today specifically gets me closer to where I want to be. The listed holistic goals are like a beacon in the night.

Step 2

Develop a methodology to help make informed decisions in the operation by starting with time management.

Front cover of the book Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day by Cody Holmes
Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day by Cody Holmes

Want more? Buy this book here.

CODY HOLMES left home at age 17 with his high school 4-H project of seven cows. That project grew into the Rockin H Ranch, a diversified ranch, on-farm market and agri-tourism business. The ranch has supported as many as 900 head on 3,400 acres. Cody and his wife, Dawnnell, open up their ranch to the public and also run Real Farm Foods Farm Market, an on-farm store offering retail sales of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, milk and seasonal produce.

Cody, by tapping the knowledge of wise mentors, has connected the dots between soil and human life – bridging the gap to sustainable stockmanship on his farm. Cody speaks and writes frequently about his passions – cattle, soil fertility and his holistic, grass-based ranching system.

Farm Smarter: Time Management Tips

By Kevin & ShaeLynn Watt

Even if we don’t expect to get paid for all the hours we work on the farm, tracking how we spend our time, in order to employ smart time management strategies, provides incredibly valuable information on the viability and efficiency of our production models and helps us and other sustainable farmers innovate the methods and infrastructure that will be needed to bring about a new and sustainable food system.

There’s a myth that permeates the community of sustainable farmers, especially among those that are new, young and passionate. It started innocuously, but it has the potential to jeopardize the long-term viability of the new sustainable food system.

The myth is that sustainable farming is above all a way of life characterized by a devotion to the land, and that those who are focused on making money are missing the point and bound to be disappointed.

This sort of thinking is dangerous because the stories we tell ourselves matter. When we half-jokingly remark after having a tough year or working an 18-hour day that we “aren’t in it for the money” or when we let another season go by without seriously tracking the time we spend working on the farm because it would “be depressing” or because “everything is going to turn around anyway next year,” it undermines the future of sustainable farming by perpetuating the deleterious myth that as farmers, where we put our time doesn’t matter so long as we’re busy.

Family with free range poultry
Sustainable farming is by definition a model that can continue for the long-term and that stewards finite resources that are often neglected or taken for granted.

The problem is, our labor is an asset like any other on the farm, and whether it’s a labor of love or a labor for profit, how we spend it has grave impacts on the course of our businesses, personal lives and the land we steward.

My husband and I subscribed to the myth that busy meant productive in the first three years of our farm, Early Bird Ranch, which we started in 2010. Although we created business plans that included the cost of our labor under ideal circumstances as part of the price of our products, we never seriously tracked where our hours of work actually went. Those were the 80-hour weeks, where days started before dawn and ended after dark, and we watched with amazement as the products of our labor actually made it to people’s tables.

We were delighted to watch our bank account grow enough to keep us fed and housed, and we were enchanted by misty sunrises and long walks through the pasture on our way to chores. Money couldn’t buy these radiant parts of our lifestyle that came from being farmers.

Taking Stock with a Time Analysis 

At around the three-year mark, though, our circumstances were totally different from these first days. We had a baby at home, our products were selling so quickly that we couldn’t keep up with demand (a good problem to have), and we were starting to burn out. We kept growing the business and expecting to see our quality of life improve, but all we got was more work. We realized that our business was sustainable for the land, but not for our family. Seeing this, we engaged in an in-depth analysis of how we spent our time.

For one week, at each mealtime, we tracked how we had spent our time since the last meal. We kept a notebook on the kitchen table, and we recorded time spent for chores on each enterprise (looking separately at the brooder, broilers, hen flock, rabbits and pigs), business tasks such as answering emails and filling orders, marketing and personal time spent on household chores or family.

What we found from this analysis, which we’ve since repeated, was that watching how we spend our time didn’t rob us of the joys of our lives as farmers — it enhanced them. We used our time more efficiently and consciously chose where to devote our energy.

Three main lessons came out of these accountings. First, we clearly saw our farm’s inefficiencies and what they cost us. Second, we could finally accurately account for the business’ opportunity costs and get a clear picture of which enterprises were really worth expanding, those that should be left where they are, and those that should be dropped all together. And third, we learned that as much as we already loved the farming lifestyle for our family, there were ways to actively enjoy and celebrate the farm’s impact on our personal lives even more.

On a farm it never seems like there are enough hours in the day, and this is especially true when our time is used inefficiently. In sitting down and comparing notes about how much time we spent on each task, we discovered that our brooder chores for 1,000 birds took almost two hours each day.

We didn’t really notice the multiple trips to ensure that the lights were on, the waterers weren’t leaking and the flimsy homemade feeders were upright. What we did know was that proper infrastructure was expensive, and we always felt like we had more time than money.

This number — 120 minutes per day between the two of us, was a total shock. If you’d asked us, we would have said the chores took half that time or less, and this might have been a result of us each working an hour per day in the brooder and not seeing the other’s time. So we made an investment in better extension cords, waterers and feeders, meaning we could make one morning and one afternoon trip only and know that the system worked for the rest of the day.

Free range cows
On a farm it never seems like there are enough hours in the day, and this is especially true when our time is used inefficiently.

The new waterers required less careful balancing, and the new feeders needed less cleaning. We cut the total chore time to 60 minutes, freeing up 60 minutes for other farm tasks (or breakfast!).

This analysis of our time took place when we were feeling a bit unsure of what direction our next expansion should take; we had big-picture questions. We knew what our best sellers were in terms of volume (pork cuts), and we knew our best profit per product (Thanksgiving turkeys). But we had a gut instinct that, while the numbers looked great for our pork and turkey enterprises on paper, they weren’t necessarily the best places to invest our time and money.

Comparing our time analysis to a revenue analysis across our enterprises, we saw that our broiler chickens actually had the least opportunity cost for expansion. Each additional hour spent on broiler production would bring in nearly twice as much money as each additional hour spent on turkey and pig production. We were making the most profit on broilers for the time we put in.

We applied the same logic to our sales channels and concluded that while our farmers’ markets made up a big portion of our sales, other distribution opportunities like the online distributor Good Eggs, which aggregates local products in nearby San Francisco and delivers them to people’s homes in the Bay Area, was a better sales opportunity for the time we put in. We were making one and a half times as much money each week at the farmers’ market but putting in four times the hours.

We dropped all but our most profitable farmers’ market as soon as we could, and even phased out the last one as we built a following on Good Eggs. Now we spend Saturday mornings as a family, doing our chores and shopping at our local farmers’ market.

The last important lesson we learned from our time analysis was about our personal lives, not our business. We have always loved the farming lifestyle, but had never consciously cultivated the parts we found most special — we just enjoyed them as they came along.

In the examples above, we took an opportunity to move toward more efficiency without making lifestyle sacrifices. But it’s also possible to use the time analysis to consciously choose to sacrifice efficiency for lifestyle benefits, and we did. We identified some areas in our farming practices that were inefficient, but we chose to keep them that way because we love them.

For example, we know the most time and cost-efficient way to distribute Thanksgiving turkeys is through our online webstand with Good Eggs. However, we love loading up our turkeys and heading down to the local church on the chilly Tuesday before Thanksgiving and seeing the faces of 100 people who will put our birds on their table. So, we consciously kept that practice in place, and take the time to celebrate the farming lifestyle, making a small business sacrifice for our own enjoyment.

No sustainable farmer gets into farming solely with the aim to get rich. We do it because we see so many opportunities to be rich in every other sense. But too often we are convinced to take that idea to an illogical conclusion — just because we aren’t getting paid by the hour, does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention to where our hours go.

Sustainable farming is by definition a model that can continue for the long-term and that stewards finite resources that are often neglected or taken for granted. Time is no different, and even if we choose, occasionally, to remain inefficient for the sake of our personal pleasure, it is the fact that we are choosing that will keep us on the land for decades to come.

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.