Planning for next season, particularly if you plan to expand your capacity, is a multi-dimensional process. Are you going to grow more crops and become more diverse? Will you expand by growing more of the same crops, increasing your production capacity? Or perhaps you’ll expand by extending the growing season. No matter how you opt to grow, preparing for the growing pains can make the process successful.
“Season extension has its costs, for sure,” Robert Hadad, Cornell vegetable specialist cautions. “Farmers really need to be aware of their costs of production from the start and carry this over when starting up season extension. There are more investments and labor.”
If a grower is opting to extend the season, infrastructure is needed. Investing in a greenhouse, a high tunnel, or even low tunnels and row covers will be necessary. But so will a few other things.
“Having a heated barn or building where the vegetables can be washed or packaged is also a consideration,” Hadad said.
When opting to add a greenhouse, selecting the right location is important. Snow removal needs mean not putting the structure too close to any other, as do concerns about shading. Optimizing sun exposure during the winter months is prudent. Don’t forget about sizing your greenhouse to meet your production needs. If it’s too big, your return on your investment won’t be maximized with wasted space.
Bob Rimol, owner of Rimol Greenhouse Systems, suggests adding an extra 20 percent of space, as a contingency, to meet your production needs now and leave room for future growth, without waste.
One issue overlooked in season extension is daylight length, Hadad said. In the fall, the hours of daylight decrease, and eventually there is not enough daylight to promote plant growth. Plan production based around maturity date, so plants mature in late October or early November.
Kale, some Asian greens, chard, some lettuce and spinach are good bets for late season extension. As long as they are able to thaw out slowly after a freeze, these plants can keep producing until a deep freeze with no sun stops the freeze-thaw cycle, and kill the plants.
“The most important consideration is if the varieties are cool-weather tolerant or not,” Hadad said.
Even if season extension techniques and off-season production are not in your plans, diversifying your growing season crops may be. Is there a crop which which you can add into your production planning without a large investment in labor or equipment? Crops suited to your soils, particularly locally-adapted varieties of those crops, will be the best selections with the least amount of investment needed for success.
“For example, boron is toxic to beans, but prevents hollow heart in brassicas,” Kate Campbell-Nelson, of the University of Massachusetts Extension and Stockbridge School of Agriculture, said. “So if a soil is high in boron, grow brassicas.”
Crops that fit into your existing schedule rather than having competing demands for your time will allow you to grow more readily, without increasing labor needs. Things to consider include the timing of chemical applications on any given crop, and their potential impact on neighboring crops. Are pollinators present when the new crop will need them? Will you be able to meet their time-sensitive growing needs without added labor?
Making beds, planting seeds, weeding, scouting and controlling pest and diseases, and harvesting practices may have to change when expanding the farm. Small growers who primarily use hand labor for these tasks will have to weigh the cost of labor against the cost of equipment.
“Smaller growers are often highly diversified, with many species and planting arrangements throughout the farm,” and often rely on hand cultivation, Eric Gallandt, Associate Professor of Weed Ecology and Management at the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture, said. “Tractor cultivation is increasingly attractive as farm size increases to the point where hand labor cannot complete weeding in a timely manner. Tractor cultivation is also useful when there is a large area of crops with a similar planting arrangement.”
Switching to tractor cultivation may mean re-evaluating your planting beds. Diverse bedding systems require a lot of adjustments to a tractor-mounted toolbar. Natural practices, such as companion planting, that are readily do-able in smaller scale plots, may require re-configuring the crops to get the same benefits in a larger planting scheme. Planting some crops in strips, others together in the same row, and timing it all to work with machinery, can be a challenge. Standardized bed sizing, consistently spaced, straight rows and tractors that fit the system are important considerations for the smaller farmer looking to expand and needing to mechanize to do so.
“Planning ahead is key,” John Wilhoit, Extension Associate Professor, Specialty Crop Mechanization, Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, University of Kentucky, said. “Growers should plan ahead for how they are going to handle weeds. It does not necessarily require expensive equipment to deal with weeds, but plans need to be formulated ahead of time so that equipment is ready, row spacing matches equipment, etc.”
Wilhoit encourages growers scaling up to consider ground preparation one of the areas “worth having the right equipment to be able to accomplish what has to be done, when it has to be done.” Planting might be do-able by sharing or borrowing equipment such as plastic layers, waterwheel setters, and plastic lifters, he suggested.
“I don’t think you can justify much expense in equipment for harvesting at the smaller scale,” Wilhoit said. “I think that investing in things that help postharvest, like low cost cold storage… are probably better investments,” for the small grower to consider when scaling up.
Bob Weybright, Extension Agricultural Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, cautions that smaller growers need to be more aware of the cost-basis of their sales outlets. Produce may command a higher retail price, but it also involves more time, effort and labor — all which have an associated cost — than wholesale outlets.
Wholesale opportunities can provide small farmers with the ability to capitalize on a product which they grow well. Producing more of one crop, rather than a wider diversity of many crops in smaller volumes, can decrease equipment and labor requirements, as well as increasing efficiency on the farm. Local food hubs, or farmers selling together in a cooperative model, can serve to aggregate product to meet the demands of larger wholesale customers.
Wholesale venues are “a healthy direction to see a lot of smaller farmers going,” Weybright said. In terms of managing cash flow and diversifying sales outlets, wholesale venues can provide small farmers with some balance and stability, as long as the grower can meet the buyer’s needs, he added.
Before you grow your farm, know your market. After all, growing the farm should mean growing the profits.