Running a successful farm is hard work. But what many people don’t realize is that a lot of the work required to keep a farm running smoothly doesn’t take place in the fields, but behind a desk.

According to Taylor Mendell, proper recordkeeping can be just as important as proper crop management. Her recent virtual presentation, “Recordkeeping On Your Farm,” was sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). Taylor, along with her husband Jake, has run Footprint Farm in Starksboro, VT, since 2013. They grow organic vegetables and pasture raised pork.

“Our data philosophy,” she said, “is if we don’t need a record, we don’t keep it. And if we do have to keep it we do so in the easiest method possible.”

Taylor related that when they were starting out 10 years ago, she was under the impression that she needed to keep track of every little thing on our farm. “We ran ourselves ragged trying to do that,” she said. “We learned to pare it all down to what records we needed to keep and why.”

Taylor ran participants through her primer to productive recordkeeping.

What’s required for farm recordkeeping? When running a farming business, there are several business-related records that operators are required to keep for the IRS, their state and the Social Security Administration. These records will also be important when conducting business with a bank or other lending institution.

Taylor advised keeping records on:

  • Sales and expenses (keep seven years of history on file)
  • Documentation for physical assets like machinery or buildings (keep on file indefinitely)
  • Employee records like W-4s and time sheets (keep on file for four years)
  • Any legal documents such as leases, LLC agreements and the like (keep on file indefinitely)

As a farmer becomes more experienced, they can reassess how they go about recordkeeping and adjust accordingly as the operation grows, Taylor said.

Succeeding at recordkeeping

Taylor Mendell and her husband Jake have run Footprint Farm in Starksboro, VT, since 2013. Photo courtesy of Footprint Farm

Here are some other tips for recordkeeping based on how long you’ve been in the business.

For those just getting started – “For farmers in their first and second year, I recommend keeping the records that are required of you by external agencies, plus keep data on planting dates and harvest yields,” Taylor said. “Even if you have farmed for years at another site, data on planting dates will help you understand how varieties grow on your new land.”

Even if a farmer has years of experience operating elsewhere, new land may need a new plan.

For the farmer coming into their own – “Once you’ve learned your land’s quirks, established markets and settled on your production methods, you can start to dive deeper. Ask yourself what information will help you understand your farm even better,” she said. “Are you often feeling pressure from pests or disease? Try creating a calendar of pest arrival dates and intensity to help guide your pest prevention activities. Perhaps you are growing sweet corn in order to bring people to your farm store, but you have a suspicion that shoppers are just buying the corn and overlooking your more profitable crops.”

She recommended trying a point of sale (POS) system to determine exactly what your customers are buying to help determine what to plant the following season.

Some advice for the more seasoned veterans – “Feel like you have the basics down pat? It might be time for a full-on cost of production (COP) study,” Taylor suggested. “This process tracks every step of production, including all time and expenses related to a specific crop. You may want to dive into a COP study if you have a suspicion that a particular crop is losing you money, or if you want to start pricing your products based on the actual cost to produce them rather than what you see other farmers charging.”

Farmers opting to try a COP study should set up their recordkeeping system as early as possible. A lot of data are required to yield valuable information.

As for the records themselves, Taylor said that there is no one size fits all. “Are you an online or a paper person? Someone who prefers paper may be uncomfortable entering data on an iPad, and someone who prefers apps may tend to flounder with paper and pencil,” she noted.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. The important thing is for a farmer to find a method that works for them. That method should be easy for them to use and have data easily drawn from it.

“If you are prone to losing things, try keeping data on a dry erase board, then get in the habit of photographing the white board at the end of each day or week,” she suggested. “If you don’t want to re-enter data from a paper source, try using Google Forms and log your data on your phone so everything goes directly into a Google Sheet for easy data manipulation.”

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by Enrico Villamaino