The Farmer’s Office – The Business of Farming (FSFS179)

 

Introduction

In this episode we take a behind the scenes look, getting into the nerve center, or brain you could say, of the farm. That’s right, we’re headed to the office, where all the major decisions of the whats, whens, and hows originate on a farm.

While this isn’t the most glamorous subject to many farmers, it’s an essential one. It’s where we ultimately decide what we’re going after on the farm and why, because when the numbers don’t add up, we often need to rethink our strategy. It can be easy to get good at hitting a target, like, growing onions, for example, only to realize it’s been the wrong target all along because the margins just aren’t there.

Double Time (10:00)

“I spend 20 hours a week right now on office work. I’d be totally thrilled if I could double that to 40-50 hours a week.”

It’s not apparent to most farmers, but the office role in a farm is critical. What could be solved if more time was spent in the office? Emma says a bottle-neck can often be making purchases in real-time can be a more complicated scenario than it seems. Can we afford to buy this equipment, and more importantly, can we afford it right now? If all of the books were up to date in real-time, the checks deposited, and quick-books had every entry tabulated, she could make far more informed purchase decisions – knowing right where to draw the funds from and ultimately if there’s a yes/no right away.

 

Hiring an Office Manager (13:30)

We need more administrative time, but instead of looking for someone who would need a lot of training and a high level of trust, we looked into someone to help with housework to free up more of Emma’s time. It’s difficult for Emma to work in their household office when something in the house is not orderly. We made the housekeeping hire and it has freed up a lot of her time.

 

What does 20 hours/wk of office work look like for you? (17:20)

Sunday is a free day. Monday we make deposits at the bank and then enter bank statements into QuickBooks and decide what cash flow for the week is going to look like. What bills need to be paid? It’s a big harvest day as well, so I’m on a walkie-talkie taking down an inventory of what’s coming out of the field in real-time. I’m writing a newsletter that goes out to our chef’s on Monday and communicating via email with customers. Lastly, taking inventory of those sales and making pack sheets as Tuesday is our first delivery day of the week.

Tuesday it’s time to print the pack sheets and labels, harvest delicate items like flowers, and then pack deliveries. Make the deliveries and take those checks immediately to the bank. The worst thing you can have for your bookkeeping is undeposited checks sitting around.

Wednesday is a repeat of Monday with more harvesting and communicating with chefs availability and taking orders which then go out Thursday. The delivery is 1.5hrs away so we need to print labels and pack as much as we can Wednesday afternoon so we can leave first thing Thursday morning. 

On Thursday we are communicating with and taking orders from chefs again, and making pack sheets, for another delivery cycle on Friday. We then do a newsletter for our on-farm CSA pick-up and farmer’s market customers. Then pre-packing orders for Friday delivery. On Friday packing for farmer’s market and on-farm CSA pick-up. On Saturday, off to the farmer’s market and then back to Sunday – the day of rest.

 

Keeping a Schedule (26:15)

Having a list and a schedule from week actually gives you more freedom. It depends on your personality somewhat, but farmers who say that you can’t plan anything in agriculture aren’t taking into account that the schedule is just a starting point. If you are going into every day without a plan it’s not sustainable and almost hopeless – you can’t count on anything. The freedom comes into play when you get done what you know was necessary and you can now use the rest of the time to get done other projects/tasks you are interested in.

 

Managing Restaurant Orders (30:15)

Every restaurant has a different way they want to submit payment – so it’s about making it convenient for them to pay. Finding the right software to manage these various payment methods – mailing checks, charging cards, etc., is a game-changer. Then you can accurately follow up on anything outstanding. A routine helps here so invoices don’t become stale and there’s a lot less confusion for everyone involved.

On average we’re managing 40-50 invoices a week from restaurants. When we make a delivery we print out two copies of every invoice and the delivery person holds onto a copy. It’s a big deal to take down a signature on that invoice, even if they give you a check then and there, that check can bounce – or maybe that person is no longer working there when you go to follow up and no one can validate you made that delivery.

We send out digital copies of invoices as well, but that physical copy is invaluable. Those signed copies get filed on a wall folder marked incoming invoices and they are processed as soon as possible, with necessary corrections made and then filed as paid or put in another outstanding invoice wall folder to follow up on. If there isn’t time, enter the paid invoices on the computer they go into a wall folder that we can come back to.

 

Managing Marketing (42:40)

We feel this is not optional for us. And as the years go by we have got a lot faster at creating these newsletters and making these connections with our customers. It takes 30m-1hr to write a newsletter for CSA/Market customers and then the same amount of time for a newsletter to our chefs each week. We can put this on Facebook and digital media as well. It can take up to two hours to create a nice newsletter with pictures included. We spend about an hour to communicate via text/calling our chefs each week. 

 

Pick-up Orders (49:30)

We also take orders from these newsletter customers for on-farm or farmer’s market pick-ups. These customers place their order online and we’ve found it’s best to take those orders from the Thursday newsletter only up through Friday morning so it can be packed that day. We don’t charge the card until the pick-up because it’s easier than having to give a refund for product not picked up. We do charge them even if they forget to pick the order up. 

We’ve found this to be a convenient way to bring in some passive income. We’re not creating new packing days and pick-up locations – these customers are piggy-backing on work we’re already doing. This may be only $100/wk more income but it adds up over the year.

 

Communication Dynamics (1:07:30)

You never know what someone needs to communicate to do their job well. Each team member is responsible for different deliveries and aspects of the farm – how does the team catch each other up so necessary information isn’t missed? We get together after a half-day on Friday and have lunch together in town and sit down to discuss how the week went. This works well since we get away from the farm, support our customer’s restaurants, write-off the expense since it is a meeting, and get a chance to clear our heads. 

Conclusion

Each job on a farm is critical. It’s easy to overlook behind the scenes jobs like marketing and bookkeeping when in reality they are the backbone of the business. If you’re neglecting this aspect of your farm business then a solution might be to hire it out. It might take a leap of faith since it’s easy to think; no one will be able to do this job the way I would. But the opposite can, in fact, be true – that person could be better at doing it than you and would take care of a critical limitation to your farm. 

However you choose to approach your office work, while there are ultimately endless solutions, techniques, and tools to utilize, the most important consideration is to take it seriously. From the vantage point of the desk, you can make far more informed decisions about not only the day-to-day aspects of purchasing and packing orders, but get a macro-perspective of your business and make critical, timely choices that will affect your entire operation.

 

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