In this blog series, we’ll be learning from farmer and Ferme Tourne-Sol co-owner Dan Brisebois about crop planning for organic vegetables. Hopefully, we’ll shed some light on how to increase productivity (and profit) with the use of a strategic plan, coupled with flexibility, to maximize our farms’ potential.
First of All, What Makes a Good Farmer?
Is it being able to grow multiple kinds of crops? Is it having consistently high yield?
“I would argue that if you can’t make a living farming, then you’re not a great farmer,” Dan says. “You might be a great grower, but when you’re talking about farming—unless it’s pure homesteading—business will always be a part of it.”
And it’s true: as a farmer, you’ll be wearing different kinds of hats, and there are times when the business side of your operation will be more important the growing side. If you plan on making farming your full-time job, but you can’t make a living off of it, then no—you’re not a very good farmer.
Good Farmers and the Appeal of Farming Life
Curtis Stone, Chris Thoreau, and Jean-Martin Fortier, along with his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches, are all farmers who have established themselves in the small-scale market gardening space.
Their farming models are very appealing for various reasons: work on their farms doesn’t require as much back-breaking labor as at other farms, there’s good profitability, and it’s a good lifestyle.
Who wouldn’t want this for themselves? And what are these growers doing right?
The farmers mentioned above have a few things in common, some of which we can emulate on our own farm operations.
- Small acreage. Many successful farmers live in or near urban areas. This means that it can be difficult to find several acres’ worth of unused land for farming. So successful farmers make do with what’s available. Living in or near urban areas also means they’re closer to their markets.
- Focus on high-value crops. If you only have a third of an acre to work with, you’ll definitely want to maximize the profitability of that plot of land since it will be difficult to grow large amounts of crops at such a size.
- Low overhead costs and infrastructure. At a third of an acre—or even up to two or three acres—you probably wouldn’t need to have a tractor on site, and you don’t need a lot of infrastructure to keep the farm running.
- Low labor. This also ties in with the small acreage aspect—a smaller farming operation means a smaller workforce. This also means you don’t have to spend time and energy training new individuals.
- Focus on a few very highly skilled individuals. This is related to the low labor needs of the farm, but there’s a drawback to this: your farm may not be very resilient. In times of illness or emergency, someone will need to fill in for that one very highly skilled individual.
- Systems. This is possibly the biggest reason the farmers above are successful: they all have robust systems in place. They have approaches and protocols for everything they do on the farm—from how and when to grow crops, to invoicing, to dealing with clients. The systems they have in place ensure that there are very few problems that catch them off-guard. They know what to do because they have systems in place.
Ferme Cooperative Tourne-Sol
Ferme Cooperative Tourne-Sol is a farm in Quebec that is co-owned by Dan Brisebois and four others, making them a worker co-op. Apart from the five owners, the farm has four regular employees and three paid apprentices. Everyone on the farm works 40–45 hours weekly, and the five owners are on a rotation for the weekly farmers’ markets.
The farm is 12 acres with 7 acres reserved for their cash crops. Their income streams consist of a weekly farmers’ market, a 350-member CSA, and a seed business, which earns a quarter of their revenue stream.
The first couple of years weren’t easy because there was a lot of figuring out that had to be done. But all the owners had been apprentices before starting the business, so in the end they’ve done fairly well. And a large chunk of their success, Dan says, was their robust crop planning.
In the next post, we’ll look at the first step of Dan’s 11-step model for crop planning.
Watch Dan’s presentation on Crop Planning for Organic Production.
You can learn more by checking out our podcast with grower Dan Brisebois.
And you can find all our market gardening podcasts at Farm Small, Farm Smart—the longest-running podcast on market gardening in the world.