The Profitable Mini-Farm – Farm Standardization (E03) (FSFS266)

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Episode Summary

The Profitable Mini-Farm is a new series hosted by Diego Footer and Jodi Roebuck to take a deep dive into the technicalities of farming—from designing your farm’s layout to crop planning to treating your soil.

In this episode of The Profitable Mini Farm, we’re taking a look at standardization: what will it do and why should you consider implementing it in your market garden?

Today’s Guest: Jodi Roebuck

Jodi Roebuck is the main farmer behind Roebuck Farm and is a John Jeavons alumnus. He has been teaching sustainable bio-intensive growing techniques all over the world for over 20 years with the aim of creating sustainable food systems while bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

            Roebuck FarmWebsite | Instagram | Facebook

In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart

  • Diego introduces the episode on standardization to simplify processes (00:00)
  • The thought process behind placing a permanent structure on the farm (01:27)
  • How Jodi arrived at his current bed widths (03:17)
    • Potential constraints of 30-inch beds (04:08)
  • What it’s like to have 30 cm (1ft.) pathways (08:06)
    • The biggest restriction is mechanization (10:11)
  • Is there a production benefit tied to the different bed widths? (10:48)
    • Standardization and color-coded equipment (11:26)
  • Standardization is key to streamlining processes on-farm (12:45)
  • Looking at field blocks in terms of crop rotations (15:03)
    • Having generic crop rotations based on market need and crop history (16:18)
  • Why not ditch field blocks and just have wall-to-wall beds? (18:44)

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FSFS266 (TPMF03)

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to the Profitable Mini Farm. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. Today, Jodi and I are focusing on standardization, trying to keep things as similar as possible to simplify your process as much as possible. For example, if all your beds are the same length, they all can use the same drip line, the same row cover, the same shade.

[00:00:25] The same insect net, everything matches up because it's all been standardized. Standardization. The topic for today's episode. But before we get into today's episode, a word from our sponsor, my company, Paperpot Co., your source for high quality farm tools. From the paperpot transplanter to the Jang Seeder to the industry leading Kwik Klik Seeder.

[00:00:51] We have a whole bunch of tools to make your job on the farm faster and easier. You can learn more about what we're doing at With that, let's jump right into it. Standardization with Farmer Jodi Roebuck of Roebuck Farm. Jodi, on the farm right now, you have a lot going on. One of the things you're in the process of doing is installing a new 400 square meter greenhouse that's about 4,300 square feet here in the US.

[00:01:27] Last episode, we talked a lot about design, this week we're talking standardization. When you look at placing a new greenhouse on the farm, it's such a permanent structure. How do you think about, where do I put this thing?

[00:01:42] Jodi Roebuck: Coming back to last week, we, the first thing I did was run out the electric fence on the ground, and we did that last autumn one evening.

[00:01:55] And we kind of�remember we're in the southern hemisphere, so we're putting it to our south so it doesn't shade or block our other production. So, we mapped it out just with the electric fence on the ground, and we actually went three bays wide. And we just realized that's insane. It's way too big. So we've gone down to two bays wide and just by having it placed out, we're looking at, we can see where it is.

[00:02:20] We can see, especially where the accesses, everything gotta come in and out of the greenhouse. So we've lined up the main door with our main access to wash and pack and yeah, so, we've cited it. The new greenhouse doesn't have as much morning sun as our other greenhouses. It is what it is, but it will get a lot of late afternoon sun.

[00:02:44] So we just literally marked it out, moved it around, and got it into a position where it's gonna get the best sun and access. And it's east-west for us, Diego.

[00:02:54] Diego Footer: And you think about a greenhouse, any even smaller structure like a Caterpillar tunnel. They require an upfront investment to put 'em in. So you wanna get as much production space per dollar spent as possible.

[00:03:07] So you start thinking about pathways, bed widths, that type of thing. And that brings us into what we're talking about today in terms of standardization. When you think about standardization, you know the universal and market farming is the 30-inch bed top. You studied under John Jeavons a lot, and he's really wide beds, you know, five foot wide beds and whatever that is, 1.5 meters or whatever that conversion comes out to.

[00:03:35] How have you arrived today at the bed width that you're using after seeing both systems?

[00:03:42] Jodi Roebuck: Yeah, the, all of our expansion is on a 30-inch-wide bed and we just see it really fits all the tools really well, the fork we've developed, all the tools are half the width of the bed, so the fork wolf gut rake, six row seeder, the five-row Jang, the greens harvester as well. So as we expand, it's all 30-inch.

[00:04:08] Diego Footer: Do you think you give some trade-offs of going to a 30-inch bed? Obviously, the industry has gone that way with standardized seeding, the JP five, two widths on a 30-inch bed. But you know, if you look at, say for example, tractor-based farmers here in the states. I was talking to somebody recently, they switched away from 30-inch beds and just went to, I don't remember the exact number off the top of my head, but something like 15-inch spacings on all the rows.

[00:04:34] And they just had bed blocks, so no beds. It was just every 15 inches, they have another row going in. More space between the crops. Crops grow bigger. You think about the wider, biointensive style beds, he's planting it close density. So, you get those microclimates, but then you lose the tradeoff of, hey, you know, tools aren't really made for that. That type of thing. Do you see constraints on a 30-inch bed?

[00:05:05] Jodi Roebuck: If I make a comparison on our farm, you know, our first 50 beds are John Jeavons bed. There's no doubt that in total, we have less path space. We only got kind of half the path space, so that that garden is very intensive and we make it work. We use all the same tools on those wide beds.

[00:05:29] The only tool we're not using on the 1.5-meter-wide bed is the pape pot transplant. We just can't lean out and drag that thing. And these beds are short, so we'd be turning around all the time. It's taken a while for me to adjust. I really like the aesthetics of the 30-inch bed. Everything's super easy.

[00:05:50] Even with our fork, the bed prep, you're just literally going in a straight line backwards. Our beds are quite small, which suits our context of fast crops cause we're flipping the beds at least four times a year. I was just on a farm in Tasmania recently, Diego, and they're small scale, bit bigger than eighth of an acre, a hundred percent under cat tunnel, cold winter, and they forfeited their internal paths to create in the no-till.

[00:06:19] They've created their beds 1.8 meters wide. This comes back to context. They�re called Broom and Brine to check 'em out. They're doing beautiful production, but they're pretty much transplanting 90% of their crops, and that used to be us. And this is just our journey, but we as we expand and our market streams allow us to sell faster crops, our goal is to be direct seeding the majority of our crops and doing less transplanting.

[00:06:50] We've got the paperpot, but we're only using it for two crops at the moment, and we are just about direct seeding everything else. We just put a wider handlebar on the five row Jang just to make it easy, pushing that up and down our wide beds as well.

[00:07:05] So we're, yeah, I think 30-inch really suits for us, small interior paths and hand tools. If I could start again, I would probably be looking at the small Italian market garden tractor, a flail mower, power harrow, and a bucket on the front for turning and moving compost and configure to that.

[00:07:31] And the small tractors I've been looking at, looks like your bed ends up just a bit wider than 30 inch and then your obviously wheels become your path space and you still need a little more turnaround for that. So I guess we've got a big restriction on our site, which is space. We're three quarters to one acre of flat area, and I guess with my background, we do things quite intensively.

[00:07:58] I wanna maximize every part of our property as we eventually scale to be growing on all of it.

[00:08:06] Diego Footer: You have a lot of systems thinking mentality, maximizing space. What pathway size have you arrived at after all these years?

[00:08:16] Jodi Roebuck: 30 centimeters. That's our internal path. I think it's close to one foot.

[00:08:22] Diego Footer: Pretty narrow. How do you find that for harvesting and totes and stuff like that? Getting 'em up and down the aisle?

[00:08:29] Jodi Roebuck: Yeah. Totes. If it's the greens harvester and we're cutting baby leaf, I just put the tote behind me, and I drag it down on top of the bed and I can cut. If I'm standing on the path, I cut half the bed sorry, long ways, and I lean across and cut.

[00:08:48] I squat and I cut the other half, so I just drag the tote behind me as I cut the salad. We'll come back to crops in the Future podcast, but we are just doing one cut with our baby leaf salad. See, I'll just drag that down. Carrots, we use a 20 liter bucket and then we dump them into our totes and then the totes go onto a standardized trolley and that gets taken off to wash and pack.

[00:09:15] We have a main path that is basically all our beds lead to the main path and main path, goes straight to wash and pack. So I guess the other thing is even when we switch to 30-inch beds, and I'm five foot four tall, so there's not much of me. I thought with the 30-inch bed, it would make sense to straddle the bed.

[00:09:39] But I'd really mix up my movement and my stretching, you know, the ergonomics as I work, I briefly straddle the bed and I do squats, and then I do drop knee. So I'm on one knee and one foot. And I just continually move, so I'm not stuck in the same position. So like carrots, I work backwards down the bed, and I just change changing out my body position all the time, which really helps keeping me healthy and, you know, free of aches and pains.

[00:10:11] See, we just make it work. I think the biggest probably a restriction if we wanted to reconfigure and go to small tractor bases that we've crammed everything in so tight, we'd have to completely reconfigure and start from scratch. So it's that ain't gonna happen. We're just expanding with our new standardized 30 inch wide, 14-meter-long bed, which is somewhere around 45 feet.

[00:10:35] And that's just how much space we had wasn't a unit that I purposely chose. It was just how we, if I made the beds longer, they go down a bank , you know, the ground's not flat anymore.

[00:10:48] Diego Footer: Beyond just saving pathway space, do you see an actual production advantage to a wider bed? So you go to 1.5 meter width bed, five foot wide bed. Is there a production benefit to that in terms of how the crops grow, that type of thing?

[00:11:06] Jodi Roebuck: I'm not sure how to answer that, Diego. I think the, we treat all our beds the same. You know, we've got 50 wide beds and something like that, 70 or 80 skinny beds. We just treat them all the same. All the tools are the same. So on our beds, on our John Jeavons beds, the six row seeder were four pasters.

[00:11:26] Same with the Greens harvester, same with the Jang, the five row Jang, the standardization that's a little different is obviously we need different size covers, hoop red, puff hoops and insect nets. That's really where our tarps, our shade nets that we germinate put on top of the ground as we're germinating seed.

[00:11:48] That's created two standardizations for us. And what we did so that we're not hunting over the farm, trying to find the shade net to fit the bed. We color coded all of our fabrics and cloths that we use, and we made a shed for them where they're stored, and we just used them. There's a colored tag you can use for putting in the sheep's ear and you can, it's a little round tag.

[00:12:11] So we just put tags on all of our fabrics so that when you need to go get one, it's got a place, it's coded and you just grab it. You're not having to pull everything out and go through everything and run it out and find, and that's part of standardization. That's been a big-time saver and kind of coming back to the standardization has been a huge part of, along with our market stream developing, that's enabled us to double our production and our sales in the same area in the last two and a half years since Covid begun.

[00:12:45] Diego Footer: Yeah, I think that standardization is a huge point that a lot of newer people miss. You might just think, oh, 30 inches, 50-foot-long bed, a hundred foot long bed. I just do that cuz that's what everybody else is doing.

[00:12:57] But like you said, if all your beds are the same, in theory, everything is then interchangeable. Row hoopa. Netting, tarps. Crop planning is all the same. The number of paper chains per bed is the same. Then the grams per seed per bed when you're direct seeding is all the same. I think it just makes a huge difference, are huge.

[00:13:23] It's a huge benefit to have one standard width, which is most people, 30 inches, and one standard length on the farm. Just to save all the hassle of, like you said, having bits of this and bits of that, that you don't know which bed it goes on.

[00:13:39] Jodi Roebuck: It definitely streamlines things. I made a comment on our social media while back exactly like you are suggesting, Diego, that standardization is key for small scale Biointensive Agriculture.

[00:13:54] And Nicole Masters from Integrity Soils commented, and she said, that's she, she didn't say that's hilarious, but she said, that's funny because that's also the mantra for Big Ag. And so I think no matter what kind of production you're doing, it's the standardization that simplifies things.

[00:14:11] And you know, the more we can get out of�the more time we can save and the more we can empty all of this stuff you holding in your brain to free yourself up to focus on the important things and just putting systems in place, especially for new staff that come into the farm, it just, I think it takes a full season, like 12 months to understand a farm and to become super efficient along with understanding the decision making.

[00:14:39] Like, why are we treating this crop differently today? And it could be the weather combined with your market streams. You know, understanding what's going on at your four different retail stores, you might harvest a crop completely differently and present differently, ultimately, to have zero waste and have no returns and everything, it becomes sold.

[00:15:03] Diego Footer: When you think about the layout of a farm, some people have all beds, so it's just bed after bed, after bed after bed. Some people have bed blocks, so they take set number of beds that goes in a block, and then all around the farm you have bed blocks that are standardized to the same number of beds with bigger spaces in between bed blocks to get equipment through and that type of thing.

[00:15:29] How do you view fuel blocks for crop rotations, is that a point of consideration in terms of how you designed your blocks?

[00:15:40] Jodi Roebuck: No, so our blocks, if you look at our farm design ,like a lot of growers have, there's so many growers to look to as influence. And I think the layout as we expanded the layout, I was really inspired by the design of like ette from Jean Martin Fortier and Maudelin from their home farm where they had field blocks between their greenhouses.

[00:16:10] I liked that the greenhouses are spaced apart, and you have field blocks between all the greenhouses. So I kind of was influenced by that. That's how we've set out as we've expanded. Although our model is very different. I'm treating crop rotation bed by bed rather than field block by field block. But remember, we're not doing farmer's markets or veggie box.

[00:16:38] We're supplying a few restaurants and retail and we're focusing on fast crops. We're changing our bed four times a year, and so I just treat each bed as individual unit rather than a block and make those decisions based on what do we need to grow for our market space? What's the crop history here?

[00:17:01] And really generally, a generic crop rotation that we're using cause we�re all influenced by your sales. But we do our bed prep, we compost and amend, and then we go two salads. Could be direct seeded, baby mustard, followed by transplanted lettuce. We treat those as our heavy feeders. Those are the ones, and we're on a subsoil.

[00:17:25] So those are the ones we really see the benefit or the lift in our production by putting the salad in the composted beds. Then we follow that with the root veg, which we treat as a light feeder, and then we follow that with a financial cover crop, which is pea shoots we do in the field. And the pea shoots put a lot of organic matter into the ground through their roots and super quick.

[00:17:52] That's a just a real generic crop rotation. And the greenhouses will do the same, but we'll switch the two salads out for like a cherry tomato. But in saying that, I'll also treat a bed based on our sales and just what we have to be planting. So we're late winter. It's very wet and overcast, and at the moment, we've got our overwintered carrots.

[00:18:19] We go into winter with about a third of the farm and carrots, and we're planting a ton of area in fast direct seeded salads. We just need more area to keep up with our sales at the moment. And then as the day length increases, to do the same volumes of direct seated salad, we just don't need the area. So as spring comes, we diversify with our crops.

[00:18:44] Diego Footer: On a crop like yours with limited space, why even have field blocks of nine beds? Why not just go wall to wall with beds? You know, have your pathways still at your 30 centimeters, but why not just have beds as far as you can stretch 'em instead of having field blocks?

[00:19:08] Jodi Roebuck: I guess we were looking� We've got four greenhouses at the moment, and the fifth, the new one will be our biggest by far. But yeah, we, I wanted to space the greenhouses out. I guess, so we are not shading on our southern side, which would be your northern. As much as possible and keeping the access, so actually quite a few of our beds run east, west between the greenhouses.

[00:19:37] Doesn't work for the sun so much, but it works for letting excess water out and also for bringing our harvest, come straight to the main path, straight to wash and pack. And if you look at our farm designer really allowed us to maximize the space between the greenhouses. So we, apart from our main paths to the wash and pack, we hardly even have any paths.

[00:20:01] And you know, if we, if I started again, Diego, we just didn't have the time or money in the beginning or the experience at the scale we're at now, but I would be going one big greenhouse up on day one, a high wind design, but we just didn't, we'd bootstrap the farm from nothing, and we've heavily reinvested in the last six years.

[00:20:24] I'm pretty open about our journey, but 2009, I sold my skateboard to pay the power bill that week. There was, we weren't putting up a $50,000 greenhouse cause it was just not even possible.

[00:20:40] Diego Footer: There you have it, Jodi Roebuck of Roebuck Farm on standardization. If you wanna learn more about Jodi and everything that he's doing, you can check him out at Roebuck Farm, which I've linked to below.

[00:20:52] If you enjoyed this episode, can you do me a favor? Leave a review on iTunes. It helps the algorithm. It takes you just a minute to scroll over it to there with your phone. Put a star review in, type something in, and it doesn't take you a lot of time, but it matters a lot on our end for the podcast. So if you can please leave a review on iTunes.

[00:21:19] That's all for this one. Thanks for listening. Until next time, be nice, be thankful, and do the work.


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