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Three Reasons Farmers Need to Keep Better Records

August 13, 2013 |

Todd Jones, founder of Every Last Morsel

Todd Jones, founder of Every Last Morsel

Todd Jones, who offers his opinion on the importance of record keeping on the farm, is the founding farmer and CEO of Every Last Morsel, a company that empowers entrepreneurs and innovators in local food.

Let’s talk about record keeping. That’s right, record keeping. It’s an aspect of farming that’s rarely ever talked about. It’s not sexy. It’s not fun. It usually ends up on the backburner of any farmer’s to-do list, and it’s understandable why.

Farming is hard work. There are never enough hours in the day to accomplish what needs to get done, and if you don’t put all your effort into growing food then you won’t have much of anything to record anyway. The problem is, when farmers don’t keep a record of their products they lose a valuable opportunity to learn. And because farming has such long business cycles, growers need to use every tool they have to streamline operations so their bottom line can flourish from year to year.

1. Avoid making the same mistake twice

Chris Blanchard is no stranger to recordkeeping. He’s been farming for more than 15 years and he’s the co-author of Fearless Farm Finances, a book that simplifies the concepts and techniques of successful farm financial management. Chris explains:

“farmers need to keep good records so that they can predict the future by truly understanding past results. Our memories tend to trick us into thinking that things were better or worse, earlier or later, depending on the lens we view events through; good record-keeping helps to smooth out the variations that our memory imposes, facilitating rational decision-making.”

Similarly, Rowan Steele, the manager at Headwaters Farm Incubator in Northern Oregon, says that good records help farmers “plant the right amount of the right crops at the right time of year.” For example, if tomatoes didn’t fare so well in Field A last year, this year you might consider moving them to Field B where the soil has better drainage. Or you may just plant more cucumbers, since you sold out of the second planting last year. When you multiply these variables across your whole farm there’s no way to keep track of this in your head. You need to have written records for comparison.

In terms of recordkeeping, however, fine-tuning on-farm operations is only part of the battle. You’ve got to make sure your fields of green are in the black.

2. Inputs may be eating into your profits

Rowan Steele went on to explain that he constantly finds himself talking to farmers who have put all of their effort into growing a particular product because they can sell it in large volumes. Yet, when he asks them about their input costs, they’re clueless. The problem is, if you don’t know how much money you’re actually spending to grow those carrots you’ve planted, then it doesn’t matter if Bugs Bunny is buying them by the boatload. You could very well be losing money.

According to Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, the Extension Educator for the Local Foods System and Small Farms program at the University of Illinois Extension, “keeping good financial records is just as important as figuring out what to plant and when.” She explains that “without adequate records you simply cannot assess your profitability, which is critical to the long term sustainability of any farm.”

Deborah’s two favorite books on the topic are Fearless Farm Finances by Chris Blanchard, Paul Dietmann, and Craig Chase, and The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook by Richard Wiswall.

3. Educate a new generation of farmers

The transfer of knowledge and skills to the younger generation is increasingly important. New farmers across the nation are teaching themselves how to grow food and rear animals, and they need all the help they can get. Farm incubator programs and organizations like The Greenhorns and NYFC are sprouting up to help these farmers get their ducks in a row, but there’s a need for robust online platforms to fill the gaps.

The internet has revolutionized the way we share information. It’s easier than ever to connect with like-minded people from anywhere in the world, and to create virtual communities and forums for knowledge sharing regardless of geography. It’s creating opportunities for veteran farmers to share their knowledge with the next generation of growers, so that when these new farmers pick up the plow, they won’t make all the same mistakes – or at least not as many.

Online tools for recordkeeping can be a big help, but they need to be the right tools. So, let’s continue the conversation. What data points are important on your farm? What information do you need help finding? What lessons can we share to help educate the next generation of farmers that will feed this nation? Share your thoughts and comments below, or email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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