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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Crop Plan

Before I get into a long, dense and probably very boring description of our Crop plan, Susan Ferreira in the office has asked me to include an update on our renewal efforts.  We sent out an email as a final reminder this week to renew your share before we begin offering memberships to our waitlist.  Going forward we cannot guarantee a spot for renewing members as it will be first come first served.  If you are still interested in renewing but you are feeling that post Christmas emptiness in your wallet, please give us a call (978.356.1655) and we can work out an arrangement.  If you aren’t interested in renewing then please respond to our email with “Not Renewing” in the subject line so that we don’t bother you with further communications.  Thanks for your participation.    

If you have read more than a handful of these blog posts or spoken to a farmer in the shareroom or during one or our farm events, you might have heard references to the “Crop Plan”.  We farmers cite our crop plan eagerly and often (I can’t shut my mouth about it most of the time) but I don’t believe we have ever taken the time to describe in depth what the crop plan is, how we build it and how it guides our work over the course of the season.  Since this is the time of year when we spend the most time examining and developing the crop plan, it seemed like an ideal moment for a blog post on the subject.
The crop plan is the blue print used to guide a large portion of our growing season. It is a document used to schedule all seeding, planting, and fertilizing tasks.  It also contains notes on cultural practices, and growing techniques. Although the plan does not explicitly schedule field preparation tasks it does guide the timing of theses tasks.    

We build our crop plan as a table within an Excel document.  This makes it very easy to isolate information by specific fields which is important since the table contains nearly 500 rows and 25 columns.  We can, for example, sort by Tray size (Transplant trays come in many different dimensions and different sizes work better for different crops) then by Greenhouse Date (the date on which we plan to seeding each vegetable variety).  Then, using this sorted selection, we can compare the Number of Trays Needed to the Transplant Date to determine exactly how many trays of a certain dimension we will need over a specific period of time.  Since we reuse seeding trays several times over the course of the season, information like this helps to determine how quickly we can recirculate our tray inventory and therefore how many trays of each size we need to keep in stock!  This is just one of many ways that we can use the crop plan to guide our decision making.  

Excel is also a great tool for crop planning because it allow us to build formulas that determine everything from The Estimated First Harvest date for each specific planting to the exact Number of Seeds Needed for each crop variety.  Even before we begin plugging in specific crops and varieties it is immensely satisfying to build a complex crop plan and slowly worry out the bugs until we have a completed working mechanism!  I do realize how nerdy this sounds but seriously it is a lot of fun.
Once we have a functioning Excel doc. it is time to start planning the what, when, where and how much for each crop that we plant.  For the most part this involves identifying what worked and what didn’t work from the previous season, discussing why it worked or didn’t work and then making changes to the past seasons crop plan based on this.  To identify problems from the previous season we use everything from our memory of the previous season (notoriously unreliable), to the weekly harvest records and even the weekly postings on this blog.  We are attempting to create a plan that will result in a steady supply and broad variety of produce over the course of the entire CSA growing season.

Usually the problems we identify in the crop plan fall into three main categories; crop failures, overabundance, and mistimed harvest windows.  Crop failures either require us to determine if we should invest more resources into producing this crop in the future or if we should consider alternative ways to fill that crop’s niche.  Overabundance, a problem that results from an overwhelming volume of product that takes time to harvest and space to store, is easily managed by growing less.  Mistimed harvest windows are the trickiest issue to manage.  It can be very difficult to pinpoint why a crop matured earlier or later than expected.  To resolve a mistimed harvest window issue we need to consider variables of the weather, cultural practices, plant variety selection and obviously planting dates.

Once we have identified changes that we would like to make for the next season, the next step is to crack open our seed catalogues and begin working on variety selections.  Most of you have been around the block a few times at this point and know that there are many different varieties of even the most humble of vegetables.  Each variety boasts of different disease and pest resistances, different days to maturity, different yields, different flavors, different storability, etc.  It is tough to say exactly how much impact variety choice makes.  The difference between a Sungold cherry tomato and a Yellow Pear cherry tomato is huge but the largest difference that we have noticed between Mei Qing Choi and Shanghai Green Pac Choy is just the cost of the seed.  Still, making well considered variety selections gives us just a bit more of an edge on the challenges of the growing season.

The final step is to fill in the rest of the details of the crop plan and to tweak these details to cover our logistical needs.  We reference our crop rotation documentation and field data to determine which Crop Family will be planted in which Field.  We adjust Greenhouse Seeding Date, Tray Size, and Seeds Per Cell manage seeding resources and greenhouse space (running out of greenhouse space is a major bottleneck in our flow of production).  We adjust Number of Beds, Rows Per Bed, and Transplant Spacing, to save field space, impact yield, allow for more effect cultivation and to grow larger or smaller produce (Baby Bock v. full size for example). 

If we don’t end up with logistical inconsistencies then we have created a perfect crop plan.  To date this has never happened.  Even our very best plans are rife with little wrinkles: details that will be impossible to implement.  We just don’t have the resources to make every part of the plan work exactly as it is suppose to work and that’s ok!  We build a plan that we believe in, we work like heck to make that plan a reality and then we reflect on our efforts and make another attempt next season.  As long as we are building on our efforts each year the crop plan is a success.     

Bolded Texts are fields we use to organize the crop plan.