deciding how much of each crop to grow.

little_minnie(zone 4a)August 23, 2012

Deciding how much of each crop to grow is a big issue every year. I try to see where improvements can be made for next year at this time of year. A few weeks ago I said I would plant more peppers and melons and now those are my bumper crops and I have changed my mind! I can see I always need more broccoli and potatoes and possibly corn and carrots do well but are a pain to weed.

You can never tell what crops will do well. We could have a completely different year weather wise next year and perfect calculations would be impossible. Whatever is growing well is also growing well for customers in their little gardens and that is a big problem. In my area there are a lot of people with gardens or a few plants. They never can grow dill or cilantro and ask for it all summer, but I can't grow it either! Would it be worth investing in shade cloth to try to get lettuce to grow in summer? It's my job as a farmer to get things to grow when the weather makes it hard.

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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

For the reasons you stated are the exact reasons I started to grow inside high tunnels. I was tired of growing things that everyone else had. I was also tired of worrying about crop failures. While they still can occur, they are not as common.

It has always been my goal to have produce when no one else has it, I have said that before. For me that is Early Tomatoes, Peppers, Little Cucumbers, Early Zucchini and everything at the end of April and all of May markets. The best way to make the largest profit at Farmers Market is to be the first or last at the market with a particular crop.

How much to grow of something, it depends on your market and how you are perceived at that market. For me, I can not grow enough early tomatoes. With that said, I am not going to try to grow more. Currently I push and start 150-200 plants to get them producing in June. I can only sell so many. If I grew more, I would have to get into more markets, sell them for less or toss them out. I am not lowering my price because people won't buy more.

It takes several years to figure out how much to plant. I want to grow enough to meet the needs of the market, in a good year, and then grow that amount. I also vary the amount of what I grow. I can never have enough early Zucchini. Then July comes and nobody wants it. I usually cut my plantings in half. Then September hits and they want it again. That is why currently, we have over 300 Zucchini plants in the ground, trying to fit the needs. What people want week to week, is hard. However, if you keep good records, you will recognize trends. For the last three years, my best market days have been the same week every year.Then years come along like this year and BAM. My best week was 3 weeks early!

To me, I constantly try to change what I am growing. Offer different crops the whole year. Case in point, usually cucumber sales drop off in mid summer. I grow odd ones (Lemon, Armenian, Dragon's Eggs)along with the standard cucumbers at this time. People get tired of the same old thing week in, week out. I think summer lettuce would work well, I just don't have the energy to try it. There is more money in less labor intensive crops that WILL work during those times.


    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 12:18AM
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if you can find a place that gets late afternoon shade it would be a good place to grow lettuce during the summer. i have no experience with shade cloth but it would also probably work.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 6:01AM
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I planted lettuce starts to the east of my cukes and tomatoes, figuring they'd get shaded, they also are shaded by trees on the east so really only get mid-day sun, they bolted. I don't know where to plant lettuce to shade it, air temps in the 80-90 range might still cause it to bolt? Might sell if you have it when cukes and toms come in, but at only $2/head I don't know if it's worth the trouble.

Definitely trying a high or low tunnel next year for toms, I don't know if early zukes will sell but they take so much space it's probably not worth it. Zukes don't have much flavor, so grocery-store ones (even at $2/lb early in the season) are just as good as local ones to most people. But everyone is looking for that first vine-ripe tomato!

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 7:14AM
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The way I figured out what to grow each year was to increase by 1/2 what I sold out of daily. Stay the same with crops that I had just enough to bring some home on regular basis. Cut back on those items that I brought home 1/2 of what I took daily.

I tried the high tunnel some this year. While it produced a week or two ahead of time, it wasn't worth it in the small amount (3'x30') that I used. I didn't have enough time to build more this last year. The zukes did fine, but produced at the same time as in the field, and really took over. The beets/carrots did better than outside, but our ground in clay/loam and too hard for them outside. The peas/beans did well and was 1-2 weeks ahead of outside. Broccoli, the bugs took care of it. Lettuce, didn't make it, I think it got too hot too fast.

I used to bring produce into my market from a fellow marketer that lived 3 hrs South of me. I always have produce faster than anyone else. Early Zukes would bring $1-1.50 EACH, no matter what size without any problems (this was 2002-4 prices, prices are higher at that market now).


    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 10:09AM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

You can pack a lot of zucchini in a high tunnel. 5 rows of 32 plants, one foot apart.

Transplant them into the high tunnel in Early April and I am picking in 30 days, Usually by Mothers Day. At a $1 to $1.50 a piece they are a great money maker because of the lack of labor involved to grow, weed and pick them. Sure you can get $7 to $8 a pound for lettuce, but you have LOTS of labor involved too!

Growing in a tunnel has a learning curve to it. The larger the tunnel, the earlier you can plant. Smaller tunnels usually don't give a huge advantage, but in a wet, cold, or windy spring they are life savers!


    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 10:20AM
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If you are selling out of a crop each week, it may mean your price is too low.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 12:37PM
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I haven't sold completely out of anything each week except edamame, and only brought 2-3 pints each time (I only have 1 pint this week - been picking for a month and it was supposed to be a 10-day window, and I did 2 really small plantings only a week apart). Definitely planting a lot of that next year. Since edamame in the pod has a lot of waste, I didn't want to price higher than cherry toms, so $3/pint. Is that too low? A pint of cherry toms weighs twice as much (12 oz vs 6 oz) as edamame and there's no waste, I figure half the edmamame is pod so ends up more like $16/lb if you figure that. Shelled, ready-to-eat edamame in MW packs sells for $7.50/lb at BJ's (I haven't seen it in regular grocery stores).

BTW, how large are these zukes you're selling for $1.50? I'm asking $1.50/lb for anything under 1 lb, and $1/lb for large ones (grilling or bread). Now that it's in season, grocery stores are asking only 99 cents/lb, of course they only have the small ones and mine are fresher plus no chemicals so I won't go lower on those. But not sure the market will bear higher.

But if I have limited room in a tunnel, I'm going to use it for tomatoes, can get $4/lb for those. Edamame may be a candidate too, I'd really like to get both in the same tunnel.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 12:56PM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

They are about 5-7 inches long and slender. Here is picture from early last spring.

Also, don't worry about pricing one thing verses another. Think about the labor involved too. People have been selling 30 to 40 pound watermelons for $5 to $6. I would never sell 30 to 40 pounds of tomatoes for $5 to $6. Then labor in caging, weeding, transplanting, spraying for the tomatoes. Verses the planting, weeding and picking of the melons.

PAFlowers- I agree on if you are selling out your price is too low. I try to control demand by price. Start high and work down. This year I haven't lowered my prices. I have spent so much $$ on water and had many crop failures/low yields.


    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 1:42PM
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PAFlowers, some times you never know what will sell no matter what price. I was usually the highest priced vendor and still sold out. It happens, no matter what price. PLus I never knew what my fellow vendors were bringing, if I was the only one with something I usually sold out.

I never expected to sell out on most items, but I did. My goal was to bring home about 10% of everything. Sometimes I did, sometimes nothing sellable and other times, more than 10%. I read it somewhere in my years of research that 10% bring home, was the perfect amount and perfect pricing. Never hit 10% on everything, and didn't expect to be perfect either.

At different markets, those zukes could sell for anywhere from 3/$1 to $2 each.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 8:21PM
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Please note that I grow lettuce for leaf not heads, so what works for me may not work for you. However I grow lettuce outside without shade cloth throughout the hottest days of summer without it burning up. I seed it and 28 days later I harvest, and in another 28 days I can harvest that planting again. After taht I till and replant. I choose heat tolerant varities and and water with almost a misting sprinkler in the early hours of the morning (typically have the timer set for 3:30 am). However I have to use a different set of varities and watering techniques for growing in the high tunnel during the winter. It took me a while, but over the last three years I am having an average 150lb harvest of my leaf letttuce salad mix for 50 weeks out of the year. Note that is not just sales at the 2 markets I sell at, but sales to one restraraunt on a weekly basis, & two caterers on a bi-weekly basis.

For the mixed cherry tomatoes, I aim for 50 pints a week to the market (25 each) and the same goes for the eggplants.

Everything else gets planned for the CSA shares, plus 10% for crop lost.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 6:12PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

What varieties are most heat tolerant for you? I find oakleaf is. I do grow my greens in some shade but I think they must need more water to keep going in heat. I did get my snow peas to stay going in heat but not lettuce. After I tilled it some came up cute and fresh later but when I sampled it it was bitter.

The only things I sell out of usually are carrots and beets. But they both are seeded and so weeds are a big problem. I would much rather grow more stuff that doesn't need weeding! I haven't been able to bring potatoes or broccoli in 2011 or 2012 and so those might sell out, not sure.
At the market there are 6 people bringing produce. 3 bring less than me and are not competitive. 2 are very like me, one guy on each side of me, but we have slight differences in our stuff and all promote each other. The last vendor is a large farm that can outproduce us like crazy, conventional growers, sneak and buy and resell stuff, have 2 sales ladies who are not at all involved in growing. If we could eject this farm we would all benefit and who knows what it would do for our specific sales! For instance, I have a bumper crop of melons. I brought tons the last 2 weeks, but so does the big farm, totes and totes of them. So I cannot sell many of mine. The guy to the right of me has melons too but between the two of us it would work out if the big farm didn't hover over everything. Same with corn. I started mine inside and transplanted so I could beat them to market. Somehow (can you say bought in Iowa?) they had corn the same week.
Anyway there are many factors. Most of my produce goes to CSA not market anyway. I want to give them a good variety and not too much of anything.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 11:05PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

Here is my 2013 plan. I changed the bed that says peas? it is now hardneck garlic. The other 2 garlic beds will also have shallots. After the disease here I hope I have enough seed garlic. Also some of the sweet pepper bed will be paste tomatoes since I have a bumper crop of sweet peppers so I am afraid to do 2 whole beds.
I don't have later summer or fall crops figured out or written here. There will be many but I have all winter, spring and summer to figure it out.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 11:10PM
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For summer production I use Simpson Elite, Firecracker & Red Sails for what I call the standard leaf, Parris Island & Annapolis for romaine, Sulu & Garrison for my oakleaf with Dark Lollo Rossa & Deer Tongue thrown in the mix. Just dump all the seeds is a container, shake well and the pour into the planter. I use the Four-Row PinPoint Seeder from Johnny's set at the 2nd smallest hole (can't remember if it's B or C) and seed 3 passes 25' long. This dense of planting with no thinning gives me a harvestable section of 27" which fits my 30" Greens harvester perfectly.
Viola! Mixed leaf lettuce salad without extra handling.

Weed Control is not an issue, as the dense plantings typically will choke out the weeds that might pop up. Some hand weeding might be required after the 1st harvest. I use a heavy seeding of oats, with some medics & tillage radishes in the blocks going to my Roots/Greens rotation the previous fall. After the initial tillage, I cover the soil with strips of black tarps for 2-3 weeks for solar sterilization.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 11:32AM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

Thanks. I cut and pasted that list in my seed inventory sheet.

Well frankly I can't figure out any crop that I need more of or that would sell out even if I had much more (actually dill would). I thought maybe carrots but I only sold 1 bunch tonight. Onions and garlic do well but I had extra garlic last year until it all sprouted in my basement since there was too much left over.
So really it is whatever is doing poorly you need to grow more of! And out of season stuff such as cilantro and lettuce in summer. Well that is a bummer.LOL

    Bookmark   August 30, 2012 at 11:16PM
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I've read the posts in this thread a couple times, and I'm still trying to understand how most successful gardeners and farmers would approach the question posed here (and other broader questions). What I've taken from this so far is that there is a lot to be said for knowing your land, knowing your markets, learning from experience, and spotting trends from the past.

It's the last one that I'm wondering most about. Is it feasible to expect or ask small farmers and gardeners to manage issues like cost, crop production volume, and per-crop/per-market profit through detailed record keeping and data/trend analysis over time? This is how other well-run small businesses attempt to at least partially control variables that affect their well-being.

Granted, weather is a huge unknown that makes predicting the future by analyzing past trends less reliable. But even so, is there value in keeping highly detailed records and then attempting to view trends in the data along a wide variety of axes (for example, profit for a crop at a given market during a given week of the year for the past 5 years, or profitability of a crop over an entire season, or dozens of other ways of looking at and finding trends)?

If this isn't feasible, why not? Is it because the weather is such a big variable that meaningful trend analysis is not possible? Or is it because tracking detailed labor, expense, sales, and other data is too time consuming? Or is it because analyzing historical data to see trends is too difficult?

    Bookmark   September 5, 2012 at 8:24AM
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I'll try to answer the last post. Keeping the 'books/records' on a farm is a full-time job, and then actually producing the produce is more than a full-time job. It's possible, just very hard for 1 person to do.

Not only do you have the weather to contend with, but the economy, and people's likes changing.

Historical data on the trends doesn't apply the same way to farming as it does to other businesses. There are always new seed varieties coming out, some good and some bad. You never know if your 'area' will decide that they like something until you try it, then it will take about 2 years before you really know.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2012 at 2:03PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

For a lot of stuff just looking over a few notes from previous years can teach you things. Like I saw I had too many zucs and beans last year too! But for more than that it depends on how nerdy the farmer is. I know some that really get into figures and some who don't at all. I know one who figures out the calories he produces and how many are used to grow the food! I read a market book that talked about figuring out cost of growing something (this many hours to plant, cultivate, harvest, prep and seed cost) and the profits earned. He could then see what actually made money. It reminds me of Restaurant Impossible when Chef Robert asks restaurant owners if they know what sells best on their menu and what makes a profit and they always guess wrong.
So there is the whole thing about what sells at your market and then there is the thing about what is most profitable for you. Two different methods.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2012 at 11:57PM
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Yeah... not having enough time to do data collection and analysis is an issue I've seen in other industries, large and small. The solution I've seen work is to eliminate the build up of data collection/entry tasks by spreading it throughout the day and by never entering or writing down data twice. Would it be realistic, for example, to use a small device (e.g., phone) to enter time spent on a particular task for a particular crop (e.g., 3 hours of weeding)? If doing so took 30 seconds or less maybe 10 times per day then the time cost is fairly low. The same concept applies to the collection of sales data (how much, where sold, customer details). Of course this takes discipline to do.

I'm most surprised by the thought that historical trends don't apply to farming and market gardening in the same way as other small businesses. I'll have to think about that one. I didn't realize that the variables were so volatile that fact-based historical trends would not be useful. Hmmm....

Finally, I wonder sometimes whether selling 60% of a crop at market (and giving away the remaining 40% to keep it from going to waste) is always worse than, for example, selling 100% of a crop at the same market. If I have the data to know that my 60% crop is 6 times more profitable per unit volume than my 100% crop, I probably made more money from the 60% crop that day (even giving away 40% of it). I'm sure this may be an exaggeration, but I'm trying to make an argument (in my head) for why factual data-based analytics could really help the small farmer and market gardener (as long as the overhead for data gathering and processing is relatively low).

    Bookmark   September 6, 2012 at 5:24PM
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One huge problem with data collection and analysis (I've tried it) is analyzing how profitable per sf a certain crop is. I have not been able to keep really good records of how many lbs of tomatoes I have gotten off a particular plant, or even how many lbs of a particular variety I have been able to harvest. Just too time consuming. I do keep track of how many lbs sold and at what price, so at the end of the year I can say I had X plants and sold Y lbs for total Z price so Y*Z/X is gross income per plant and if X plants take say 200sf I know what gross is per sf for that plant, but some plants (zucchini!) I have an extremely hard time figuring gross sales per sf since I've never gotten a good idea of how many sf I have in zukes, I've got them in a couple different places and you know how huge they eventually become, overrunning everything else! Then there's the time factor - no time weeding or pruning zukes, and a lot less time harvesting than tomatoes or potatoes (potatoes definitely take a lot of post-harvest handling), but my gut feeling is per sf zukes are just not as profitable as tomatoes. Same thing goes for anything that grows as a trailing vine or large bush compared to something that can be trained vertically (of course, if space is unlimited, and labor is pricey, then the opposite is true. Potatoes are just so time-consuming that even at $3/lb I'm not sure it's worth growing them for market.)

And then there's the weather factor - this has been a great year for tomatoes, but last year was the pits (growing the same varieties - but in different location and different weather). How meaningful can the analysis be if you can't take into account the effect of each year's weather? Even if you could normalize it over many years, tastes (literally) could change during that time.

    Bookmark   September 6, 2012 at 10:17PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

I am very interested in this but would never have time to really weigh my harvest each day.
So there is production per square foot and there is production/profit per hour. If you have limited time and limited space they are both important.
I like to bring flower bouquets to market even though they usually sell poorly. I spend all this time first thing in the morning cutting the flowers and then bunching them into color coordinated bunches. I make little on them and have to declare sales tax too. However they make my booth look great and make people happy and I love my time doing it. Sometimes they sell out in freak weeks of the year. But by the book it would be ridiculous to keep growing them. I was thinking about it today when it was almost 11 and I was bunching flowers and figuring out what I would have to skip picking due to time (I skipped ground cherries and edamame). Those two items give huge production per s/f but may or may not sell well.
I would rather grow something like peppers in black plastic which are so easy to grow and take little time than something that needs weeding/thinning/tying or whatever but if I can't sell them it wouldn't make sense. For CSAs it does though.

It gently rained through the first half of market tonight and my sales were just over half of last week! With a new truck with lots of space and a topper I could try a fancier market and all my figures and beliefs would change.

    Bookmark   September 6, 2012 at 10:56PM
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It never occurred to me to try to calculate profit per unit of land (area). It makes sense since a high profit per square foot is a motivator to maximize that crop (as long as the market demand is there and crop diversity isn't sacrificed too much).

All the arguments are valid, but I can't shake the intuition that a technique or mechanism that keeps data entry and analysis simple would provide coarse-grained insight at first (for example, expose that lettuce is unprofitable every season) and then allow further refinement over time (for example, carrots grown in the north half of bed #2 produce regularly higher revenue).

The original goal of the question asked on this thread was to determine how much of each crop to grow. While no system will be perfect, wouldn't the addition of factual data and trends (even in the face of weather or other variables) give a potentially better answer to the original question than instinct alone (especially over many seasons)? I'm hearing some say no which is counter-intuitive to me. As soon as I can find some volunteer farmers and gardeners, I'm going to test this conclusion. I'll let you know what I find out.

BTW -- I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that selling a crop at a loss every week doesn't mean it should be eliminated. If it pulls people to the booth and drives other sales, then (in effect) it's a marketing expense.

    Bookmark   September 6, 2012 at 11:14PM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

Figuring profit my the square foot is the best way to go. If you don't do this, then figure it per acre or part of an acre. Many people are starting to do this, my problem is time. I dont have time to enter data, even in a device that is portable. Picking produce that device could/would get wet, dropped, stepped on or ran over. If I had a better set up to do things, then maybe I would. However, for now I am just happy to get to market each week on time and not forget anything.

Since farming is my other full time job, I don't have to worry about every penny. If you are farming full time, this makes more sense.


    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 12:42AM
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Brett, how much experience in market farming do you have? You sound like you have an accounting background.

After working this market business, I learned that my accounting background was helpful for some things, but not much when it came to alot of it. Yes, it helped figure my losses or profits, but didn't help figure out why the customers either bought or not.


    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 5:08PM
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Marla: I'm not a market gardener or farmer and likely never will be. A little over a year ago, a friend introduced me to the alternative production techniques of small farms and market gardens. I visited farms and seed exchanges, read some of Michael Pollan's work, and finally realized that I believe very strongly in what you all are doing.

So my friend and I asked ourselves how we could help increase the number of small farmers and market gardeners utilizing sustainable techniques. We heard from several farmers that making a living long-term is hard, so we started wondering if we could make tools that would increase the likelihoood of financial success for more farmers and gardeners and thus keep the movement growing. And frankly, a larger base of more financially successful small farmers and gardeners will develop more political clout which could have many positive effects.

My friend's dream is to move his family to a small farm and make a living (he's a small-scale gardener), but he's several years away from that. I don't have formal training in accounting but have always had a strong interest in that area (especially budgeting). We're both computer programmers so we combined our ideas and created a web-based application that implemented some of the ideas discussed in this thread. We did this during evenings and weekends which was quite a challenge since we both have kids (and very supportive spouses).

So we've been asking these types of questions in many places for over a year. We still have a ways to go, but we are at a point where we're going to test the basics of our web app and refine it after seeing what is useful and what isn't. Who knows where this will go, but it would be neat if we found the right combination to help farmers and gardeners have a higher likelihood of long term financial success.

Everyone's opinions here are very helpful... Thanks!

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 7:42PM
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That explains alot, thanks Brett.

Any device would need to be waterproof (sweatproof) and dirt proof. I've wanted a small scale that I could carry into the garden to help determine how many pounds I picked before I got back to the packing shed.

I'm not technology advance, dummy almost. I know a lot of marketers are less than I, most are just getting their 1st cell phones (not smart phone).

One thing for my thinking, is to make it very very simple to use. I don't have time to learn an app, especially during season.


    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 10:28PM
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