Paying attention to details pays off for Iowa operation

PHOTOS BY BOB BLANCHARD, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
In addition to the cropland, Chris Blanchard has four greenhouses and a produce washing facility.

Small vegetable farms can be hectic places, with operators planting dozens of crops with many harvest schedules and selling to several markets—and doing it on a severe budget with limited help. It may actually require more work than a large farm that has only a couple of crops and harvest periods.

Chris Blanchard says the best way for a farmer to handle these tasks is to plan. Meticulous, careful and continuous planning for finances, planting, harvest, supplies, marketing, everything.

Blanchard, owner of Rock Spring Farm in Decorah, Iowa, does his planning with databases and spreadsheets on his computer, papers in manila folders, lists in his Palm Pilot, and notes in a pocket notebook. He does much of the preparation in the winter when his fields are idle, but he is planning and updating those plans year-round.

“I couldn’t do it without the planning,” Blanchard says of his organic farm. He has 80 acres, with only about 20 that are tillable. He grows over 40 crops of vegetables and herbs through three seasons of the year. He has had a lot of college agriculture and on-farm experience, and moved here in 1999.

Chris Blanchard says his “dumb” self is theone driving a tractor. The “smart” Chris is theone doing the planning so all goes smoothlythroughout the year.

Blanchard starts with a basic financial plan, which he has used and modified for years. “We really rely on Quickbooks,” he says, but that is only the start. Quickbooks is good for financial records but not so good for budgeting, so he exports the financial data into Excel spreadsheets to get a better view of the farm’s operations. He sets up spreadsheet categories, with financial records classified according to market segment and the locations where crops are sold.

Rock Spring Farm gets 46 percent of its income from a CSA (community supported agriculture) program in Minnesota’s twin cities, 38 percent from wholesale, 11 percent from fruit bought to supplement its CSA boxes, and 4 percent from a farmers’ market in Rochester, Minn. Blanchard knows these exact figures because of his careful records, and he knows what his field crops cost and earn. He has four greenhouses used primarily for herbs and raising vegetable transplants, and he knows what they too cost and earn.

He needs to know real costs in order to plan his year, and this part of his financial plan is important to every decision he makes. If he doesn’t know the cost of every cardboard box used in packaging or the cost of the truck used in transport, he can’t make good decisions on those issues.

Rock Spring Farm in Decorah, Iowa, has over 40 crops every year, including this kale. The farm could be chaos without good planning.
Packing CSA boxes at Rock Spring Farm.

“We did an analysis of where we made the most money,” he says. He wanted to know which of his markets was the best earner. “For us, it makes a lot more sense to sell wholesale than to sell at a farmers’ market.” It’s normally thought that the premium retail prices garnered at a farmers’ market make it the most lucrative way for a farm to do business. But Blanchard found that the single day spent preparing for and selling at a farmers’ market an hour and a half away is less rewarding financially than selling wholesale vegetables and herbs because he can combine the wholesale deliveries to the twin cities with his CSA deliveries and minimize costs as well as time spent.

By breaking his records down into smaller categories, he can analyze and plan even small operations, and parts of operations. For example, he was questioning whether he should keep buying certified organic thyme cuttings from California for his fresh herb plantings. They can’t be grown true from seed, and he wondered if he should grow the cuttings himself. Once he considered all the costs, he found he could grow them more efficiently himself.

The Excel spreadsheet also is set up in rows so he can monitor fixed-cost categories such as property taxes, delivery expenses and payroll. Those expenses must be paid even if his crop is ruined. This helps him project how much money he can spend on any given crop or expense, so it’s a monitoring tool throughout the year. Because a CSA program has surges of income up front and surges of expenses later, he has to know how to pace his spending.

“It’s a way to get a quick overview of the business,” Blanchard points out. Rather than set up Excel in alphabetical order, he also has it set up in “broad expense categories” that give him thumbnail overviews into wider operations. He has one category labeled Infrastructure, one labeled Labor, Overhead, Sales and Promotions, etc. He can see at any time of the year how he is doing, and that is important when the crops are coming and he doesn’t have time to see whether a specific crop is profitable or not. “Now I can say, am I on-target or off-target for, say, infrastructure,” he says.

He also wants to schedule operations, such as planting and fertilizer applications and harvest. He makes a custom database in Filemaker Pro, which allows him to plan things like planting dates—important when you need sequential plantings of many crops and need to know how many rows of each and when they will be harvested. This custom database, which he designed himself, is based on past years’ schedules and modified as needed. By knowing how many pounds of a specific vegetable are needed for each part of his sales, and knowing how many CSA memberships he has this year, he can project how much to plant—and, in fact, how much to plant each week. With that information, he knows how much seed to order.

“You can tie things together and look at them better in a database than in a spreadsheet,” Blanchard notes, because relationships can be linked. Even minor details, such as the distance seeds should be spaced when planted, can be linked with different varieties.

Community supported agriculture boxes make up 46 percent of the farm’s income, and Chris Blanchard knows that because of his financial database.
Rock Spring Farm provides a good living from 20 tillable acres and four greenhouses. Good planning allows the owner to do that.

He can also use the database for all his marketing programs. He can keep track of over 200 CSA customers, how their memberships are set up, how they pay, list their contact information, and where on his route of 10 distribution locations their boxes should be delivered.

Blanchard also keeps manila file folders, one for every day of the week and one for every month of the year. In them he places notes to remind him on that day and in that month what special things need to be accomplished. He also has folders for future years so when he thinks of something like mowing under the power lines that has to be done three years down the road, he will find that note in that folder.

Lists of daily and weekly activities can be generated from his Filemaker Pro database, and he prints those out for his own and his employees’ use. These include items like what vegetables to plant that day and what day to order compost fertilizer. He also carries more general lists in his Palm Pilot, which he carries with him.

“The computer is the second-most important tool I have,” he says. The first is the notebook he carries around in his pocket all the time. That’s where every detail gets written down on a daily basis.

Blanchard knows that every farm is a potentially chaotic place, and good planning leads to good execution.

“We need to create structures in our life that allow us to take control.”

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif. Visit www.FarmingForumSite.com to discuss this article!