Take advantage of down time

PHOTO BY KEITH WELLER.
Pest control is an essential consideration when planning for the coming year.

While many people use January to make resolutions, start fitness programs and alter life decisions, farmers can use the time to productively plan for the next year. Management decisions are made year-round, but it is in the “slow season” that we have time to think, evaluate and chart a course for the following year.

Finding a game plan

For farms this can mean taking a hard look at the last year. It means asking questions and honestly searching for the answers, which can provide a better year ahead. Take some time and sit down with pen and paper in hand.

This does not mean changing everything. On the contrary, the first question to ask is what went right. Take a look honestly at what things improved or excelled in the past year. If it’s working or improving, then by all means don’t change it.

The next logical step is looking at what went wrong. As you list the things that went wrong, look at why it went wrong and if that can be changed. Was the crop yield altered by the weather? This is something we can’t change. On the other hand, if it’s something we altered last year and it didn’t work, consider if a different angle is needed or if it’s something that falls under the catergory of a mistake that should not be repeated.

Assess the farm itself. This includes resources: trees, soil, water, crops, wildlife or livestock. Are there erosion issues to deal with in the spring? Consider also the normal chores such as pruning, as well as individual trees that need to be removed or replaced.

Pollination is crucial to orchards to insure the maximum production from trees. Consider the maximum use of pollination from bees. Attracting wild bees may increase pollination as well as the keeping of honeybees. This can bring additional decisions of keeping bees yourself or renting from experienced beekeepers. With proper use of these valuable pollinators, it can increase the crop from the orchard as well as add another. With proper location and management, specialty honey may also be sold, adding to the farm income.

Pesticide and herbicide use is an increasingly important focus of management decisions. Consider what is best prevented—for example, scab—and what can be managed, such as insects. Growers must balance running a productive, thriving orchard with consumer concerns about chemicals used in orchards. This particularly affects the larger and medium-sized orchards that are not certified organic.

Can you make more effective use of these chemicals this year? This warrants consideration not only from a consumer’s point of view but also because chemicals add to the operating costs of the farm. While not all orchards can—or should—be organic, it does pay to make the maximum use of the chemicals that you use. Weed control is critical to orchard management and is an important factor in production as well.

Pesticide and herbicide use is an increasingly important measure of management decisions.

Promotion is a factor and each orchard must find what works for them. Where medium to larger-sized operations are involved, it can pay to look not only at a national market but your local one as well. This can be a great way to engage the local community.

Marketing is another important factor for thriving orchards and can be closely tied to promotion. Look for ways to make the most of your crop. This might be wood—or things made with wood—from culled trees. It might mean value-added products, such as making use of fruit by drying or in jams or jelly. It is also reaching out to your customers.

Social media can be a great marketing tool. Many farmers are finding an active ag following on Twitter and Facebook. This is a way not only to network with other farmers across the agricultural spectrum, but also reaches out to consumers. This allows a personal contact to explain in layman’s terms why chemicals are used, how you manage your farm and other aspects of orchard life. This can include different types of trees or fruits, links to recipes and a range of topics that educates the consumer.

U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE
Management decisions are made year-round, but it is essential to take advantage of any downtime to plan.
PHOTO BY SCOTT BAUER.
As you list the things that went wrong, look at why it went wrong and if that can be changed.

Growers may consider expansion either of land itself or of crops to make better use of time and land, especially with crops that may have a different harvest schedule. Sometimes this can mean berries or flowers or other crops. Would this warrant a small stand that allows the sale of the supplemental crop as well as direct sales of some of the orchard crop?

Agritourism is an indirect way of marketing or expansion. This can entail cabins that serve as a bed and breakfast, destinations for weddings or other events or special areas to cater family reunions or other events. Be sure to consider what size groups you can realistically manage. You may find that half a dozen cabins provide an income that expands the season beyond harvest—or that it takes time from the farm if not planned and implemented well. Plan and research for the maximum profit.

Employee management is extremely important, especially as orchards expand. Efficient employee management means getting the most from each employee, while at the same time keeping an eye on costs. Hire good employees and keep them. This means listening to them as well as allowing them to use their talents and assets to help your bottom line.

Consider asking employees for feedback on a regular basis. What would make their jobs easier? Employees that are valued and a part of a team are much more likely to be invested in the farm. Look toward not only tools and equipment use but employee comfort.

Remember that although everyone needs to make a living, there are more than financial considerations for employees. Time off is a factor for many, especially with families. If they give extra hours during harvest season, are you willing to allow shorter days in the off-season? Is there a compensation that would not cost you a great deal to do?

For example, you might put a hog pen on a corner of the farm and feed the pigs windfall fruits. The pigs then can be divided as an employee bonus.

Fertilizing is another consideration for planning. If using chemical fertilizers take time to review handling, storage and safety measures. Manure is an option but can also be a means of contamination with E coli and salmonella, among other concerns. A better option for many is composting, which could be another source of fertilizer as well as, if there is room, a side business. Composting bins should be secured for water runoff prevention and loss from wind.

Early in the year, during the slow season, is the ideal time for re-evaluating and making improvements. If making small changes increases the farm income, it is well worth the time and money spent. Planning is an important part of farm management. Review what works, what doesn’t and plan for a successful year.

Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer and new contributor to Growing. She is based in Alabama.