You’ve no doubt had someone, upon hearing that you’re a farmer, say, “It must be nice to have the winters off!” You may smile and nod, but you know better.
To be sure, winter is different from the growing season for farmers. It does mean a bit of respite from the day-to-day chores of cultivating, fertilizing, harvesting and watering. However, the lack of outdoor tasks doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. There’s plenty to do indoors, as you recap the year’s production and look toward the next growing season.
To start with, review your records from the previous season. Were your yields as you expected? If not, why? While there’s not much you can do about weather, poor yields can mean that it’s time to review some management practices, like fertility treatments, timing of planting and harvesting, and crop variety choices. Now’s the time to take advantage of seed catalogs and seed dealers to learn about your options, instead of waiting until the last minute and repeating past practices that could be improved upon.
Were you able to sell everything you harvested? Look back at your sales records and note changes in demand for different products and consider adjusting planting accordingly. The fruit and produce market is constantly changing, and growers need to be nimble enough to adapt. Talking to nearby farmers, buyers or buy-local organizations might tip you off to trends in your area, letting you know what crops are in high demand, and which ones may be oversaturing the market already.
Of course, if thinking about these questions makes you realize that you don’t track this information well enough during the season to answer them, it’s time to consider a record-keeping system. Setting goals before each season is the only way to know at the end of the year whether or not you succeeded. A notebook and pencil stashed in the cab of your tractor or on the dashboard of your truck works for many people to scribble notes on each day’s work, and an array of smartphone apps are available for those more inclined toward that technology.
Along with looking back on your production, keep note on how satisfied you were with your hired help for the season. It’s always hard to solve staffing problems when you’re in the middle of harvesting or planting, but that’s when they’re most likely to arise. Having clear, written manuals for key tasks, as well as clear expectations that you can present to workers at the beginning of the season, is critical in making sure that communication breakdowns are kept to a minimum. Spending some time in the winter to create those documents can help prevent a lot of problems later on.
All of the business planning paperwork that piled up during the growing season waiting for a rainy day is still there. Are you caught up on bills, invoices, tax forms, lease agreements and contracts for inputs? Whoever set April 15 as tax day was clearly not a farmer; it would be hard to think of a worse time to have to be focused on spreadsheets and receipts, just as the weather is turning and the ground needs to be prepared for planting. As unpleasant as it may be to think about tax preparation anytime, winter is a good time to get everything in order – late penalties can be steep.
If you’re even just beginning to think about retirement, now’s the time to think about a succession plan for your farm. Who will take the operation over when you’re done? Do you have particular desires for how the farm will be managed into the future, or how the land will get used?
This is also a good time to catch up on any regulatory changes that may have happened in the last year and figure out what those changes mean to your business. Not just agricultural regulations – changes to pesticide rules, environmental protections, and the like – but also labor laws, minimum wage laws and food safety guidelines are in constant flux, and it can be challenging to keep up. Winter is an ideal time to check in with your local Farm Bureau chapter or state department of agriculture to see what changes have occurred.
When you get tired of paperwork, this is also a good time to take care of deferred maintenance on equipment and tools. You want everything to be ready and operational as soon as the weather turns, so don’t wait too long for sharpening, tuning up, and replacing worn parts on all of your machinery.
Finally, many agriculture advocacy and trade organizations hold their annual meetings, conferences and workshops during the winter months. These are often great opportunities to meet other growers in your area and exchange ideas and resources, see the latest innovations at the trade shows, and learn about the latest research and management practices at seminars and workshops.
We want this column to be useful to our readers, and encourage you to submit questions about specific crops, management issues or other growing-related topics. We may not know the answer, but we’ll find it and print your question and some answers in a future issue. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.