Farmers come to me asking about tools that will make their farms more profitable. Usually they’re thinking about some new tool for cultivating weeds quickly, or maybe for washing salad mix faster, or preparing perfect seed beds with speed. Those kinds of tool purchases are tempting because they hold the illusion that simply by putting down x hundred dollars, the farm will then be able to make x hundred dollars more and thus will be more profitable. Usually it’s not that simple.
The tool I’ve always been most interested in using to make the farm more profitable is financial analysis. This may lead to the purchases of tools like the ones mentioned above, but it also helps to avoid putting down x hundred dollars on a tool only to realize that it’s costing more to use the tool than it’s bringing in. Further, it’s the best tool for figuring out where to target efforts for new tool purchases, or even just simple system improvements on the farm.
There are two books that came out in the last few years that I’ve been highly recommending: Fearless Farm Finances and The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. For farmers just starting out and working with small scale diverse vegetable operations The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is particularly suited to explaining the business side, and even a little of the production side, of just such an operation. Written from a single farmer’s perspective it describes the well thought out, and relatively simple but effective systems of a successful, diverse vegetable operation. Fearless Farm Finances gathers information and voices from a wide variety of farms, not just vegetable operations, and it takes a deeper look at financial management tools and approaches to managing the business side of farms. These are both great books, useful for both beginning and seasoned farmers and they approach the topic from different enough perspectives that they work well as companions.
For folks who are interested in learning more first hand, Chris Blanchard, based in the Midwest and one of the farmer authors of Fearless Farm Finances, is putting on a workshop in January in Illinois, Rutabagas to Riches. I’ve seen him speak at the MOSES conference and he definitely does a great job of presenting the information in a usable way.
Richard Wiswall, based in New England and the author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, also offers workshops and speaks at conferences. You can find out more about his upcoming talks at his website.
Here in the Northwest its been good to see this topic gaining traction as well. I’ve tried to work many of the tools talked about in these books into workshops I’ve been teaching. For years I felt like it was almost taboo with many farmers worrying that taking a business approach was tantamount to letting the economics drive the farm. Like any tool, the tool should not be driving the farm, it should be used where it is most effective and it has to be applied appropriately to be effective. There’s a learning curve with any tool, and no tool works in every situation. These books offer powerful, useful tools, but remember that they’re just that, tools.
Since getting back from Italy I’ve been trying to find time to go through my journal, notes and photos and to get some stories and articles written up. So far I haven’t been very successful in finding much time, but I have been constantly thinking about the events and many of the stories have been starting to form as I tell abbreviated versions to friends who ask how the trip was.
Yesterday I sat down at my computer, finally got around to downloading the photos from my phone (in addition to the several thousand I took with a DSLR), and I made a little list of topics I’d like to flesh out in future blog posts, talks and articles. I’ll post that list here in hopes that it spurs me to action.
Advice to myself for the “next time” I go to Terra Madre
This is something I should have done after the first round, although I think I did a pretty good job of remembering a lot of this when I went this time. My experience was definitely different this time, largely because it was the second time I’d been, but also just because the event itself has changed over time. I definitely would make changes in my approach next time though so I need to get these down for myself, and maybe they would act as useful suggestions for other folks headed to the event.
Reflections on Conversations with Jim Embry and Kathryn Lynch Underwood
I had a lot of conversations with delegates from all over the world but there were two that stood out for me, telling stories I think are important within the context of Slow Food and how it is integral to what we sometimes think of as larger issues of socio-economic status, cultural diversity, and equity.
Differences between 2006 and 2014
A lot of this will probably come out in other stories, but it might deserve a post of its own. The event has grown in many senses since the first time I attended. Mostly I think that was for the good, some of it was just different, but there were also a few things that I missed from the first time I attended.
The US Speakeasy
This was a great way to meet other delegates and I have a few little vignettes that might make a larger story. My longer conversation with Jim Embry started here, but before that even happened there were a number of little scenes that unfolded and added a lot to the Terra Madre experience that was unexpected.
Riding the Bus, Eating at the Canteen, and Being More Outgoing
As it was in 2006, the bus yielded some of the best conversations and connections of the entire event. The canteen had similar potential, and I really forced myself to be more outgoing than usual, which generally created many more wonderful small interactions with delegates from all over the world, many of which held valuable little tidbits, not to mention crazy coincidences.
Paula Gaska was someone I worked with through email a number of years ago, but never actually had the opportunity to meet in person. The story of actually meeting at Terra Madre brings up a few points about the event I would like to share.
Learning more about the Ark and Presidia
I recently agreed to sit on the Ark selection committee for our region, but without a good understanding of what the Ark actually is. Terra Madre and the Salone provided a great opportunity to get more familiar with the worldwide Ark, as well as the Presidia, and to think about how it applies in our area.
Growing Beans and Corn Together
I grow corn and beans together and these were two crops that were relatively easier to find at the Salone than vegetables so they became a focus of mine during the event. I was a bit surprised to find an Italian grower there that was also growing them together.
The Distraction of Products
At some point I realized I was getting distracted by products as consumer good, and what I was really wanting was to focus more on products as connection to the people and producers. I’d like to expand that thought a bit.
Creating Slow Vegetables?
After leaving Torino we visited a Biodyamic vegetable grower near Lucca who had just gone to the Salone (and Torino) for the first time. Like me, he was disappointed in the lack of vegetables at the event and we agreed there should be a Slow Vegetables component, just as there was a strong Slow Fish and Slow Honey component.
Growing hunchback cardoons
That same grower showed us the way he blanches cardoons, a method that had been described to me, but he passed on some critical details which make me want to try the process and that I should write out for others.
Being Recognized in Pistoia (the reach of Slow Food and Terra Madre in Italy)
This is a funny little story from traveling after Terra Madre.
We went on a great (4+ hour) tour of T&T Seeds and learned a lot about growing chicories. This definitely deserves a write up, and probably a longer article that collects information from other growers in the US that are growing chicories and experimenting with Italian methods as well as new approaches.
Gio and Naturasì
In 2006 Gio was our chaperone at Terra Madre. On this trip I had a chance to visit her in Verona and learn more about the company she works for, Ecor/Naturasì. I knew that they were a large natural food chain, but I didn’t realize the extent of their commitment to organic and biodynamic producers. I think they may have a model that we should be looking at in the US.
Last Wednesday evening I got back from a two week trip to Italy which was amazing and completely overwhelming. The Italy trip started with the marathon event that is Terra Madre, now integrated into the enormous Slow Food show the Salone del Gusto. From there I traveled to Tuscany and then Chioggia, visiting farms and seeing a lot of the country side between. My final stop was Verona where I fell into bed sick, but managed to recover enough to have a nice visit with my friend Gio who works for the fascinating food company NaturaSì, now part of Ecor. Coming back, I stepped straight back into harvest and deliveries on the farm and then a presented a workshop on equipment at Tilth Producers 40th annual conference with my friend Chris Jagger from Blue Fox Farm in southern Oregon. It’s been a whirlwind and I wish I had a week just to process it all, get my notes straight and fill this blog and my websites with stories and information I gleaned while I was there.
I will be talking about my experience at Terra Madre at Slow Food Portland’s upcoming Terra Madre Talks event on the afternoon of December 7, and maybe showing a few slides. I’ll certainly be slowly working on getting some of the stories and photos posted on this website over time. Recently a lot of my internet content uploading has been through my instagram feed, simple photos and extended comments/conversations with other growers there (of course it’s mixed in with a bit of other stuff too).
One last note before I get back to writing agricultural plans for other folks and trying to figure out the plan for vegetable expansion at Our Table, where I’ve been growing for the past two years – Don’t forget that the amazing and dynamic Michael Ableman and I are teaching our Growing for Family, Neighborhood and Market workshop at the stunningly beautiful seaside, hot springs retreat, Esalen, December 12-14. Please sign up, please let everyone you know know to sign up. We want to see you all there and spend the weekend talking vegetables and soaking in hot water while overlooking the ocean!