As much as I love working outside, the engine that keeps the farm moving forward isn’t in the soil, but in Microsoft Excel.
I’ve really enjoyed running a vegetable CSA for the last two years. I always feel honored by the commitment members make to the farm, but in my first year it was also nerve wracking. Can I deliver? I’ve turned to spreadsheets to calm my nerves, and I’ve been really happy with how helpful this planning process has been. I thought I’d outline it here, so others interested can see what has worked for me, and maybe add some tips from their own experiences.
The CSA Planning Process:
Step 1: It starts with a guess. In my first year, I sat in front of my fire on a cold December day and took a guess at how many CSA shares I thought I could supply given the limitations on my time and capacity. Then, I took that number and thought about what I could charge per share. How many weeks would I run the CSA, and what would be the value per week? I did the math to see my earning potential and generated a nice little table of theoretical numbers. It looks nice in a business plan, but doesn’t come close to answering the question: can I do it?
Step 2: Map out the calendar. I chose my CSA season based on a window of time I could expect abundant harvests without doing any serious season extension (no high tunnels). I created a spreadsheet with a column for each pick-up week of that season and started listing seasonal items I could give out each week. I totaled the value each week and over the season to see what I would need to grow to approach the value of the share I wanted to give out. This made my table of guesswork numbers a little less theoretical and helped me narrow in on a price point that might work for my farm. Now, how much would I need to plant?
Step 3: Planting space calculations. I have a rough sense of how much space I could manage given my equipment (a walk-behind tractor), my labor (just me, on weekends and evenings around my full-time job), and my knowledge and ability. So, the next step was to take all those crops I wanted to grow and figure out how much bed space I would need to get the desired yield to support the number of shares. Here, the process really becomes iterative. If I had 15 shares, how many bed feet of tomatoes would I need? I factored in 20% loss of each crop (more for the crops I hadn't tried before) and did some math using yield estimates from my past records, what I could find in relevant publications, and sometimes just my best guess. In this step, I find myself making frequent adjustments: knocking crops off my list because they take up too much space for too little value, or adding others.
Step 4: The planting timeline. The next step is to create a seeding, transplanting and harvest timeline. This is where the spreadsheet gets serious. Working backwards from the calendar I created in step 2, every crop is given a row, while the columns map out days to maturity, seeding date, transplant date, estimated first harvest, desired harvest quantity, bed feet needed, and estimated dates outlining when the bed is planted, and when the bed is cleared of the finished crop, and ready for the next one. Then, there’s another iterative stage of refinement to get a crop selection that I think will not only work with my space but provide customers with variety.
Step 5: The field map and wall calendar. Finally, the last stage is creating a field map. I do this the old-fashioned way: drawing it out on paper and writing in the crops I intend to plant in each bed. For 2022, I now have three past years of maps to reference to make sure I am rotating crop families. Then, I create another calendar: this time on paper that I pin to a bulletin board by my desk: outlining the most essential farm tasks for each date to stay on schedule: key steps in bed prep, seeding and transplanting.
Each year, I also keep records alongside my plan to document what actually happened, so that I can refine the process for next year. This isn’t a perfect system, but it has enabled me to do a lot of the thinking during the winter months when there is plenty of time for contemplation, so that when the season is in its full chaotic swing, I can focus on digging in the dirt without wondering what to prioritize.