Horsedrawn Circle Letter

So What’s the Plan?

Excerpts from the Horsedrawn Circle Letter

compiled by Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

For the benefit of the new members joining the Horsedrawn Circle Letter in 2008, one of the scribes encouraged everyone to reintroduce themselves and describe their farm operations. At the same time, one of the new circlers asked the group how each farm family makes management priorities. The question generated a lot of discussion over three revolutions of the packet of letters around this circle of horse, ox and mule farmers dedicated to pushing the envelope. The following excerpts describe a wide range of decision-making methods and how this process is influenced by broader questions of farm scale, diversification vs. specialization, and finding the critical balance between generating income and reducing inputs.

The circle contributors also touch on the touchy subject of establishing leadership roles on the farm and delegating responsibility. Several scribes share their scheduling tools and record keeping systems. This casual conversation on decision making does not provide the detailed planning process that new farmers may need during the start-up years on the farm.

Fortunately, a number of publications on this topic have been released in recent years by Extension, ATTRA, sustainable agriculture organizations, and private and university presses. The best book we have come across written specifically for new growers with a couple of years of apprenticeship experience and ready to start market gardening on their own is Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers by Frederic Theriault and Daniel Brisebois. The fifth in the Canadian Organic Growers Practical Skills Handbooks, this manual begins by outlining a simple holistic system for determining financial goals, gross income, and marketing strategies. Then, using a series of spreadsheets, it shows how to put together harvest targets, planting schedules, crop maps, and a fieldwork calendar. It even helps you decide just how much seed to order, how many flats of each variety to plant in the greenhouse, and how to determine crop profitability over both time and space.

Each step in the process is illustrated by the plans of Bruce and Hanna, a fictitious farm couple beginning their first year of vegetable production for a CSA and farmers market on 1.5 acres of leased land. The book also includes brief profiles of eleven experienced growers and the planning systems they use for operations ranging in scale from ¾-acre of inner city plots to a 2 acre horse-powered market garden to 30 acres of vegetable production.

Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers is available from Canadian Organic Growers, Inc.,

By way of introduction, Mark and I are running a year-round CSA that aims to provide a full diet for our members, including beef, chicken, pork, eggs, milk and dairy products, vegetables, grains, flour, maple syrup, and some fruit (strawberries and melons). We have 75 members right now, with another 15 scheduled to come on board next month. They pay us $2400 per person, with a $400 discount for each additional member of a household, and a sliding scale for low income members. With some exceptions, members can take whatever they want for the week, in any quantity or combination. We currently have three full-time and two part-time employees. We bought our house, barns, equipment and 80 acres a year ago, and have a free lease on another 400 acres. Our field work is pretty much all horsepowered but our haying is still heavily tractor-dependent. Mark is itching to switch everything to horse and to get rid of the tractors entirely, and he wants to make loose hay. Everyone but Donn says he’s nuts…

I came up with 15 questions for y’all, but to keep discussion more centered, I’ve gotta pick one or two. So,

#1: How do you set up your farm management? Your prioritization? Your cost/benefit analysis? Your overall scope?

Here it often works like this: Mark hopes to get everything done today. Mark finishes one good project. Mark asks Kristin what he should do next. Kristin asks Mark what the options are. Mark and Kristin and Jane walk the fields and feel like solitary ants trying to make an anthill. Mark cajoles Kristin. “Why don’t you take a couple days off of writing so we can whip this farm into shape?” Kristin reminds Mark that it is bedtime (7:30 or 8:00). Mark wakes up next day, does a few things. Repeat above. My latest technique is a dartboard with the day’s assignments by person, then a cork board with other projects for the week or month. I’ve often put off monthly projects for a year or more. I think everyone around here would like more of a realistic leader. More achievable goals. Can it happen?

One last note on management. I think we farm quite well for a farm so poorly run, i.e., we don’t have many good weed rotations in place (yet!) but we can usually keep clean fields. (Anne and Eric, I finally have a slick finger weeder on a 2-horse cultivator and yes, it did make me cry with joy the first time we hit the field with it.) Another way to look at it is that we passably muddle our way forward. Not exactly HRM…

I’m eager to add a flock of sheep to the farm, to replace some of the graineating hogs and broiler chickens. And if I can ever make the time, I dream of starting a young team of Suffolks. In the big picture, we’re trying to hammer out a vision for the farm’s future. How do we grow into 500 acres, keep it draft horse powered, and still stay within spitting distance of sane? We have a daughter, Jane, who turned a year old last weekend. Significantly, I only caught a brief glimpse of her on her birthday because we were so busy with haying. I want to make sure we are building a place that she can love as much as I do, and not feel oppressed by.

  • Kristin and Mark Kimball
    Essex, NY

Mark and Kristin – Welcome aboard! You asked how do we prioritize. On our farm, income producing crops are our absolute #1 priority. They receive almost all our attention. We produce our own grain and hay but we get these in when we have time. Frequently we produce poor quality hay simply because when the hay is at its peak – we have vegetable work. This year for example, my neighbors had three cuttings done before we finished our first. But I have to make money and that’s just the way it is. With our vegetables and fruit, we give the highest priority to those that make the most money. We like to grow a diversity but when work gets heaviest some just get forgotten about. Our apple orchard is our classic example. I love growing apples, but because they mature last, we keep pushing them aside. Then by fall because we haven’t kept up – they are horrible. Now this fall we are contemplating on whether we should simply push the entire orchard out.

  • Paul Hauser
    Lincoln University, PA

It feels like so far we have had a very good year and seem to be more on top of things than in years past. We got all our firewood done by June, all our fields are cover cropped, everything harvested and stored in the basement by mid-September, and we are working on “projects” like I always want to in the fall. It seems like instead of always being two weeks behind and feeling inefficient that we are on top of things and things are more in control. I’m not sure if Karma feels that, but I do! Maybe it is just wishful thinking but at least it makes it easier when it seems everything is going well. Despite economic downturns, our market is still thriving and we are selling our largest crops (high yields) of garlic and potatoes in addition to lots of meat, herbs, eggs, etc.

In the past few years, despite only really tilling an acre, we have gone to only growing marketable crops in half of it and then rotating to the other half (in strips) where we grow cover crops, apply compost, work on weed problems, and pick rocks. It seems our crop yields and reduction in some weeds are the results.

Mark asked the ever so open-ended question of how to prioritize. The scenario he laid out seemed familiar. Our farm seems to work in a very seasonal way. Currently, we are battening down the hatches for the winter. Priorities are anything that needs doing before winter that really can’t be done once winter arrives. This includes things like doing some driveway maintenance so it is passable and easy to keep cleared for the winter, finish the cow shed so the cows and horses can be winter separated so they are fed accordingly (and most importantly so that the hay is closer to the cows so we don’t have to move hay so many times), turning off watering systems, replacing greenhouse plastic so it doesn’t fail… Those are a few of the priorities but, of course, there are the daily chores, marketing, and daily maintenance. If we are two weeks behind, then things don’t get done and make extra work and headaches in the winter (stuck vehicles, endless hours moving hay, leaking water lines, worrying about the greenhouse failing…). With two of us we basically know what each is responsible for on a daily basis and if a priority project takes over one of us, the other can take care of some of the slack (I’m still nailing up boards so Karma does the chores I had planned to do). It doesn’t always work seamlessly but most things get done.

Our strategy for preventing the farm from taking us over and making us hate our lives is to keep the farm at a manageable scale. Two people, a seasonal apprentice, six beef cows and their calves, one milk cow, six sows and a boar, 300 layers, one acre of vegetable ground, 20 acres of pasture, 80 acres of woods, one large unheated high tunnel, one small propagation house for potted plant production with unheated cold frames, and seasonal production of our 30 feeder meat pigs and 400 poultry seem to do us fine. It is overwhelming at times but as we finally get some systems worked out, adequate infrastructure, and good markets it seems to work out.

We also have some flexibility in the system. We didn’t raise turkeys this year and that has freed up some time and removed a lot of stress since feed prices were out of control and we usually have to pre-sell our turkeys at a preset price. We milked the cow less this year leaving her with her calf much of the summer. Also, we (me especially) love to work and Karma has a gift with the animals.

On a daily basis when we get up, there are days that are already planned out. Wednesday is egg day, Friday is Market Day, and Saturday is Market. I make long lists. Karma just seems to know what needs to be done. We are less organized than some farms but much more than others. If I have a clear mind, I am able to keep things going on track. Getting behind and overwhelmed just seems to make everything snowball. We have really found that if we are able to stay on top of things, that everything is much more efficient and then we continue to be able to stay on top of things. I think it keeps on returning to the scale that we farm at. Many of our fellow farmers farm at a larger scale that both of us would feel uncomfortable with. This means we make sacrifices like buying more feed inputs from local farmers (versus doing it ourselves) but for now we are willing to make those compromises and support our other local farmers. I don’t know if that answers your question at all, Mark, but it’s a first stab. Did I also mention that Karma and I are very different so that we balance each other out? I’m writing this letter (my choice) while she is reading a book (her choice). If we were both still up I think we would burn ourselves out.

  • Michael Glos
    Berkshire, NY

Kristin and Mark – I’m overwhelmed with your youthful energy and enthusiasm. I wouldn’t know where to start with the questions of prioritization. We’ve struggled with that over the years. Maybe you need to start with long-term goals and back up from there. Keep in mind that any comments made here are by a person who has intentionally kept his farm and other home businesses small to avoid borrowing money or hiring help. The question of scale is crucial. You have to answer the question, “Do I want to be a hands on farmer out there working the fields with horses or do I want to be a manager in an office hiring employees to do the farm work?” At 500 acres, trying to do both will drive even the most type A personality to distraction. We’ve found over the years that when we increase the scale of the farm enterprise, it is difficult to maintain the quality of the product as well as the personal satisfaction of the work. For us we haven’t found much economy of scale from getting bigger.

There is a certain harmony to be strived for on the small farm where all aspects of it are in balance. If you’re always behind schedule, running from one unfinished task to another in a sort of emergency damage control, it isn’t fun anymore. You need time to smell the flowers and possibly even sleep. I admit to being in the frantic situation at times during my foolish youth. Get out there and use the horses as much as you can and still enjoy it. Beyond that, let tractors do the work or farm less land better. I did kind of like the dart board approach to priorities, though. Never tried that.

  • Bob Kidwell
    Montgomery, MI

Hello everyone, and welcome to the new contributors. I will give a brief description of our farm for you. Kris and I located in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We have a fairly dry summer-fall and a wet mild (low of 20 degrees-rare) winter. Our mixed power farm is run with about 50% horses right now but our goal is to farm with intensive bed systems using almost all horsepower. We had a period of about a year or two where we lost two of our steadiest horses, which set us back for a while. Our farm uses biodynamic methods to raise 15 types of produce, eggs, pork, and a small amount of dairy/beef. We market directly off the farm, farmer’s market, and a small fall/winter CSA that we just added this winter. I have a part-time job off the farm and Kris occasionally works off the farm, but has not done so for several years…

Scale. Over the years Kris and I have scaled down our farm to an appropriate level for us. I can’t imagine working 500 acres! That’s a lot! Our farm went from a summer CSA and market farm that grew 100 or more different varieties to about 15-25 varieties that seem to work for us. We have added grains and hay as we have gained experience and wanted to grow more feed for our animals. Thus, we are trying to scale our production to fit what we can physically and mentally handle. One of our employees has shown a real interest in all of the animal and draft related work and we are encouraging her and giving her more responsibility. So there are three of us that do most of the work, marketing, etc. We have added a small winter CSA that is easy to supply because most of the produce is already grown. So it continually evolves…

Mark and Kristin, I forgot to address your question about priorities and leadership. From what you wrote it seems there are several issues at play: scale, priorities of work that needs to be done, communication, delegation, and leadership. Your record keeping seems excellent. One of the things that we did was take a farm business management class through our extension agency and local community college – this helped immensely. One of the first things the instructor made us do was (separately) write down five short-term goals and 5 long-term goals for ourselves. We then compared our lists and tried to work them both to our advantage. You might be surprised at the results! If you have a good long-term farming partner, make them do this as well.

You can do an enterprise analysis of specific crops or groups of crops to see how they work for your bottom line.

We have daily organizational meetings before starting the day’s work and discuss priorities. Communication about a task to be done is tricky. I find that Kris and I communicate in entirely different ways. I’m pretty spatial/visual in the way I look at things so when I talk about something with Kris, who is the more literal/planner, we might have two different understandings of what was just discussed. So, I find it’s best to communicate on two planes – discuss what and how it is to be done, then set up or show an example. Most activities focus on the most profitable crops, (and this is why we dropped the CSA model of trying to grow everything [and successions of everything] in favor of 15-25 varieties that we sell at farmer’s market – this is a scale issue).

You can’t do it all! So if you find that one in a million hard-working person, who wants to farm, do your best to nurture them and give them increasing responsibilities so they become increasingly a partner, not an employee. Kris and I are looking at ways to make this eventually happen with one of our employees, if she continues to remain interested. Hope this helps.

  • Walt Bernard
    Dorena, OR

Discouraged by the poor economic picture for livestock when we started farming in the early ‘80’s, we have not tried to make a profit on the animals on the farm but instead have tried to keep this aspect of the farm manageable and fun – kind of an Old MacDonald’s homestead. The farm as a whole may have suffered as a consequence, but it does greatly simplify farm management and making priorities. For better or worse, our very conservative approach to expansion or major system changes has also greatly simplified decision-making, and in this respect, reduced farm stress. As for day-to-day planning, we make a list together over breakfast on Monday of the priorities for the week. Having part-time employees this year made us much better at this! So has the decision not to do any morning picking on Monday if at all possible. We enjoy the routine morning harvest of greens, but somehow we need to start the week with an open mind and agenda to really decide what needs to be done. Otherwise, it is too easy just to do what is most pressing. This, of course, is much more likely to happen if, like Michael says, we are working ahead of, rather than behind, schedule. But that is not always possible if the weather does not cooperate. As for our personalities and leadership roles on the farm, it really helps that we have clear cut responsibilities, areas of interest and ways of looking at things (Anne – plants, marketing, short-term planning/crisis management; Eric – livestock, fieldwork, long-term planning). So most of our weekly decision-making revolves around tasks that we work on together (planting, harvesting, moving hoophouses, etc). It is the jobs outside both of our comfort zones that get put on the backburner and often are neglected altogether.

  • Eric Nordell
    Trout Run, PA

Though Eric says that we hardly need an introduction, I am sure many of you don’t know us, so I thought I’d take a minute to fill you in. We are David Fisher and Anna Maclay. With our children Leora, age 4½, and Gabriel, age 7 months, we farm here in Conway, Massachusetts. We are situated in a small valley with some delicious sandy loam bottomland and abundant hillside pasture and woodland in our neighborhood. Though we don’t own any land, we have access to more than we can manage. We till about 7 acres in a Nordell-inspired rotation. This means about 3½ in vegetables and the remaining 3½ in a mix of green manures, forage crops, hay, and grain crops. We also cover anywhere from 20 to 40 additional acres of grass between haying, grazing sheep, and grazing horses. We have a flock of 15 muttley ewes, mainly Dorset X Border Leicester X Cheviot and their lambs. We also keep two Belgians and two Percheron X Standardbreds for all of our farm and woods work. Our farm is also home to an assortment of chickens, gardens, fruit trees, etc, for home use. We have pursued many endeavors here over the 11 years I’ve been here and 7 years Anna has been here. Among them are beef cattle, hogs, dairy cow, farmers’ markets, and wholesale produce. Currently we are primarily a CSA serving about 190 families, and we donate our excess harvest at the end of each pickup day to others in need nearby…

Mark & Kristin, I hope Anthony has turned out to be the strapping young thing you were looking for. As for organization and management, our responsibilities are divided something like so: Anna manages our finances, all marketing and CSA management including member communications, harvest management, etc. She does variety selection, seed order, and manages the greenhouse. She runs the farm shop and the household. (Makes me dizzy just to think of it all). I (David) manage crop production in the fields, fertility, livestock, pasture and hay, etc. I am the primary teamster, manage and train the crew, deal with equipment and infrastructure, logging, etc. Leora (coming age 5) is the foreman of the crew and is Pop’s copilot. We have apprentices choose areas of responsibility too, which can include things like equipment repair and maintenance, cover crop seeding, vegetable seeding, etc. In those areas we have VERY detailed schedules so there is not a lot of room for error. Naturally, we try to figure everything out in the winter months to spare us as much thinking as possible during the season. We start by making a Seasonal Planning Timeline, which I’ll attach. Any time something didn’t get done when it should have, we edit it into this list for future years. This has minimal detail, but keeps us on track. It will point us to other schedules, lists, etc. for more detail. I am happy to say that we actually kept up with this remarkably well this year (with more help on board than usual). It helps to prevent things from slipping through the cracks and helps us to prepare for crunch times. Then we have heaps of other schedules. I love schedules. Anything that I want to have happen, I put it on a schedule. Greenhouse schedule, field map and planting schedule, livestock health maintenance, horse hoof care, equipment maintenance, harness care, you name it. I also take all the major tasks and condense it into one fieldwork calendar so I have one document with the chronology. This helps me get my fields tilled adequately in advance of planting, etc. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I have very limited brain capacity. I know that if I don’t get a plan on paper, it is about 80% less likely to happen. Then, during the season, we take Saturday off, but work Sundays – apprentices just work the afternoon. Sunday morning I often work around the home and gardens (when we’re not haying), Sunday afternoon is for maintenance. We get everything tuned up for the week ahead. Then, at 4 pm we take a field walk. This is a prime learning time for the apprentices. We walk with our Master Plan book and compare field conditions to schedules. We make a lot of notes. Sunday night I look at my planning timeline, my fieldwork calendar, my greenhouse schedule, the wall calendar, and my notes from the field walk and make the weeks’ list. Monday morning we read it at morning meeting with the crew and make our daily lists from there. Sounds ridiculous? Do we spend most of our time making lists? It really works for us; it frees my brain to focus on what task I’m doing, to coordinate all the players on the team, and to be present in the world around me (occasionally). The bottom line is: more organization = less stress for me. (Anna here – sometimes I wish we had separate lists for what REALLY needs to happen asap and likely will happen that week, and for what we likely won’t get to for a while but shouldn’t be forgotten. Monday morning meeting can get pretty long sometimes.) As for cost/benefit analysis, we have tried to break down the farm into its component enterprises and look at each enterprise’s bottom line. Through this process we decided to can the sheep this year, (well, freeze them actually – mutton sausage is delicious!), as they just weren’t generating the profit to warrant all the time spent.

  • David Fisher
    Conway, MA

Greetings Circle Scribes,

At Walt’s suggestion for the new scribes

Horse (Ox) Drawn Farm: We, Ken, Kathryn and our three kids, Madeline (16 yrs), Tommy (12 yrs.) and Owen (8 yrs.) run the farm. We raise produce & flowers, lamb, beef, pork, and are slowly working towards dairy products, fresh raw milk. The produce by far is our major income, but over the years it seems that our income is evening out amongst our different operations. We presently rely on diesel and oxen power. The oxen plant and harvest potatoes, spread manure, mark and cultivate our row crops, do some field work and mowing, log, and haul our harvest wagon to and from the field every harvest day. We are toying with the idea of using them to haul our produce to market also. It presents a few problems though; one being time, but we could always get up earlier and the other more complicated one for us is shoeing the oxen. It can be done, but ox don’t take kindly to having their feet worked on. Living on an island with a population of about 3000 folks and not wanting to ship our products off island we grow an insane array of produce for the market, really just about everything. We like having many different products and ventures and are always looking for new ones to help lessen our reliance on produce. We joke that our plan is to retire from produce farming by starting our dairy. Well, like I said, we farmers are an ideal lot.

Bob: I lean more towards the idea, “farm less land better.” The oxen tell me this regularly. Their slow methodical steady approach really conveys this to me. “What is the rush? We will either get to it or we won’t. Life is pretty good right here where we are.” Now, of course, this is easier said now that we are more secure in our ability to make ends meet and have some confidence in our ability to keep this farm rolling. Also for us we have found the economy of scale in GETTING SMALLER. Having a bit of lots of different products enables us not to have to incur shipping expenses etc., while we are able to get top retail dollar for all our products. We really went for Joel Salatin’s idea that it is easier to get existing customers to buy a new product than it is to find new customers, which is a good thing for us as we only have so many folks here on the island.

Ken asked me to contribute something about how we manage and prioritize around here. So I read what he wrote and had a little giggle to myself. We have chosen in the last year or so to make a conscience effort to communicate almost every day about both farm and family issues and priorities. You know, we talk a lot! Then here I read in the circle letter that our farm is getting smaller? Imagine that! I’m the paper work gal, and I know we’re selling more dollars worth of meat and veggies that we ever have. So Ken tells me tonight we’re doing it by planting less and doing a better job. Yippy! Somehow in all those conversations I missed that tiny little management detail.

In all seriousness though, Ken and I are an awful lot alike in many ways, and both of us have lots of ideas we can quickly become attached to. We are also fairly territorial, so although it’s great that we each take care of certain aspects of our farm business, our partner’s insights are not always as well received by either of us as would probably be ideal. Getting together very often to discuss everything and anything has been a great tool for both our business and our personal relationship.

I thought I could add a little to Ken’s description of our farm operation. We farm 80 acres, and have the partial use, leased or otherwise, of another 100 acres used just as additional winter time grazing. Our home place has about 4 acres of market garden, a hoop house for tomatoes and peppers, a propagation house, a lot of previous existing infrastructure in the way of barns, a shop, buildings for our farmstand, packing shed, etc., a wood lot and probably 50 acres of pasture. In additional to the market garden we keep 40-60 crossbred ewes for butcher lambs, 3 sows and a boar, for 30-45 butcher hogs per year, two dairy cows, a self perpetuating layer/bug eating flock of motley chickens, 5-10 beef cattle, the 4 big oxen and various younger bovine. Neither Ken nor I work off the farm, and we still owe on our mortgage, have kids to get through school and have not set up any fund for retirement as yet so we need to prioritize making money from our farm operation.

The veggies as Ken said before are the centerpiece of our operation, and we manage our time for them primarily. Even having said that however, both of us are a wee bit idealistic, and have a vast array of farming fascinations which seem to grow all the time! How do you balance all this stuff? These are some examples of the things we do and the compromises we’ve made.

We don’t need sheep but I love them. We used to lamb in April, and I pastured them all over the island with my handy electric fencing, and my dogs. It was great. No feed needed, and lots of dog work. BUT it took up lots of my time so… now we lamb in February instead of April, feed a little alfalfa, and cut the flock to a number that can graze at home from April through September. The dogs help pick veggies and I still have my precious sheep. Plus they net us 4+ thousand dollars a year.

Ken’s wanted to make loose hay since I met him, and we have most of the gear, but the big tractor boys will make us round bales on any field we own or hold a lease on for $20.00/1000 lb. bale. We pick veggies and they make our hay.

We both have always wanted dairy cows but didn’t think we really had the time. (In reality we still don’t but we kid ourselves). So we’ve worked out a deal with some friends and neighbors and now we have a cow “co-op.” The co-opees are all on a milking schedule. We have milking procedures we all follow, and we share the expenses based on lbs. of milk milked. No one can buy or sell milk, if you want to drink it you’ve got to do the squeezing yourself. (We’ve sorted the men from the milkmaids this way.) With this arrangement we are able to get all the dairy for our family with some left over for the pigs; one milker brings her whey back from all her cheese making, and only have to milk two to three times a week. Anyway it’s been fun. Lots of milk, great people, days off and less expense.

I could go on and on but you get the idea. We have some specific goals. Some short-term, some long-term. Throw in our ideals, a commitment to animal powered farming, and alternative living in general. Then we talk a lot and try to work toward our ultimate and ever changing personal and family utopic visions while we scrape up enough to stay ahead of the bills in the mean time. Someday Ken’s going to load loose hay and we’ll grow grain for our pigs and lamb in April. But there’s really no hurry. We’ll just keep talking about it.

  • Kathryn and Ken Akopiantz
    Lopez, WA

Here is a brief description of Northland Sheep dairy. We farm sheep and make raw milk cheese from their milk. We milk about 45 ewes, and finish 70 to 90 lambs each year. Our sheep are all 100% grass fed. We direct market almost all our products at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market. We dabble in pigs, ducks, and vegetables, mostly for our own consumption. We farm with horses and mules, and they make all our hay, clip pastures, spread compost, skid firewood, and plow snow. In the last two years we have started to add a small amount of vegetable farming. The horses have been plowing, disking, and cultivating about a ¼ acre. This year I hope to break another ¼ acre.

How do we manage our farm? How do we prioritize what needs to be done? I think the difference between a farm that is primarily a livestock farm and one that is more mixed, or a more vegetable oriented one is interesting. While we do fall behind just like everyone else, our seasons have a very natural rhythm to them. My wife is a natural herdsman and is always thinking of and preparing for the next phase in the sheep’s life. Eric mentioned that he was responsible for long-term planning. I had to chuckle a little because one of my jobs here is to regularly pester Maryrose with my questions about what our farm should look like in the future an what should we start doing to help it get there. This I a good balance for us; one farmer well grounded in what must be done today, and this month, and another asking the big questions.

  • Donn Hewes
    Marathon, NY

We, the Glos Family, at Kingbird Farm, have farmed this 100 acres outside Ithaca, New York for close to twelve years now. Michael and I are 38 and our wunderchild, Rosie, is 12. I am full-time on the farm, Rosie is part-time at Montessori school and Michael is part-time at Cornell in organic vegetable breeding. We have a diverse farm and dabble in many things. We graze six Highland cows and Highland X Angus calves along with our Jersey dairy cow. We keep six Tamworth sows and a very handsome boar. From this hog herd we sell certified organic registered feeder pigs and breeding stock. We also pasture some tasty pork of our own. We keep a flock of 300 Black Australorp hens and are currently breeding our own replacement chicks. We also seasonally pasture 300 colored broilers, 150 Pekin ducks, and Narragansett turkeys. To top off the livestock we work a team of Haflingers and Fjords and have some youngsters in training. Managing all of this is a top-notch team of Burmese/Border Collie/Samoyed mutts and their side-kick Felix Von Spitzdaug; the cat in a dog costume.

We also mess around with plants. We cultivate a one acre market garden of storage crops: potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, and mangels. In the greenhouses we grow culinary herbs, tomatoes, chili peppers, and transplants for market. Later in the season we dry herbs, make lard soap, and garlic braids. Our farmers market runs April through December and is so good we only need to do one day a week. We also wholesale eggs and sell directly from the farm. Michael works his tail off and I just have fun…the whole thing just functions somehow!

Our farm management is a curious thing. Michael is a planner. I am random and seat of my pants. He plans rotations, makes lists, and manages his time. I step out of the house each morning and see what needs to be done. I flow around the farm from task to task prioritizing as I go. This might make my apprentice a little crazy. I see a very organic flow to things with a base in the basic laws of nature. So far, so good.

  • Karma Glos
    Berkshire, NY

I’ve been evading the question about decision making. To answer it briefly, our important long range decisions are made by having lengthy discussions until we reach an agreement. Both of us originate the ideas to be discussed. Our son thinks we discuss topics to death, considering all the pros and cons. Having no employees makes weekly or daily decisions easier. On a general livestock, hay, and grain farm like we’ve had over the years, the farm itself with its natural rhythms dictates when things need to be done. Once you’ve decided what crops and rotations you want there is a right time to do planting, cultivating, harvesting, etc. If you plan to lamb in May, weaning needs to be done in August in our pasture lambing system. Of course, changes must be made to adapt to unexpected conditions. That’s what makes farming interesting and challenging. We make a list every morning of tasks to work on that day, and keep another endless, self perpetuating list of things to be done in the next few days or weeks so nothing gets forgotten. It takes experience to set priorities and know when to move something from the “Do it sometime list” to the “Do it today” list. It’s all pretty informal.

  • Bob Kidwell
    Montgomery, MI

Certainly impressed with David and Anna’s planning and scheduling procedures for the whole farm year! Even planning a vacation! Although we have not tried this sort of forward-looking schedule-making, I realize we do somewhat of the same thing through our record-keeping. Anne writes down all of the seeding dates for the greenhouse and fields on the Kimberton Hills calendar. She keeps the last 5-6 years of the calendars tacked to the walls of the potting room and is constantly checking them to see if we are on track on what’s coming up. (Since the weather is different every year, it is nice to be able to quickly see what actually got planted when over a handful of different growing seasons.)

I spend a lot of time checking my field journal to see when field work took place in past years, check cover crop seeding rates and dates, fertility records, etc… I have two pages for each field which allows notes for details/observations on tillable, cultivation, etc, a small diagram of the basic parts of the rotation that took place (e.g. rye and vetch/LATE vegetables/interseeded vetch), and, if it is a cropping year, a chart which shows each row of vegetables in the field indicating crop planted, planting date, time of mulching or interseeding, etc. So by looking backwards we can look forwards.

The field journal also includes an equipment maintenance/repairs section; hog composting records; animal feeding details; a pasture map with grazing, fertilizer and mowing dates outlined in different color ink; photo documentation records; a list of projects completed; and two categories I have found really helpful: a section of sketches diagramming cultivator setups and adjustments so I can quickly see how I tooled up the implement for specific jobs in the past; and a section titled, “New Ideas/Things to Try,” which includes observations from the fields, changes to consider in the future, ideas picked up from reading, conferences, talking with farmers, etc… Reviewing this section before the start of the growing season often reminds me of a lot of new ideas I wanted to try but had already forgotten about or would forget about in the rush of spring work.

  • Eric Nordell
    Trout Run, PA

Dear Circlers,

So great to read everyone’s letters. It has been a good six months since we last wrote. Kristin had time to finish her book, our farmer/chef/babysitter part-timers, Barbara and Ronnie, took care of Jane four days a week, and I ran our haying operation in-house for the first time ever. The best news was that we had a happy team of employees and volunteers who seem to enjoy farming and this farm as much as we do. Our mid-summer lunch table averaged 14 people. As a result of having such a big and dedicated crew, I had a much less physically demanding season, which was okay with me…

We are working on strategies for improving our bottom line. The one that excites us the most is to work harder on closing the loop on purchased inputs. Both of us are motivated to do this more than any other farm goal, both for the challenge/satisfaction and because we spend upwards of $10,000 a year on purchased grain. Toward this end we grew 15 acres of shell corn to feed our grain-eaters – the pigs, chickens and horses. Alas, July flooding wiped out almost 80% of our possible yield. On the other hand, record potato yields and the corn we did mange to bring in has saved us substantially. We are feeding our pigs (a herd of 50, now down to 30) completely on food grown here. We boil 300 lbs. of spuds three times a week and hand pick cob corn onto a hay wagon once a week, saving us $100 per day in feed costs.

  • Mark Kimball
    Essex, NY

When I read of people in the circle that work outside jobs 9-5 or even part-time jobs, I have to believe they are super humans or else strung out on performance enhancing drugs. Often the rationale is “for health insurance” or to get cash together to fork over to the insurance thieves. What for? To grow “exotic food” for the “specialists” who live by the maxim that one must specialize to be successful. And yes, organic food is exotic food. The masses eat factory made stuff like beany-weeny and Fritos for the most part. The “specialists” need to be encouraged to grow their own tomatoes and lettuce and become far more interesting and health “generalists.” Give the savages seed at your farmers market stands and encourage them to spade up a little plot somewhere and get off their high horses that they are too important as specialists to do menial tasks that they can easily pay someone else to do from their obscene incomes as college professors or medical professionals, etc, etc.

But, I fully realize we all can’t do everything and have to buy inputs from others. I buy a lot of hay and ear corn for my pets. Thankfully, hay prices are as low as I’ve seen them in many years in this area. I’ve been buying the nicest second cutting luscious green grass, alfalfa, clover mix bales for an average of $80 a ton delivered.

I don’t know why people feel like they got to feed shelled corn to their livestock. My horses and cows eat it cob and all. They chew and grind it up themselves to get it down. When I’ve fed shelled corn a lot of it just passes through them.

  • John Coffer
    Dundee, NY

I think we have commented on most of the topics circulating around. Before getting married I kept track of every last thing I did or bought which, at the time, was not very important or useful. Now, with a farm, that would be very useful but it is something that I stopped doing. I am inspired by Eric’s descriptions of his field journal to start it again. I keep the file cabinets packed with useful records but a journal would come in handy. The closest we have is a calendar that we record most of the important livestock dates (calving, farrowing, chicks, etc).

  • Michael Glos
    Berkshire, NY

This year, taking another step down the laid-back farming road, we are only feeding our sheep their round bales with our horsedrawn unroller every four days. They don’t seem to mind and it gives me more time to fritter away on my endless electric car project.

I like the idea of a field journal. I’ve always kept short field records of planting and harvest dates, plus yields and machinery settings, but not all the details. Barbara Kingsolver in her book, Animal, Vegetable, or Miracle, mentions keeping her garden journal at her bedside to write down garden events of the day. It’s an entertaining book, by the way, about the whole local food movement. Is this a temporary fad or something small farmers can count on to continue? If I kept a field journal by the bed, I’d probably fall asleep writing in it. I might do better keeping it on the breakfast table.

  • Bob Kidwell
    Montgomery, MI


-update this seasonal planning timeline
-finish year-end bookkeeping (for past year)
-website updates
-projects list
-make budget for current year
-print CSA brochures/inserts
-CSA survey analysis – John
-greenhouse schedule
-field plans (fallow, hay, pasture, amendments)
-rotation planning
-cover crop plans
-finish hiring apprentices

-field work calendar
-cover crop seed order (late in month)
-amendment order (late in month)
-grazing/livestock management plan, plan chickens
-equipment maintenance schedule
-Sunday chores schedule
-apprentice cabin maintenance – update
-plan season’s CSA events – Harvest Fest, etc. get help?
-run CSA ad in GFM newsletter by 3/7
-stock 1st aid kits
-assemble all apprentice materials
-check apprentice housing

-apprentices arrive/orientation
-start up greenhouse
-finish logging/firewood processing
-frost seeding
-prune trees and brambles
-maintain woods roads/water bars
-begin new CSA marketing when signs of spring show: mailing, Visitor, W. County News, Ashfield News, CISA, NOFA, local harvest website, posters

-work on riverbanks
-keep up CSA marketing – re-poster, rerun GFM ad, etc.
-finish all equipment repairs/maintenance preparations
-field work begins
-order fresh hens (chicks)

-begin grazing
-plan vacation
-prepare CSA barn for action, harvest equipment + supplies

-CSA begins
-begin haying

-pull garlic EARLY July Don’t be late! Cure in greenhouse w/shade
-CPB control – potatoes & eggplants
-tomato trellising and mulching
-clean garlic asap
-herb processing – drying, pestos to freeze…
-make greenhouse ready for onions, harvest onions late July

-pull onions, windrow, then cure in greenhouse
-cover crop fallow fields mid-August, finish by end of month

-go on vacation
-hype Harvest Festival
-cut winter squash & ready greenhouse or CSA barn (w/rodent traps too)
-begin CSA renewal process late September
-prepare for frost

-update apprenticeship listings: our web, ATTRA, Rural Heritage, NOFA
-update CSA web listings: Local Harvest, NOFA, CISA
-Harvest Festival
-bring in firewood
-big root dig late in month
-pack up storage roots – home, Elwell, folks, apprentices…
-plant garlic late October
-mulch garlic IMMEDIATELY after planting

-pack up fields – irrigation, fencing, remay, tom stakes
-pack up CSA barn
-other mulching
-variety and trial analysis
-vegetable seed inventory
-cover crop seed inventory
-shop goods inventory
-clean out all water bars
-clean out silt trap in barn drain and gutters
-drain over-ground water lines before freeze up!

-shoe horses mid-month
-bring equipment home for winter
-get greenhouse soil from Harvest Farm
-stock up/move hay
-stock up all grain (livestock and human)
-stock up bedding (leaves, etc.)
-stock propane
-prune out spent rasp floricanes and burn
-field plans (veggies)
-home improvements/building projects

  • David Fisher
    Conway, MA