I have to admit I like farming on paper. I plan out my entire season: where everything goes in the fields, how much of what to plant, when it will be planted, how much I’ll harvest and when, all on paper. Actually, I do it on a computer. It’s all so neat and clean and perfect on paper (or the screen).  I do also like going out in the field in the spring and actually doing the farming.  At that point things frequently diverge from the plan a bit, but having the plan keeps me focused and definitely keeps my stress level much lower. It also provides a form for keeping good records and using those records to improve the planning for the following year.

In the February 2010 issue of GFM I wrote about my method for mapping out fields and keeping records on those maps.  There are two other steps to my process of making the maps that I didn’t really mention in that article: creating a harvest plan, and creating a planting plan. I use computer spreadsheets for all three of these steps in my planning process. If you’re already comfortable with computer spreadsheets I hope this article will give you some ideas for how to organize your planning. If you’re not familiar with spreadsheets and you spend a lot of time in the office every year creating crop plans, perhaps this will convince you that this is a tool worth learning. If you’re a computer wiz and you’re familiar with creating databases or programming, you can ignore all of the spreadsheet references and translate the concepts into other platforms.

I use a computer spreadsheet program called NeoOffice which is free, open source software for Macs (neooffice.org) and looks and feels a lot like Microsoft Excel (openoffice.org is the PC or Linux version). Recently I transferred all of my sheets into Numbers for Mac, which works a bit differently and was quite a learning curve.

Everything I do on the computer could be done by hand on paper and if you don’t have a computer, some of the techniques here will still be useful.  The advantage of using a computer is that if you set up your spreadsheets properly, they will automatically do calculations for you, and they are also easy to quickly sort in different ways.  The computer is a tool and the spreadsheet programs are extensions of that tool. They are a tool that take a bit of skill to use well, just like most tools on the farm, so don’t expect to sit down and have the thing work for you first try. 

Spreadsheet utility
The kinds of automatic calculations that I use vary.  I use the spreadsheet to calculate dates.  For example if I tell it I want to plant broccoli on April 1 and that it takes  four weeks for broccoli plants to mature in the greenhouse, it will tell me that I should seed the broccoli in flats on March 4. I also use it to calculate yield projections. If I expect a yield of 250 lbs. of potatoes per 100 row feet, and I tell it that I’m planting 12, 180-foot beds, it will tell me that I should expect 5,400 lbs. of potatoes.  If I tell it I’m hoping to give 200 CSA members 3 lbs. of potatoes 8 times from that one planting it will tell me that I’ll have a surplus of 600 lbs. There are many more examples but you get the idea.

There are a couple of keys here to making this work for you. First, you have to set up the sheets and the formulas that are calculating the numbers so that they make sense for you and they tell you what you want to know. You also have to put in good numbers at the start and make sure the formulas are correct. If your yield numbers are no good, the yield projections that the computer spits out won’t be either. 

Automatic calculations are nice but being able to sort large quantities of information quickly is probably even more useful. Once I have my plantings in the sheet, or even while I’m putting them in the sheet, I can sort them.  I do all sorts of sorts:  I sort them by crop so that I can look at all of my lettuce plantings; I sort them by date so I can look at what’s being planted in a particular week; I sort them by location so I can look at what’s being planted in each field.  A word of warning: be very careful sorting, as you can get into a lot of trouble by disassociating connected parts of the sheet.

In another example of sorting, I can identify all the transplanted crops, make a chart of all of the seeding in the greenhouse by seeding date, and leave space on that chart for records of what actually happens during the season. I print the chart out at the beginning of the season and a copy lives in the greenhouse for easy reference and recordkeeping, and another copy stays in my personal book for making to-do lists. I make similar charts for seed orders, beds to be prepared, plantings, and harvests.

Creating a harvest plan
The first step in my planning process for the season is to create my ideal harvest plan. For this step I make a chart which is similar to the field maps I wrote about in February. Across the top of the chart I list the harvest weeks of the year.  I do all of my planning by week. If I were to plan for a specific day to do something, I’d probably be wrong 95% of the time. If I project a week that I’m going to do something I’m much more likely to be right and it’s nice to build in a little flexibility during a week.

If I’m making a plan for CSA harvest, I fill in the number of units per share for the items under the week that I want to distribute each item. I can use the spreadsheet to give a count of the number of unique items planned for each week. I can also total up the projected value of the shares. Links to examples of these spreadsheets are posted on my website (slowhandfarm.com/More_about_the_share.html), and are available for my CSA members to view if they want to get an idea of what we’re planning for the shares. For other markets I make the same type of chart, but instead of a share by share quantity, I put a total quantity.

Creating the planting plan
Based on the harvest plan, I then create a planting plan designed to give me the quantities of the crops I want from the harvest plan, at the times I want them. The final step in the process is creating the maps I wrote about in February. The process is a bit circular because usually I create a harvest plan that is somewhat unrealistic, requiring too much space and that becomes most obvious when I create maps, at which point I have to go back and edit the harvest plan and planting plan to match the space available.

For the planting plan, my sheet is usually quite large and I carry as much information about each planting as possible within a single row of the sheet. Depending on the farm (I’ve created these for at least five unique farms at this point) I modify the information I include, as well as the formulas that do the automatic calculations. I’ll give an example of the type of information I include for each individual planting based on  my very small farm. 

I start with the crop type and then the variety.  I use the next ten columns to create a yield calculator.  For example, I put in columns for the unit (pounds, bunches, etc.), a typical yield for a known space, the price per unit, the number of weeks I want to harvest from that planting, and the quantity I want to harvest each week (information that comes from the harvest plan I’ve already made).  Formulas in other columns then tell me how much my total expected yield is, how much of that I need for my market, and how much is surplus, as well as projecting a gross income from that planting. I don’t always use this section for all of my crops, but it’s helpful if I’m trying to guess how much of a new crop to plant, or if I want to get a sense of how much a planting might gross.

The second group of columns is all of the planting information needed in the field. Is the crop direct seed or transplant? How many rows in a bed? What’s the in-line spacing? What field is it going into? How many beds are being planted (or fractions of beds)? What week are we hoping to get it in the ground? Plus any special notes for the planting. Some of the formulas in the yield calculator use some of this information, and all of it is useful to give to a planting crew to make it absolutely clear how to plant the crop.

My third grouping of columns is a harvest projection calculator.  Like the yield calculator section this is mostly useful for figuring out how to adjust planting weeks in order to get as close as possible to a hoped-for harvest week. It includes data fields for catalog days to maturity and actual weeks to maturity, which are based on past experience, or best guesses.  Using the actual weeks and the planting week it calculates a projection of the first harvest week, and if given a number of weeks that the planting is to be harvested it will also give the final harvest week projection.

A fourth grouping gives all of the information necessary for growing starts in a greenhouse. For direct seeded crops these fields are left blank, but if the crop is to be transplanted, and therefore started in the greenhouse, all of the information that the greenhouse crew needs is here:  the week to seed, which is calculated from the planting week and the weeks to maturity in the greenhouse, the number of plants needed based on the number of beds and the spacing, estimates of the number of seeds that should be seeded based on a generous cushion and the germination rates of the seeds, plug tray sizes to use, the number of trays to seed, and any special notes on the seeding. For direct seeded crops there are a separate group of columns that detail the seeding method to be used, any seeder settings and particular notes.

Finally there is a group of columns for planning and organizing seed ordering.  This starts with a section that estimates the number and weight of seeds needed for the planting to help with selecting the most appropriate quantity when looking through seed catalogs. There are also columns for indicating the seed company to order from, the order quantity, the order code and the cost.

I want to reiterate that every single separate planting gets all of this information included — except some of the seed ordering information that I’ll talk about later.  So if you are planting three different carrot varieties into one bed on the same week, each one of those would be considered a separate planting.  Similarly, if you’re planting four beds of the same carrot variety for three weeks in a row, that would be considered three separate plantings. 

This might seem like a lot of repeated information, and it is, but it’s relatively easy to copy much of the information over from similar plantings.  Also, during the season this really makes it much clearer to everyone on the crew what the plan is for any individual planting. 

This entire process is not a short one. Plans often include 400-600 separate plantings in one season.  Even when it’s just being edited from a previous year and not created from scratch, I give myself two full weeks of sitting in front of previous years’ records, a computer screen and lots of seed catalogs to complete the process.  Here in the Northwest I like to do my planning in November, hoping to finish before the New Year and have my seed order in by early January. We start seeding in the greenhouse in late January so it’s easiest if I’m all done by then and the seed is already arriving.

For more tips from Josh on using spreadsheets, go to www.growingformarket.com/articles/crop-planning-spreadsheets