The MOF&G Online
No One Way to the Record Books
by Marada Cook. ©2005. For information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.
As inspectors walk the fields of each of Maine's 278 organic farms, they raise the same perennial questions: "Where are the records backing up these acres? Where are the sales receipts, the seed source documentation and the farm maps? Were alliums in this field last year? Was that compost turned one time, or five times?"
For farmers trying to squeeze bookkeeping between farmers’ markets and family time, the documentation process can be daunting and, at times, discouraging. Of the 11 Maine farmers I spoke with, only one -- a business systems analyst -- willingly placed record keeping among their favorite farm jobs. Others described record maintenance as "a chore" and "boring, but necessary drudgery."
Each, though, has a system that works. For John Fromer, it's an elaborate series of spreadsheets; Nicolas Lindholm keeps a double-entry checkbook balance; Gloria Varney hires a bookkeeper; and Jill Agnew relies on her CSA shareholders’ involvement. Jim Gerritsen keeps everything in a 3" x 5" spiral-bound notepad stuffed into his shirt pocket.
"I don't expect myself to remember everything," Gerritsen says. "That's what paper is for." He scribbles the essentials to running WoodPrairie Farm in his down-to-earth record book: row footage, pounds of fertilizer per acre, and potato varieties packed out. When the weather gives him a break, Gerritsen heads to the office, where he copies the information into one of a dozen notebooks, file folders and clipboards piled on his desk. It's taken several years for WoodPraire to get eight inventory clipboards strategically placed around the farm. "I'm a great believer in incremental change," Gerritsen notes. "It's not something that happens overnight."
Varney's bookkeeping revolution happened two years ago when she started giving her sister Nezinscot Farm receipts. "I know Quickbooks is only supposed to take 15 minutes a day," she says, "but I don't have 15 minutes of undivided attention until the kids are in bed." The change has been a blessing. "It's absolutely worth it to hire a bookkeeper. Now I can get monthly or weekly readouts of what is selling in the farm store and what isn't." By visualizing her business through graphs and spreadsheets, she can decide which products to cut back and which to emphasize. "As a business owner," Varney adds, "my job is to do what I can do best, and delegate the rest to those who can do them better."
"There's really no one way," admits Kathy Newkirk, MOFGA's certification administrative assistant. "We've got some farmers who have it all computerized, and some who keep all their notes on the backs of envelopes." Inspectors look for reliable information that is readable. How farmers compile data is left to the same streak of headstrong individualism that attracted them to the fields in the first place.
Nicolas Lindholm is a farmer who would rather keep his business, and his records, like his life, simple. "I do everything on paper," he says. "For a small market garden, I don't need anything fancy." He keeps a field history, planting schedule and a checkbook. After each of Hackmatack Farm's three weekly farmers’ markets, Lindholm deposits his day's sales in the bank. His purchases also go through the checkbook and are recorded in the balance. "The nice thing about it," he says, "is that it makes certification renewal really straightforward, and I don't have to go rummaging for receipts or sales totals for the year. It's all right there."
Fromer says the same about the records he keeps on a CD-ROM. "All the spreadsheets I use to run the farm are on the CD. You should get it on Friday," he tells me, and his record keeping presentation arrives in HTML -- a skill he uses as a Web site developer and small business consultant. His spreadsheets and graphics are as elaborate and efficient as you could possibly imagine for a 1-acre market garden.
Fromer’s Appleton Ridge Flower & Vegetable Garden has 3-D landscape designs for perennial beds, a scaled map of vegetable plots, and harvest data that tally crops by variety. Fromer tracks purchase confirmation numbers and creates detailed charts of germination requirements for each of his 230 varieties of vegetable and flower seedlings. "I don't want to have to lug a book out to the greenhouse with me," he says, "so I just print out the varieties I'm planning to start that day. I can then go back and tailor the information in the charts based on my experience." He plans to make a version of his record system available to other growers... "when I'm not so busy farming."
When growers want to find time for new projects -- whether adapting Fromer's web-savvy methods or planting an extra acre -- MOFGA’s executive director Russell Libby suggests that time management is something most don't consider enough. "Most people do some kind of a work flow chart, but rarely do they budget their own time into the equation." He suggests that they trade tractor-hours for time allocation worksheets.
"You could say it's one of our New Year's resolutions," laughs Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm CSA. "We used to track our time in our first few years, but stopped once we felt we knew what we were doing." Agnew expects to reevaluate in 2005, which also means reassessing the hours in the workday. Like Gerritsen's crew, Agnew and her farm team will start recording hours alongside their activities.
Agnew's apprentices don't usually track their hours, and she admits -- as Libby has found with many new farmers -- that a few bumps will occur along the way. "Learning about record keeping is part of the apprenticeship," Agnew explains. "The apprentices help us record harvest weights. At the end of the year, I make them tally it up. If they were sloppy, or forgot an entry, they learn the results of their actions." Careless note taking becomes a year-end headache, and Agnew does not anticipate needing to teach her apprentices the same lesson twice.
Shareholders at Willow Pond also take part in recordkeeping; Agnew asks each to use a note card in the share room as his or her "credit line" and to track his or her balance. "It increases their level of involvement with the farm," she notes, "and saves me from having to bill them." Along with engaging shareholders and educating apprentices, recordkeeping plays a third role on the farm, and not just for Agnew: It "helps us stay on top of things," Agnew summarizes, "and tells us where to take the farm."
"It's not a coincidence," Gerritsen adds, "that the best run farms also have the best kept records."
About the author: Marada grew up on a Maine farm and is now a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts--as well as a vendor at the Common Ground Country Fair.
Resource: Organic Field Crops Documentation Forms are available free at www.attra.org/attra-pub/cropforms.html. Farmers can use these to document practices, inputs and activities to demonstrate compliance with regulations or to assist in other aspects of farm recordkeeping. These are not required forms but are intended to give growers a convenient and organized way to document their farming.
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