This article is a guest post by Laura Meister of Farm Girl Farm in Sheffield, MA.
When I started growing vegetables ten years ago, it was all I could do to keep up with the start-up math: how many square feet in an acre again? How many CSA members do we think we can sign up in our first season? How much food do they expect in a box? How many weeks are we serving them? So, then, how much do we grow? How much can we grow? And how many seeds does that mean? And when I finally had all those numbers banged out, I was nearly done in by the Fedco catalog—now I’ve got to convert ounces to grams? Are you kidding me?
Once all that was more or less behind me and the arrival of spring forced my attention to the real playing field—the actual field, I abandoned my desk entirely. I thought I’d made my plans well enough and if I now rode the rollercoaster with my white knuckles gripping the bar until Thanksgiving, I’d surely have some money in my pocket to show for all this sweat.
I worked hard. Really hard. Really goddamned hard. You know how hard I worked because you work that way too. I barely slept. I lost my business partner because it turned out this kind of hard work was not what she’d had in mind. Although I made every rookie mistake in the book, I managed to wrestle some produce from the ground and feed my 40 CSA members. I even had some surplus so I started calling scary chefs who turned out to be less scary than I thought and wanted to buy what I was selling. So when the snow finally flew that fall, I thought I’d had a pretty successful season.
But I had no money in the bank and a giant credit card bill from start-up expenses that I’d never repaid. So I got a job stocking produce at our local Co-op and worked until late spring the following season. Thank god for that job, but I thought I’d be able to use the winter months to plan the next season and go to a few yoga classes to heal my back. So I started Season Two behind the 8-ball, as my mother says.
One thing was clear to me—my farming days were numbered. I could not afford to work another season of blood, sweat, and tears, only to find myself perhaps deeper in debt than after season 1. I knew I had to do something, and I knew I couldn’t possibly work harder, so I was going to have to work differently. In my neighborhood, an organization to support farmers called Berkshire Grown sponsored a business class called “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity”, a 10-week class designed for new farm operators. I signed up.
We were invited to bring our financial records from previous seasons. I had none. Not a receipt, not an invoice. The last thing I’d written down was where I was going to plant the tomatoes. So I started from scratch. “It’s ok,” my instructor said. “Guess.” With his coaching I guessed at every single expense for the coming season, by month, and potential revenue from all my potential customers and income sources. Tedious does not begin to describe the process. But at the end, I had a cash flow plan. I used that plan like a roadmap for Season Two. Whenever a decision came at me, instead of wavering, hemming and hawing, I simply looked at my plan—a friend wanted to come work for me for the season, could I afford her? (No.) Should I buy the tractor that sounds exactly like the one I need? (Not now.) How many tomato stakes can I buy this week, and how many if I wait until next week? (100 now and 100 next week). That cash flow plan was my North Star.
At first, I thought it was an amazing coincidence that my real numbers turned out to be so close to what I’d guessed. Later I realized the enormous impact of having a plan: I didn’t go wildly over my projected expenses because I consulted the plan before I spent money. If my income wasn’t adding up to the projections, I made a couple more phone calls, and sold a few more turnips until I was where I was supposed to be.
There have been good seasons and bad seasons since those first two — some years I had a solid plan, some years I had tomato blight or a hurricane. After those disasters I was very resistant to facing my numbers and making a good plan for the following season, it was just too depressing. Other years, like this past winter working with Julia, I rolled up my sleeves and got way down and dirty with the details.
I know now that ignoring the numbers and expecting to be able to continue to do the work I love is tantamount to not eating and expecting to be able to work through the day. If I don’t take care of the numbers, I will be back at that produce-stocking job in a heartbeat. Believe it or not, I now look forward to my time with the numbers. I used to think they were black and white and boring, but they are magical and powerful teachers, and they are the keys to the kingdom.
Here’s to our calculators and a successful growing season.