Understanding On-Farm Costs of Production

Final Report for FW16-031

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $9,400.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Sarah Brown
Diggin' Roots Farm
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Project Information

Abstract:

Diggin’ Roots Farm is pleased to report the successful completion of this project. Determining on-farm costs of production is a significant task and with the support of WSARE the farm was able to develop the systems and infrastructure to facilitate data collection and integrate this work into everyday tasks.

Introduction

During the 2015 and 2016 growing seasons, Diggin’ Roots Farm participated in a Cost Study Cohort Pilot project that was developed and facilitated by Oregon Tilth and OSU. This project used an activity-based time study approach that focused on one activity on the farm at a time. For example, during the spring we spent a few weeks recording the time it takes to do various activities in the greenhouse. The activity areas followed the typical progression of the growing season starting with greenhouse, and moving on to bed preparation, seeding and planting, watering, weeding and trellising, harvesting and post harvest handling, marketing, cover cropping and field clean up. The majority of what was tracked focused on the time it takes to do various activities related to a unit of space of a unit of crop (count or weight). This project proposed the development of farm and employee systems and capacity to facilitate successful data collection.

Project Objectives:

Diggin’ Roots Farm met all proposed objectives. Staff training and time tracking occurred as outlined in the project proposal. Data analysis was slightly delayed but did occur and provided useful insight that was later included in the case study. 

Due to the complex nature of the work in-person engagements allowed for greater explanation and understanding for farmer audiences. Diggin’ Roots Farm joined Oregon Tilth to present a farmer’s experience collecting time study data at the following events:

  • OSU Small Farms Conference, Feb. 18th, Tracking and Using Cost of Production Information, 80 farmers in attendance.
  • Headwaters Incubator Project, January 23rd, Intro to Business Management Class, 15 beginning farmers in attendance.

Unfortunately workshop proposals were not accepted for Ecofarm, Organicology, or the North Willamette Horticulture Society Annual Organic Day.

The written case study was developed and shared through farmer networks, including the 50 farmer Cost Study listserv in Oregon and Washington. Oregon Tilth and OSU are planning on developing the case study into a video to incorporate into their online Growing Farms curriculum. This has the potential to reach a much greater audience than expected with this proposed project.

Information about this project was included in the farm newsletter. Further outreach materials are being considered. The farm regularly fields inquiries from farmer’s market customers regarding price and is therefore considering an informational postcard providing increased transparency and explanation for customers hoping to understand what prices include.

Research

Materials and methods:

Data entry on the farm is a constant challenge. Notebooks and clipboards are moved; pages fade, and papers are lost. End of year data entry is difficult due to messy handwriting, incomplete information, and issues with unit consistency and conversion. With this project, we developed data entry stations using networked tablets. Creating centralized locations, or hubs, where the farm crew naturally congregates is key to making data entry successful. By using networked tablets, papers weren’t lost, data was easily calculated and summarized, and we avoided issues of duplication, redundant data/pages, and illegible handwriting. Time study data on harvest, post harvest, and transplant production were recorded in these locations.

In addition to setting up these stations, we integrated data collection into pre-existing forms. This simplified and streamlined recordkeeping for our organic certification, time studies, and production records.

For data collection of fieldwork, transplanting, weeding, irrigation, and plant care, we printed out and laminated a poster-sized entry form and posted it adjacent to the harvest data entry location.

Developing systems and infrastructure are critical to ensuring that information is collected and recorded. An equally critical piece of the puzzle is to give farm workers (ourselves included) the training, guidance, and accountability needed to ensure that the people part of the system is functioning. For the 2016 season, this meant an all staff pre-season training and planning meeting. As noted on the record keeping sheets, time study responsibilities were assigned at our weekly meetings or in the morning on harvest days.

Once data was collected we relied on the calculator developed by Oregon Tilth and OSU to compute our farm’s unique costs of production. The calculator utilized the time studies as well as information that we inputted on overhead, marketing costs, yields, salary, and all other expenses.

 

Research results and discussion:

This project has impacted our farm in unparalleled ways. More than anything, it has created awareness for everyone working on the farm that minutes matter. That’s not to say that we cannot enjoy or take pleasure in the work, but rather that in order to sustain the farm and support those working here we must be cognizant and aware of how we use our time.

The data that we’ve collected has been incredibly informative for determining prices for 2017 as well as for assessing our crop mix. As an example, we are able to establish a crop list and pre-season prices for a new restaurant relationship. We are also looking closely at our crop mix and scaling back the least profitable crops while conversely scaling up those where we see clear, healthy margins. Already in early 2017 we are capturing yield and time study numbers to check our data and reassess pricing.

The farmer with whom we’ve shared our experience have been incredibly interested and engaged. Over the past year we’ve seen dozens of new farmers explore and adopt this work into their farming operations. As more and more farmers utilize this approach and develop functioning systems to support it we expect even more will adopt it.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

As outlined in the proposal, Diggin’ Roots Farms developed a case study outlining the experience of implementing time studies and developing data collection systems. There were many additional lessons that we learned about the process and our farm itself. These lessons are unique to our operation- soils, humans, equipment, varieties, etc. – and we offer them in the case study with the hope that it will inspire others to embark on similar journeys to ensure their own farm’s long-term viability.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Significant improvements were made in on-farm systems, procedures, and infrastructure to enable data collection. It was incredibly helpful to have the capacity to ensure all staff on the farm were trained on this project and it’s implementation. Data collection of this scope would have been impossible without the involvement of all staff. It was quite an accomplishment to have staff and interns engaged and thinking critically about the importance of this work. It was also a learning experience for us in terms of the importance of staff buy-in and ownership over their role in this project.

Developing the physical space and incorporating the data collection into existing record keeping documents and procedures significantly impacted our ability to succeed. As stated in our proposal this data is collected during the busiest times of the year. Funding from WSARE allowed us to accomplish what we otherwise would not have- the collection of sufficient data to analyze and develop crop-specific costs of production. It also ensured that our experience was documented and shared with a larger farmer audience. Farmers who attended those workshops were highly engaged and there is increased interest in adoption of the time study approach.

Recommendations:

Future Recommendations

Nothing in our small handful of years farming has been nearly as impactful as this work (except maybe our first tractor purchase). We’ve always known that a farm needs to be treated as a business, but the resources and tools out there are often not applicable or appropriate for our scale, diversity, or production system. The insights gained by adopting OSU/Oregon Tilth’s approach impact our work everyday. The systems that we develop, with funding from WSARE, to support this approach on our farm are expected to be in use indefinitely. We urge WSARE to continue funding work aimed at supporting farmers to understand their own unique on-farm costs of production. Sustainable farming relies on farm’s financial viability and this work is the best approach we’ve seen for diversified operations like ours. Oregon Tilth and OSU should be empowered to further develop this approach for use with livestock and perennial growers and create an online platform that is widely accessible across the region.

As Diggin’ Roots Farm grows, learns, and adapts, we intend to continue the training, integration, and time study work implemented in this project to ensure that we stay efficient, productive, and viable now and into the future.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.