The Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture (ECH) has gathered a diverse group of vegetable growers and agriculture professionals to identify the most useful data and data collection methods and engage in data collection on farms across the state. Over a three-year period data will be collected monthly and aggregated data shared online twice a year. By the project’s end, a Northern Plains Specialty Crop Data Toolkit will be published online including all data collected and the data collection tools used. The Data Toolkit will be a resource Northern Plains specialty crop growers will use in farm business planning for increased social, environmental, and economic sustainability.
1. Selection of at least five data types which farmers will collect
2. Selection of the best collection and reporting tools for those five data types
3. Monthly data collection reports from 10 partner farmers submitted to ECH staff
4. Two data reports per year posted to the ECH website, showing aggregated farmer data on at least five types of data.
North Dakota’s growers face unique obstacles to successfully meeting the meet increased demand for fresh, local produce. While growing vegetables and fruit for farmers markets, direct farm sales and CSAs is challenging everywhere, North Dakota’s small-scale growers must deal with a colder climate and shorter growing season, sparser population, and a less established support network of fresh market vegetable growers than in other states.
ECH client farmers have consistently reported that a challenge they face in establishing their CSA farms and farmers market businesses is a lack of access to data. For example a farmer establishing a new vegetable enterprise might wonder how many pounds of carrots they can expect to produce per foot as they are laying out rows. Farmers setting up a new CSA might wonder how many tomato plants they need to grow to meet the expectations of their customers. A grower with a newly erected high tunnel may know their planting and harvest dates outdoors, but wonder when to begin planting in the high tunnel and how long to expect their harvest to be extended. A grower selling at the farmers market for the first time might wonder what prices customers are willing to pay.
Market and production data can help the farmers plan for the next growing season and their farms’ future. While planning tools and data are available for other crops and other regions, no data and few tools are available for farmers market and direct sales growers in North Dakota.
This data collection project has been designed with thought toward addressing constraints. The partner farmers are all very busy running their farms and even the most central meeting locations still require at least two hours of travel for some farmers. Advisory board meetings will be kept to two per year. Funds are requested in the budget for online meeting subscription services that allow the ECH to conduct one of the two yearly meetings online. Also a travel stipend will be provided to reduce the travel burden for the one annual face to face meeting.
Research shows that opportunities are ripe to expand small-scale, direct market produce businesses. In order to sustainably grow farm enterprises, farmers need access to data for farm business planning. This project will meet the need for direct market vegetable and fruit production and market data by engaging farmers in identifying what is most needed and collecting the data on their farms. In meeting this need, the data collection project will help to increase the social, environmental and economic sustainability of Northern Plains direct market farms.
This project is rooted in involvement and input from partner farmers and agriculture professionals. Farmers know best what data and tools will help them further develop their farm enterprises and their input is vital to the project’s success. A project advisory board of five farmers and three agriculture professionals has been identified and all members have agreed to participate and submitted letters of support The advisory board consists of experienced partner farmers and agriculture professionals, all of whom currently operate or have operated their own farm as well as providing assistance to other farmers. Several of the advisory board members have extensive experience in collecting data and using data in farm business management on grain farms. The advisory board provides direction and oversight to the project.
Using the results of a farmer survey and based on their own experience the advisory board determined determine which types of data (at least five different types) small-scale vegetable growers need most and which data collection tools will be most effective. Ten partner farmers participating in data collection attended a training workshop in data collection methods. The farmers collect data over the course of the three-year project period, reporting their data monthly to ECH staff who aggregate and analyze the data and publish data sets on the ECH website twice per year. A final Northern Plains Specialty Crop Data Toolkit will be published on the ECH website at the project’s conclusion. The Data Toolkit will include all of the data sets collected and data collection tools.
Based on the questions the ECH staff have received from the farmers they assist, they determined farmers may want to know average first planting dates according to which part of the state a farm is in. Other data types include first harvest dates and final harvest dates for various vegetable crops, yield data such as the number of pounds of a crop that can be harvested per foot of row planted. Farmers Market vendors might want pricing data to help them determine how to price their vegetables.
Prior to the advisory board’s first meeting, ECH staff conducted an online survey of small-scale vegetable growers in North Dakota. This includes over thirty growers who receive technical assistance from the ECH and over 120 farmers market and direct sales growers across the state. The survey asked farmers questions about the types of data that could help them in planning for their farm businesses and what types of data they wish they’d had access to when they first started. It also asked about farmers’ proficiency with online tools and software and included questions about farmers’ engagement in farm business planning.
In the first advisory board meeting, the board discussed the results of the survey as well as their own data needs on their farms or the needs of farmers they serve. Based on this discussion the advisory board selected the five types of data identified by farmers as most necessary. In addition to choosing the types of data collected, the advisory board also weighed in on the tools used both to collect and record data. Depending on data collected, the ECH provided partner farmers with thermometers, scales or other equipment to ensure they have the tools they needed and were using uniform collection methods. The advisory board also discussed what tools to provide farmers for recording data. For some types of data, digital photographs work best, provided they are labeled well. Some farmers prefer to simply use a pencil and notepad. The advisory board discussed what collection tools and data recording tools to use prior to the training session so that the ECH could provide those tools to farmers.
A data collection training session was held for partner farmers and advisory board members after the types of data were chosen. At this session ECH staff and farmers decided which farmers would collect which types of data. Farmers were provided with the tools to collect and record the data they collect. A monthly data reporting system was set up and farmers were trained on using the data collection equipment and reporting tools and monthly data reporting system.
The ten partner farmers who collect data have been carefully selected with an eye toward creating a diverse pool of growers collecting data. These farmers are located across the state in regions with varying climates, and populations. Farmers in the northern part of the state are in zone 3b with an average low temperature of -35 to -30 degrees F, while farmers in the southern part of the state are in zone 4a with an average low temp of -30 to -25 degrees F. Four Seasons Farm is in Bottineau County which has areas that fall in zone 3a, with average low temps of -40 to -35 degrees F and farms in LaMoure County and Sioux County (Sue Isbell) are near warmer pockets and small patches of zone 4b with average low temps of -25 to -20 degrees F.
Additionally, the farmers vary in their expertise and access to tools and resources. Some, but not all, of the partner farmers have high tunnels, which allow them to plant earlier and harvest later. Some farmers already collect data for their own use in farm planning. Because of this diversity the farmers will not all collect the same data. Farmers will be assigned different data collection projects based on their resources and expertise. For example, North Star Farms excels at tracking the weight of the produce they grow and making comparisons from one year to the next, thus it is logical to assign that data type to North Star Farms.
Data will be collected throughout the three-year grant project period. Because the project period begins in October 2015 and ends in September 2018 the third year’s growing season will not be quite finished when the project period ends. The ECH will report on the data that has been collected by September 30, 2018 and farmers will continue collecting data through the conclusion of the 2018 growing season with the final month’s data added to the data sets after the grant project period is over.
As farmers report their monthly data, ECH staff aggregate and analyze the data that is reported. Aggregated data sets will be uploaded to the ECH website twice a year. The first farmer data reports began coming in to the ECH staff between April and June of 2016 and the first reports would were posted to the ECH website in September 2016, reporting on what was tracked in April – August 2016 and the second in January 2017, reporting the full 2016 growing season.
Each farm collecting data receives at least one on-farm visit from ECH staff during the course of the project. ECH staff monitor the data collection and provide guidance as needed.
In April 2018 a second survey will be sent vegetable and fruit growers across the state. The survey will ask questions to determine if farmers are aware of the new data sets, if they are using the newly available data, and if their farm business planning has increased.
By the end of the project period (September 30, 2018) farmers will have recorded data for nearly three full growing seasons (except for final harvest and/or temperatures for October 2018). At least five data sets covering three growing seasons will be published to the ECH website with each set having data from at least two and up to ten farmers. Each data set would be one type of data, for example, yield of a vegetable crop by planted size, recorded by five different farms.
The following key points were identified in 2016 and 2017 through this data collection process:
o Plant and Harvest Dates
- Farmers chose their plant and harvest dates based on personal needs first; then on weather permissibility. Most do not adjust their planting dates to capture market demand or to affect overall profitability or marketability. Collecting plant and harvest dates was easiest for farmers who used a google doc form to input the data straight from the field. However, many of the participating farmers do not use their smart phones as farm management tools.
o Harvest Yields
- 10 specific crops were identified at the beginning of the growing season. Seven of the ten producers were tasked to collect their harvest yields on these crops. This was also the most difficult information for farmers to collect.
- Data was so explicit to each farm, that it is impossible to accumulate it into a whole data set. There are too many variables that affect harvest yield from farm to farm for the data be considered useful as an aggregate. Individual farmers would likely benefit from monitoring this data for themselves, comparing their production from year to year; but there is no simple collection system at this time that fits all or most farmers’ management systems.
- Data yields of various crops may be useful to potential start-ups and service providers (mainly lenders) by showing the yield time pattern of harvest yields throughout the growing season. For instance, farmers may be able to determine that they expect to harvest 10 pounds of tomatoes per plant throughout a growing season. But, it would be beneficial to also realize that most of those ten pounds are harvested during a peak production week (or few) with lesser pounds being harvested before and after the peak. We do not currently have data in North Dakota (or by region) showing when those peak production weeks are for various crops, so that farmers can plan their marketing or develop markets for specialty crops accordingly, however by the final year of the project some speculations may exist.
- All participating farmers did not grow enough of each chosen crop to warrant collecting harvest yield off of them. Further, most did not want to collect harvest yield for all ten crops. Considering we cannot accurately combine the information from farm to farm, each farmer was asked to only collect yield data on one or two crops that they grow the most of, so that the data is functional and useful for the end user.
o Revenue and Expenses
- The farmers collecting this data varied in the level of information they opted to share. One farmer uses Quicken and was easily able to share their monthly data. Another uses an excel worksheet, by which they monitor their financial activity; this works well for their management and the grant’s data collection process as well. Two farmers submitted very basic information that does not reflect a full picture of their operation. All of the 2016 financial information is skewed, due to the timing of the producer training meeting. Data from 2017 was more complete. Financial data should be collected from January through December. The most valuable information we can hope to collect/disseminate through this category would be a few case studies (highlighting how much product by sales could be sold off of a given acreage) and a few pictures of potential cash flows scenarios for various marketing strategies. It may also be useful to see how large capital expenses affect farmer’s cash flow. For instance, if they do not borrow or already have money for capital expenses, do they expect the farm operation to pay for its operating and capital expenses each year? If so, how does that affect their overall operation and long term stability?
o High Tunnel Soil Tests
- Farmers had no trouble collecting their high tunnel soil data. Many were glad that they did. Soil data from 2016 was compared to subsequent year’s soil data to try and identify a trend. Again, one cannot oversimplify the data collected, as each farmer manages their high tunnel differently. Most producers add organic material (manure compost, or others) each year, whether they need the nutrients or not. This practice skews the data collected. Perhaps due to the arbitrary inclusion of compost type products, there is an obvious reading of high potassium in many of our tested tunnels. A publication describing best high tunnel soil management practices, from year to year, would be useful. (After a discussion with NRCS soil specialist at the local foods conference, she is going to try to get a new soil scientist to produce this.)
o Market Channels (as a % of sales revenue)
- This data is reported based on sales revenue. During 2016 and 2017 this was only collected from the few farmers who were reporting their expenses and revenue. Beginning farmers and service providers may find it useful to become familiar with the various marketing mixes experienced specialty crop farmers use to sell their products.
2016 and 2017 Grant Results
Through the activities of this SARE grant, we have established a baseline for a few data sets that may be useful to small farm stakeholders in the Northern Plains. We also have established a database of case studies for our farmer participants, and hope to work with them throughout the next year to collect as much data and knowledge as is possible, from their working operations. The Advisory Board will meet again in early 2018 via a conference call and look at ways to improve our data collection and processes, to achieve the most impact for the grant project. They will also meet at the project end to discuss best practices for dissemination of information.
- 5 data types were identified as potentially useful information for: service providers, start-up farmers, and current farmers. They were: Plant and Harvest Dates, Harvest Yields, Revenue and Expenses, High Tunnel Soil Tests, Market Channels (as a % of sales revenue) instead of 10.
- Each participant was responsible to collect two or three of the 5 data sets.
- Data collection did not begin until April/May 2016.
- About ½ of the participating farmers got their data collected and turned in monthly with ease. Others had farming difficulties and were not able to collect and disseminate their data easily.
- One farmer quit farming after the 2016 growing season and was replaced with a new cooperating farmer. An additional farmer quit in 2017 and was also replaced. The Farm Manager position at DCB was vacant in 2017 and thus no data exists for the 2017 growing season for this location.