Striking a Balance: A Recipe to Become a Happier Farmer

In my last blog post, "Reflect, Refine, and Refresh for a Long Farming Career," I talked about the importance of setting boundaries between farming and personal life to sustain a farming business over the long haul. This week, I’ll go into more depth on how I reflect on the past season to make time for personal activities, improve my business, and maintain my passion for farming.

A simple way to do this is to grab a piece of paper and a pen and list what did work over the past farming season and what didn't.

Nothing is too little or too odd to add to the list. The point is to have all of your thoughts on paper so you can analyze them and take steps to create more balance in your farming life. Don’t forget to take inventory of your personal life too. Add things you want to do or make space for that keep getting pushed aside because of relentless farm work.

Here’s a list of possible topics to help guide your brainstorming. You may want to just focus on certain topics. You can also use this reflection sheet to help organize your thoughts.

Topics to Consider in Your Brainstorm

  • people and workers
  • equipment
  • crops
  • livestock
  • markets and sales outlets
  • business partnerships
  • return on investment (money and time)
  • acreage
  • landlord relationships and leases
  • costs of production
  • value-added products
  • personal thoughts on the season
  • personal life and nonfarm activities

Making an Action Plan

Once you have your list, think about what measures you can take now to get ahead of issues that may become a problem in the upcoming season. You can organize your thoughts however works best for you.

Here’s an example of how I use the reflection sheet to identify desired outcomes for next season, as well as steps to take toward those outcomes.

ItemWhat WorkedWhat Didn't WorkDesired OutcomeAction Steps
grocery store account
  • guaranteed sale
  • near the farm
  • can harvest several times a week and deliver
  • great new account
  • ran short on lettuce and niche items at farmers' markets
  • over-picked bunched greens and now they're growing back slowly
  • keep account
  • adjust plantings to meet store needs
  • increase plantings of certain items we ran short on
  • plant other items just for the grocery store
older diesel tractors
  • no payment
  • worried about break downs
  • parts hard to locate
  • time lost repairing tractors
  • having reliable tractors
my son's school is distance learning due to COVID-19 
  • farming while distance learning with my son
  • carve out time during the season to facilitate distance learning properly, without stress
  • having a family member support me so I can work full Tuesdays and Thursdays so that I'm available for schooling on Monday, Wednesday, Friday

What I Learned From My Reflection

Here are some of the key points I took away from my reflection on the past season.

Things That Keep Me Passionate About Farming

Increase Experimental Crops – I enjoy the process of growing new crops on a small scale to see how well they grow and sell before committing to planting on a larger scale. This is one of my passions and something I can do at my home farm while I am at home distance learning with my son. This past year I increased my passion fruit plantings and moved them into the bigger production greenhouse, making space for some yellow dragon fruit. I want to try growing horseradish, red kiwi berries, and Belgian endive this year, so I have purchased roots and plants.

Saving Time, Money, and Energy

Acreage Downsized – Last year I gave up 5 acres of warmer-growing ground 5 miles away from my coastal ground because, over the years, the road has become more dangerous for moving equipment. I can still grow tomatoes and peppers on the coast. I just plant smaller varieties that ripen quicker. The tomatoes come on only two weeks later than those grown on the warmer ranch. I saved a lot of money and time last year since everything is at the same ranch now.

Equipment – We use older diesel tractors that are becoming too problematic, needing frequent repairs and parts that are hard to locate. I found a program that will take your old tractors and give you funds to buy a newer and more emissions-efficient tractor. I am going to apply to this program with hopes of buying a newer tractor. If we get the grant, or even if we need to finance part of it, we’ll likely get a newer tractor that is smaller and easier to maintain and gives us the confidence it will not break down in the middle of the harvest season.

Bookkeeper – Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my bookkeeper visited the farm once a week. These weekly in-person meetings ended with the shelter-in-place orders. The loss of this weekly meeting had both negative and positive impacts on my business. On the positive side, I realized I could save $8,000 a year if I took on some of the work that the bookkeeper had done in the past. Now I pay bills and renew certificates, but I still drop off files at my bookkeeper's home so she can do the filing and QuickBooks entries. On the negative side, I found that my office was much messier since I didn’t keep it orderly for my weekly bookkeeping meetings. This caused me a lot of frustration and I was overwhelmed when I tried to locate things I needed.

Given the $8,000 savings, I may stick with the hybrid model going forward. It also gives me back the time I would spend each week with the bookkeeper. But I will need to carve some time out each week to keep my office tidy to avoid frustration.

Balancing Farming and Personal Activities

Personal Goals – Spending more quality time with my son during the season is a major goal. It feels like the quality time is limited at the height of the season because tasks come first. I will make space for new hobbies that my son and I are interested in, like learning archery and working with our horses. I will block out time on my calendar each week to make sure that work does not take over that time.

Summing Things Up

Each year, reflecting on the lessons I have learned from the last season helps me make changes to improve my farming business going forward. I feel calmer because I have anticipated some of the issues that might arise and will be making efforts to mitigate potential problems. This planning allows me to be more productive in less time. This, in turn, makes space for more quality time with my family.

What changes will you make to enjoy your work in 2021? With some forethought and effort to brainstorm about and analyze your farm business, you can be less stressed and more profitable in this coming season.

In my next blog post, I will discuss staffing and how to delegate responsibilities for a good outcome. Keep following as we spend the winter fine-tuning for success!

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This article was written by Jamie Collins.

About the Author: Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF-certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, California, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and farm and marketing consultant and writes about food and farming for various publications.

Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.

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