How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Don't have more work than you can bear. Photo Bridget Aleshire Credit Bridget Aleshire
Don’t have more work than you can bear.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

It’s late August, and we have a grueling amount of work. Help is thin on the ground, crops need harvesting, weeds need dealing with, fall planting for winter crops is calling us. I’m sure we’re not the only growers this happens to. We need to assess which crops are our priority.

Sometimes you have the time and space to grow everything you want. That’s wonderful! Other times, either land or labor is in short supply (or both). What to do? How do you decide which crops to grow? I’ve looked at this problem several times, and taken note when other farmer/writers tackle the topic.

Sometimes it is possible to reduce waste, increase productivity, increase efficiency, make more use of crops you have in abundance. If space is short you can sometimes plant closer, use transplants rather than direct seed, plant faster-maturing varieties, relay-plant one crop while the previous one is still growing, interplant a tall crop in a bed of a short crop, use rowcover to speed up maturity, and various other tricks of the trade. Here I am going to focus on shortage of time/shortage of labor, rather than shortage of land.

As in all farming, it’s best to make a plan that fits your resources. But sometimes the situation changes and less time is available than you thought. In years when we’ve been short of labor we have created a “Can’t do it all” list. We list some labor intensive crops along with their respective “decision dates,” the month that it is most labor-intensive for that crop, how expensive it would be for us to buy that crop rather than grow our own, and a few other factors. We list the crops in date order of Decision Time, then as each date approaches we review our situation and vote Keep, Down (Less) or Out. This method enables us to make one decision at a time, in a straightforward way, and not go insane.

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes Credit Ezra Freeman
Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman

Such a list leaves the door open for possible upturns of fortune later in the year. It’s less distressing to take one bite at a time than to take a big decision when you already are struggling to cope with some big calamity having happened. When is it time to cut your losses? Farming never stands still, sometimes the best way to catch up with an interminable list is to remove some items, whether you’ve done them or not. I wrote about this in the February 2013 issue of Growing for Market: Making good decisions under pressure.

Having some clear crop characteristics to base our decisions on really makes the sad task easier. The process led me to look out for information from other growers on what informs their decisions. This led to a much longer piece of writing that is too long for here. I’ll cut to the chase.

Factors to consider

Putting together various ideas, here’s my list of pointers. First be clear about your farming goals – some of the factors below will be more important to some growers than to others. Rearrange the list to suit your farm, then award each crop a point for each Yes. Knock out the crops with fewest Yeses.

  1. Is it labor efficient? (Some space-hogging crops like sweet corn are not labor intensive)
  2. Does the intense work for this crop come in at a less-busy time of year?
  3. Is this crop fast-maturing? (If labor is short, weed control might be an issue for a slow-growing crop, even if space isn’t)
  4. Is it high yielding for the space occupied (does it produce one vegetable head or 1 pound of produce, per square foot or1/2 pound/row foot)?
  5. Is it high yielding for the labor intensiveness? (Okra doesn’t provide much food for the space or the time)
  6. Does it provide multiple harvests from a single planting?
  7. Is there minimal wastage/ maximum saleable quality of the harvested crop?
  8. Does the crop require minimal time to process to be ready for sale?
  9. If you are selling, does it bring a high price, above $4 per pound?
  10. If you are growing for a household, or a non-profit, or considering buying wholesale from another farmer for your CSA: Is it expensive to replace?
  11. Is it popular (do you have a good market for it)?
  12. Is it reliably easy to grow?
  13. Is it fun or pleasantly challenging to grow?
  14. Is it forgiving of difficult weather?
  15. Is it a staple?
  16. Does it provide food at times of year when other crops are scarce?
  17. Is it an “insurance crop” which provides harvests even if other crops fail? (chard, storage root vegetables)
  18. Does it store well/easily?
  19. Does it help provide your land with a good crop rotation?
  20. Are there high pesticide levels in the commercial non-organic crop (if that’s your alternative source)? Is it in the Dirty Dozen?
  21. Does it provide appealing diversity for your booth or CSA boxes?
  22. Are you relying on this crop for personal sustenance?
  23. Is it nutritionally dense or important (a protein crop, an oil crop, a mid-winter crop?)
Celery is high on the "Dirty Dozen" list. If you eat non-organic you get lots of pesticides. We like Ventura. Photo credit Kathryn Simmons
Celery is high on the “Dirty Dozen” list. If you eat non-organic you get lots of pesticides. We like Ventura.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

2 thoughts on “How to decide which vegetable crops to grow”

  1. Thanks for the great list! We will use it this winter. We’ll also add some other questions such as:

    When is its peak period for water use?

    Does it require a fence for deer/rabbit protection?

    We hope to spread out our water use more if possible and perhaps rotate crops through one fenced area as opposed to fencing everything!

  2. Thanks Debby – these are great additions! We’ve had a horrible time this year with deer and Something, eating the hearts out of our watermelons.

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