Book Review: The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office: Tools, Tips and Templates to Successfully Manage a Growing Farm Business,  Julia Shanks, New Society Publishers, 2016

Farmers don’t go into farming because they want to do accounting or develop their business skills, and yet these skills are vital to success. We all want success! Get Julia Shanks’ book, quickly understand what you need to do, make time to do that as often as you need to, and move on to your next production task. You can save the time you would have thrown away on exhausting but wasted work. Be more successful, be less exhausted! This book review will be shorter than my usual ones. Just because I’ve no intention of leading you through the technicalities step-by-step. It’s an extremely useful and well-written book.

This is a very user-friendly book. Julia understands that farming is exhausting work. Julia understands farming, and has earned her stripes growing vegetables. Julia understands accounting and business management too. She explains concisely, very clearly, and provides examples and little stories to help us get to grips with the subject. She leads us to take a clear-eyed look at where we make money and where we don’t, which empowers us to make the decisions that are ours to make. We owe it to ourselves to stop the magical thinking that if we only work harder, everything will come out OK. Too many farmers have crashed and burned that way.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Julia tells how (in her first year of business school) she used a computer model to help a farmer friend determine how much of each of ten crops to grow. The silly computer program answer was to grow only okra and sweet potatoes! But behind that foolish suggestion was the information that his tomatoes were only earning 12 cents/case! Now that is useful information! What would you do if that’s what your tomatoes were earning? Raise the price and explain to your customers? Stop growing tomatoes? Knowingly sell tomatoes at that low profit as a way to attract customers? Any of these decisions might be the right one for your farm.

Like all money management texts, this book has warnings: Julia has used a simplified approach good enough for agriculture but not for taxes! She tells us when we should consult an accountant, tax advisor or payroll service provider. This 250 page book has 10 chapters of 6-30 pages, a glossary and 5 appendices. Everyone is advised to start with chapters 1 and 2. After that you can pick the ones you need and plan your own DIY course of study. Always eat your elephants one bite at a time! See the chart on page xxi, which points out lines of inquiry depending on your situation.

And here’s another aspect that makes this book special: there are pointers towards videos and webinars that Julia has made, on her website. But buy the book first, and know where you’re going! The price of the book includes the download price of many of the templates. Julia tells how she took a business class for farmers, after her first year of farming. She had kept absolutely no financial records! The instructor told her to guess, so they could make a cash flow plan for Season Two. Julia used that as a road map, and it saved her from ruin. She could see what she could afford, what she couldn’t, when she needed to hustle to bring in a bit more income. It wasn’t a coincidence that she ended up so close to where she needed to be!

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This book will help you determine whether to prioritize tomatoes or cucumbers, eggs or chickens. You’ll need three primary financial statements: the income statement, the balance sheet, and the statement of cash flows. Don’t panic! There’s a webinar and a very readable chapter, with diagrams. There’s a video on depreciation! One of my colleagues calls depreciation “an enforced savings fund” – it pushes you to pace your spending and saving so you can replace a worn-out tractor. At the end of the chapter are instructions on which chapter to read next, according to your situation (creating projections about the future, or statements about your past)

Julia Shanks

Chapter 3 includes a set of questions and worksheets to ensure you have the skills you need to set out in starting your own farming business. The questions cover skills, knowledge, access to mentors or farming partners, your own energy levels, money to float your first year, tolerance of risk and uncertainty.

Chapter 4 covers the business planning process. Follow the stories, diagrams and instructions and choose between a Level One “Quick and Dirty” plan, a Level Two more detailed plan and a Level Three full business plan. You might not need the full plan to get started. Remember “A plan is just a plan” – don’t expect everything to go according to this plan! But the plan still has real value – writing it nudges you to think everything through, providing you with the resources you need to think on your feet and solve the problems that come up on the way. Julia leads us step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan, financial projections, operating assumptions (including the “Gut Check”), a list of funding sources, and an executive summary. Scale back your projections to see what it would be like if something went wrong. Test out a worst case scenario. Could you survive? What would it take?

Chapter 5 is all about financing: savings, loans from family and friends, loans from institutions, prepayments from customers and supporters. Be professional, look as professional as needed when asking to borrow money!

Chapter 6 is on setting up QuickBooks, the industry standard accounting software for small businesses. Other small non-farming businesses using QuickBooks could find this useful too. Julia has two webinars, and this chapter includes sample spreadsheets with the relevant bits circled. Chapter 7 shows how to use QuickBooks daily for cash management. It opens with Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper (living in the moment) and the Ant (stashing grain for the winter). Just as we can tomatoes in summer for eating in winter, we need to set aside cash we earn during peak season for the slower times of year. 10 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes a week, plus 1-2 hours at year end. Doesn’t sound too bad.  And it’s going to help with saving time and money next year!

Chapter 8 digs into managerial accounting – how to get meaningful information about your business. It includes determining the costs of producing various products/crops. There are several examples. Inventory management is also important, and requires a quick, smooth and simple system of tracking. Here are examples.

Chapter 9 covers stabilizing your business, so you don’t fall into a hole. There are some sad stories in this chapter. Chapter 10 has the more upbeat title “Growing Your Business”. Here’s help in making thoughtful decisions when considering new projects, or expansion of old ones. This is like having an older and wiser experienced farmer at you side. One who will be very honest with you, will share your excitement, and question things you seem to be ignoring.

The appendices give examples of questions to consider at each step of the way, sample spreadsheets and a list of the templates used in the book, which can be accessed from Julia’s website. What a wealth of information for just $24.95. It will pay for itself, I’m sure! And remember, if you feel out of your depth, Julia also works as a consultant, providing technical assistance and business coaching. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask for help! Go to https://thefarmersoffice.com/ for more info, including a free basic accounting course, and a 6-course free Self-Paced Farmer’s Office Basic Course, available 24/7, including videos, quizzes and case studies. There’s also fuller Farmer’s Office courses for $49/month.

Growing for Market, Sweet potato propagation and yields

The April issue of Growing for Market is out! For those of you growing sweet potatoes, Andrew Schwerin from NW Arkansas has written an interesting article. I’ve written about starting sweet potato slips before and I have a slideshow that includes three methods of  starting your own slips.  He and his wife Madeleine grow 1500 feet of sweet potatoes each year, a third of their growing area.

I was interested to note their reasons for growing so many sweet potatoes (apart from the obvious fact that they can sell that many). Sweet potatoes are not a big moneymaker in terms of the space occupied. Here at Twin Oaks we pondered similar issues this winter when deciding which crops to grow.  We worked down a list of 25 factors, deciding which were important to use. We chose our top handful of factors and then worked down a list of crops we might grow, awarding points (or not!) for each factor for each crop. This helped us narrow down what to focus on this year. And yes, we are growing sweet potatoes! I wrote about this in Growing for Market in February 2017.

These growers listed the following factors as their reasons to grow sweet potatoes:

  • Sweet potatoes produce well in our soil

  • They aren’t troubled by intense summer heat

  • Extensive vines will smother most weeds

  • Few pest or disease issues

  • Most of the labor is in early October, between intensive harvests of summer and fall crops

  • They store long-term for steady sales through the winter

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

They like Beauregard, and wanted to try using the single node cutting method, as advocated by Anthony and Caroline Boutard – see my Sweet Potato slideshow for details. Initially they were excited about the single node cutting process, as their roots produced exponentially more growing shoots each week. OK, maybe exponential is a bit of an exaggeration, but it gives the sense of it. Because they had so much propagation material, they started making 5-node slips, rooting clusters of cuttings in pots of compost, 3 nodes in the soil for roots, 2 nodes above ground.

Some of their single node cuttings failed to thrive, both in the trays and in the field, so they developed a 2-node cutting system instead, and also used their five-node slips. And so they had a trial of three sweet potato cutting methods, with plants in different 100 ft beds. In the past (using the regular slips method) they have averaged yields of 500-600 lbs of sweet potatoes per 100 ft bed, with a range from a poor 250 lbs to a few successes with 1000 lbs/bed. Of course, yield is not the only important feature of a market crop, although understandably it has a high profile for those growing 1500 row feet for sale.

At harvest, they found that their single-node sweet potato plants were producing a couple of hundred pounds per 100 ft bed. The 2-node beds produced about 500 pounds per bed, of relatively few, very large (6 – 20 lb) sweet potatoes. The plants with 3+ nodes in the soil gave more reasonable sized potatoes. They tend to get jumbos, so they have started planting closer (10″) to tackle this – not many customers want jumbos.

In his article in Growing for Market,  Anthony Boutard pointed out that single-node cuttings do produce fewer tubers which are larger and better formed. This is a big advantage for growers in the north, but less so in the south. The Arkansas growers have found that the 2-node cuttings are even better at this tendency in their location, which is much further south than Anthony Boutard’s farm.

Beauregard sweet potatoes saved for seed stock.
Photo Nina Gentle

Other articles in this month’s Growing for Market include Managing a cash crisis
How to climb out of the hole by Julia Shanks, the author of The Farmer’s
Office. Farmers deal with a very seasonal cash flow, and may well have gone into farming with good farming skills but not good business skills. Julia writes about four rules for getting out of a financial hole.

  1. Quit digging (don’t incur any more inessential expenses).
  2. Keep the dogs at bay (communicate with your creditors about how you plan to pay, and how you plan to keep producing the goods).
  3. Climb out (increase revenue in as many ways as possible).
  4. Get your head out of the sand (don’t panic, face realities, be proactive).

She goes on to list 10 ways to protect yourself from getting in such a hole again.

Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article about cultivating with walk-behind tractors, ie, weeding and hoeing with special attachments. There are some amazing walk-behind
weeding machines (manufactured and homemade) throughout the world. There
is an entire style of vegetable farming and scale of tools that have been forgotten, in between tractor work and hand growing – the scale of the walk-behind tractor. The author explains how commercially available tools can be adapted to work with a BCS or a carefully used antique walk-behind tractor.

Mike Appel and Emily Oakley contributed Every farm is unique, define success your own way. Money is not the only measure. Quality of life, family time, and personal well-being are up there too, as are wider community achievements. Farming is equal parts job and lifestyle, and the authors recommend having a strategic plan for yourself and the farm, which you update every couple of years to pinpoint goals and the steps you need to take to reach them.

Cossack Pineapple Ground Cherry
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Liz Martin writes about husk cherries (ground cherries) and how to improve production of them, to make a commercial crop viable. Who would have guessed that hillling the beds before planting can make harvest so much easier, because the fruits roll down the sides?

Judson Reid and Cordelia Machanoff wrotea short piece: Fertility tips and foliar testing to maximize high tunnel crops, and Gretel Adams wrote about  Scaling up the flower farm. Many of the ideas also apply to vegetable farms.

Cover Crops slideshow, speaking events, good reading, and spinach varieties

I’ve had a busy few weeks. On Thursday 9/29, I presented my new slideshow Cover Crops, to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville. Here it is with a few bonus slides. Like most of my slideshows, you can find it on Slideshare. I’ll be presenting a shorter, more concise version at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference January 9-11 (yes, midweek) at the Omni Homestead Resort, Hot Springs, VA.

On Saturday 10/1 I gave a shared presentation with Ira Wallace on the Seed Garden, at Lynchburg College. I’ll tell you more about that next week, once I’ve got the slideshow uploaded.

I found out that the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania where I gave two workshops and some tomato string-weaving demos, had 19,000 attendees! Quite the crowd! I’m hoping to get to the 2017 Fair in Asheville, NC and at least one other next year.


October 2016 cover 300

The October issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. There’s an article by Karin Tifft on Getting Started with Biological Pest Control. She writes in a very straightforward style, pointing out many mistakes to avoid, and navigating the route into a complex subject. Phil Norris writes from experience about growing in clay, covering water management, aeration, soil amendments and erecting a movable high tunnel (hoophouse) on clay. They hadn’t sufficiently anchored the structure, which was on a windy site. It blew a foot and a half to the south, and the clay held 3 of the 4 corner posts, saving the structure! Bret Grohsgal writes about introducing unusual crops to your customers successfully – free samples, higher prices, and follow-through, not discounts! the GfM editor, Andrew Mefford, reviews Shawn Jadrnicek’s new book, The Bio-Integrated Farm and Miraculous Abundance by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer. Jane Tanner writes  about building a local flower movement.FarmersOfficeCoverjpg-250x300 The cover article is by Julia Shanks, author of the new book, The Farmer’s Office which I wrote about previously. I’m looking forward to reviewing a copy. In this article, Putting the Right Price on your Product, Julia covers all the aspects of price-setting: costs of production (direct costs, labor and overheads), analyzing what others are charging, and communicating value to your customers.


Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES
Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES

The September/October Organic Broadcaster has also arrived. The lead article shocked me by revealing that the increased demand for organic corn and soy in the US has lead to an increase in imports. The “organic” labeling of some is in question, as imports are required to meet he standards of the exporting country, not the US. Are we being chauvinist to expect these standards to be looser than USDA certification, or gullible to assume they are at least as stringent? Either way, cheaper imports are leading to lower prices, and difficulties for US Organic farmers. If you can, buy local. Another topic covered in this issue include the law requiring GMO (bioengineered) packaged food to be labeled (good!) but the information that the labeling is in those cryptic QR codes that need a smartphone to read them. There are also articles advising on precautions when putting organic grain into a grain bin previously used for non-organic crops; informing on how the National Organic Program protects organic integrity through oversight and regulation; advising on how to use fishmeal to improve poultry performance, how to create enterprise budgets to see what’s financially worthwhile, how to access farm-to-school programs,how to farm safely with children. Lisa Kivirist writes about the Rural Women’s Project in the Midwest. They have a summer workshop series, farm tours, conference, and lots of networking with over 5000 women farmers involved. An article on farmer-veterans in the Midwest speaks about the solidarity and practical help available.


Fall spinach Photo Wren Vile
Fall spinach
Photo Wren Vile

This week in the Twin Oaks garden we have been using the “ideal transplanting weather” (that means rain!) to move spinach and kale plants from clumps that came up well and survived the grasshoppers to bare patches.  Transplants survive so much better if planted late in the day during overcast weather or light rain.

Tyee spinach. Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds
Tyee spinach.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

This fall we sowed three spinach varieties: our long-time favorite Tyee spinach which has been discontinued by the seed trade. We’re trying a couple of other savoyed or semi-savoyed varieties.

Avon spinach and purple-handed gardener. Photo Fedco Seeds
Avon spinach Fedco Seeds

Avon spinach from Fedco Seeds is a promising alternative (I just hope it doesn’t turn everyone’s hands purple as this photo suggests! ) 42 days to mature spinach. This variety starred in Fedco’s 2015 spinach trial A vigorous semi-savoy variety with large broad dark green leaves and a sweet mild ‘sprightly’ flavor. Tender leaf and stem, an upright spreading habit. Tyee had great bolt resistance but tended to yellow, slightly tough, leaves in the fall. Avon promises to hold well in heat and keep its good texture and appearance in the fall, while offering high yields early and late.

Chevelle spinach. Photo Enza Zaden
Chevelle spinach.
Photo Enza Zaden

We are also trying Chevelle spinach, which we bought from Osborne Seeds. Their website is out today, here’s their Phone: (360) 424-7333.

Our variety trials have not got off to a good start, because we are moving plants around so much to fill gaps. But we have got reliably labeled plants in our cold frames, where they will grow overwinter until we need the space for seed flats in spring.