As any successful farmer knows, keeping detailed and accurate farm records will help you run your operation more smoothly, whether you’re growing on a half-acre garden plot for your own dinner table or in a larger field to raise produce for market. While taking note of your manure application, irrigation method or seed-planting date might seem tedious and time-consuming in the short term, you’ll be glad you did when the time comes to harvest your crop or submit paperwork for organic certification. Record-keeping will help your operation in many ways, some of which will be apparent immediately and others of which might have an impact five to 10 years down the line.
Ann Stone, who runs Elmwood Stock Farm, a family-owned, organically certified CSA farm in Georgetown, Ky., has learned the importance of record-keeping over the years for keeping her crop healthy and her business thriving.
"Some varieties of lettuce handle heat better than others; some handle cold worse than others and will tip-burn. Some melons are sweeter than others based on our soils, not only based on seed-source recommendation. Knowing yield per crop in our system helps to gauge how much to plant of an item the following season. Some varieties sell better at farmers’ market over others, such as green lettuces, [which] is a better seller than red lettuce. [You need to know] how much time it takes to harvest or clean something because once you start, you can’t just leave it uncooled and unwashed or you have ruined any chance for freshness by not finishing the process of post-harvest handling,” Stone says. "These are all examples of things we didn’t make notes on at the time and later wished we had.”
At Elmwood, Stone keeps records on everything from seed sources (including a statement from the seed seller ensuring the seeds are non-GMO) and seeding logs to fertilization, soil mediums, watering and more. These records help her track the crops that perform well in her microclimate, fields that need amending and the produce that needs to be available at given dates for marketing purposes.
Still not convinced farm record-keeping is for you? Here are some more reasons why you should give it your time and attention:
- You can easily track farm income and expenses.
- Information will be readily available if you decide to apply for a loan or grant.
- Record-keeping can ease the transition to organic certification and is necessary to maintain it.
- Farming is full of experiments. By taking notes, you can keep track of what worked and what didn’t.
- You can observe trends in weather, pests, production and more over time.
- You can better organize your land-management practices, including crop rotation and pest control.
- You can accurately track soil applications, such as manure, fertilizer and pesticides, that could be harmful in excess.
- If your farm is hit by a natural disaster, providing documentation on what was lost could help you acquire relief funds.
Below are seven charts that you can use for your backyard garden or farm. While these might not cover all your record-keeping needs, they will get you off to a good start. Print multiple copies of the charts, and add them to a farm record-keeping notebook. If you prefer to work digitally, type the information into the PDF and save in a digital folder, or input the information into a spreadsheet. For spreadsheets, we recommend setting up one page per chart.
Soil Condition Chart
Whether you’re working with a new piece of land, reviving a spent plot or actively supplying nutrients to a growing area, it’s wise to perform regular soil tests to better understand the soil’s condition so you can supply the proper amendments to that plot. By recording this information, you can determine what amendments work for each crop and track the amount of amendment used for future purchasing decisions and organic-certification purposes. Using this chart is equally important on a small plot as a large plot.
Seed Starting Chart
Use this chart if you plan to start your seeds indoors. Because not all seeds are started at the same time, keeping seed-starting records is particularly helpful if you’re experimenting with new crop varieties or if you’re managing a large amount of seeds. Not all planted seeds will germinate, so tracking germination rates will indicate how much seed you need to purchase for future plantings. It’s also a good idea record seed sources, but especially important if you’re pursuing or maintaining organic certification, as you will need to document your search for organic seeds and planting stock.
Use this chart if you plan to direct-seed outdoors or if you’re working with transplants. Recording plot location and planting date will help you make future plot-rotation plans; plus, knowing the bloom or fruit date enables you to plan for harvests in subsequent years. Be sure to take note of plant traits so you can determine what land-management actions to take, such as adding amendments or implementing pest control. As with seeds, you’ll need to document sources of organic transplants.
This chart is particularly helpful if you’re growing on a larger scale. Do you have enough produce to take to market or are you always returning with extras? This is where the "Yield” field will come into play. If you’ve hired labor to help in the fields, you can maximize your expenditures by keeping track of labor hours. However, this chart can be helpful even on a small scale if you’re growing produce to put up for the winter season.
Pest Management Chart
By keeping these charts, whether for a small-scale or large-scale garden, you can identify the biggest pest threats to your produce and determine which management techniques are most effective.
Watering is important to raise a crop successfully, and it’s possible to both under- and over-water a plot. The information you log about the amount of water a plot receives and the method used to irrigate could come into play at a later date.
Equipment Cleaning Chart
While this might not be necessary for every garden, equipment-cleaning is regulated by organic-certification standards to ensure the organic integrity of your crops. The CCOF trade association recommends keeping a form like this for each piece of gardening equipment.