A Farm Plan Is Important, Especially For Small Farms

Think you don't need a farm plan for a small or urban farm? Think again—in many ways, sitting down to plan out a small space is the most important work you can do.

by Michael Ableman
PHOTO: TCDavis/Flickr

Time and space are two elements that are critical in any farming enterprise, and the smaller the enterprise, the more critical they become. Within small urban agricultural enterprises, the careful timing of all of our actions allows for maximum production, greater efficiency, higher quality and more success in the marketplace.

Time in the small farm enterprise must be balanced with space. They are interconnected. The successful urban farmer will develop an overall plan that plots out the stages of a crop’s development from seed to sale, including planting information, harvest details and sales/marketing projections.

The plan determines, for example, how many carrots will be planted, in which block and during what time period, and when and in what amount repeat plantings will happen. And while instinct, experience and intuition are critical to farming, it’s helpful to have a good written plan to guide you, especially if you are just getting started.

Check out the Combstead Urban Farm, where chickens rule the roost.

Who Are You?

Farmers typically fall into one of two distinct personality types: those who rely more on intuition, experience and memory and those who rely more on planning. Find a way to develop and incorporate both aspects. Making a good farm plan each year is about building the foundation.

Intuition and experience will allow you to respond to the inevitable changes of a biological system that is constantly shifting. The plan is the guide, and crop production and diversity at our largest farm changes as the season progresses. A good farmer knows how to move within that plan and when to deviate from it.

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small urban farm plan

Set Goals

Before making your plan, revisit your mission and goals: Whom are you serving, and what is the purpose and vision of your farm? Let these goals guide you as you develop the plan, and again as you implement it. If you are growing for a membership program like a CSA, a good plan is very helpful in order to ensure a consistent supply of a variety of foods to that membership. This also holds true if your crop system is very diversified: a large number of different crops, plantings and harvests over the course of a season are more easily managed with a strong plan.

The planning process also serves to even out the workload over the course of the season. Some people may have a goal of working in very distinct chunks: For example, just hiring in a crew for a few weeks and having the farm be quiet for the rest of the year. Others may want to keep the work evenly spread out over the course of the season.

If you are working by yourself, spreading out the workload helps prevent burnout, and if you work with a crew, providing them with consistent predictable work throughout the full season helps retain people so that you don’t have to retrain folks every year.

You should plan ahead if you want to sell at the farmers market.

Plan on Planning

Good planning helps you use time efficiently during the season and anticipate needs well in advance in order to prepare for them; good planning prioritizes proactive management over reactive management.

For example, reactive management could be planting a crop and realizing too late that it needs to be trellised but you don’t have the stakes or the string, and that your time is already committed to some other crop.

With proactive management, you have thought through all of the needs and cycles of each crop and have recognized how those needs combine with all the other crops. While there will always be a certain amount of stress associated with commercial farming, good planning can reduce that stress to a manageable level. Your farm plan will likely end up being a series of sub-plans: documents and spreadsheets that, used in tandem, help you track your crops from seed to sale.

The overarching plan should include at least the following elements:

  • What you are going to plant
  • How much of it to plant
  • Where you will plant it
  • How you will plant it
  • When and how you will harvest it
  • How much it’s going to cost to grow it
  • How much the crop is going to yield
  • To whom and how you will sell it
  • How much it’s going to gross financially
small urban farm plan

Get Started

To get started creating the plan, you’ll need to have some data on hand, such as field notes, yield data from previous years, the dimensions of your planting blocks or fields, and how many boxes or beds can fit into a block or a field. You need to know how much space you have to work with, and any characteristics of those spaces that make them more or less suitable for different crops or for planting at certain times of the year.

Other helpful resources are seed catalogs, any notes from past markets or marketing, and any field diaries from prior years. Seed catalogs are an excellent free source of information if you are just starting out and don’t have any field diaries or prior notes to fall back on (and if you have been farming for a while, they are a great addition to your own notes).

Some seed catalogs have great cultural information sections that include yield data, growing requirements and field spacing for a multitude of crops.

Sales Plan

You can create your plan on paper, but a computer has many benefits. Spreadsheet programs allow you to insert formulas, cross-reference and calculate costs and projections, and visualize time and space.

At Sole Food, we typically work backward, creating a sales plan and a harvest plan, and then a planting plan. To create your sales plan (what you will sell, and to whom) and harvest plan (when you will be harvesting each crop for your customers), you’ll need to determine what your six to 10 anchor or signature products will be, what outlet(s) these products are best suited for (restaurants, farmers’ markets, retail, etc.), and when you can have those products available.

Start the sales plan with some simple research (visiting markets, talking to other growers, etc.) to come up with a list of products and a price range for each product (keeping in mind that prices will differ depending on your sales outlets).

Essentially, you’re planting the entire farm on paper; consider it a dry run for the real thing. It also ensures that you allow enough space to grow the crops in the volumes you need. It’s easier to go back and reconfigure a plan on paper than to do it in the field!

This farm plan article has been excerpted with permission from Farm the City by Michael Ableman, published by New Society Publishers in April 2020. It appeared in in Hobby Farm‘s Urban Farm 2020 annual, a specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Living off the Grid by following this link.


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