People get into farming for a number of reasons, but nobody gets into farming because they love running a business. The business side of farming is often disliked, distrusted and delayed, often with disastrous results, according to Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and co-owner of Cate Farm in East Montpelier, Vt. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Most farmers are dragged kicking and screaming into the business side of it,” he said. “But the farmer’s number one job is to make sure their business thrives financially as well as ecologically.”
What Wiswall calls “the neglected business side of farming” begins with the office desk, he told a crowd of farmers, many of them beginning, organic or specialty crop farmers, at a workshop entitled “Farming Smarter, Not Harder.” The workshop, sponsored by Kansas Farmers Union, Frontier Farm Credit and Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition, was held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Pachamama’s Alton Ballroom in downtown Lawrence.
The efficient farm office begins with order and neatness—two qualities often missing from the average farmer’s desk, Wiswall said.
“Desks can be a real source of frustration,” he said. “Many farmers tend to let things pile up until they don’t know where to start, or simply walk away and pretend it’ll go away. The main thing is, you want some way of controlling the flow of paper.”
Actually, two flows of paper: purchases and sales. A filing system not only keeps things organized, it makes it easier to track expenses, bills and paid invoices. Desks should include some way of sorting paperwork into thematic cubbyholes, he said, such as folders for unpaid invoices, bills to pay, paid bills, employee records and insurance policies. Good accounting software can create paper trails as well as simplify bill paying by printing personal checks and sending notifications of bills coming due.
“You need a temporary resting spot for unpaid invoices, bills, credit card slips, payments and reimbursements for cash expenditures,” he said. “Once they’re processed, they go into a semi-permanent resting place.”
A good filing system can also help to keep a desk uncluttered, something Wiswall finds conducive to keeping on task. “You don’t need anything on your desk unless you’re working on it,” he said.
A third element to the efficient farm office, and perhaps the most critical, is a state of mind. “You have to value office priorities,” he said. “Make it a priority.”
Through trial and error, Wiswall decided to set aside several hours every Wednesday morning to do paperwork and open mail. During that time the phone goes unanswered and his door is closed. Because of his filing system, he can sort through invoices and bills rapidly and chart his progress in sales and inventory. “Setting aside a scheduled time for office work keeps you focused,” he said. “Don’t do it late at night or when you’re rushed. You’ll make mistakes, transpose numbers or leave things half-finished.”
Though in reality his system is nothing more than basic office procedures, he’s found it effective for the way he does business. “Nobody taught me this, I had to learn it on my own,” he said.
The most difficult thing to do is to make a priority list, sort of a blueprint for the most, and least, pressing concerns. He borrowed a template from Steven Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” that broke everything down to four quadrants—important urgent, important not urgent, not important urgent, not important not urgent.
“This is where long range planning comes in,” he said. “Because something’s not urgent, it just doesn’t get done. Obviously you want to get urgent important things first, but you want to spend your time above the important axis. The first quadrant is crisis management, but you don’t want to stay up there because you’re always reacting.”
A calendar—two, actually, one on the desk or wall and the other carried with him at all times—is crucial for planning and organizing business paperwork. Today’s smartphones have some of the most sophisticated calendar and planning apps in history, but Wiswall is hard pressed to beat a wall calendar, which he designates as the master. With it he creates a master to-do list that incorporates every facet of paperwork and farm planning, from buying seed to planting and harvesting dates.
If tasks aren’t completed on time, he relocates them to a future time when completing the job would be more favorable. “It’s important to transfer things to another day, otherwise they get lost in the cracks,” he said. “Tackle the most important thing first, and follow through to make sure they get finished.”
Effective management isn’t rocket science, and it’s not hard, he said, but farmers have to schedule time for it. An organized, clean desk, a good filing system and a dedicated timeframe to keep up with the paperwork can help manage the business side of the farm with a minimum amount of effort.
Read additional Farming Smarter, Not Harder workshop articles:
Farming Smarter Pt 1: Roadmap to profitability helps farmers find the hole in their pocket
Farming Smarter Pt 3: Building relationships, not managing employees