Sebastian Aguilar, of Chickadee Farm, and Daniel Brisebois, of Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm in Quebec, Canada, presented a live webinar, “Crop Planning for Organic Seed Growers,” as part of the ninth Organic Seed Growers Conference on Feb. 16 hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance.
Aguilar farms 17 acres in Talent, Oregon. About one-quarter of his farm is the seed operation.
He encourages farmers to do early planning for their seed crops.
“It’s figuring out what to grow, how much to grow and when to plant to meet your goals,” he said. “You need to do this before the season begins. Doing it after the season is crisis management.”
Aguilar said that following four steps can ensure farmers meet their objectives: set goals; develop a marketing plan; plan crops; and keep records.
Farmers need to plant enough salable crop to meet expenses and provide a salary that meets their living expenses.
“Have a separate bank account for your personal life and your farm life, so you don’t spend all the money,” Aguilar advised.
He estimated that, if selling to the wholesale market, new organic vegetable seed farmers can sell about $5,000 to $10,000 in gross sales per person working the farm, while experienced farmers can make about $40,000.
“This is irrespective of the amount of land,” he said.
He believes that to minimize stress, farmers should develop a solid plan, which enables them to focus on the work of farming.
“If you’re not profitable, you don’t get to do it again next year,” he added.
To plan the farm income, farmers should know their farm’s capacity, and expenses.
“If you want to make $50,000 to $60,000, you have to sell $120,000 to make expenses,” Aguilar said. “Do you have that capacity? The newer and smaller the farm you are, that will be harder to know and achieve.”
He said that online resources don’t always reflect accurage information for small, organic farmers. Elements relating to capacity include: the labor force, infrastructure, and systems. Capacity can also relate to the farm’s ability to grow certain varieties, with factors like climate, ability to isolate varieties 100 to 500 feet apart (depending on the crop), and pest and disease threats to that location.
At his farm, by January, Aguilar typically starts discusses the coming season with seed buyers from several seed companies and dovetails what they need with his ability to deliver. That helps the two parties hammer out a contract. Aguilar updates his seed buyers throughout the growing season and then sends the seeds to them in the fall.
Brisebois also recommended that farmers develop a marketing plan. That could include selling their seeds retail at sales outlets or wholesale; developing a crop list; setting prices; making sales projections; and making harvest projections.
He offered a sample plan, selling $32,000 worth of seeds at the market garden, $2,000 as wholesale, $16,000 through an online store and $10,000 at local seed racks to equal $60,000 in gross sales.
“It’s nice to have more seed than you need,” Brisebois said. “Aim for a three-year supply.”
Although growers make more when they sell seeds directly to customers, “with contracts, there’s just the matter of growing it,” he said.
Planning can help farmers predict and shape their future, but still “all kinds of things can happen, independent of weather, like groundhogs or deer,” Brisebois said. “But if you harvest twice what you need, it can be expensive if you can’t sell it and you pay all those costs related to harvesting.”
The timing of growing crops is different than growing seeds. When a farmer harvests seeds, the crop often must stay in the field longer to allow the plants to go to seed. Brisebois said Quebec weather is similar to the northeastern U.S. Planting frost-hardy plants in the first week of May helps farmers get enough time for seed harvesting. He delays planting more tender crops, like tomato or peppers, until the first of June.
“We have very low risk of frost at that point and the soil is warm,” he said about Quebec’s climate. “You want the plants to just take off, unless you’re breeding for cold-soil hardiness.”
For biennials, he starts planting them in mid-July to mid-August. Since he can’t over-winter them, he transfers the plants to a cold room or high tunnels.
Brisebois rotates crops carefully, since any seeds shed in the field become next season’s weeds. In year one, he plants frost-sensitive crops. For year two, it’s a cover crop. In year three, tender crops go in, and in year four, it’s back to a cover crop.
“We do a cover crop the following year to flush it out,” he explained. “We use all kinds of cover crops.”
Oftentimes, it’s peas or oats, if he can plant them early enough.
After harvesting a seed crop, he doesn’t till the soil. That way, he introduces fewer seeds into the soil. And, insects and mice help themselves to the scattered seeds.
Brisbois also suggests that farmers plan their operation’s labor so they can employ the same amount of people all season, since it’s difficult to find good labor at the last minute.