Looking back, looking forward

Here we are on the last day of 2014. It has been a challenging year at Better Together Farms, highlighting some of the limitations of ourselves and our land. I think we finally know enough to chart a plan to get us where we want the farm to go (with a little help). Charting this course will be the major challenge in the months ahead.

Many of my former actuarial colleagues don't believe this is as difficult as I make it out to be. I think the major challenges are breadth and risk. You need to know a little about a lot of things to farm: soil chemistry, soil biology, plant biology (of both what you want to grow and the weeds that get in the way), a little plumbing and managing water pressure and volume for irrigation, basic mechanical skills to use, maintain and diagnose equipment, basic construction skills. Also everything you grow on your farm has its own learning curve. For example each vegetable crop has particular frost sensitivities in spring and fall, sensitivity to summer heat, optimal spacing, moisture and sun requirements, harvest period for each seeding, particular pests and diseases (and tips to identify them), particular nutritional requirements (and tips to identify deficiencies), and variations by variety.

There are the skills and knowledge not directly related to production. Research is a big one: after touring dozens of farms in Ontario I believe each farm is effectively a unique combination of soil, flora, fauna, topography and micro-climates and a unique expression of the skills, resources and values of the farmer. So finding information relevant to our situation or transforming the results of studies for application on our farm is a tricky business. Purchasing is another a big one: farms aren't big money-makers so you want to innovate to use what you have and what is cheap as much as possible. A lot of industrial farmers like big shiny new equipment; a lot of them are in a lot of debt and would be bankrupted by a couple bad years. Also most of the supplies and equipment are heavy or bulky, so you want to find things locally if possible. The one-size-fits-all world of online shopping doesn't work when shipping costs are greater than the cost of the item.

As a former actuary, I can talk a lot about risk, so I guess I'll leave that for a future post.

I wish all of us a happy, healthy, successful 2015!

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