When I came on as farm manager at my current farm, it had doubled in size every year for five years. The year before I arrived, the farm had taken on a 30-acre piece of land, which I was told suffered from poor drainage and a scourge of annual grasses. The prior farm manager had grown the farm successfully through two seasons, but left after a season managing the new site.
I was coming in with a challenge in front of me, I knew that much. I spent the first winter learning everything I could about heavy soils, compacted soils, deep tillage, minimal tillage, deep-rooting cover crops, long rotations, cultivation equipment, and weed management strategies. I bought a flame weeder and invested $2,000 in a subsoil-busting cover crop blend. In spring, I came out swinging.
That first year, we did not successfully flame the weeds, nor did we manage to seed the cover crop. I learned that you can’t flame grasses, and I figured out just how poorly the field drained as I sat on the sidelines during week after week of soggy weather, unable to get the cultivating equipment in, watching weeds grow. And I was never able – not once during the season – to get a tractor through to seed our cover crops. Two years later, I am still sitting on most of that seed.
I also learned that our new site was only one of our challenges. In a phone call with my brother, I found myself struggling to communicate just why the farm was such a bear. I backed up, took a broad view, and broke it down like this:
There are five spheres in which a farm can be challenged. Most farms deal with serious disadvantages in one or two of these. We were handicapped in four.
There are location challenges. This can be location relative to markets, weather systems or microclimates, issues with pesticide drift or trespassing, etc. Our first location challenge was that we had two locations, three miles apart. The second location challenge was that no one lived on the farm, or even very close, which resulted in erratic greenhouse attention, inability to open and close tunnels daily, and the inability to leave irrigation running through an evening cycle. The commute also added an hour or more to everyone’s day.
This is not a rice paddy! The author’s drainage problems made it hard to cultivate in a timely fashion, and easy to lose a boot. All photos courtesy of the author.
There are site challenges. This category is a catch-all for anything that can make a site tough to work: poor drainage, excessive drainage, weed pressure, pest pressure, poor fertility, salts, poor water access, excessive slope, etc. We had a rolling topography lacking surface drainage, a compacted heavy clay soil with a hardpan about six inches down, and a dragon’s hoard of weed seeds buried in our soil.
There are infrastructure and equipment challenges. This can include under-capitalization (not enough stuff), over-capitalization (too much stuff for your scale), mismatched or problematic stuff, or poor access to shared stuff. We were over-capitalized in the sense that we had a lot of tractors and some fancy machines, but it was such a mish-mash of machines that most tractors and implements were not interchangeable, some worked at one site but not the other, they had different tread widths, and half were old and in constant need of attention. We also shared some very important pieces of equipment (manure spreader, mower, seeder, disc) and this resulted in some very un-timely equipment use and a few hard feelings.
There are institutional challenges. These can be constraints related to markets, certifiers, bureaucrats, zoning constraints, equipment, etc. In our case, we had a large bureaucracy to placate. The farm I manage is an “institutional” farm. As such, it is accountable to a lot of stakeholders, susceptible to a lot of directive makers, and, though supported in some ways that a hardscrabble family farmer would envy, is also challenged in ways that would drive most farmers nuts. Anything I wanted to buy had to be ordered through a networked purchasing system, each vendor had to have an account in the system, and for large purchases I had to devise capital plans including memos and ROI analyses. We followed exhaustive safety protocols, attended trainings and classes regularly, and our departmental budgets were due in July. July! The farm also ran six enterprises, among which vegetables was (arguably) the only profitable one. The others had arisen from institutional directives, and none were operating at an efficient scale. Thus, we were in the tough situation of being a mission-driven organization tasked with generating as much revenue as possible.
Thankfully, the last sphere, human challenges, was generally where we performed well. I got along with my boss, had good coworkers and a great crew, half of whom stayed on through winter. Most of us lived in the city and commuted, which meant no one felt isolated. An institutional requirement to pay overtime kept the workloads of hourly employees to a manageable level (I am salaried). People were a big part of what sustained us through the first season. The second season for me, personally, however, started with a double punch to the face: first, I found out I’d be having a baby in July. July! Then, in March, my family lost my father-in-law.
In June of the second year, after tilling up our heavy clay soil, which never dried enough to properly till, and transplanting into hard chunks of clay atop saturated hardpan, I went out scouting in advance of our first use of a fancy new German cultivating machine (I’ve often called us “over-funded and under-resourced”). What I encountered was a monster from a farmer’s nightmare: from every little clod of clay, a thousand small grass blades bristled. I kicked them around with my foot, and they rolled around un-phased. They were like seed balls, or seed bombs, perfectly designed to germinate a vigorous crop of grass and grow it to a healthy transplant size, at which point it would root down through the clay ball into the soil below. Our fancy new cultivating machine was going to do nothing more than roll these little balls around, probably right over our little crops.
I remember the terrible sinking feeling that day, the sleepless, anxiety-ridden nights that followed, the panicked, necessarily brief encounters with the grief of my father-in-law’s passing over the course of the summer, and then, in July, the birth of my second child. That was the hardest year of my life. Yet, in the end and against the odds, we did manage to pull off the highly improbable: we ended that season, as we had the first, with satisfied CSA members, and we met our revenue goals.
To the extent that I deserve any credit (my crew and co-workers deserve much of it), it would be for a ruthless management style that I now think of as triage farming. Triage, which developed as a systematic approach to managing injured soldiers on battlefields, is basically a way to allocate limited resources to their maximum effect when there is no way to accomplish all you need to do. Farmers know that most farms are like this some of the time, and some farms are like this most of the time. Ours was like this all the time.
Triage farming really comes down to understanding:
What are your minimum goals?
What is the minimum work you need to do to accomplish them?
What can you not do so that you can get the minimum work done?
The decisions made are often quick and dirty, and usually involve choosing the lesser of two evils. Do we take the time to sort the salad mix from the weeds for our CSA box, or do we weed half an acre of a prospective wholesale crop? If you were on a ship, sailing through a stormy farming season, you might be constantly assessing which ropes to cut to spare the mast, or what cargo to throw overboard to lighten the load, while making sure you can still make it to your destination.
These are not terribly satisfying decisions, and one important thing to note is that I don’t believe this is a sustainable way to farm. It’s exhausting and it doesn’t leave you with much of that “job well done” feeling. It does take skill, however – I might even call it an art – and it gets the job done, however sloppily, ruthlessly, or barely. Here I’m going to share some of my tried and true triage farming techniques.
Over-plant and under-harvest. Plant more than you think you will need. Way more. If you know you’re going to be triage farming, you should ignore those yield tables you see in publications – they don’t apply to you. You should plant either twice as much as you think you will need and manage all of it poorly, or half again as much and manage some of it well while keeping the extra as a “management-optional” reservoir you can dip into if your managed production doesn’t deliver the yields you need. It takes a lot longer to harvest 100 pounds of Brussels sprouts of varying sizes that were never topped and hardly weeded, but at least they’re there if you need them.
Don’t bother with baby greens. If baby greens and other weed-wimpy crops are a major time suck, don’t do them. We simply didn’t do salad mix in our first year. In year two we discovered Salanova lettuce and grew it in landscape fabric, and it was no bother! We actually grew our first bed of Salanova on freshly-tilled quack grass. After weeding the re-sprouting grasses out of the fabric holes when the lettuce plants were small, we got a great yield and killed the quack grass. The exception to this rule is carrots. They’re worth it.
Don’t mess with field tomatoes. This is probably specific to growing region, but we aspire to reduce our tomato production to a single, unheated 30x96 high tunnel, and we intend to manage it well. When we do, I believe we will be able to deliver a pound a week to 300 CSA members. For now, we are using 1½ tunnels to cover our needs, and selling any surplus as wholesale. We start out pruning properly, but the vines get away by August and we let them go.
More quantity, less variety. Don’t bother with lots of heirloom or specialty varieties of crops unless your markets demand them. Use the workhorse varieties. Plant greater numbers of proven, red pepper varieties, for example, to make sure you’ll have the yields you need regardless of losses. People won’t mind a lack of purple peppers nearly as much as they’ll mind a lack of peppers generally, and they’ll love any surplus of sweet red bells. This applies to crops as well as varieties. While I love to deliver celery, fennel, or purslane, and usually do, in truth our CSA members will not miss these much, while they will very much miss a regular delivery of carrots. Dial in the important crops first.
Managing two sites is an incredible inefficiency. No matter how many employees, tools, and pieces of equipment we shuttle back and forth, there always seems to be something we miss. One trick I’ve learned is to manage the two sites differently, and we’ve basically split them into a smaller intensive site that includes our greenhouses and high tunnels, and a larger extensive site. The intensive site has better soil, and we grow crops there that have a fast turnaround time and/or are direct-seeded or “sensitive,” such as lettuce, carrots, salad turnips, as well as tomatoes in our tunnels. We’ve learned that our more sensitive crops simply cannot deal with heavy soil, crusting, and/or the weed pressure at our larger site. Unfortunately, our pack shed is at the larger site, so we end up having to transport our most tender vegetables farther, which means they wait the longest to get to the cooler.
We keep a small utility tractor and a cultivating tractor at the smaller site, and this prevents some driving back and forth but does not eliminate it by any stretch. We also do a lot more hand hoeing, hand weeding, and hand planting. In other words, we treat the smaller site much less in a triage style. We keep our larger equipment at the larger site, and grow longer-season crops there that can be more easily cultivated with tractors. It helps, when we are trying to get ahead in tractor work at the larger site or dealing with an unexpected “triage” situation with equipment or irrigation there, to be able to tell the crew to go the smaller site and weed, plant, etc. They don’t need much supervision there.
In terms of managing the greenhouse on the weekends when no one lived nearby, we simply overwatered. Plants don’t like too much water, but they die with too little. We also rarely hardened transplants off, and they survived.
One thing I’ve learned is that many crops can deal with a lot more weed pressure than you think. How well they can deal has a lot to do with the crop, the specific weeds, and the amount of fertility and moisture in the soil. In poorly-drained areas, brassicas cannot compete with grass. However, in our better-drained areas, given sufficient fertility, they do alright! Yes, weeds diminish yields, but since “over-plant and under-harvest” is one of the overarching strategies for Triage Farming, you can deal with inferior yields. We have often had no choice but to accept weeds, as we’d be locked out of the fields for weeks. By the time we could get back in, the weeds were too big to cultivate and too numerous to hoe or pull all of them by hand.
When you are able to weed, it’s helpful to consider the different categories of weeding. You never want to tell a crew to “go weed.” They may pull every single little weed in a field of broccoli about to head up, or they may sloppily hoe carrots. Both are inappropriate strategies in their contexts. I’ve got six categories of weeding:
On the rare occasion that we nail this, boy does it make a difference. Run the finger weeder through a field of sweet corn when weeds are at the white thread stage and it may be the last cultivation we ever have to do for that crop.
This is more common, running our cultivating machines through a field when the weeds have gotten too big. If you follow up with a hoe, you can beat ‘em, but even if you don’t it’s better than nothing, generally worth it, and fast.
There are actually three categories of hand weeding (I got these from the farmer I first worked for): weeding, quick weeding, and the walk-through. The first, “weeding,” is how you want to weed carrot seedlings – totally and completely, on hands and knees if necessary. The second, “quick weeding,” usually involves hoes and varying degrees of thoroughness. The last, “the walk-through,” is a great Triage Farming strategy, wherein you pull up the weeds that are guiltiest of shading or crowding the crop, but don’t bother with most of them – you’re just trying to give a competitive advantage to the horse you bet on. You can also do a walk-through to pull weeds that are going to seed, if that will actually make a difference in your fields.
E.g., tine weeding cucumber transplants. You may lose a quarter of your crop, but if you know you’re going to lose half your crop to weeds if you don’t do it, it’s worth it – factually, mathematically, worth it.
The Mow-Over. I’ve used this approach to let light into ripening melons. We grow in plastic mulch but the weeds in the furrows and in the planting holes head up and start shading out the melon vines. I mow high enough to miss the melons but low enough to top the weeds. You drive over some melons in the paths, but it’s an acceptable level of collateral damage. I’ve also found that a healthy stand of grass in the furrows can keep the melon vines out of them, thereby reducing losses in a backwards logic sort of way. Wa-lah!
Though we continue to rely on this strategy from time to time, it’s not very effective. You can trust me, I’ve trialed it extensively.
A couple other triage farming weeding strategies would include mowing the paths between plastic mulch with a walk-behind brush hog (you can rent them at Home Depot), and hiring weeding work crews at peak weed season. In our area, we have crews of mostly older H’mong that come in with hoes a-blazin’ and tear through acres in a day, though last year they managed to get through only an acre, and complained “these are not weeds, these are monsters!”
Our farm map looks like camouflage print. The field blocks are turned this way and that, peppered around the site. I have had to cherry pick the highest and driest bits of the field to farm. I have avoided most of the wettest spots and reduced our standard bed length to avoid most potholes, where a bed slopes down and then back up. I’ve gotten tractors stuck too many times in these while trying to cultivate. I orient the beds up and down slope so that they drain down the furrows, not on contour. I use about 20% of the site at the moment. The rest is wet wet wet. Drainage tile has been installed, and we’re going to see how it goes.
The result of the field arrangement is an irrigation nightmare, though we’ve largely figured it out now. One upside of a heavy clay is that it holds water, so we don’t actually have to irrigate that much. That said, when we do, it can be very difficult to run our lines hither and thither. We have, on numerous occasions, brought the transplanter out with full water tanks to spot water young transplants. We’ve put quick-attach couplings and metal spigots on the hoses to pull them off the planter units, and the crew rides on the back watering transplants with the hoses. It is easier than pulling our irrigation lines all over the place. It is actually quite relaxing.
In this category, I mostly have a lot of “if I could start over…” thoughts. I’ll keep them brief. First of all, I’d get two (or more) identical or nearly-identical tractors. One might have a loader, one might have wider tires for tillage, but they’d both be able to use almost all the same implements, certainly all the implements we use repeatedly over the course of the season. Everything would be on a quick hitch system. One of the inefficient realities of Triage Farming is that you often have to swap implements on and off a tractor quickly to stay ahead of a planting crew which is trying to stay ahead of the weather (for example). This might mean using the flail mower, cone spreader, rototiller, bed shaper, and transplanter all in quick succession, and for just a handful of beds. The ability to use two tractors interchangeably, both with quick hitch systems, would be a game changer.
Most of our shared equipment is for heavy fieldwork – large disc, large mower, large seeder, and large manure spreader. I’d get around this complication by moving to a more permanent bed system in which large fieldwork is less necessary. I’d use lower horsepower tillage equipment like a reciprocating spader or a 5-shank chisel, and I’d work the fields bed by bed. It would take longer, but I suspect the reduction in complexity and compaction would adequately compensate for it. Instead of spreading a ton of compost, I’d try to rely on cover crops to build my organic matter, and fertilize both the crops and the cover crops, since it takes much less time to spread condensed, granulated fertility than compost.
When I traveled to South America and Southeast Asia in my twenties, I noticed that small farmers used a machete for almost everything. They had developed a tool that they could carry on their waist and accomplish most subsistence tasks with. I aspire to this with equipment. On a large farm with dialed-in systems for growing certain crops, I think specialized tractors and equipment makes a lot of sense. On a triage farm with a thousand things going on and a hundred going wrong, you want versatile equipment that you can bring into play quickly, and you want redundancy so you’re never left hanging. The other advantage of a system like this is that your crew can be trained up on fewer tractors and with fewer implements.
The bureaucratic aspect of our farm is unique enough to our farm that I won’t get into that here. What is worth talking about is markets and customers, and for this, I have some thoughts.
Prioritize your markets. You want to know who you are committed to, and what the level of that commitment is. You want to know this precisely, so that you can hit that bare minimum when necessary if nothing else. For example, we are committed first and foremost to our CSA, both because they’ve already paid and because many are loyal, returning members. Thankfully, a CSA is a pretty forgiving customer, so we can underdeliver one week and overdeliver the next, as long as we don’t oscillate too dramatically. We have, and will again, take a week off during late June or July to give ourselves time to catch up with fieldwork, mostly weeding. It is also useful if you really come up short one week. We frame this as a chance for CSA members to eat up their residual veggies and enjoy the summer bounty of farmers markets, and we reserve the right to decide, strategically and at the last minute, which week this will be. If you prepare members for this, I don’t think they really mind.
Our institutional wholesale accounts come next, and then the farmer’s markets. Having this hierarchy clear in our minds informs our decision-making on a regular basis. I have showed up to farmer’s markets with some pretty scrappy harvests, spending that morning’s harvest time in the field clearing the weeds out of next week’s CSA crops. This, of course, is not great for our farmer’s market reputation, as customers like consistency, but this is war, man, and I will not lose that CSA loyalty nor those wholesale accounts.
Under-promise and over-deliver. When it comes to wholesale accounts, we tend to offer only what we know we can deliver, which by no means assures us a market for all of our surplus. I don’t want to disappoint wholesale customers, and for the most part I’d rather sell less but retain a reputation for quality. With a new institutional wholesale account, I will contract minimally and deliver even if it takes a H’mong weeding crew to ensure it. How minimally can we meet first year expectations without compromising the relationship? At worst, we may not break even, but the customer is happy and we try again next year.
All the extra produce that we might have if we get good yields or if we take the time to sort the harvest from weeds, doesn’t always get sold, and in that case I remind myself and my crew: “What doesn’t feed the people feeds the soil.” This is a mantra. When we are tilling that weedy crop under because it will be too much work to harvest, we chant what doesn’t feed the people feeds the soil, what doesn’t feed the people feeds the soil… It’s not untrue.
Make up revenues when you can. Seize late markets once work has ebbed; seize early markets before it begins. Level the load. Keep people on longer or even year-round this way, even if your revenues only cover the cost of keeping them on. It’s totally worth it.
Delegate, don’t abdicate. When it’s crazy, you may have to give people a lot of responsibility. You can delegate whole chunks of the operation, such as greenhouse management or spreading of minerals and fertilizers. If you have a relatively inexperienced crew, this may mean that many people are in a little over their heads. Make sure you simplify instructions and let them know what is an absolutely essential part of their responsibility. You also need to make sure they know there is room to fail. The balance is to delegate without abdicating responsibility. Let them know that responsibility still ultimately falls on you, and that they just need to give it their best shot.
Happy crew, happy you. Keep your people happy and productive. Appreciate them. I found out our local pizza place will deliver right to the tractor in the field at sunset at the end of a long day of transplanting. This sort of thing is great for morale. You know that saying, “Happy wife, happy life?” Well, I’ve coined a new one: “Happy crew, happy you.” I live by it. Happy farming, folks, and may each year be less insane than the last!
Matt has been farming professionally for 5 years. He manages a crew of 5-7 employees, some year round. He has a hot, hard-working Polish peasant of a wife, a rascally rabbit of a toddler that follows him around eating carrots, and a cat-baby that eats rubbers balls. He used to enjoy backpacking in the summertime.