I see a lot of young farmers talking about their exhausting 12-15 hour work days—that’s way too much to endure for any lengthy period of time, though it may have been common before labor unions curtailed the practice. Such effort, though commendable, is unsustainable, and when those farmers hit the wall that makes them hate their work they’ll likely walk away.
It’s a rare day for either Jeriann or me to put in more than 8 hours, and usually we’re finished working by noon. Only in late June, July and August do we even work that long on a given day, and though we have an established farm and are consequently streamlined with wasteful activities worked out, our workload should be replicable by others in terms of hours worked. If you’re younger and stronger, you can certainly work harder for more hours if you want to, but you should not NEED to.
When comparing our workload to your situation, adjust by considering the “acre-month”—we grow on 4 acres, have a 4 month growing season, so multiply the two figures to make 16 acre months. This allows those with longer or shorter growing seasons to compare their hours against other farms—shorter seasons will have less field labor total, but perhaps the same amount of hours per acre month, for instance, and longer ones likely will have more hours totaling up but with the same results. Also, adjust for climate: wetter climates will have more weed pressure, thus more weeding. but likely have less time devoted to irrigation. Proximity to market means adjusting, too, as you’ll see our driving time includes 50 trips of 250 miles or more, each trip requiring a seven hour day in the best scenario. If your market is close, you’ll have fewer hours in the van, and if you man a farmer’s market booth, your hours will add up—it’s a matter of comparing apples to oranges unless you consider all time equal in nature.
Another way to assess labor costs is to compare hours to sales: we grossed 190k our last season, so you could do a calculation of hours per dollar that would be helpful for comparison purposes.
Here’s a breakdown of our labor for the last year we farmed:
600 hours by employees included:
120 hours driving
280 hours weeding
200 hours transplanting/processing/general labor
800 hours for me included:
600 hours cutting
100 hours tractor work
100 hours various field/processing work
650 hours for Jeriann included:
370 hours driving
230 hours prepping orders, sales/taking calls
50 hours cutting
That’s 2050 hours totaled up for the year—about 95 dollars of gross income earned per hour, and roughly half to sixty percent of that if you want to figure net income earned per hour. If you want to use acre-month as your measuring stick, we work about 130 hours per acre per month. Use these rough estimates to situate yourself in relation to us—do you work more? Less? Why? Remember, it’s not a matter of judging one farm against another (there are no gold medals here) so much as a matter of understanding how other farms operate in relation to yours—so much of farming consists of asking yourself if you’re beating your head against the wall, or if indeed others share your struggles and you’re operating your farm “normally.” Our totals are just one dart mark on an imaginary bullseye containing a similar mark from every flower farm—if you saw them all, saw where your dart landed, you’d know where you sat in the scheme of things, and quite likely it’d be somewhere in the middle. If it’s not and your circumstances aren’t extremely unusual, you probably can make some adjustments toward efficiency. Knowing that, you can decide whether you really want to work so hard, HAVE to work so hard, if you should throw in the towel for a less demanding livelihood or just learn to manage your workload more efficiently.
On a mature farm, then, our labor amount may be “normal” or it may be inefficient, but it satisfies us—we’re pretty sure there are ways to do things better, we even often know where waste occurs but are willing to accept it, whether out of a whim (growing an inefficient variety of flower we love) an ideological stand (we use less chemicals than the amount that would be more efficacious and labor saving), a desire for convenience (we have much wider walk rows than necessary, not to mention more than we need) or have the momentary luxury to work at a slower pace without considering whether it’s costing us. But early on in a farm’s life, the gross profit per hour is going to be less because you’re working harder with less infrastructure (i.e., labor-saving devices like tractors and irrigation systems), less understanding of how to streamline things and where to cut activities, perhaps on a piece of ground requiring rock removal and perennial weed work, and in an unproven market situation that sends you down a lot of empty pathways—not exactly wasted hours since you gain knowledge, but hours that drive your profitability down and stress levels up. And just as a child should grow up, slowly dropping false beliefs and bad habits to become an adult, a new farmer should take feedback from his land, business and market to hone his skills and eliminate wasteful actions that are unprofitable.
The old adage “work smarter, not harder” may be trite and overused, but it rings true for much farmwork. Proper timing saves you work. Systematized labor saves you hours—spending a lot of time switching tasks wastes your time, as Adam Smith told us a couple centuries ago and Henry Ford displayed with the assembly line. Doing tasks correctly once rather than poorly twice or three times improves efficiency—it’s not a matter of being right, it’s a matter of getting better outcomes. Using good tools, the right tools, saves time, though insisting on using the perfect tool can waste it.
An example of the benefits of timing: mulching before the season begins and before perennials are up can be done efficiently with a tractor by applying directly over the bed and letting plants grow through the mulch, while waiting until plants are growing means hand work with a fork so mulch doesn’t get on foliage. Waiting takes triple the time and does the job less efficiently since mulch can’t be worked in between emerged stems.
Weeding, too, done early in the season saves a lot of work later. Five minutes with a scuffle hoe when weeds are less than an inch tall may save you hours compared to waiting for weeds to grow larger. It may seem you’re getting more work done when you pull big weeds, but the effort of removing one bulky weed at a time exceeds greatly that of removing dozens of small ones with a single swipe of a hoe.
Cutters who band and size and control quality at harvest save time lost in the processing area; orders put together beforehand, labeled and separated, save the salesperson from searching for product. Stripping material in walkrows rather than dropping material on plants to be harvested again for several days keeps detritus from interfering with future cutting.
Choosing the right tool matters. A tractor does more than a tiller, a tiller does more than a hoe, a hoe does more than two fingers, but each has its place. Same goes for the mower, the weedeater, the shears—use them in the proper context. A large stem cutter works more swiftly than scissors at the processing area, and in the field you may use pruners, scissors, or even knives, depending on the species and your expertise, not to mention the feel in your hand. Context matters—no tool or technique is omni-useful, each has its most beneficial place.
Having a feel for the market saves a lot of work. While a flower business should always have too much product (otherwise you lose customers not just when you run out but long term—if you get a reputation of not having enough, clients will go elsewhere first), overage needs to be kept to a minimum. A typical farmer always plants too much, and that’s a good thing to some extent, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be harvested. When we first started we grew several colors of monarda and picked every stem, borrowing space in a local convenience store cooler to store the many, many buckets of product—and still we left blooms in the field, not to mention throwing away most of the harvest. We learned then to take our best estimate of what sales might be, add a small percentage just in case a big order came in, and turn a blind eye to the rest of the harvest, painful as it might beg (to prevent second guessing, mow the remaining harvest down so you don’t have a chance to change your mind).
If you start seedlings and tend them for weeks rather than buying plugs, your hour totals will soar if you’re honest about time spent with them. If you love germination and growing-on, doing so is an income, not a debt, but one hard to measure in dollar terms. No one gains more of my respect than those who have the knack to grow small seedlings uniformly and healthily, but unless you have the luxury of extra hours to take care of plants you may be costing your business dearly. Of course, if you grow varieties unavailable as plugs, then you’re forced to grow them yourself—we started sweet peas for that reason, being unable to find a supplier—but otherwise plugs are much cheaper than self-germinated plants. Take a box of 5 trays of snapdragons (392 size)—that’s 2000 plants at less than a dime apiece, plus 30 bucks for freight in our locale. If you pay yourself 10 dollars an hour, you’d have to do all the work to grow your own in less than 23 hours to make costs comparable—and that doesn’t include, heat, trays, seed, and any other devices you use in the process of germination. Small growers often say they don’t need that many plants—if so, throw half of them away, compare the costs, and you’ll likely still be better off buying plugs in. You only have so many hours, use them in a manner that is most beneficial to your farm: if you’re freed from a task like germination you have hours spent doing other things likely more valuable—things you can’t hire out that require your expertise.
That expertise turns out to be invaluable, so cherish it accordingly. Give simple tasks to those who lack your knowledge and save the complicated ones for yourself, export time-sucking work to those in other fields—germination to plug producers, transport and delivery to couriers, tillage and other tractor or field work easily and cheaply done by others to custom service providers. It may seem to be spending money when you first look at it, but you’re saving time and therefore money, enhancing your business’s performance.