Farm to Ledger

Rooster starts his day on the Easy Valley Farm near Rogue River, Oregon. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

By Chris Branam

The number of small farms in Oregon has steadily grown in the last few decades. Many people, especially younger “agripreneurs,” start a farm as a way to make the world better than they found it. But not all new farmers are ready for intensive business planning. They soon find out how difficult it can be to make a profit in farming — especially when they are growing dozens of different crops for many different markets, nearly all year long.

When farmers have access to accurate information about their costs of production, they are able to make informed decisions about their operation. Although some costs of production are easy to track, others are not. Tracking labor, for example, which tends to be one of the biggest costs for diversified vegetable farmers, requires a thoughtful system that can be implemented during the busiest times of the year.

In response to that need, Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems partnered with Oregon Tilth — a national certifier, educator, and advocate for organic agriculture — to create a new curriculum for farmers called “Know What it Costs to Grow.”

“Most of these growers are growing upwards of 40-plus different crops,” says Tanya Murray, an organic education specialist for Oregon Tilth who worked with farmers over the past three years to pilot and refine the curriculum. “They essentially have 40 different products, which all have a different cost to produce.”

Know What it Costs to Grow (referred to as the Cost Study Cohort program during its pilot phase) features three modules and is being developed as a non-credit online course that will be tested in 2019 and then offered both in Oregon and other states in 2020 through OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education Program.

The first online module is called “Track It.” It helps farmers use a “time study” approach to track the amount of labor required for different activities involved in producing crops. In the Track It module, farmers generate a system for conducting and recording time studies. They are largely focused on labor activities because labor tends to be one of the biggest costs for these types of farms.

The next module is called “Calculate It.” At the end of the season, the growers download a calculator tool that calculates their costs using their time study records and other farm-specific data that they enter. This part includes instructional videos that teach them how to use the calculator.

The final module, “Analyze It,” walks the farmer through a decision-making framework based on the results from the calculator tool. Those decisions might be where they can reduce the costs of a crop and make potential changes to the mix of crops they grow, Murray says.

Throughout the course, regional facilitators will check in on the on the progress of each farmer and report back to Murray, who farmed off and on for 15 years, mostly on small farms.

We need these farmers to succeed. We need them for how they farm, we need them for what they grow, we need them for how innovative they are.Lauren Gwin, associate director, OSU Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems


“I saw the need for making more informed decisions,” she says, “and it was not just the farms where I was working. It was known throughout the whole small farming community that this piece was missing. People really struggled with it.”

For her, this program will be a success if these small farms stay in business and thrive for the long term.

For more than 20 years, the OSU Small Farms Program has supported the growth of small farms in Oregon. The program offers several programs for first-time farmers and has partnered with Oregon Tilth since 2009 on several initiatives.

“We need these farmers to succeed,” says Lauren Gwin, assistant professor at OSU and associate director of the university’s Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems. “We need them for how they farm, we need them for what they grow, we need them for how innovative they are. What they need is support and systems that really work for them. Know What it Costs to Grow was an amazing opportunity, and we think we’ve hit a home run.”

Laura Masterson, who grows a variety of vegetables on the 47th Avenue Farm on Grand Island in the Willamette Valley, was one of the first farmers to participate in the Cost Study Cohort program, which turned into Know What it Costs to Grow.

“This is something I’ve been excited about for many years,” Masterson says. “Without understanding the cost of production, it’s almost impossible to stay in business.”

The curriculum helps small farmers know the important numbers to track and how to do it in a way that isn’t overwhelming, she says.

“When most people start farming, they go into it for the reasons I went into it. I loved growing food and I was really excited about doing that in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way,” Masterson says. “But I quickly discovered as an entrepreneur that I couldn’t do that unless I could make ends meet.”

The development of the Know What it Costs to Grow curriculum has been supported by a grant from USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Go to this link to stay informed about opportunities to participate in Known What it Costs to Grow, and provide the Center for Small Farms & Community Systems with your contact information.

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