Small farms, and new farms, tend to be extremely diverse in their enterprises, market outlets, and crop selections. The number of different crops and the number of different varieties of each individual crop grown on any given farm can reach an impressive total. And sure, crop diversity is necessary for ensuring that no matter what pressure is put on your plants by pests, diseases, and extreme weather events that you still have a harvest that season. It may not be the exact crop mix, yield, or ready at the time that you had planned, but crop diversification helps ensure that farm income will be generated.
In these winter months, during time spent perusing the seed catalogs and talking about varieties with other farmers, it can be hard to exercise self-restraint when choosing your crops and varieties for the upcoming season. Even if your seed order is already in, it may only take one discussion on a listserv to generate excitement about a new variety of pepper, fueling a desire to add more diversity to your crop mix. Right now growing 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for display at the farmers' market may seem like a fantastic (and completely manageable) idea for drawing in customers; this same idea may lose its appeal when you are sorting and labeling your harvest in August.
Here are some key things to consider as you are finalizing your seed order and crop plan for the season:
· Your Market: Do your customers, whether direct or wholesale, care about choosing between varieties or just about you growing the tastiest option? Do you have to grow every single crop you offer your CSA members or can you buy a few in?
· Your Farm Systems: What inefficiencies will an increase in the number of crops or varieties you grow create in your system? Are the associated costs offset by the sales generated by your crop diversity? What systems (i.e. record-keeping or employee management) can you put in place to minimize the impact of these inefficiencies?
· Your Time: Is there an opportunity cost associated with growing a large number of different crops? Is there an opportunity cost associated with NOT growing a large number of different crops on your farm? How can you spend your time most productively (and profitably)?
· Your Crop Mix: Are you satisfied with the crops and varieties you are currently growing?
· Your Interest: To what extent does having a high crop diversity or trialing different crop varieties peak your interest and count as a value of your farm business?
If that last point rings true to you, check out this article by farmer Becky Maden to learn more about best practices for trialing new crop varieties on your farm! Trial by Farmer