Creating a trajectory for achieving a personal/farm business goal feels like what I imagine Mario feels like when he attains a “star” in the OG Mario Brothers game for Nintendo.
You are bright, flashing with energy and moving quickly while avoiding obstacles and tactically knocking over Koopa troopas and Goombas (risk) in pursuit of your raised flag pole. It’s exhilarating.
As we begin a new turn around the sun, many folks have set their new year resolutions – and if you are a farmer, you have likely analyzed last year’s data and begun crop planning for the upcoming season.
Creating an achievable goal strategy is a healthy way of getting those raised flag poles in the game of farm life. In this blog I hope to share some strategies I have found useful to allow myself to continue to evolve as a farm with my life and income needs, and hit those benchmarks.
When I first began farming on our current farm, I wanted (and still do want) to help reduce food security issues, be a good steward of the land, help others learn to grow and enjoy the forest in which I live with my family. Like Henry David Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” The bone broth of the land.
The aforementioned could be assessed as my values. For the short time that I worked in forestry as an ecologist / forest technician, not all of my personal values were being met, and I left the industry unsatisfied to begin full-time farming to help me live within my personal values. Being true to my values while running a farm business has been an evolving, shapeshifting and learning experience.
When creating goals one must stick to your values or you will just end up feeling miserable – and somehow not genuine to your own being. I know, I did.
Farming organically was and is a deeply satisfying experience for me on many levels, but when Janie and I were ready to have kids, I knew the farm would not meet my needs in terms of time and income to allow me to to raise my children with the values I held. For a boy to learn to fish he must be taught and that requires someone who has the time. New goals or targets needed to be created on the farm.
Prior to setting some deep goals and working at them through small changes every year, I prided myself on the vast amount of time I spent working, and took on the commonly-accepted notion that I was not going to get rich at farming. I created a fallacy in my head and also accepted it as truth.
When thoughts of children were growing in Janie and I’s heads, I knew running our farm in its current state – doing sales in our CSA, the local farmers Market and wholesale distribution to restaurants and a distributor – was not going to allow us to reach our personal values, income needs or time needs with our children. I would say we were chasing too many rabbits and we needed to “straighten our spaghetti noodles” as Ben Hartmann would say. When you have a bird’s nest of spaghetti noodles due to being very diverse, it is hard to know which spaghetti noodle to straighten first. It is also a real challenge to be a hungry dog and focus on only one rabbit instead of a colony of them scattering.
A friend of mine shot some drone video clips one summer on the farm and revealed to me all the footsteps I was taking for each task on the farm. The video made it clear: it was too many footsteps, and I needed to become more efficient. “Too many footsteps” became a mantra for me.
Step one towards straightening the spaghetti noodles was that I had to learn to value my time more. I needed more money per hour of work.
I learned this lesson largely as I upscaled production the hard way. More veggies, more money right? For the most part this is correct, but running a super diversified crop plan is a big task. More vegetables is great but requires more handling, weeding, packaging, emails, spreadsheets etc. At our largest, we were running nearly seven acres of veggies and fruit in our little forgotten part of the boreal forest in Northern BC. With all those acres we produced decent money. The downside is it wasn’t efficient and cost nearly as much as it brought in. It also kept me busier than a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest, which didn’t allow for much personal time. I was chasing dollars instead of time. Time was the goal that I truly wanted. The word efficiency started bouncing in my head. To all new farmers, remember that gross revenue is not an indicator of doing well, cash flow and net are.
I read a few books in this very transformative time in our lives on efficiency with production systems, achieving goals with small habits, and leadership.
One of those well known books is Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm. Ben writes about some Japanese principles that Toyota and Honda used to help become leading efficient vehicle manufacturers, that he applied to his farm.
I got the chance to speak with Ben Hartman when he came up to Prince George via a Young Agrarians knowledge transfer event for a Lean Farm speaking tour. I found it very illuminating.
One of the principles I found useful to focus on for achievable goals was the Japanese principle of “Kaizen”. Kaizen is an approach to creating continuous improvement based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap significant improvements.
As much as I don’t like to compare a farm to a car factory, the systems are basically the same. There are inputs, outputs, supply, demand and all the “cogs” of production for each product. When I started to see the farm in a more efficient mindset and look for goals of improvement, I sometimes pictured the “clock” scene in the 1927 film Metropolis. If you’ve seen this film (which you should) you will remember how largely this machine and it’s operator seemed useless, inefficient and just very laborious. The symbolism of the clock and the futile efforts of its operator really hit hard.
Japanese manufacturing and business principles might sound like a strange thing to consider when achieving goals on the farm but I assure you they are not and one book changed my thinking on that. The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt was a great book that I was introduced to via Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm in Vermont. I came across a podcast Dave did with the late Chris Blanchard of the Farmer to Farmer podcast.
I was intrigued to click on the podcast based on Dave being exclusively a tomato farmer after having a very multifaceted small “homestead” farm. He had made those changes in his operation for the same reason I was moving in the general direction of efficient greenhouse production. A goal of work life balance to be with family.
I spent some time wandering around giant greenhouses that year in southern BC and asking operators millions of questions while taking photos endlessly. I had made the decision that operating a modern greenhouse in a most efficient manner would allow me to reach goals of work life balance. I came up with a business plan, submitted it to a bank and got a loan. Focus was what I had to have now. I had hoped to glean some technical knowledge from the podcast I found featuring Dave and his operation. Dave didn’t share much technical information but what I came away with was far better: a system of operating principles or philosophies for a business. Though not named as such, they were the same principles that Ben Hartmann spoke of in his book.
I would hazard a guess all farmers want a pay equal to the importance of the work they do and the goal of more money and less work. To achieve that goal however, we needed many steps to be in place and it was a journey to identify them all.
Once our greenhouse was built and we had a handle on the basics of running such an intricate piece of infrastructure, we were producing far more food in a 4,000 sq ft building than we had done with seven acres. And we did it with only 30-40 person hours per week. And as I am still wanting even more time during the summer with the same income, we continue our journey of Kaizen. Goal setting never stops and life is always evolving. These days my goals extend into many years as I try to forecast climate change, an ever aging body and eventually my kids if they want to farm or not.
Let’s talk about the reality of achieving a goal. Making a goal a S.M.A.R.T goal is what my wife always reminds me when I discuss things I want to achieve.
SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Defining these parameters helps ensure that your objectives are attainable within a specific time period. AKA if you don’t have a defined target, you are likely not to hit it and make sure hitting the target is actually a reality.
A smart goal must be thought out clearly. I like to visualize goals as a ladder or staircase. At the top of your ladder is your goal but what risks surround the ladder to shake you of your instability? List them and prepare plans to reduce their probability! Who can help support your ladder when the winds of risk blow, do you have a mentor that has been down the road you are traveling? Just an FYI, if you are looking for a mentor Young Agrarians is a great place to start through our Business mentorship network.
I loved listening to the audiobook Atomic by James Clear while shovelling snow endlessly from my caterpillar tunnels. I did this so I could have them operating as soon as possible in spring instead of taking plastic off then putting it on again once snow had melted. His book was mostly about chipping away at small specific targets that can allow you to achieve larger big picture goals and the process of forming the day to day habits to achieve them. I found his book very enlightening and useful in many aspects of my life. That winter, I sometimes shovelled 40 hours a week on those tunnels to keep them up (that is not an exaggeration). My first son was also born that very snow winter. Thoughts of change were welcomed happily by my tight muscles and back.
In the book, James gives a very easy to picture example of adjusting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. James gives the example of flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If the pilot was to make a small adjustment and turn 3.5 degrees south, the plane would end up in Washington DC, instead of New York City. Obviously, as you can see, just a small change is barely noticeable when taking off, but by the end of your ride, you will be hundreds of miles away from your intended destination. Long story short, small adjustments or goals can have big effects on the journey of farming/life.
James had also spoken of the aggregation of marginal gains via a story of a British cyclist coach who changed the nations standing in the world of cyclists dramatically. The aggregation of marginal gains is the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford (the British coach) said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”. I took this as a dissection of every bottle neck or component to production of food and improved it slightly for more throughput. Couple this principle with Kaizen and keep making it better!
I think from a personal perspective of running our own farm now since 2011, I believe life is always changing, as are our goals and that’s ok. I’ve also learned it’s far better to take on smaller goals and use the theory of “aggregation of marginal gains” because life and farming is a life long marathon, not a race, and should be treated as such to reduce burnout. I like to think of marginal gains as a giant snowball rolling down a hill. At first the diameter of the snowball is small and so it’s addition of snow to its diameter is small. As the ball continues this process over each revolution, the ball becomes massive and moves at great speeds.
Happy goal setting for the new year and beyond!
Andrew Adams is a Land Matcher for the Central-North region of B.C. with the B.C. Land Matching Program, which provides personalized land matching and business support services to farmers looking for land to start or expand their farm, and landholders interested in finding someone to farm their land. Land Matchers also support farmers and landholders who are already matched to develop lease agreements.
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The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Bullitt Foundation, and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.