Ag 101 Week 25

Six Steps to Planning A Dinner Party


Don’t worry; you’re not planning a dinner party.

Last week while standing in a field with a farmer, I found myself saying-

“You have to start thinking about your next growing season now. In fact, depending on your cropping system you have to be thinking about the next crop before the current one is harvested.”

As I said that, he turned around only to look at like me like I was crazy. Since I have been saying this a lot recently, I thought to myself, “How can I make all of this not so overwhelming but get my point across?” I told the farmer to think of it as if they were planning a dinner party. Silly I know, but who doesn’t love a good party with a great meal? Your crops are no different. So, over the course of the visit, we broke it down into manageable size tasks that weren’t as overwhelming.

All that being said, I’m using the analogy of planning a dinner party for the next several weeks in the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series.

I also realize you are in the thick of this season and for most, it has been tremendously difficult due to the fact most of the northeasts spring was wet and cold. And that is why I’m telling you this now because I want you to have a successful sustainable farm. To do that you have to be taking care of this year while planning for next.

It is like a revolving dinner party where you are the host and are setting the table for what and who comes next. Your previous amending, fertilizing, management practices, and most importantly the crops that were grown or currently growing are all factors as to what happens next. You are setting the table for what’s to follow in a field, raised bed, or hoop house.

If we are planning a dinner party, and break it down into smaller management decisions, it isn’t as daunting as you might think. A party should be enjoyable whether hosting or attending. You are ultimately doing it to get some satisfaction out of it. If you lay out manageable steps ahead of time when things come up unexpected like crop failure, weather issues, etc., there is no need to panic because you have a plan.

So, if I were to plan my next dinner party, I would use the following six steps as a guide-

1.     Pick the venue – your farm or land you’re farming

2.     Make the guest list – crops/insects

3.     What type of tables – the soil

4.     Choose a place setting – management/inputs

5.     Create the menu – soil fertility

6.     Then party like it’s 1999 or till the cows come home – harvesting, taking to market, planting the next crop

This week I’ll talk about the first two

1.     Pick the Venue- Your Farm or Land You're Farming

There’s not much to say about this step; you probably already have land you are currently farming unless moving or add additional land. If you still are looking for property and have options, I strongly suggest you look at the Soil Survey Website. It is full of information regarding soil type, hydrology, etc. that is beneficial in narrowing options. If at all possible I suggest considering what is already growing there or what the land is currently being used. This type of information will help you determine if it is suitable for what you want to do.

For the sake of our conversation, I’m going to assume you have land and that is what you have to work with.


2.     Making The Guest List – Picking Crops and Insects

Next, picking crops should be based on the lands capabilities and market demand.

If you have land that can only grow blueberries, cranberries, or currents, but you desperately want to grow celery, cucumbers, and cauliflower, you might want to adjust your plans. Or tailor the rest of your dinner party to accommodate those crops in the form of amending and fertilizing. This option can be financially prohibitive depending on your situation.

But if you don’t have a market for any of the previously listed crops, you need to invest in research as to what will sell, what could potentially sell, or how you could create a market and demand for what you can or want to grow.

You may have to find a happy medium in the center, growing what works best on your land while incorporating a few things you desperately want to grow, and producing things to accommodate the existing market. The possibilities are limitless but finding what works to keep your farm profitable may take some trial and error. I’m your go-to resource for what will grow, what could grow, or how to make what you want to grow all work, but marketing is not my forte.

 I leave market strategy up to other experts.

The following are some tremendous resources I've come across that have been valuable for growers I work with-

BootStrap Farmer Business Network

3 Cow Marketing


Current crops need to be taken into consideration because they are the ones already eating at the party. They are one of the primary determining factors of the next crop because you will have to replace what has already eaten or used. If you grew potatoes last year and want to grow potatoes again in the same place you need to replace or fertilize to have the nutrients that crop needs to produce and yield successfully. This is just an example, not a suggestion. Each crop you plant needs a specific ratio of nutrients. This is why soil testing, rotating and keeping records are crucial for a farms sustainability. Knowing a crops nutrient removal and requirements are vital pieces of information when making rotation decisions.

One of the best resources I have come across is the book-

Crop Rotations on Organic Farms edited by Charles L. Mohler & Sue Ellen Johnson

It is free at the following link

The reason I put insects in this category is due to the fact often we unintentionally invite guests we didn’t want. Whether this happens because we over applied manures, miss used fertilizers, or missed an opportunity with cover cropping the balance between the soil and the plant has been altered, and insects know it. Overall it weakens the plant's immune system making it more attractive to the unwanted guests such as aphids, thrips, beetles, etc. Just as our health is reliant on the efficiency and effectiveness of our immune system, so is a plant’s. If it is compromised due to malnutrition, the plant then becomes more susceptible to insect pressure ultimately leading to increased disease pressure. The following is an excellent illustration of the three factors that determine a plants vulnerability to diseases.

When it comes to insect and disease management, think of it regarding who you’re inviting to the dinner party. The use of previous management types, inputs, and crops dictate whether you are inviting troublemakers or welcome guests that will benefit and you want to have over more often. Are you fertilizing at appropriate rates, overwatering, are you clearing debris for proper ventilation, and so on?  A lot of times you will hear me refer to them as good cultural practices.

Typically, an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs include seven steps-

Step 1: Scouting regularly. This is the cornerstone of an effective IPM program

Step 2: Preventive Action. This includes what I previously mentioned, overuse of manures, miss use of fertilizers, or just not paying attention to the overall nutritional needs of the plant

Step 3: Identification. The proper ID of insects is critical to being able to determine the appropriate course of action

Step 4: Analysis. What needs to be done to irradiate or discourage the pest in the first place

Step 5: Treatment Selection. Choosing what is the best product to use or can it be handled with cultural practices such as weed control, hand picking, etc.

Step 6: Monitoring. Keep scouting

Step 7: Documentation. Take pictures and make field notes

You’ve picked your venue and made the guest list; this means you are a quarter of the way to having a successful dinner party. Next week we’ll talk about the fun stuff- what type of tables and place setting you want.