Even if we don’t expect to get paid for all the hours we work on the farm, tracking how we spend our time, in order to employ smart time management strategies, provides incredibly valuable information on the viability and efficiency of our production models and helps us and other sustainable farmers innovate the methods and infrastructure that will be needed to bring about a new and sustainable food system.
There’s a myth that permeates the community of sustainable farmers, especially among those that are new, young and passionate. It started innocuously, but it has the potential to jeopardize the long-term viability of the new sustainable food system.
The myth is that sustainable farming is above all a way of life characterized by a devotion to the land, and that those who are focused on making money are missing the point and bound to be disappointed.
This sort of thinking is dangerous because the stories we tell ourselves matter. When we half-jokingly remark after having a tough year or working an 18-hour day that we “aren’t in it for the money” or when we let another season go by without seriously tracking the time we spend working on the farm because it would “be depressing” or because “everything is going to turn around anyway next year,” it undermines the future of sustainable farming by perpetuating the deleterious myth that as farmers, where we put our time doesn’t matter so long as we’re busy.
The problem is, our labor is an asset like any other on the farm, and whether it’s a labor of love or a labor for profit, how we spend it has grave impacts on the course of our businesses, personal lives and the land we steward.
My husband and I subscribed to the myth that busy meant productive in the first three years of our farm, Early Bird Ranch, which we started in 2010. Although we created business plans that included the cost of our labor under ideal circumstances as part of the price of our products, we never seriously tracked where our hours of work actually went. Those were the 80-hour weeks, where days started before dawn and ended after dark, and we watched with amazement as the products of our labor actually made it to people’s tables.
We were delighted to watch our bank account grow enough to keep us fed and housed, and we were enchanted by misty sunrises and long walks through the pasture on our way to chores. Money couldn’t buy these radiant parts of our lifestyle that came from being farmers.
Taking Stock with a Time Analysis
At around the three-year mark, though, our circumstances were totally different from these first days. We had a baby at home, our products were selling so quickly that we couldn’t keep up with demand (a good problem to have), and we were starting to burn out. We kept growing the business and expecting to see our quality of life improve, but all we got was more work. We realized that our business was sustainable for the land, but not for our family. Seeing this, we engaged in an in-depth analysis of how we spent our time.
For one week, at each mealtime, we tracked how we had spent our time since the last meal. We kept a notebook on the kitchen table, and we recorded time spent for chores on each enterprise (looking separately at the brooder, broilers, hen flock, rabbits and pigs), business tasks such as answering emails and filling orders, marketing and personal time spent on household chores or family.
What we found from this analysis, which we’ve since repeated, was that watching how we spend our time didn’t rob us of the joys of our lives as farmers — it enhanced them. We used our time more efficiently and consciously chose where to devote our energy.
Three main lessons came out of these accountings. First, we clearly saw our farm’s inefficiencies and what they cost us. Second, we could finally accurately account for the business’ opportunity costs and get a clear picture of which enterprises were really worth expanding, those that should be left where they are, and those that should be dropped all together. And third, we learned that as much as we already loved the farming lifestyle for our family, there were ways to actively enjoy and celebrate the farm’s impact on our personal lives even more.
On a farm it never seems like there are enough hours in the day, and this is especially true when our time is used inefficiently. In sitting down and comparing notes about how much time we spent on each task, we discovered that our brooder chores for 1,000 birds took almost two hours each day.
We didn’t really notice the multiple trips to ensure that the lights were on, the waterers weren’t leaking and the flimsy homemade feeders were upright. What we did know was that proper infrastructure was expensive, and we always felt like we had more time than money.
This number — 120 minutes per day between the two of us, was a total shock. If you’d asked us, we would have said the chores took half that time or less, and this might have been a result of us each working an hour per day in the brooder and not seeing the other’s time. So we made an investment in better extension cords, waterers and feeders, meaning we could make one morning and one afternoon trip only and know that the system worked for the rest of the day.
The new waterers required less careful balancing, and the new feeders needed less cleaning. We cut the total chore time to 60 minutes, freeing up 60 minutes for other farm tasks (or breakfast!).
This analysis of our time took place when we were feeling a bit unsure of what direction our next expansion should take; we had big-picture questions. We knew what our best sellers were in terms of volume (pork cuts), and we knew our best profit per product (Thanksgiving turkeys). But we had a gut instinct that, while the numbers looked great for our pork and turkey enterprises on paper, they weren’t necessarily the best places to invest our time and money.
Comparing our time analysis to a revenue analysis across our enterprises, we saw that our broiler chickens actually had the least opportunity cost for expansion. Each additional hour spent on broiler production would bring in nearly twice as much money as each additional hour spent on turkey and pig production. We were making the most profit on broilers for the time we put in.
We applied the same logic to our sales channels and concluded that while our farmers’ markets made up a big portion of our sales, other distribution opportunities like the online distributor Good Eggs, which aggregates local products in nearby San Francisco and delivers them to people’s homes in the Bay Area, was a better sales opportunity for the time we put in. We were making one and a half times as much money each week at the farmers’ market but putting in four times the hours.
We dropped all but our most profitable farmers’ market as soon as we could, and even phased out the last one as we built a following on Good Eggs. Now we spend Saturday mornings as a family, doing our chores and shopping at our local farmers’ market.
The last important lesson we learned from our time analysis was about our personal lives, not our business. We have always loved the farming lifestyle, but had never consciously cultivated the parts we found most special — we just enjoyed them as they came along.
In the examples above, we took an opportunity to move toward more efficiency without making lifestyle sacrifices. But it’s also possible to use the time analysis to consciously choose to sacrifice efficiency for lifestyle benefits, and we did. We identified some areas in our farming practices that were inefficient, but we chose to keep them that way because we love them.
For example, we know the most time and cost-efficient way to distribute Thanksgiving turkeys is through our online webstand with Good Eggs. However, we love loading up our turkeys and heading down to the local church on the chilly Tuesday before Thanksgiving and seeing the faces of 100 people who will put our birds on their table. So, we consciously kept that practice in place, and take the time to celebrate the farming lifestyle, making a small business sacrifice for our own enjoyment.
No sustainable farmer gets into farming solely with the aim to get rich. We do it because we see so many opportunities to be rich in every other sense. But too often we are convinced to take that idea to an illogical conclusion — just because we aren’t getting paid by the hour, does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention to where our hours go.
Sustainable farming is by definition a model that can continue for the long-term and that stewards finite resources that are often neglected or taken for granted. Time is no different, and even if we choose, occasionally, to remain inefficient for the sake of our personal pleasure, it is the fact that we are choosing that will keep us on the land for decades to come.
By Kevin & ShaeLynn Watt. This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.