Grower Challenges & Needs
Farm profitability is a major component of sustainable agriculture, in combination with environmental stewardship and social well-being. Profitability is crucial to sustaining and expanding organic vegetable production in the Midwest.
An important aspect of profitability is knowing the cost of producing goods sold in order to know the price needed for success. However, most growers produce a wide variety of vegetables and sell in several market channels (e.g. CSAs, farmers markets, restaurants, and wholesale), so it becomes very difficult for organic vegetable farmers to gather accurate crop- and market-specific cost information. This cost of production information is necessary in making financially driven marketing and farm planning decisions but is lacking within most of the record keeping systems used by growers.
Consequently, many growers make a myriad of decisions based on instinct rather than on data from farm records. This observation led to the idea that if a tool was available to help facilitate the collection and analysis of such information, growers would be in a better position to optimize both their productivity and profitability. Thus, the Veggie Compass effort was conceived.
The Veggie Compass project originated from a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jim Munsch, an organic farmer in southwestern Wisconsin. After retiring from a career in industry, Jim started an organic beef grazing operation in Coon Valley, WI. Following business management discussions with farmers, Jim began developing a cost analysis spreadsheet to help fresh market vegetable growers improve their farm profitability. In 2006, Jim and a team of researchers at UW-Madison joined forces and secured a USDA Risk Management Agency grant to focus resources on the development of a user friendly spreadsheet.
The researchers created a committee of diversified vegetable growers which met regularly to discuss limitations in farm business planning and assess the existing spreadsheet Jim had created. At these meetings, they learned that many farmers were interested in an overall farm management tool.
The overarching goal of the Veggie Compass initiative is to provide diversified fresh market vegetable growers with the tools and know-how to optimally manage their farm operations. To achieve this long term goal, we developed the following objectives:
- Develop and provide a user friendly farm financial spreadsheet for growers to determine their crop costs, market specific costs, and profitability in order to facilitate improved whole farm profit management.
- Collect and analyze data on crop specific labor requirements and yields for growers to use as initial baseline values.
- Collect and document whole farm planning attitudes and practices of Midwestern organic fresh market vegetable growers to improve outreach and to measure changes after our project.
- Conduct education and training sessions on whole farm profit management for Extension agents, other agricultural professionals and organic fresh market vegetable farmers.
Our team has developed a “Veggie Compass” spreadsheet tool available under the Tools tab of this website. It is now in use by growers throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. Download it for free, give it a try, and let us know what you think!
To view an hour-long eOrganic webinar about Veggie Compass, click on the link below.
The Future of Veggie Compass
The Veggie Compass research team is committed to continuing to improve Veggie Compass and welcomes your input and suggestions.
Options under consideration for the future include a Veggie Compass application for labor tracking for use with hand-held devices such as tablets or smart phones. By simplifying the labor data collection effort, growers would more easily record hard-to-capture cost of production labor hours.
Another possibility is a refined and interactive web-based version of Veggie Compass. It is envisioned to be a secure program accessible via the Web, eliminating the need for growers to have Excel skills. Participating growers would have the option of (anonymously) sharing yield, price, cost, and sale data so that everyone could compare and learn from a collective database organized by farm scale and level of mechanization.
Education and Training
The Veggie Compass team welcomes invitations to conduct (fee for service) trainings. If you would like to host a Veggie Compass training in your area, contact John Hendrickson to discuss costs and scheduling.
Several members of the Veggie Compass team have received funding to take the Veggie Compass Project in exciting new directions in 2014 and beyond. A Specialty Crop Block Grant has been secured to conduct time and technique studies. This will entail documenting the time it takes to perform tasks such as seeding, transplanting, weed cultivation, harvest and post harvest handling on farms using different tools, equipment and management approaches. For example, we will compare hand weeding with tractor cultivation, hand transplanting with various mechanical options, and various set-ups for post-harvest handling. This will help growers gauge the efficiency of their own operations as well as give them valuable data with which to assess the impact of purchasing various types of tools and equipment. Beyond a comparison of tools and machines, however, this time and technique research aims to discover and illuminate a wide range of effective methods and approaches including labor management practices and organizational systems that improve overall farm performance and labor efficiency. A series of YouTube videos will document the results of this project.
What About Livestock?
New spreadsheet tools are being developed for livestock producers. Forthcoming will be a tool for grass-based dairy producers called “Pasture Compass” and a general livestock tool called “Livestock Compass.” Look for these in 2015.
Ongoing Communication and Updates
If you would like to subscribe to periodic email updates regarding Veggie Compass, enter your email address to join our list, and please direct your questions to John Hendrickson.