Book Review: “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook” by Richard Wiswall

Consider this book review the open-faced sandwich critique – I’m going to begin with my blunt and in-your-face opinion of the manual and leave you with the dry facts and contents within as an ending note.  This is a good manual for anyone starting out in organic farming or an existing farmer noticing that there are efficiencies and processes lacking in her business season after season and looking to improve.

It’s a good and thorough readScreen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.29., but I also believe that it is lacking in several points:

Critique:

1. What about the Internet? 

In his thorough review of everything business related, Wiswall presents us with an organic farming manual that reads like it’s from the mid 90s although it was obviously published in 2009.  What’s the deal?  I read of cheques and balancing cheque books and am puzzled why PayPal or eTransfers are never mentioned.  What about marketing via Facebook and Twitter and the quality of a farm’s website?  What of online forms and computer admin work?  The dawn of the Internet is not just for the suit-wearing tech-savvy types – it’s for farmers too!

2. What if you’re growing more than just veggies?

Of course, if the author chose to give an overview of every type of farming operation and the different combinations between protein, grain, dairy, vegetable and fruit farming – the manual in question would be bigger than the Bible.  Nevertheless, a chapter outlining the potential advantages (and pitfalls) of running a diversified farm would be greatly appreciated, and since the book is focused on business I’d consider biodiversity as sound money-making advice.  Out in the prairies, just as in Vermont (location of the author’s farm), the winters are long and rough and complementing a farmer’s crop revenue with pastured pork, cattle or some raw-milk sales on the side (for your adventurous types ;) can be a great way to see the year through.  In business as in farming it’s never wise to put “all of your eggs in one basket” – so where’s the chapter on farm and revenue diversification?

3. At what point does meticulous business practice take the fun (and community) out of farming?

Counting every single man-hour, task, crop, distance, grain and second spent in the fields is undoubtedly a great business practice – guaranteeing robotic efficiency in all of your accounting and financial conclusions – but how realistic is it really?  Wiswall provides meticulously researched excel spreadsheets in which you, the farmer, and your employees, can plug in every second of work and effort expended on your farm and thus know your exact per-acre revenue for every crop. Sounds like a dream come true! But is it really? So much organization goes into planning for, seeding, weeding, harvesting and selling your crops in every season that farmers acquire a natural savvy and intuition into what plants need and when.  I agree that it’s important to recognize that per-acre kale is more profitable than broccoli (primarily because you kale gives multiple harvests per plant) – but I have yet to meet a farmer who would want to calculate the exact time, labour, material and overhead cost that goes into the production of every single crop on their farm.  And to bash CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for potentially taking too much harvest for too little money?  CSAs have their drawbacks, but giving back to your community is not one of them.  Let’s focus on the global efficiencies of farming, diversify our income and mitigate risk – but let’s keep the fun, and the community involved!

The Unbiased Book Description

A comprehensive and well written manual, Wiswall shows that he understands first-hand the joys and motivations of starting and operating an organic farm – as well as the challenges of making a good living from one.  Recognizing that many farmers avoid the business end of their enterprises, Wiswall focuses on the numbers, organisation and methods applicable to operating a successful farm.  This book includes:

  • detailed procedures to making crop production more efficient
  • guides on managing staff, farm operations and office systems
  • advice on what to do with your profits: from business spending to investing and even planning for retirement

About the Author

Richard Wiswall has been farming in East Montpelier, Vermont (USA) since 1981.  His organic farm, Cate Farm, has been a decades-long learning tool in his work on farm profitability and appropriate business tools.  Wiswall consults with other farmers, writes and is a frequent speaker on organic-farm business issues.  Main website: http://www.catefarm.com

About the Book

Chapters include:

1. True Sustainability

  • the mile-high fence
  • solar dollars
  • paradigms
  • goal setting
  • quality of life

2. Farm for Profit, Not Production

  • profit = income – expenses
  • planning for profit
  • summing it up

3. Discovering Profit Centers

  • tracking income
  • tracking expenses
  • the indispensable crop journal
  • creating a simple crop budget
  • index of profitability

4. Profit time: Crop Enterprise Budgets

  • Assumptions
  • Conclusion

5. Marketing Strategies

  • the marketing circle
  • rejection 101
  • a word on pricing
  • Brand ID
  • Act professional
  • CSA potholes

6. Effective Management

  • the clean desk
  • the master list
  • time quadrant
  • old decision, new decision
  • employee management

7. Office Paper Flows and Leaky Finances

  • purchases
  • designate a mother checkbook
  • setting up expense categories
  • summary of purchases and bill paying
  • computer-generated checks
  • reconciling checkbooks with the bank statement
  • sales: money coming into the farm
  • potential financial leaks
  • the end: annual cleaning and storing of papers

8. How to Retire on your farm: retirement 101 and business spending tactics

  • retirement 101
  • saving
  • investing
  • an investment primer
  • business spending tactics and taxes
  • tying it all together

9. Production Efficiencies

  • standardize and raise your beds
  • making beds
  • kill your rototiller
  • weed control with tractor
  • cultivation
  • seeding
  • transplanting
  • deer fencing
  • harvesting
  • greenhouse efficiencies

10. Write your own business plan

  • the skeleton
  • some details
  • financial statements
  • write the summary

11. Planning for the inevitable: the ultimate conclusion

  • a parting thought

Appendix: Vegetable Farm Crop Enterprise Budgets

Workbook Index

  • worksheet 1: Labor, delivery, farmer’s market, and overhead costs
  • worksheet 2: greenhouse flat costs
  • worksheet 3: greenhouse costs: bedding plants and in-ground tomatoes
  • worksheet 4: tractor, implement and irrigation costs
  • crop enterprise budgets

The Manual begins with…

…a useful goal-setting exercise and a discussion on the different “types” of dollars (solar, mineral and paper), a useful mental primer to the business chapters that follow.  Beginning with the very logical albeit frequently overlooked concept of farming for profit, not for production, the author points out that farmers often handle large sums of money but have little to no idea of where it goes or where their profit, if there is one at the end of the year, really comes from.  Even then, an annual income is an average of all farming business activities and doesn’t accurately reflect which activities are generating more, or less, income.  He then breaks items down into simplified marketing, production plan charts and seeding calendar to illustrate how farmers can map out their activities to reach their desired profits.

Check it out on Amazon and share your feedback!

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ále says:

    I cant imagine any kind of marketing without internet – it must be so 12th century

  2. Useful review of the book. I’d love to read it, even if there are large gaps in information that we need to fill in ourselves.

  3. permaprocess says:

    Agreed. It’s still a good read regardless :) and sheds light on all the big issues of organic farming (focusing on profitability not product, managing people and a mention of long-term financial management). and it’s a quick read! I am looking fwd to reviewing the Organic Manual by Ann Larkin Hansen soon. Regards – Kasia

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