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infrastructure & equipment purchases that grow farm profits

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You think it’s time to scale your flower or specialty farming operation. You’ve been growing flowers in the field for two, three or even more years now. You have increased production every year and your sales outlets are really starting to come together. You need to expand production on your farm and become more efficient. It’s time to add some infrastructure and large equipment to your flower farming enterprise.

But these are big expenditures, right? You need to spend your money wisely and get the best bang for your buck. This blog will discuss some investments in your property and equipment that will boost efficiency, increase production, and grow revenue for your farm.

 

Growing Structures

Growing outdoors means your growing season is limited to just a few months of the year. Trying to make a year’s worth of income in June – September can be exhausting and eventually unsustainable as you wear yourself out mentally and physically. According to Lynn Byczynski, “The economic impact of single-season marketing is problematic too. Prices are at their lowest when the supply is greatest in the summer.”[1] Eventually, specialty farmers seek to add a high tunnel or greenhouse to their farm. 

High Tunnel

The growing structure that most flower farmers start with is usually a high tunnel. High tunnels are polyethylene, plastic or fabric covered hoop structures that can be assembled for a fraction of the cost of a greenhouse.

Season extension is key when ramping up flower production and getting to the market early. A high tunnel allows you to get plants in the ground earlier and extend your growing season into late fall and early winter. Think Mother’s Day sales in May and forcing bulbs for those dreary winter days. Other benefits of high tunnel production are improved plant and soil quality. High tunnels are not heated so you will need to research if one will work in your climate. Some of those freezing temperatures can be mitigated with the use of row cover and space heaters.

A high tunnel is relatively easy to build. You can do it yourself or purchase a kit from a supplier. Kits are available in varying sizes. Online stores such as Farmers Friend (https://www.farmersfriend.com/caterpillar-tunnel) and Bootstrap Farmer (https://www.bootstrapfarmer.com/collections/greenhouse-kits/products/greenhouse-kit) offer some good information along with kits you can purchase.

Don’t overlook possible grant opportunities when looking at funding a high tunnel. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers grant opportunities through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). If you are planning to use an NRCS grant, there will be restrictions on how you can grow and what you are allowed to do. Plants grown in an NRCS funded tunnel must be grown in-ground or in raised beds no more than 12” high. NRCS grants do not allow for hoop house tunnels to be used for livestock housing or equipment storage. Call or visit your local USDA (www.nrcs.usda.gov) branch for more information. The Farmers Friend website has some information around the NRCS grant as well (https://www.farmersfriend.com/caterpillar-tunnel/specs#nrcs-specifications).

Greenhouse

A greenhouse is a structure with walls and roof made chiefly of transparent material, where plants can grow in regulated climate-controlled conditions. A greenhouse is the ultimate season extender as with the right climate-controlled technology you can grow year-round.

There are other advantages to greenhouse growing. A greenhouse can help you maximize profits. Studies suggest that profits per crop per square foot can be two to three times as big when compared to open field growing.

In addition to increased production, a greenhouse can help minimize production risks. The enclosed space prevents crops from suffering damage from extreme drops in temperature, minimizes pest and critter damage.

Greenhouses are not without their challenges as well. Pests can infest a greenhouse in no time flat. Also, any soil born fungus or disease can run rampant in a greenhouse setting. You will need to have a plan in place before pest and soil issues get out of control.

The type of greenhouse you need will depend on where you live and what you are planning to grow in the greenhouse. A solid, well-built structure is an investment and operating costs for heating, cooling and air circulation can be overwhelming. You will need to do your research. You will want to focus on growing the most profitable crops so you can recoup your costs as quickly as possible.

 

Equipment

Commercial Floral Cooler

A flower cooler can be invaluable for your flower farm operation. Storing cut flowers in a cooler slows a flower’s respiration rate and maximizes vase life. We don’t currently have a floral cooler on my flower farm, and you can bet I wish I had one. I sell at a farmer’s market on Saturdays. To have the freshest flowers possible for the market, I harvest on Thursday and Friday. The tight deadline is stressful, and I pretty much know where I’m going to be every Thursday and Friday evening. A cooler would change that as it would allow me to harvest throughout the week and keep flowers fresh for my weekend market.

 

Whether purchasing new or used, traditional floral coolers can be very expensive (think thousands of dollars). However, with the invention of the CoolBot (www.storeitcold.com), you can now install a much more affordable cooler on your farm for a fraction of the price of a commercial cooler. Jennifer O’Neal, owner of Fancy Girl Farm, finished out 1/3 of a barn on her property and built a walk-in cooler. “It was a great financial decision,” says O’Neal. O’Neal, a South Georgia grower, says the cooler has been especially helpful in starting ranunculus and other cool weather plants in her cooler under grow lights.

Tractor

Unless you are practicing no-till farming or growing in a greenhouse in pots, you are going to eventually need to invest in a tractor. Many farms initially operate with a rototiller of some type. However, when it comes to efficiency and cultivating more growing space, you will need a tractor. Tractors of any size are outrageously expensive! However, they will pay for themselves in additional efficiency for your farm and help you tackle those labor-intensive tasks such as tilling and mowing.

As with any expensive purchase, you will want to do your tractor research. My husband carefully and dutifully researched and decided on a compact LS 45 HP tractor. The tractor has a 3-point hitch so we can use a wide variety of implements. This tractor has been a workhorse for our farm, and we use it for everything from tilling to pulling t-posts out of the ground.

While doing your research make sure to make a list of implements you need for your tractor. Some tractor packages come with two or three attachments, but you may need to add some as well. Pricing a tractor and researching attachments goes hand in hand. You want to make sure you have enough horsepower to run the implements. Our tractor package included a trailer to haul the tractor, a front-end loader, and a bushhog. We purchased a tiller as an add-on. A few months later, I found a bedmaker sitting in a warehouse about 60 miles away that I was able to purchase.

 

Conclusion

The infrastructure and equipment investments discussed above have the potential of increasing productivity, efficiency, and the profitability for your farm. The primary factor to consider with any of these expenditures is how quickly you can get a return on your investment. Make sure that you are using costlier high tunnel and greenhouse space for high value crops. You should be able to recoup the cost of a high tunnel the first season you use it. ROI on a greenhouse or tractor will take longer.

 

 

About the Author

Summer Wilkinson, CPA, is the founder and owner of Leaf Book CFO Services and a certified Profit First Professional. She works with specialty farmers and nursery owners to drive profitability in their businesses.

She and her husband are also the owners of Sweetie Pie Farm, a specialty cut flower farm in southern Tennessee. If you would like to connect with her, you can email her at summer@leafbookcfo.com or visit the firm’s website at www.leafbookcfo.com.

 

[1] Lynn Byczynski. Extending the Season: Six Strategies for Improving Cash Flow Year-Round on the Market Farm, Second Addition. Growing For Market Magazine, 2014. www.growingformarket.com