For small farmers, a spreadsheet alternative

July 24, 2012

Sustainable farming has emerged as a new, hip career path. In a down economy, why not? It’s a job that promises righteousness — eating local will save Americans from their sinister dependence on fossil fuels! — and deliciousness: How ’bout them heirloom tomatoes?

To capitalize on the trend — and to counter a projected 8 percent drop by 2018 in the nation’s 2 million farmers — the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set an ambitious target of adding 100,000 new farmers and ranchers this year alone. But is sustainable farming really sustainable for farmers? Most small farmers I have met in nearly a decade of reporting on agriculture simply don’t know. They sow, weed, water, harvest, and, at the end of the season, they cross their fingers and hope they have made a little money.

This, unfortunately, is all too common. “We see a lot of folks get started in farming because they want to grow things,” says Erica Frenay, who works with beginning farmers at the Cornell Small Farms Program. “But it’s really rare that we find someone who is incredibly enthusiastic about the invisible side of farming: the management and organization and record keeping. And the difference between success and failure is good management.”

AgSquared, an innovative new software program, aims to make these essential tasks easy. Through the program’s sleek, Web-based interface, farmers can plan which crops to plant, map where they are in the fields and assign and check off tasks. Over time, the data give small farmers an overview of whether their operations are efficient and profitable.

The program is the brainchild of plant biologist Giulia Stellari, 31, and plant breeder Jeffrey Gordon, 32. The pair met and began talking about the idea in 2007 while in grad school at Cornell. They were initially interested in networking data from small farmers that would help illuminate big trends, such as a pattern of pests or the effect of unseasonably hot weather on a new variety of peas. (The name, AgSquared, is an abbreviation for Aggregating Agriculture.) But after talking to farmers, Stellari and Gordon realized that kind of information didn’t exist in electronic form. “Most farmers used paper notebooks, or maybe an Excel spreadsheet,” says Stellari. “There was nothing out there that took the information and made it useful.”

Ag Squared founders Jeff Gordon and Giulia Stellari. (Courtesy of Ag Squared/COURTESY OF AG SQUARED)

One reason: Software designed to manage small, diversified farms didn’t really exist. The technology was geared for either backyard gardeners or commodity growers who manage hundreds of acres of two or three crops from the comfort of their air-conditioned tractors. Because many stewards of small farms sell through community-supported agriculture programs or at farmers markets that thrive on variety, they grow a head-wrecking number of different crops: anywhere from 30 to 75 in a season.

AgSquared is designed to coax order from the chaos. It helps farmers create a plan, calculating how many seeds and how much space the farm needs and when workers will need to harvest. It creates task lists and schedules that are intuitively related. For example, if a farmer enters that he planted tomatoes on June 1, the software creates a task reminding him to weed two weeks later. Perhaps most important, it can transform a farmer’s daily schedule — what was done, how much time it took and which problems arose — into detailed, searchable records.

Since AgSquared’s soft launch in December 2011, about 2,800 farms in the United States and Canada have signed up. The software is in beta testing and available free of charge as the company continues to tweak the program to meet farmers’ needs. Subscription pricing will start later in 2012, with a basic package listed at $60 annually, discounted to $36 for the first year.

The software already has proved invaluable to small farmers such as Jamie Baker. A former IT director, Baker and her husband, David, bought Primrose Valley Farm, an 83-acre property outside Madison, Wis., in 2008 and began growing fruits and vegetables. That first year, Baker set up elaborate spreadsheets to keep track of which crops they planted, what was harvested and who did what. “But I kept thinking: This needs a database,” she says. “With my background, I knew what could be accomplished with the right technology.”

One of the key ways the Bakers use AgSquared is to keep up with their organic certification. Its mapping feature helps them make sure their 75 kinds of crops are appropriately rotated. They can print out detailed records for their certifier that trace crops from seed to harvest. The Bakers also use AgSquared’s checklists to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. “On any given day, five things come up to distract you,” she says. “If you don’t have the ability to check something off, you end up in a situation where you say, ‘Did anyone ever do that?’ ”

Jerry Cornett is using AgSquared to launch his next career. After more than two decades in the U.S. Navy, the 46-year-old retired commander returned to his home state of Nebraska, where he and his wife plan to open a farm-to-table restaurant with a menu ambitious enough to draw customers from nearby Lincoln. “My wife gave me a list of 50 kinds of fruits and vegetables she wants me to grow through the seasons: fennel, beets, kohlrabi, ground cherries, tomatillos,” he says. “I’m looking at this from 21 years in the military. How do I measure progress? How do I measure profitability? I love doing this. But if it nets me $10,000 a year, it’s not worth it.”

Cornett uses AgSquared’s calendar and mapping features. But labor is his biggest cost. So he also uses the software to track how long it takes to finish specific tasks, such as transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse to the fields. By analyzing the data, he has discovered how to shave five or 10 minutes off mundane chores, seemingly negligible bits of time that add up over the course of the year. Eventually, he will be able to judge which of those 50 crops are worth growing himself and which don’t make financial sense.

“People like to complain about what’s going on with Big Ag and corporations,” Cornett says. “But if you want small farms to succeed, you have to figure out what makes a five- or 10-acre farm profitable. Because then others will come and do it.”

Black, a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.

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