~ Riceland Meadows ~

by Ralph Rice

At this time of year we all do our annual mental tabulation and consider our efforts of the past year. Hopefully we celebrate more successes than we mourn failures. We make plans for the coming year as a result of what we have learned from previous years, always trying to balance what we want to do with what is possible to do.

In pondering the past year’s finished jobs, I make a list that includes not only completed projects, but purchased equipment and livestock, and any completed buildings, fences, or farming practices. When the list is done, I take a moment to enjoy a bit of pride in my accomplishments, then ask myself, “Could I have done better?”

I struggle with this question often. I must balance my farming and logging business with a full time job. I usually have a long list of projects here on the farm that I want to complete. It includes, of course, all the seasonal farming jobs like planting, hay making, and harvesting that need to be done in a timely fashion. We have a host of livestock that demand our time beyond the daily chore list. The needs of family and friends must be met, as well as taking the occasional few days or hours to relax and recuperate.

Looking at a whole year’s work is overwhelming, even to an eternal optimist like me. I overcome the sinking feeling of too much work by organization. I divide up my year by first jotting down my off­farm work schedule. Then I consider crops and the tillage, planting, and harvesting of each. My sheep flock comes next. The management and care of my Kathadin sheep is easy, yet intense—lambing and tagging being the most intensive tasks.

Some jobs, like syrup making and haying, are dependant on the weather. I learned long ago not to fret about the weather, but just be patient and make ready, so when conditions are favorable, I am set to move.

Bees are my hobby. I don’t manage them as aggressively as some beekeepers do, yet they still provide plenty of honey for us and our farm’s customers. They thrive well in my beeyard. I keep a close eye for mites and disease, provide empty honey supers when needed, and capture swarms when possible, but in general I just leave them “bee.”

Logging jobs are worked in around the slack times on our farm. Much of the work in the woodlot happens in the autumn and winter. The woods are the better for my winter efforts, as dormant trees recover well. The smaller trees, having been released by removing the close competition, awake with spring to grow greedily and steadily toward the sun. The skidways and landings almost disappear, leaving nice paths and picnic areas to be enjoyed by folks who walk our woods.

All of our farm’s sales are direct to customers. We raise beef, pork, and lamb. We schedule all processing by putting our customers’ names on a list. We work our way down the list, first come first served. This method works well for us, and our customers are used to it.

The next things we factor in when planning our upcoming year are large farm projects like buildings, fencing, water lines and other improvements. We plan a project by when we can do it and how we can pay for it, and by making sure it fits in our whole farm plan. This bit of planning often prevents us from wasting time on a job that didn’t need to be done in the first place.

Along with planning comes delegation. It’s hard for me to admit I need help. I constantly struggle with trying to do too much myself. I have come to terms with myself by admitting some jobs are worth hiring out. My viewpoint on this will surely change when my off­farm job is not a factor, for then my time will be available when funds may not be. Meanwhile I must constantly be watchful that I don’t get mired down in a job one of my children could do or would be better hired out. I offer this illustration:

Two years ago last summer, my boys and I spent four days drilling and setting fence posts. We worked hard putting up 1,800 feet of woven wire fence. The woven wire looked good at the time, but now it requires great repair. We used 6" by 12" wire. Every animal on the place put its head through the wire spaces. The posts, though well tamped at installation, are all loose. The wire sags and is a constant reminder of my folly.

Last year we hired a man to drive fence posts with a post driver. We planned the job in advance and were prepared when he got to the farm. In a short time we drove posts for 4,000 feet of fence, 16' on center. We averaged 10 posts an hour, at a cost to drive them of $25.00 per hour. The posts are sturdy. The fence, 4" by 4" woven wire, is tight and the job looks great. We saved time and money installing a 30­year perimeter fence.

Some things to consider when planning our year are labor­saving devices. I have moved in a direction that strays a bit from my vision of a horse­powered farm, by employing some tractor jobs. Currently and for the time being, all our haymaking is done by tractor except occasional raking. Our weather patterns here in northeast Ohio don’t cooperate well with a guy trying to dry hay while working an off­farm job. By employing the tractor, haybine, and round baler, we can make all the standing hay on our farm in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months using horses. We do all our discing and most of our manure spreading with the tractor, as well. Our manure is stacked, partially composted, and spread on our fields when time and weather permit. We typically spread several tons in a few hours.

When my off­farm job eases the debt load to the point where I can make my living farming and logging, I’ll quit that job. I will then shift from tractor power to horse power in all the aforementioned jobs. When a farmer can devote 100% of his time to his farm, both the farm and the farmer benefit. Weather becomes a lesser concern, for all one must do is shift his schedule. Many jobs now hired out can then be scheduled, time taking the place of money.

This year, as I reflect on past successes and plan for future projects, I assess our farm’s needs. I work my way down our list of necessary evils, taking time to measure our progress. I examine profit and loss statements and create a timeline for success.

I will consider myself to have succeeded when my living is made from our farm and horses, when most of my time is spent teaching others the value of good horses and sustainable farming practices, and when I can look both back and forward with a sense of satisfaction, knowing my time is well managed.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Winter 2006 issue.

09 May 2007