5 Lessons We Can Learn from Commercial Farming

As we take steps into this gardening season, it is important to give ourselves a moment and take a step back to reflect, plan, and prepare.  Review a chapter on mulching in your favorite gardening book, take a walk around your garden beds and see how the soil is doing, and… take advice from big commercial farms?  Wait, aren’t they evil? 

We’re not saying it’s time to buy MiracleGro seeds or buy a crop duster.  As small scale organic farmers, we aren’t really in favor of all aspects of commercial farming, not by a long shot.  But you have to admit, for a business to be successful–or any project, for that matter–you have to be disciplined, reflective, and proactive.  Commercial farms are masters at producing food efficiently and at minimal cost.  Admit it, isn’t efficiency and economical planning one of your goals too?  The key here is to make sure we go about it in a way that fits our ethics, lifestyle, and goals instead of simply following in Big Farming’s footsteps blindly as we start our gardens and maintain them through the growing season.

Here are some things commercial operations treat as absolutely critical that some home gardeners simply ignore.  Ignoring these will almost always result in poor crops, high expenses, or maybe even just a lot of extra hard work that could be avoided.  Let’s see what we can learn.

1. Weed Control

Weeds in your garden

How commercial farms do it:

  • Targeted Herbicides.  Commercial farms study research reports, attend trainings from herbicide manufacturers, and make detailed plans for how and where to lay out a mass killing of weeds.  They do it because it works, year after year.
  • Using hybrids that are optimized for growing sooner to beat the weeds to the sun
  • Making sure soil conditions are ideal for the crop and not necessarily the weeds.  This is just part of the business and operation.  Good soil also gives the plants the ability to produce well, something big farms definitely give priority to
  • Actually pulling weeds in regularly scheduled intervals.  Big farms pay workers to do this, so it is never ignored.

How you can do it:

  • Avoid herbicides.  Once you put a chemical into your soil, you lose control over it. It could last a long time, affect other plants, and maybe even make you or animals sick.  We think it is best to opt for proactive weed management without chemicals, especially in an organic garden!
  • Like commercial farms, intelligently select seeds/plants. Maybe not the same seeds the big farms might choose, but take your time when making a selection and don’t just go with the tomato that looks nicest in the picture!
  • Like commercial farms, use optimal soil (paying attention to pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium levels, etc.) for the specific crop so it has a better chance against the weeds!  You can find the optimal soil specifications on the seed packet or listing in the catalog.
  • Like commercial farms, get down and dirty and pull weeds as soon as they come up.  This is one of the areas where the big guys really outshine us small time folks, since they have paid workers dedicated to this chore who work on the clock.  We are trying to balance our gardens with a multitude of other priorities, from children to dinner to finding a moment to sit, so weeding often slips down the task list.  Instead of putting in 6 miserable hours every Saturday, why not weed 30-60 minutes every morning?  You’ll actually get more done and stay ahead of the weeds, which can grow very rapidly if not attended to.


2. Grow Crops that Are Suited to your Climate and Capabilities

Summer Squash & Zucchini

How commercial farms do it:

  • Generally speaking, commercial farms will always choose breeds of plants that are optimized for their location, equipment, and available resources.  It’s a business for them, so why would they waste time, effort, and money on anything other than plants that are most likely to produce well for them?  They do the research and know what will work.
  • Some big farms also set aside some resources for testing new crops, and evaluate at the end of the season.  This is how they can make sure a new crop will work for them without investing a lot of resources in a full scale production.

How you can do it:

Commercial farms might choose varieties optimized for different characteristics than what we’d prefer on an organic, small operation, but the logic is the same for us. So just like described above, you should:

  • Do the research on what works best. Ask neighbors or your local cooperative extension to see what kinds of cucumbers will thrive in your area.  Read up on plant requirements.  Make smart, calculated decisions!
  • When trying new crops, start small.  You may not have a lot of space available for experimentation, and in the case of failure, you don’t want to put too much time and money into something you’re just testing out.  If it fails, lesson learned, and you still have all your standard crops in the larger garden space.


3. Harvest at the Right Time

Harvesting Peas

How commercial farms do it:

  • Know the crops well and harvest at the absolute optimal time
  • Plan harvests in advance for each plant and schedule the work

How you can do it:

  • In this case, it’s best to do as the big farms do.  Read up on your varieties and determine when and how to effectively harvest.  Harvesting at the right time will not only give you vegetables and fruits at their peak, it can  also encourage the plants to produce more later into the season.  If you leave a plant unharvested, it could grow weak and die prematurely, or the fruit could rot on the stem.  For carrots, you want to thin out the crop for an early harvest, which also allows the carrots that stay behind to have more room and nutrients available for an impressive later harvest.  Paying attention can pay off big time!
  • Like commercial farming, plan out when you should harvest in advance.  We actually use Google Calendar to plan our garden, so we already have harvests scheduled and reminders set.  Click here to check out our post on how you can use Google Calendar to plan your garden.


4. Be reflective and plan For next Year as you go

Taking Notes on Garden Performance

How Commercial Farms Do it:

  • They pay attention to crops that performed well and those that did not.  Assessments are made on factors contributing to the performance, and they will try to exploit factors that had a positive effect, and they will try to minimize factors that had a negative effect.  Maybe a certain hybrid tomato didn’t produce well, or a fertilizer really improved the size of pumpkins.  Big farmers pay close attention to all the details to make sure their investments for next year are effective for financial stability.
  • A commercial farm is a business, and as such it adheres to a business plan.  For a commercial farm, it is crucial to understand how a plant performs, not just in the field but also at market.  A cucumber that produces well won’t necessarily sell well, so decisions need to be made to keep the farm viable from year to year. Continuing to grow a crop that doesn’t sell just doesn’t make sense, and selecting and improving upon those that did do well is a must.

How You Can Do it:

  • Just like commercial farms, you should take time to pay attention to crops that do well, as well as those that do poorly.  What did you do in the garden that contributed to the success?  Was the location perfect for getting sun?  Did you use your own magical compost to improve the soil?  Did that pesticide that you shouldn’t have used screw up the ecosystem of your land and now you have no bees?  Take notes and make next year even better.
  • Maybe you aren’t selling anything you grow, so you don’t have to worry about the market performance of those cucumbers.  But maybe you should ask yourself if you or your family actually liked the crops.  Did they sit on the counter or in the crisper drawer for days and days after harvest, untouched?  Did you have to force them down yourself, or have lengthy discussions with your 3 year old to get them to take that second bite?  Don’t waste time, money, or energy growing food you don’t really want!


5. Don’t manage pests like a commercial farm!

Pesticide Application Farm

How many commercial farms do it:

  • Pesticides
  • Pesticide resistant GMO (Genetically Modified) plants
  • More Pesticides

How you can do it:

Garden Bee

  • Resist pesticides at all costs!  They can kill more than just the one bug that is causing you trouble, which can affect the good bugs out there, like bees that are CRUCIAL to your plants!  Once you spray, you can’t take it back.
  • Identify bugs as you find them, and manage them individually with targeted plans. If you see a damaged plant, take photos and look for the bugs.  Sometimes you can search the internet for a few minutes and get a positive identification of what’s causing you trouble.  If can’t tell what kind of critter you have bring a sample of the damaged plant (or a captured bug) to your neighbors, local cooperative extension, or even supply stores, and someone will be able to help. Sometimes all it takes is to move a plant to a new location next year so the dormant bugs won’t be able to find it.  Or maybe you can pick the bugs off in the morning when you weed, and that’s enough.  Don’t go overboard with mass pesticide applications, which can do more harm than good.
  • Plan to plant in excess.  Sometimes bugs are just part of the game, as are other garden pests like deer and rabbits.  If you plant extra crops, there might be some left for you and your family!