The Beauty of the SOP

I’m still feeling pretty revved up from the ASCFG meeting in Denver. I gained so much insight about how to refine my business, and as always the networking was great. I loved talking to so many flower farmers that I met for the first time, and seeing many old friends. If you didn’t make it, definitely check out the video replays.

Unfortunately this time of year is “go time” on our farm. Days are full with planting, weeding, office work, training new employees, markets, and so much more, that a lot of the big picture/back end dreams that were sparked in Denver will have to wait until the slow season to come to life. For me, making big changes to my business is a slow process. I have to ruminate on new ideas, research them, talk to friends, cost things out, make decisions, and then, finally I can pull the trigger. But I am really excited to see what I can actually implement over the next year.

Shanti's Standard Operating Procedures manual is essential to her business.

At the “Business of Flower Farming”, Carolyn Snell and I presented on how to manage a farm crew. Moving from farmer to boss is not an easy transition in the development of a small business, and we wanted to share some of the things we’ve learned along the way—everything from legal issues to how to keep people happy and provide the kind of employment that will keep them around as long as possible. Building a strong team is essential to building a thriving farm business.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about managing a team is that people need clear direction. Most people want to do a good job at whatever they are doing. When they aren’t doing a good job, most likely the root cause is that they aren’t given the proper direction or resources. If they really don’t care about doing a good job, figure that out right away and let them go.

As the boss, you can’t be everywhere, always. And while I much prefer to do everything myself, there is no way at our scale that this can happen anymore. I tend to be the kind of person who has a million things going on at any given moment. I’m very scattered and I will rattle off long lists of important task that I want executed with lots of tiny (important!) details. And I used this method for an embarrassing number of years. But, I have learned that this a terrible way to direct team members. I absolutely abhor writing things down in an orderly, organized, permanent fashion, especially if I already know how to do them myself. But, I have been forced to make changes. For the better.

I now rely heavily on the SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure. This is just a written protocol for a specific task. If there are pictures or videos to go along with it, all the better. Read the book The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman for much more on this topic.

Farming has to be efficient to be profitable. An SOP can help make work clear and efficient, and it gives your employees a blueprint for consistency and good performance of a task. You can track who does what, in what amount of time, and what the results are. It can reduce hurt feelings when there is a set standard to fall back on. It also aids in performance evaluations.
Some examples of SOP’s we use on our farm:

• Mixing potting soil
• Seeding in plug trays with the vacuum seeder
• Greenhouse watering
• Direct seeding with the Jang seeder
• How to lay drip irrigation
• Pinching
• Flower harvest, crop by crop
• Farmers’ market setup, execution, and breakdown
• Dahlia digging, dividing and storage

The options are endless, as you can imagine. It can feel a bit overwhelming. But start with just one and build your library over time. Be specific in the title and the scope of each SOP. Include the equipment, skill level, and number of people needed to perform the task. Specify an order in which to complete the tasks and an appropriate time frame, along with any safety tips. If the SOP gets too long, break it up into separate tasks. It’s hard for people to remember too many steps accurately. Post an abbreviated version in an appropriate spot: checklists, flowcharts, and short videos work great for this purpose. A more detailed, written version may be used for employee training or as part of an employee manual.

To develop an SOP from scratch, first study the task and envision what improvements can be made. Check to see what other farms do for the same task. Trial several ways to accomplish the same task and agree on the best method for speed, safety, and simplicity. While I generally write the initial SOP, I then give it over to the crew for feedback. I involve them in the ongoing development of an SOP to make sure we are actually doing the job as stated. I often myself totally unaware that the crew is doing something to make the job easier or better, and I can fold that into the written document. Or I find big gaps in the written protocol and the reality of the task and revise accordingly.

SOPs are crucial for training new employees on a job, and great for cross-training so employees can easily fill in for one another. They allow your crew to work by themselves confidently. They can help keep employees safe and may provide legal protection if an employee gets hurt. I have found that creating SOPs for our farm has actually made the work I do personally way more consistent. If it’s written down, and I expect others to do it the right way, I am more inclined to do the same.

This is probably the least exciting, least flowery Regional Report ever! Sorry for that. But this small tool has made a huge difference on our farm. I hope it helps someone else out there too. Even if you are just thinking of hiring your first part-time helper, do your future self a favor and start writing down your protocols to make the training and efficiency of your employee easier and better.

If you are in my Region and have any feedback, stories to share, questions, issues, you name it, please reach out, I’d love to connect! Wishing you all a bountiful growing season.

Shanti Rade

Whipstone Farm

Shanti Rade Whipstone Farm Contact at [email protected]