I don’t know about you, but these next couple of months are the hardest for me to get through here in Wisconsin. The end of winter is upon us, but spring still seems an eternity away. Though it may seem that way, there’s no doubt that warm weather is coming. In the local produce world, late winter is the time for farmers and produce managers to prepare for the upcoming growing season. Good planning now is vital if we are to have a successful spring, summer, and fall.

For our local farmers, February represents the end of a much needed winter break. Though there isn’t a lot of hard physical labor to be done, planning for the coming year requires many hours poring over seed catalogs, mapping crop locations and timing, repairing equipment, lining up seasonal workers, purchasing supplies, and a myriad of other tasks necessary to ensure a successful growing season.

We’re busy planning for the coming year here in the Produce department, too. Each January, we sit down with many of our local farmers to map out the growing season. We talk through the previous year, and based on what worked and didn’t work, we agree on a new plan.

Though it takes a lot of extra time and effort, this winter planning is one of the major reasons we’re able to offer as much local produce as we do. Our farmers know exactly what we plan to buy and in roughly what amounts, so they can plan their plantings around our needs. It also allows us to ensure that we’re sourcing as much local produce as possible, and also helps us determine what products are not currently being grown and could provide new farmers an “in” to our Produce departments.

For last year’s (2011) growing season, I tried out a new way of tracking our local season at Willy West. It worked quite well, and I’m in the process of replicating it this year. After our winter farmer meetings, I created a large and very colorful spreadsheet that shows week-by-week exactly what we planned to buy and from whom. Not only is it a beautiful representation of our local growing season, but it has proved to be a very helpful tool for our produce buyers as we go through the season.

Of course even the best laid plans sometimes don’t pan out, especially when you’re talking about local produce. A hailstorm or heatwave can damage even the healthiest of crops, and sometimes good weather can extend a season beyond what the farmer anticipated. So, to help with planning for the coming 2012 growing year, I kept another spreadsheet that showed what we actually bought from our local farmers. We are using this second map to determine what changes should be made for the 2012 season. You can see replicas of these two charts here to give you an idea of what we planned on bringing in and what we actually were able to.

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