November 25, 2012

Taking care of business

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — We are fast approaching the end of the year. This week we looked back with thanks for this year’s bounty. Now it’s time to figure out if it was truly a successful one or not.

While many of us can count on a weekly paycheck with all the appropriate taxes withheld and year-to-date totals all prepared, farmers don’t have it so easy. Because many farms are single proprietorships or family partnerships, they are essentially self-employed and have no one but themselves to keep track of income and expenses.

Like any business, an important part of farming is record keeping, data collection, organization and financial planning. That does not mean cleaning off the truck dashboard and stuffing every expense receipt, check stub and bill from last year into a shoe box with faded notes and well weathered deposit slips. Organizing your paperwork can be as simple as a cardboard banker’s box and a set of alphabetized hanging file folders.

Good record keeping is essential to determining whether your farm business is successful or not. And not just at the end of the year. A good system will allow you to keep track of how your business is doing at a glance.

One of the first steps one should take is to use a farm business account book to track expenses and receipts. The next step from there would be to utilize small business management software to computerize and modernize your farm recordkeeping. Some programs have farm and ranch business accounts already set up and ready to go. With computer business management software, important information such as profit and loss statements and cash-flow projections can be accessed at anytime of the year, not just at tax time.

Tracking income is a challenge no matter what kind of farming enterprise you have. Dairy farmers have a major source of income from milk sales but also have income from livestock sales, feed sales, government payments and income from rents or custom field work. Many smaller diversified farmers have multiple sources of sales income and expenses as well. With many sources of income comes the possibility of record keeping lapses. Keeping farm income and expenses separate and distinct from personal accounts is also essential.

Tracking farm expenses is often the most difficult record-keeping challenge. The larger farm suppliers may supply monthly or annual statements, but it is often the little things that fill up the shoebox. Regular filing and data entry, whether it is paper or computer, will keep your pockets, glove compartment and truck cab free of the sales receipts and charge slips that accumulate like leaves in autumn. The time spent on these record keeping details will save time and no doubt money when it comes time to balance the books.

To assist farmers with this daunting task, the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Associations of Northern New York will be offering basic financial-management training for farm business owners and managers. Educators will cover the three basic financial statements every farm business should use. Discussion will include recordkeeping systems, inventory management, cash flow vs. profitability, crop insurance and risk management. 

The 1 to 3 p.m. course qualifies for FSA Borrower Training Credits. The cost is $10 per class per farm or $25 for the series of three classes. This class is for beginning farmers and farmers who want to know more about basic bookkeeping, and such tools as profitability measures, accrual accounting and depreciation.

The small classroom setting allows for lots of questions and one-on-one help from instructors. The program will be offered locally at the CCE Clinton County Office at 6064 NYS Route 22, Plattsburgh, on Dec. 10, Jan. 7 and Jan. 21. Pre-register by Dec. 3 with CCE Clinton County, 561-7450, or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email