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Farming is the most universal source of food in Dwarf Fortress. On maps with plentiful shrubs, animals or bodies of water, plant gathering, hunting or fishing can also produce a lot of food; however, these practices often do not scale to the level needed to feed a full-sized fortress. Farming is a highly efficient, reliable, renewable and scalable source of food -- and, after cooking, of compact but valuable trade goods. Plants are also the only source of alcohol and dye other than trading. Some can be turned into clothing.
You cannot plant seeds on a bare rock floor, only on mud or soil. The easiest way to farm, by far, is to find some soil, which may be found on the surface or by digging into a layer of soil underground if there was a soil layer present on embark in one of the biomes. If soil is unavailable, you will need to set up an irrigation scheme to deposit water on the bare rock to create mud, which can then have farm plots placed upon it.
However, muddying rock for farming only works underground; above ground, it is deceptive (and may be considered a bug). Above-ground rock floors can be muddied, and farm plots can be built on them - also, if the farmplot overlaps even one tile of soil, they can even have seeds designated for planting - but the farmplot will never actually get planted with seeds, and so will never become productive.
Aboveground or underground?
You can plant either underground or aboveground, depending on the type of plants you want to grow. The starting seeds your dwarves may bring with them can only be planted underground. If you want to farm aboveground, you will need to gather seeds from outdoor shrubs, which can then be planted. Caravans will also usually bring additional bags of seeds.
The farm plot should be either entirely above ground or entirely subterranean. A mixed-class farm plot will allow you to choose any crop for planting, but the chosen crop will be planted only on tiles capable of growing it. Worse, planters will not skip over the infertile tiles, leaving the rest of the plot fallow whether it can support the crop or not.
Also, some biomes such as mountains will not support outdoor farming, even when irrigated. You can build a farm on muddy ground, but no seed types will be available for planting there. If you wish to dig a secure outdoor farming area into your underground fort, make sure it's on a biome that supports outdoor farming.
If you want a secure way to farm outdoor plants, consider building a greenhouse. This can be done by channeling out a square area (or using a drained pond) and building floor tiles above it, preferably from glass blocks (though any material will work, even raw stone, this is considered by many to be a bug). Alternatively, you can construct walls around (and floors above) a section of any soil and create a secure farming area above ground, either built next to a cavern (and accessible via tunnel) or built in the middle of a plain (and accessible from beneath via stairs).
Defining the farm plot
Once you have a suitable location for farming you can have your farmer(s) prepare a farm plot. That's the actual bit of soil to be tilled.
Enter the build menu and place farm plots. Use u and k to increase the size of the plot, and m and h to decrease it. When the plot is sized and positioned correctly, pressing Enter will place it. Your grower(s) will now rush in and prepare the field, clearing out rubble and other impediments when necessary.
How much farm space do you need? Surprisingly little. A 5x5 plot manned by dabbling farmers will provide enough food to feed and
water booze 30 dwarves. The use of boozecooking will stretch this to 75 dwarves. If you have decently skilled farmers, the same 5x5 plot (with boozecooking) will feed over 200 dwarves! However, you may wish to increase food production way beyond anything your dwarves could ever consume to create large amounts of valuable trade goods or stock up for goblin sieges.
Once a farmer builds the plots, it's time to plant. Go into the plot's q menu and select the type of seed to plant. Your farmers will then take care of the rest. Note that your farmers will not work the plot the whole year without being told to do so: you must designate a crop for each season. You can designate each season ahead of time by using a, b, c, d from the plot selection screen. You do not have to plant the same thing each season and can change planting orders at anytime, even mid-season. The already planted seeds will mature normally and the rest of the plot will be planted with the newly designated crop. Some underground plants can only be planted during certain seasons.
On a farm that is built but not planted, each tile will appear as "≈". Once a square has been planted, its appearance will change to "═". Once the square has been harvested, it will return to "≈".
In the first year, you may want to focus your production on berries aboveground, or plump helmets underground, because they can be brewed and eaten both raw or cooked. Plump helmets are also one of the 2 fast growing plants (Pig tails being the other but they can only be brewed, not eaten). Quarry bushes, cave wheat and sweet pods require processing before they can be eaten and take longer to grow. Pig tails and dimple cups can produce cloth and dye respectively, so grow these later. Dimple cups are the only underground crop that can neither be brewed nor otherwise processed into food (except for its seed, which can be cooked). Consider processing and cooking (and adjusted farming) as soon as possible since it adds quality levels to your food and in the case of quarry bushes and sweet pods quintuples the amount of food. Also, if you want to cater for the preferences of your dwarves, you will likely grow all types of crops sooner or later.
As mentioned plump helmets and pig tails grow faster, maturing in about 25 days, all other crops take about 42 days. Since a month has 28 days, you need to get your seeds in really quick to have 2 harvests per season of a slow growing crop, while 3 harvests of plump helmets per season are easier to manage. But don't worry too much if you fail - the seeds and "grow time" will even be carried over to the next season if the crop can grow in that season. Skill, fertilizing or any other factor does not influence grow time, but will increase stack size instead.
You cannot buy outdoor seeds upon embarking. If you choose to plant outdoor crops, designate a dwarf with plant gathering to gather plants outside until you get some suitable plants, then brew them (or allow them to be eaten) to get the seeds. You may also trade for outdoor seeds directly from a non-dwarven caravan, which can be a very effective way of getting a lot very quickly.
Hippies Elves are very good trading partner if you need above ground seeds, they even might trade you some of the more rare varietys. The biome the farm plot is in does not have an effect on the plants permitted in the plot.
Should you wish to plant nothing for a season, you can select z "fallow" from the farm plot menu; this is useful when your larder is overful. If you possess potash, you can fertilize the field to increase yield (see below).
Any crop may bear more or less fruit, or (as is sometimes the case with unskilled growers) it may even bear no fruit at all, thus wasting the seed. A higher yield will have many benefits along the whole assembly line of further food processing: workers will always work on one "stack" at a time – if (for example) a brewer has "sweet pod " to work with, he will produce "dwarven rum " and squeeze it all into a single barrel.
The yield from a single seed depends on the farmers' skill and, if above ground, on whether the plot was fertilized.
- Skill: no particular skill is checked when harvesting. Only the grower skill of the farmer who planted the seed is taken into account. Dabbling planters will frequently produce stacks of only one, and sometimes even zero plants. Legendary growers will often produce "plant name " and rarely even "plant name " stacks from a single seed on a non fertilized field.
- Fertilization: fertilization increases yield significantly, potentially doubling output. The amount of potash needed to fully fertilize a field depends on its size. Using q to view the farm plot, look for the field that looks like "n/N ft." n is the amount of fertilizer applied so far, while N is the maximum amount that may be applied. To fertilize the field choose the fertilize command. The seas Fert option tells your dwarves to automatically fertilize a field after each season change. Underground farm plots cannot be fertilized unless they have first been irrigated. The amount of potash required for a plot of a given size is:
- (Size/4, rounded down) + 1*
- (* which means that plots of size 1-3 use 1, size 4-7 use 2, size 8-11 use 3, etc.)
- Given this formula, the ratio of tiles fertilized per unit of potash approaches 4, but never reaches it. The larger the plot, the better the ratio; and if the plot's size is one less than a multiple of 4 (11, 15, etc.) you get very high potash efficiency.
- (Size/4, rounded down) + 1*
In a discussion concerning the chances to get stacks of 6 plants, Toady has mentioned:
- "...Yeah, even a novice farmer will get 6 of them once out of every 12,000,000 attempts. I think the most you can get is 11 with full fertilization and good farming skill rolls (and some luck)..."
A few weeks after planting a seed, a crop will sprout on that spot. Crops must be harvested within another few weeks or they will wither. By default, all dwarves will harvest, including children and even nobles. This may or may not be desirable: on the one hand, it makes sure that no crops will wither; on the other, it may lead to far away dwarves interrupting their work and running a long way in order to harvest a single plant and less skill gains for your planters.
Harvesting plants earns dwarves experience in the "growing" skill, so do not be surprised if all your dwarves soon become "dabbling" (or better) growers. Because of that, peasants with no other occupation become farmers almost automatically. Do not be afraid that they might trample your fields: the skill is of no importance during harvest, and no matter how much skill they earn they will still only plant crops if you allow them to in their individual "labor" menu.
If you chose to turn off "All dwarves harvest" in your orders menu, only dwarves with the "Farming (Fields)" labor enabled will harvest. However, they will often choose to plant new seeds instead of reaping the existing crop, so you risk that some amount may wither. After harvesting a plant (plucking it out of the ground), dwarves will carry it to the nearest stockpile, even if they do not have the "food hauling" labor enabled, unless you have "Dwarves ignore food" set in your orders menu, in which case they will leave the plant blinking on the field. If not moved to a stockpile within a few weeks, it will wither.
If you manage to get large-scale farming up and running, you will need to employ many food haulers in order for the food produced on your farms to be edible, even if it has already been harvested. This is because in the current version of the game, items tagged for pending tasks (including Move to Stockpile and Store in Barrel) are unavailable for any other use -- such as eating. An entire fortress of dwarves can starve while they wait for somebody to move the food.
One way to deal with this problem (at least during the heavy farming/harvesting seasons) is to disable hauling of both stone and wood in the top-level orders menu. This way, most of those jobs will clear out of the job queue, and you will be left mostly with "Store in Barrel" type jobs. You can also increase the number of dedicated food haulers.
It can be difficult to manage barrels to store food and drink, and bags to store seeds and processed foods. Combat this by cooking food to consolidate it into larger stacks that won't rot outside of a barrel (it just needs to be indoors on a food stockpile). In the p menu, you can also reserve some empty barrels that will not be used for food storage; instead, they will only be used for brewing and syrup processing tasks. Leaves, sugar, and flour are not edible; to use them up and free their bags, you must cook. You can also cook excess seeds (albeit only up to 4 at a time), to reclaim the bags they occupy. Make sure not to cook your last crop seed!
Crops will sometimes be displayed as red in the field listing. This means that planting the crop would be fruitless, as it will not survive long enough to be harvested (due to it not being plantable during the next season). Note that this will only happen if your dwarves actually know that the crop will die, which will be learned either by observation (i.e. having the seeds die during a season transition) or by being planted by a sufficiently skilled Farmer.
Due to a bug, all crops will be displayed in red at the end of Winter, even if they can be planted in the Spring as well.