Saturday, November 24, 2007

From Foodie to Farmer, or Things I've Learned

Liz and Christy asked about turkey sales and general farm start up issues, and my response became unwieldy, begging for its own post. I've had something along these lines brewing in the back of my mind anyway with the new year looming as the inevitable task of taking stock ensues, so here goes...

The single biggest lesson I've learned is that with everything we try there will be both success and opportunity to learn and improve. What there won't be is perfection or a standard, predictable set of circumstances—farming is fluid and the ability to be flexible and roll with the current set of circumstances is crucial.

Other lessons:

  • Our first designs/ ideas almost always need to be tweaked, and what seemed like a great plan starting out, doesn't always remain a great plan as we grow and expand. Thinking in terms of the big picture at first rather than the smaller picture may be a better long term investment as long as it's not so big and so expensive as to make it seem impossible or be debt-dependent to pull off.

    For instance, fencing. Jim pulled fencing when we first moved because the existing horse tape wasn't good for either chickens or goats—both notoriously difficult to fence and our two starter animals. We didn't have many initially, so we focused on fencing just one pasture. But because our property borders neighbors on two sides, we soon needed to pull boundary fencing as well to try to keep our animals from wandering if they got beyond the first fence (which they will). This winter, we'll finish fencing the entire perimeter, and Jim will be yanking and reconfiguring one line of original fencing because he doesn't like its placement. In retrospect, hard fencing the perimeter first may have been a better expense of time and energy, and that would've given us time to grow a bit and see where and how we wanted to break up the different pastures and paddocks as we added animals. But don't be afraid to change things to make them work better in the moment, and most especially, don't be afraid of hard work—sometimes brutally hard work.

  • No amount of reading or research can replace actual experience, but it does give you something to do when you can't be working, as well as providing an arsenal of ideas to try as others fail. The learning is in the doing, so jump in with both feet on a scale small enough that your mistakes can't be too big.

    For instance, with the poultry in particular, I don't raise much more than I'd be willing to have in my own freezer in case sales don't materialize. Building a market base can take quite a while, especially when playing a niche market like I am with the organic-fed, free-range. Finding a market willing to pay premium prices on a regular basis for chicken, for example, is far more difficult than finding one willing to pay for a special occasion like Thanksgiving. Such are important considerations.

  • To avoid debt, it's helpful to begin with one or two enterprises that are likely to make a little bit of money that you can reinvest in infrastructure. (Of course, having an off-farm source of income doesn't hurt either.) Eggs are easy but not very lucrative on a small scale, in my experience. I have between 30 and 40 laying hens, which just about cover organic feed costs with the sales. The CSA and turkey sales have been my two biggest money makers thus far.

  • Have clear long-term goals. Because my goals are self-sufficiency and sustainability, that changes the way I'll farm. My land might be able to carry more animals (sometimes the stocking density I hear from others boggles my mind) but at what cost? Either I'll be paying for it in extra feed or in declining pasture quality, most likely both. Grass-based systems are tricky, and what works in a wet year won't work in a drought year, and what I've learned thus far is only a fraction of what I have left to learn.

    I'm not trying to make a living off my farm, but rather to have our farm support us, so that eases pressure a bit. My husband has no desire to quit his day job, which frees me considerably from household bills and expenses, which we'd be paying on or off the farm. If I can make the farm end of things self-supporting and provide most of our food, then the rest will take care of itself. If and when the other income dries up, well, hopefully we'll be in a solid position to up the stakes a bit in terms of farm income.

  • Have a solid ethical foundation and know what's important and why within those principles. Know what's involved in raising and harvesting livestock so as not to approach it cavalierly. We know exactly what's involved in butchering because we've done it here on the farm. While we send our sale animals out to experienced, USDA-inspected butchers, we have no delusions as to what goes into the slaughter of one of our animals, and we approach it as humanely as possible.

    Along those lines, too, we know how we want the animals to live, and confinement in any shape or form does not factor into that plan. We seek to provide our animals with free, happy, natural lives here on the farm, which means no chicken tractors for us and lower animal density to ensure quality pasture, browse, and instinct-fulfillment. We strive to work with our animals and the land rather than against them, meaning we beef up perimeter security to keep our animals safe rather than resorting to confinement, even at night; meaning we have redundant systems to help further secure our animals and factor in some lossses; meaning we use our pigs as plows to nurture their natural rooting tendency, and our chickens as natural bug and parasite control, our sheep as natural mowers, our goats as natural hedge and weed control, our geese as natural guardians and early warning system, and all our animals as natural fertilizer. Where ever possible, we have our animals do the job for us instead of relying on heavy machinery to do the work.

  • Be knowledgeable about your products. Good customers want to know what they're eating and how to prepare it, so be ready to offer that information. Know how many pounds of raw poultry a host(ess) should allot per guest, for example. Know the differences between your product and those typically available and be ready to proclaim (not justify!) the quality differences. Know the different cuts of meat and how each one works best on the table. With vegetables, especially, be sure to offer recipes and information when stepping outside the five or so readily recognizable ones. One of the biggest parts of my job has become consumer re-education, so I need first to know what I'm talking about and second to be able to convey that information quickly and convincingly. I'm still working on that, but I'm getting better each time I do it.

    I found easing into a market with a trial season to be really helpful towards building my own knowledge base. We started out with tamworth pork, for example, by buying some cuts our first year and trying them. That fall, we purchased two feeder pigs to get used to raising them before buying breeding stock. That gave us a chance to learn about raising pigs from start to finish and plenty of time to try cooking all the different cuts. This year we purchased breeding stock and hope to have our first litter in the spring. Patience is a virtue.

  • Be available and make things easy for the potential customer. Customers shouldn't have to work to find a phone number, address, or farm. Have bags and change on hand. Two things I'm considering for next year are a cell phone and paypal, to take advantage of impulse buys around the holidays. Even while I may be working to move away from technology and a consumer-based lifestyle, those folks are my customers, so I need to keep a foot in each camp to a certain extent.

  • Be neighborly and give stuff away. I don't try to make customers out of my neighbors, but I do try to share, be kind and considerate, and make amends for any perceived incursions. Maintaining good relations is important, as every person who comes in contact with the farm is part of our word-of-mouth network.

  • Stay small and focused. Don't just start small; stay small even as you grow. This has to do with knowing how much land, body, and finances will support and not growing beyond that just because there's customer interest. Getting swept away is easy but impractical if it means being stretched too thin or suffering declining quality—of life or of product. I'll be raising prices and expanding minimally, maximizing what I have without sacrificing quality.

  • Finally, know the laws and work within them as much as possible without driving yourself mad with the bureaucracy (that so often chases its own tail and contradicts itself between local, state, and federal levels and from one department to the next), and have good insurance.

Those are my general principles and observations after our first two years, though I'm sure those will change and evolve. Now to the specific questions, which you'll see are based upon the above generalities to a large extent.

Yes, Liz, there are egg regulations in Maryland; the degree to which I follow them is variable. I have an egg packer license number, which is clearly printed on our label, along with all requisite info except packing date, which I could hand write, but no one really cares since they've all been packaged within 1-3 days of landing in the customer's hands. I buy cartons with all the requisite nutritional and handling information preprinted—whether it adheres to the font-size regulations or not, I don't care. I don't grade or size my eggs, nor do I advertise them as such. Folks purchase farm fresh eggs in all their varying glory. This is a luxury of selling direct to the consumers; I imagine restaurant sales would demand more consistency. I do wash and nicely package all my eggs, and I use fresh cartons as required by law unless otherwise requested by the customer.

As far as turkey sales: this year we raised a total of about 30 turkeys in two off-farm batches and one on-farm hatch. We lost 2-3 early on and 2 more to our dog, who is no longer allowed even in adjoining pastures (which is how it happened). We butchered 23 birds total—6 ourselves and 17 by the processor. We sold a total of 12 birds fresh for Thanksgiving, reserving the Royal Palms to try ourselves since this was our first year raising them, and I'd read less-than-favorable reviews. We also gave away 2 of the Royal Palms.

I cooked 2 birds for Thanksgiving, have 2-3 more frozen to sell at Christmas time in addition to fresh goose, and the remaining 4-5 birds we'll eat over the next year. Some of the birds we reserved for ourselves had bruises or really prominent keel bones, making them inappropriate for sale, so definitely don't over sell. The palms, by the way, were delicious and had plenty of breast meat.

Christy, as far as control over the size of the birds, one could raise separate batches, though I don't think that works quite as well with heritage breeds because they take longer to grow out than the hybrids, and the mid-size breeds that I work with can take two years to reach the 20-30 lb range. My birds all ranged from about 7.5 lbs to 17 lbs. I roasted a 17 lb tom and that barely fit in my oven—they are long birds! These are the kinds of things I tell potential customers, and I often recommend buying two smaller birds as opposed to one large bird to ensure meat quality. Analogies work well: just like a bigger lobster may be impressive, it's also much less tender and sweet than the smaller ones. I recommend folks brine the birds at least overnight, and that makes a huge difference. Our birds were moist, flavorful, and delicious—hands down better than a commercial bird.


Christy said...

Thank you for the great information! I'm sure I'll be referring back to this post in the future. This may sound weird but I'd love to join you guys sometime when you are processing chickens or turkeys. I figure hands-on is the best way to learn.

Liz said...

Thank you so much for this terrific post! It reaffirms many things that I had suspected...and hoped would be true. My husband and I started Nature's Harmony Farm with the intention of feeding ourselves, raising animals by our values and healing our once abandoned land. Once we saw the interest from the public and realized how much land we had and didn't want to waste we decided we should be able to feed others as well. Since then we have learned so much yet realized how little we still know! In the end, we just have to start somewhere and learn as we go while always remembering our first goal was simply to live sustainably. All of the deterrants we've learned regarding regulations, USDA, processing, etc. could have turned us away a hundred times already and we just got our first animals on farm last week! But we are plugging through and taking solstice in the fact that others are on this same mission and succeeding. Thank you for sharing all of the valuable lessons you've learned. It has served as an inspiration!

~ Liz

Woody said...

A very informative post. I believe you should consider writing a book on your farming experience. Ya'll have so much to share and you do a wonderful job of presenting it.


Chase Davis said...

I find this one mile meal stuff interesting. I guess you could say we've been doing things quite the opposite at my house. We get our meat from 600 miles away at my grandpa's ranch in Colorado, pasture raised beef and hogs that we have butchered. I also went to Idaho and bought some purple potatoes at a farmer's market while visiting my Uncle there, I plan on planting them this spring, I hope our garden does better next year.