Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nature's Harmony Farm Q&A - Part 4

Okay, here is the final installment of my four part question and answer interview with Tim of Nature's Harmony Farm. If you missed posts you can check them out here: Post One ... Post Two ... Post Three. These last three questions are a little bit longer, but I feel like they are pretty informational so just make your way through the whole thing, and don't forget to check out Tim's website for more details and to read his great blog. Also, these question and answer interviews are something I would like to have from time to time. If you are working as a farmer or on the way to that and wouldn't mind being interviewed please let me know.

The Beginning Farmer - Tim, again thank you so much for your willingness to answer these questions and share your experiences with us! Here we go with the questions... As you came to a realization that you wanted to begin farming what sort of resources (books, publications, websites, conference, etc.) did you use to get started?

Nature's Harmony Farm - What haven’t I read or watched. Liz and I have totally immersed ourselves. Here’s a sampling.

Podcasts – We listen ever week to Deconstructing Dinner (highly recommended), Geek Farm Life, Cooking up a Story and Gardenfork (very entertaining).

Magazines – We subscribe to Graze, Acres USA, Progressive Farmer, Stockman Grass Farmer, Backwoods Home, Countryside & Small Stock Journal and similar publications. And we read them, cover to cover.

Web Resources – We’ve extensively used ATTRA (what a great site!), I frequently read and post on Cattle Today, LocalHarvest, and Weston Price. I use the University of Georgia and other sites if I’m researching something...thank you Al Gore for inventing the internet!

Blogs – There are too many to list. We maintain our own blog to let people know what we’re doing, ask questions and stimulate conversation, much like Ethan’s doing here on his excellent blog. If you’re into pigs, visit Walter’s blog at Sugar Mountain Farm...a GREAT resource and he’s great at sharing! I subscribe to over 25 blogs and have developed online relationships/resources via Cattle Today and similar sites. Find blogs that speak to what you’re interested in and get involved.

Farm Visits – I visited farms in Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina, North Carolina and Joel Salatin’s farm (Polyface) in Virginia. We spoke to everyone we could, were obviously influenced by some, but infused our own values and let that set our course. And, like driving a car, you can make course corrections along the way. I definitely recommend visiting whatever farms you can, and we’ll always be open to visits and to help others. No purchase necessary.

Conferences – We went to the Georgia Organics conference last winter and are going again in 3 months. We’re going to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Conference next month in Louisville. We attended the Georgia Grazing workshop, as well as a six week Sustainable Agriculture School put on at West Georgia College.

Books – Ah, books. Yes, well, I started with the Joel Salatin series from You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise to his latest which I just finished called “Everything I want to do is illegal”. Right now I’m reading Grass-Fed Cattle by Ruechel. I’ve red Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, Andre Voisin, Storey’s guides to sheep, pigs and cattle, 5 Acres and Independence, Making your Small Farm Profitable, Charcuterie, Pig Perfect, Small Scale Livestock Farming, Living with Sheep, Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence by Murphy, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Botany of Desire, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and countless other books. Liz has read some of these, but has focused more on gardening/preservation books like Stocking Up, The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, Harvest, Keeping the Harvest, Carrots love Tomatoes, etc.

In the beginning, if you’re new to this, it all seems overwhelming. Later, some of it still does, but you start to migrate toward what you’re interested in. For example, when I read Stockman Grass Farmer, an excellent publication, I skip over a lot of talk about dairy cows unless I have tons of time (not lately). It just doesn’t catch my attention. Now, the articles on teaching cows to eat that’s a different story. It all starts to come together and get comfortable and the internet makes it great to have discussions like this where we can learn and share.

We find the time to do this by not watching TV. Maybe an occasional football game, but that’s it.

The Beginning Farmer -
You mentioned in a few other answers that you have background in entrepreneurialism and business. How do you think that will help you in your farming ventures?

Nature's Harmony Farm - Well, I really like this way of life as I suspect a lot of people do. Yet farming has a reputation that it’s hard work and you can’t make money. Why is that? Largely because farmers are disconnected from their customers or, as we say in the high tech world, “end users”. So they get squeezed. Business isn’t overly complicated. You need to focus on a niche where you can have an advantage and deliver a great product to your customers. We’re lucky that there is a swelling demand for naturally raised, grass finished beef, pork and poultry products. We’re also lucky that there’s just not enough land for the growing demand to be met, so a sustainable farm model can be realized. What’s the catch? Well, for one, you have to be comfortable with customer and marketing issues. You do have to find the customers, meet with them and build lasting relationships. The bigger catch, however, is you’ll need perseverance, because our governmental friends won’t make it easy. Want to sell raw milk to meet the growing demand for that? Sorry...our government (in most cases) says your customer doesn’t have the right to make that decision. Want to process your poultry on farm, like we’re going to do? Don’t look for clear legislation on this and be prepared to fight. Georgia like many states is a “Big Ag” state and legislation is supportive of the loud voices of big agriculture. Want to find a processor for your animals so you can sell retail cuts to your customers? Good luck...they’re few and far between, and the growth in the sustainable farming segment will further stress this supply chain clog in the near future. What about liability insurance if you’re selling products to customers? The list goes on. But that’s where business experience comes in. These are all just obstacles. They’re not “the end”. They’re just barriers. You just have to go over, around or below to win. If you have the passion, it’s worth it.

The Beginning Farmer -
This may be a pretty long answer, but you are starting to get livestock on your property. How did you choose the breeds that you already have and what are some livestock breeds or animals that you will add in the future?

Nature's Harmony Farm - We decided off the bat that we wanted to feed ourselves. That meant pork, beef, chicken, turkey, eggs and probably lamb. Since we would raise those for ourselves, we assumed others might want the same for their families so we committed to this approach. In some cases, breeds were important to us, and in others, not as much. Here’s an example. We really researched cattle and ended up with raising registered Murray Grey. Murray Grey because they are docile, have low birth weights, are fast growers, do very well on grass and in drought and have excellent tenderness and marbling qualities. The registered aspect gives us a second potential income stream as we can either sell the meat or sell the live animal to complement someone else’s herd. With pigs we researched the more rare breeds, because that felt right in the spirit of what Nature’s Harmony Farm is all about. We were very intrigued with the Ossabaw pigs, particularly after reading Pig Perfect and since they are from Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia, so we searched for and found breeding stock. The Ossabaw’s take twice as long to be ready for market as other breeds (about a year) so we’ll have to factor that into our pricing. We also selected Berkshires because of the excellent meat qualities. In both cases, there is virtually NO competition around raising those so it makes us unique. Differentiation is an important element of business planning. Finally, regarding turkeys, we opted to experiment with Bourbon Reds. We loved the story about them in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the growth in popularity of heritage breed turkeys makes this a sound choice.

With chickens, we’ll stick to breeds that exhibit great productivity in growth and egg production, as long as they do well in a natural environment. Right now, we’re researching sheep, and are looking mainly at Katahdin sheep, as they exhibit great meat qualities and do well in Georgia.

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