Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Going to the Land Store...

Well, I wish it were as easy as going to the land store! You could just walk into the shop, find the aisle for good pasture ground, pick out a piece you like, and then walk up to the checkout counter ... where they help you come up with a plan to pay for it. Yep, that seems pretty ideal, but totally unrealistic. Purchasing a land (or farm) is something that is on our mind right now, but knowing how to go about it all is something we need to learn more about.

With all of that in mind I read with interest an article titled, "Finding Your Place" from the February/March 2003 issue of "Mother Earth News" (not highly impressed with the magazine, but it was free). The article was written by the editors of the magazine who have the knowledge of 24 separate, "house-buying and property-purchasing escapades". All in all it was a pretty interesting article, but as one would assume it dealt more with buying property with a house rather than bare land.

At this point we haven't decided on exactly whether we need to buy a place with a house on it or if we can handle just getting the land and then building. We have a couple of positives in that our families have experience building and have offered to help, but that does seem a bit overwhelming at times. Another way to look at the question is this ... what is more important, the land or a house? Because of the high land prices right now buying a 40 acre piece of land that has a livable house on it probably is out of price range, but if we could buy just the land and be creative in our housing (anybody living in a pole-building house?) maybe we could swing a 40 acre parcel ... if the right one came along.

Those are just some of the things that we are thinking about ... but, back to the article. Like any good magazine article they had "nine steps to success". Some of them are pretty basic, but are worthy of repeating just because they are sometimes overlooked in today's "I want it now" culture.

  • Know your budget and stick to it.

  • -Like I said ... that is a pretty basic rule, but in a culture where we want exactly what we want when we want it that is an important reminder.

  • List your "needs and wants".

  • -For us that is things like type of soil, lay of the land, amount of land, and other things. We have a clear vision of the direction we would like to go in our farming pursuit so it is important to find land (or access to land) that helps us obtain that vision.

  • Most importantly, ask lots of questions.

  • -I think the reason this one sticks out for me is because asking lots of questions is something that I don't do very well. I usually don't like to waste the time or believe I already understand. But, when it comes to buying a farm I need to thank the time and I know I don't understand it all!

That is just a sampling of some of their help points. They also mentioned things to check into when buying rural land. Things like: water (well or rural water) ... sewage (does it have septic) ... electricity (how much will it cost to get it there if it isn't already) ... and survey (are the boundaries clearly established). There is a lot to think about, because as the old saying goes: "This will be the biggest purchase you ever make."

Do you have any thoughts to add from your experience or research? Anyone ever dealt with USDA loans (just heard of them and I don't know much about them)? I would love to hear other peoples thoughts on the issue of land and farm purchases...

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 6 Book Report

Farm goals and planning were the topics for chapter six of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable". This seems to be a pretty popular topic in the small scale farming periodicals, books, seminars, and even blogs I guess (since I have mentioned it a few times). I think the emphasis on goal setting, building a business plan, and holistic management is one of the things that sets new smaller scale or un-conventional farmers apart from the bigger conventional farmers. Not that they don't have goals or a business plan, but rather that it is more often based on what the neighbors are doing instead of what would work best for the farmer, the family, and the farm.

Mr. Macher takes a little bit different approach than some of the other books or articles I have read on the subject. Carol Ekarius in, "Small-Scale Livestock Farming" takes quite a bit of time explaining planning and management. That book, which I have read and will post some book reports on later, is full of the whys and hows and nuts and bolts of how to go about writing and planning. Mr. Macher gives a brief introduction on planning and goal setting and ends the chapter with some thoughts on achieving your goals and developing a farm plan. Sandwiched in between is a set of sample goals. I found it pretty interesting to read these hypothetical goals and his thoughts on each one. Also, he broke the goals down into groups of ... "Long-Term Goals" ... "Medium or Intermediate-Term Goals" ...and... "Short-Term Goals"

I thought I would choose one from each of the sections that stuck out as I was reading. Remember these are not my goals ... but they do make a lot of sense to me...
  • Long-Term Goal: We are from the city, so I will work part time for a farmer, maybe on weekends, to learn basic skills and ask questions, questions, questions, so that I can gather an idea of what I want to do. I will work for free if necessary to achieve this goal.

  • -I think that is a great goal for the beginning farmer and I do it as often as I can when I go and work for my uncle and other family. That isn't any better learning that doing around someone who does ... or something like that

  • Medium or Intermediate-Term Goal: I will purchase breeding stock, machinery, buildings, and such on as low-interest loans with 3- to 5-year terms.

  • -Debt sort of scares me like the plague ... we have never had any, and I think we would be perfectly happy to live our lives without any. But, with that being said I know that there is a place for debt when managed and accounted for properly. I think one key to handling debt is to have a good set of goals and a great business plan in place. Not just a good enough business plan to convince the banker ... but, something good enough to convince yourself!

  • Short-Term Goal: We will figure in time for rest and recreation this fall.

  • -I think the reason that this one stuck out in my mind is because it is something that I'm not very good at doing. We have not taken a vacation or real break from my job in a long time ... it is just something that has been difficult for me to do for many reasons. But, after writing about the "farmer burnout" article, and looking at my own life I think this is an essential goal for the small scale farmer ... or anyone!
Does your farm have business plan (no matter how big or small)? Does your farm have goals? Were those goals put down as an entire family? All good things to think about, and questions I asked myself after reading the chapter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Importance of History

There are a few things that I am really passionate about. Of course my family and my ministry top the list. Farming is at the top of the list also, but the next thing I am passionate about is history. I have always love history, even as a very young child. In fact I am most interested in pre-1900 American history with an emphasis on 18th century stuff. It is interesting though that my passion for history also spills over into my other passions. I love to learn about family history and how families lived and interacted throughout history, I am always looking at my ministry from a historical perspective trying to learn from the past and preserve the past ... but, I really see my passion for history crossing over when it comes to farming.

Recently I picked up the book, "Harris on the Pig :: Practical Hints for the Pig Farmer" by Joseph Harris. This book was originally published in 1883 so it is over 100 years old. The thing that strikes me most is how practical the information is. But, I can also see that when it comes to pig farming our modern farmers have strayed away from this great knowledge of what just plain works.

What often happens in the rush to produce more and produce more quickly is that the tried and true ... the history ... is lost. I sort of mentioned this type of thing the other day when I talked about Gearld Fry's article on keeping the heritage breeds. What has happened (and not just in farming) is that the younger generation leaves the farm in order to go to college. Many of this generation have gone and earned agricultural degrees or at least immersed themselves in the latest and greatest, so when they get back to the farm they feel the need to change everything. I think they feel they need to change because they think there is more money out there that they are missing ... or maybe because they believe there is an easier way to do things ... or even just because that is the way that everyone else is starting to do it!

But, for whatever reason they change the way the farm has been run. They begin to specialize. They begin to upgrade their breeds through crossing in order to have the highest production possible in the shortest amount of time (disregarding other factors such as cost and efficiency). They begin to move the farm away from a diverse entity into a mono-crop or mono-animal production plant. And what happens is that history, what has worked in the past for year after year, is forgotten.

Now, I will admit that I tend to the nostalgic from time to time ... but, I do realize that there is a place for innovation. But, I want to see innovation rooted in history. Take Ultra High Density Grazing for example. I think it is safe to say that is an innovation that is starting to take off right now. And on the surface it seems like something new ... until you pop in that old VHS of "Dances With Wolves". They American Bison herds were doing Ultra High Density Grazing for years, they were just doing the paddock shifts themselves! Wow, now that would be innovation ... cattle that did paddock shifts for themselves. There are many more examples of how farmers and people in other professions have taken a page from history to produce innovation, not just changed for the sake of change.

So, I would call myself a beginning farmer. I would say that I am striving to become a sustainable farmer. But, I think I would like to add that I am going to be a historically minded farmer!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Tyson Chicken ... Raised Without Antibiotics

I came across some interesting news today as I was scanning the internet today. It seems that Tyson Chicken announced a new product and label this summer. They new product and label is/was planned to be called "Raised without Antibiotics". You can read Tyson's press release by clicking HERE. Now, the reason I wrote "is/was" is that that was their planned label for the product, but now the USDA and Tyson have worked out an agreement to change the label name to, "Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans". I have a feeling the words that start with lowercase letters will be in smaller print.

One side note is that Tyson Chicken considers the name change a victory. You can read a little bit about a lawsuit that was filed against them by clicking HERE. Tyson won because the judge noted that they had worked with the USDA to change the name.

Now, this news as all very relevant for the farmer and consumer alike, but I think there are a couple of key details that we need to take out of this whole deal...

First of all, if you take the time to read through Tyson Chickens press release you will notice that their main reason for doing this is because the customers were asking for it. So, the people do want better food ... and ... they are willing to pay more for it (because the new product will cost more than "regular" Tyson chicken). I see this is a large food company trying to play catch up. That doesn't mean that small farmers are winning or even starting to win, but it does mean that the small farmers with their intimate connection with their customers can meet their needs and give them something that they are comfortable eating. Plus, if people want "antibiotic free" chicken that means that they probably also desire humanely raised chicken ... we just need to let them know that it is out there! So, there is a bright side to this sad story.

Secondly, I think this proves (did this really need proving) that the government isn't out there to help the small farmer. Like I said, I'm pretty sure everyone already knows this, but here it is again in black and white. What we need to do is work together as a body of farmers and consumers and then we can begin to effect change. Remember work together ... farmers and consumers!

And finally, this proves that Tyson is producing chicken that has antibiotic impact our antibiotic resistance. Obviously many people already knew that, but once they start running ads on television and in the paper promoting their new product savvy farmers selling directly to their consumers can use it to educate people about real food, real relationships, and real local business.

Let's face it ... Tyson Chicken isn't going away anytime soon (if ever) and I probably wouldn't vote for a governmental law to shut them down (just look how well that works with the USDA as the enforcer!). But, I think we can use this disappointing news for our benefit if we are creative and bold!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Red Wattle Hogs

Since I kind of have hogs on the brain right now I thought I would take some time today to give a little insight into my hog research. I have gone back and forth between purebreds and hybrids, but I am beginning to lean towards the purebred side of the fence. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to deal with another registered animal and the registry and mess that can come with it, but the more I think about it and the more I think about what my passion is I keep coming back to the heritage and smaller (numbers) breeds. One breed that I have been researching a lot lately is the Red Wattle.

Marian of Five Ponds Farm is the one who turned me on to Red Wattles. Five Ponds is the farm where we are purchasing our Dexter bull from and they just happen to raise Red Wattles. Before contacting her I had never heard of them. You can check out this LINK from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy if you would like to get a nice introduction ... and of course check out all the information that Marian has gathered at this LINK.

The origin of Red Wattle hogs is sort of hazy. Most of the history that we know for sure points to the 1970's and 1980's and the wooded areas of Eastern Texas. That is where these red hogs that had wattles (on either side of their face) were found and brought back to the public. Now, that is what we know ... there is some theories though. According to one theory (or maybe that is the way it is) the first Red Wattles came to the United States by way of a small island of the coast of Australia. The story goes that a wealthy Texan who liked to big game hunt had them shipped back to the U.S., but they never really took off because they were very lean in a time when lard was important to society. However we got them doesn't really matter, what is important is that we have them now.

Although Red Wattles are very minor breed in terms of numbers they are really starting to gain some traction with chefs and food critiques around the country. They even won a blind taste test going up against Berkshires, Duroc, a Tamworth/Chester cross, Ossabaw Island, and a Sam's Club special. It seems that they are starting to catch on all across the country, from Seattle to the Northeast.

So, Red Wattles are officially in the running for Stoneyfield. I would like to have a pigs that that are perfect for the family and an appeal for the white table cloth restaurants in the area. Do you want to throw any breeds into the mix?

**Today's Picture comes from Five Ponds Farm website. They are raising Red Wattles and have some for sale from time to time so make sure and check them out!**

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mmmm... Tasty Pork!

Okay, the Gearld Fry article wasn't the only cool article I read on New Farm the other day. I also ran across an articled titled, "Customers seeking taste, type, integrity and terroir drive traditional pork revival" by Kelly Klober. Mr. Klober is the author of a few books, including "Dirt Hog" which I received for Christmas and will probably start reading after I finish the book I'm on now. The title really tells it all with this article, but it really is a good read. Plus, it is another plug for the heritage breeds.

The article has a quite a bit of information and gives a nice overview of some of the possibilities available for the small pig farmer these days, but I won't take up the space to give you a blow by blow account of the article today ... I'll just give you some of my thoughts and encourage you to check out the entire article.

In the late 80's and early 90's my family was fully entrenched in the hog industry. At the time my uncle was running hogs in a confinement building along with some cattle and his row crops and my Father had hogs ... well, he had hogs everywhere! We were living on an older farmstead in the Northeast part of the state with a couple of barns and various other outbuildings. We started finishing feeder pigs in one barn ... then they spread to the second barn ... next they made their way into the old chicken house which we added a wooden feeding floor too ... and finally they were pretty much everywhere! Mostly we were buying feeder pigs and selling them when they finished. It was good money (although it was stinky work) for a time ... but, then the bottom fell out of the market and the family was no longer in the hog business. Luckily we didn't lose much other than a source of income (which is a big deal).

Well, I don't know all of the details ... but, after the market dropped things started to change in the hog industry. It hasn't quite gotten to the point of the vertical poultry business yet, but it is on its way. At one time in this country every farm had some hogs just because they were considered a safe way to get a consistent return. That is no longer the case ... unless you are doing something different.

Even here in Iowa (confinement capital of the world) people are beginning to desire something more from their pork. Our blogging friends up at Sugar Creek Farm are selling farm raised pigs and many other Iowa farmers are starting to tap into what I would call the "real pork" or "quality pork" category. In fact the PFI along with other organizations is holding NICHE Pork meetings around the state. People are trying different breeds (lots of Berkshire) and different methods in order to get back to the way pork used to taste.

I must admit that now that we have our cattle pigs and the pork that comes with them are pretty high on my list. In fact, they will most likely be the next piece of livestock that we purchase. The question is, "what do we get and why do we get it?"

Over the past few months I have mentioned Tamworths, Berkshires, Ossabaw Island, and other heritage or rare breeds. I also would like to add Glouchester Old Spots because I just found out there were a few breeding those. We need to have hogs on our farms that not only can tolerate the outdoors, but that can thrive in the outdoors. We need hogs that can "root" up part of their meals (root, hog, or die!). And, most importantly we need hogs that can become a sustainable component of the farm.

One of the many things that I do is coach high school girl's soccer. I've been doing it for just at four years now and I enjoy it for many reasons. But, one thing that I have observed is that too many girls are focusing on just one sport. They won't go out for soccer because they only do volleyball or they only do basketball, yet study after study has shown that when athletes aren't out their competing in a diverse area of competition their sport of choice can suffer. Just think about when you grew up in a small town. The same people went out for every sport ... just because! Well, that isn't always the case even in the small towns today. People think they need to specialize to be successful.

Farming has fallen into that trap also. People are grain farmers, cattle finishers, dairymen, or pork producers ... too much specialization. In order to get back to quality (just like our high school athletes) we need to have diverse farms that not only have a well rounded balance sheet, but that also produce a variety of foods. Pork is just another part of that variety!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Importance of Our Heritage Cattle

Recently I came across a very interesting article written by Gearld Fry on the New Farm website. The article was originally published on his website, Bovine Engineering, and is titled, "Intelligent Husbandry of Primary Heritage Breeds Could be Our Key to More-Sustainable Farming and Food." That is one super long title, but it is a great article so I will let it pass!

I believe the opening section of the article is an amazing representation of what is happening in livestock agriculture (and probably crop too) right now and you should probably read it and re-read it several times so it sinks in. But, the basic premise is that at one time our farms were filled with "truly functional family cows" raised by this generations fathers and grandfathers. Once the sons and grandsons returned from educational institutions they bring with them new "knowledge" about creating the perfect herd from a commercial standpoint. Oh, and they learn this knowledge from Universities that are funded by large corporations with greed behind their motives.

So, the son our daughter takes over and starts to implement change using the latest breeding techniques in animal sciences. They create calves that wean bigger and finish bigger and that produce more milk, but they also find that despite all of the vaccinations their cattle keep getting sick and dying for no apparent reason. With all of the inputs, work, burnout, and animal loss their farm becomes increasingly unsustainable...

I think this quote from Mr. Fry sums up best where we are right now as an agirculutral industry (maybe it is a bad thing to be considered an industry) and culture:

As it is, cattle—animals that in their natural state could normally stay fat and healthy on green grass and good hay, and nourish families with wholesome and healthy meat and milk as God intended —have been steadily transformed into what has become a starch-dependent, mongrelized production machine that produces food that tastes like cardboard and causes heart disease and numerous other health problems.

At one time farmers and ranchers never or rarely had to give any sort of treatment to calves while still nursing ... not so today. At one time twice yearly worming wasn't even on the radar ... not so today. At one time cattlemen breed for sick-free cattle who could produce instead of super producing cattle who rarely weren't sick. In the words of Mr. Fry, "My friends, this should not be."

The rest of the article goes on to tell more about the faulty system that we are operating under in today's livestock world. I think this is a must read article for any farmer who believes that their farm should and can be sustainable.

In the article Mr. Fry mentions that there were 8-10 breeds of cattle that were adapted to various environments across our country. I think he raises Devons, so I assume that would be on the list, but I wonder what else. Maybe he mentions on his site or maybe some of you have some guesses? Let us know what you think.

In the meantime, check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to learn more about our heritage breeds that are in danger and consider a breeding program that takes advantage of the genetics that our forefathers perfected over years and years ... not just the ideas of 50 years and research funded by animal medicine companies.

**As you may have noticed from the picture above I suggest Dexter cattle. They may not work for everyone, but the do fit the definition of a dual purpose home cow!**

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Burnout in Farming...

As I was flipping through my January, 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" I came across an interesting article titled, "Your Ranch Is Not Sustainable If It Leads to Personal Burnout". The article is written by Greg Judy who is also the author of the book, "No Risk Ranching". Mr. Judy also practices high density grazing with his cattle and has had some great results ... you can read more about high density grazing on this post and this post.

But, back to the topic of the article. Burnout is something that I am keenly aware of, particularly because of my work in ministry. I know there are many careers out there that have high rates of burnout, but it seems that people in ministry deal with it quite a bit. So, when I saw the title of the article I was very interested (I'm always reading articles about burnout in ministry).

Prior to a grazing conference South African grazier Ian Mitchell-Innes took a walk with Mr. Judy through his pastures. Mr. Judy relates in the article that Mr. Mitchell-Innes had lots of good advice about high density grazing, but the most shocking thing he said was when he was question on his overall thoughts of the operation. He told Mr. Judy that what he was doing was not sustainable because at that time he was running three different herds and grazing systems. The very next day the three herds were combined (except the bulls) and their work load was cut by two thirds.

This just supports what others such as Joel Salatin have said about the importance of maintaining a single herd at all costs, but even more importantly it brings up something else to think about. What about burnout for the part-time farmer or the beginning farmer who is also holding down a town job? How can a person in that situation combat burnout?

First of all, as was the case for Mr. Judy's farm it is important that you let the animals do the work. On his farm one of the reasons that they were running three herds was because their land was spread out of a large area and the thought/cost of moving the entire herd around. Well, they don't have to be trucked around ... what they did wouldn't work every, but they just walked them down the road and stringing wire on either side to keep them going the right way. Management Intensive Grazing is another way to make the animals work for themselves ... so is selecting for easy calving cows and sows that don't lose any piglets.

Secondly, I think it is important that your farm (whether part-time or beginning) is a family operation. If you are able to work together as a family when you are farming then it will seem less like work and less stressful to the entire family. But, the family has to be completely on board.

Third, there needs to be a passion. If you are going to hold an off-farm job and run a working farm it is important that it is a passion not just a source of extra income. When something is a passion you are less likely to get as frustrated (notice I said "as frustrated"!) than if you didn't really care one way or another. Also, a passion to farm will help give you the energy to work and research and study so that you can be the most efficient.

Finally, I think it is important that we don't get in over our heads. Many beginning farmers these days don't have a complete farming background. They are passionate about it, their family is behind it, and they are motivated by new ideas in grazing, crops, and more ... but, they don't always have the hands on experience. For those people (ME!!!) it is important that they don't bite off more than they can chew. Take steps, make plans, and attack things slowly so it doesn't hurt as much when you slide down that steep learning curve!

Here are a couple of quotes from the article about how much the changes have impacted the Judy's ...
"In the future we will grow more grass, better grass, more animal impact, our soil microbes will explode, our ground litter accumulation will benefit, our water catchments will increase, and our labor has been slashed dramatically."

"We now have a life"

"We now have time to think, monitor results and time for leisure."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 5 Book Report

**Sorry about the late post today. I have been experiencing some problems with blogger and just realized that my post never made it up! Hopefully we will be back on schedule for our first thing it the morning post tomorrow**

"Weatherproofing Your Farm" is the title of chapter five in Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable". While there was plenty of information in this chapter that I have gathered from other sources it did contain a bunch of new thoughts on the subjects of weather and climate. Plus, I think the title alone made me think about the ideas of windbreaks and water in a totally different way. When it gets right down to it you have to realize that your weather and your climate greatly effects how profitable your farm is going to be. With that in mind if you can do little things to, "weatherproof" your farm you may be one step ahead in the game.

The chapter begins with a short overview of the effects of climate on the farm and of the importance of water to the farm. But, Mr. Macher quickly gets to the topic at hand, "altering your farm environment. The discussion begins with a look at shelter. According to the author, and I tend to agree, the best sort of shelter is three-sided, portable, has lots of bedding, and isn't overly tall for the animals using it. For most of the year (including very cold or warm times) animals will do fine without shelter, but in extremely cold and windy weather or possibly on a really hot day shelter does add to their comfort (although a three-sided building wouldn't probably make it warmer on a hot day). Besides a man made shelter tree groves or stands of cedar trees can also make a good shelter when the weather gets rough.

Conserving water is another important way to alter the weather on your farm according to Mr. Macher. Basically there are just a few ways to provide water for your farm ... you can wait for it to rain, you can use irrigation, or you can just save and conserve every drop of water that hits your farm. Waiting for rain and irrigation each have their place on farms across the country, but saving the water that hits the farm is probably the the most sustainable for the small farm. Ponds are one way to save the water that hits your farm. It is important to fence your livestock out of the pond, but ponds can provide water for your livestock through pumping or gravity. Plus, you can stock your pond to provide recreation or another income source. Cover crops also help save water by helping to control water and wind erosion. The cover crop will slow down the water as in runs down the field and give it more time to soak into the ground which always helps later in the season or in dry times. Finally, Mr. Macher talks about timing. When you plant your crops and work the soil is important to water loss. Whenever you have bare soil you are going to lose water through evaporation, so it is important to do these things in the spring when there is plenty of moisture available.

Much of the rest of the chapter discusses windbreaks and their role in creating microclimates on your farm. According to some University research a wind break will have up to a 40% energy savings for your buildings and farm. That kind of savings makes them impossible not to have I think! Plus, windbreaks of trees and bushes provide needed environments for the diversity of your farm. Another interesting concept that Mr. Macher discusses is the use of grain crops as windbreaks. Planting taller crops in strips with shorter crops between those strips will create a wind break that will benefit all the crops. For the small farmer thinking outside of the box like this is something that will increase sustainability and profitability (two very important 'bilities...).

Of course you can also extend your growing season buy using such things as greenhouses, grow lights, plastic covered hoops, cold frames, and so much more. Not everything will help everyone's profitability, but it is important for small farmers to find ways to at least lessen the effects of our climate and temperature. So, take a walk around your land and observe the climate and weather. Are their places that don't get the early frost? Places protected from the wind and weather that would make great calving areas? What does your farm have and need to alter the effects of climate and weather?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Young Iowans Don't Like the Stink...

"Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans" is the title of an article by Brian Depew from the Jan. 13th edition of the Des Moines Register. I was turned on to this article by Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm. Lately she has be doing some "Ag Speedlinking" with links to lots of interesting articles. In fact if you haven't been over to her blog I encourage you to check it out just so you can keep up on some of the current issues in farming. But, back to this article...

Mr. Depew grew up in Laurens, IA and currently lives in Nebraska where he works for The Center For Rural Affairs. But, in this article he is writing about a recent trip back to the family farm in Iowa. His family farm will soon be within three miles 13 "industrial livestock" buildings and he points to that as one of the reasons that young Iowans are not staying in the state. He recounts some of the recent efforts by the state to keep young Iowans in Iowa (basically people like me) and offers that one of the reasons people around my age and younger are leaving is because they are looking for "places with vibrant natural resources, thriving communities and healthy economies". He contends that they can't find those things in Iowa because our state government has sat by as the Big-Agri Business has entrenched itself in the state. Also, this embracing of the big business agriculture has squeezed out the small farm families.

While I do agree with that last sentence to a point (I'm not sure I want to blame just the government, because I know a lot of people that have benefited from those big farms), I'm not sure if I fully appreciate or agree with his main idea ... that young Iowas have left because confinement agriculture has ruined our natural resources, killed our small towns, and ruined our economy. I have lived my entire life in Iowa and have no desire to live anywhere else, but all my friends that have left have gone to larger cities or suburbs that offered a completely different lifestyle than Iowa. Not a better lifestyle, just different. I will admit that confinement agriculture does do its damage when it gets out of control and never will I support it as the right choice, but I'm also not going to legislate how people farm ... if I want to change the opinions of people I will do it by providing a great alternative (I think I can).

As I mentioned I agree with much of the ideas behind this article, but I'm not sure if I can take the entire message. Besides, since when did Nebraska become so great :) (really just kidding!!!). I do believe that the changing agricultural world has changed the life and economics of our small towns, but it will take more than legislative reform to change this. It will take people opting out of the "big systems" and beginning to buy locally. It will take farmers willing to do things differently and invite the cities out to their farms to experience, shop, and eat. It will take a cultural shift ... and those always take time and effort, not government.

I appreciate what Mr. Depew wrote and I encourage you to click on the link to the article. It is a nice article with a lot to think about and the responses from readers at the bottom of the article bring out a lot of back and forth discussion. I will say that I hope Mr. Depew buys local food and supports the small farmers in his area ... I do believe he has a genuine concern for rural America because of his job so he just might already be buying local.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Afternoon of Work at Stoneyfield

Well, since our town decided that I shouldn't have five chickens on my property I decided to make a quick trip down to the farm yesterday. I had to dismantle the the nest boxes (buckets), grab the feed/oyster shell/grit, gather up the hens, and load everything up into the back of the Expedition. You can scroll down to yesterdays post to see a picture of the chickens new digs. They are just fine, but I don't think they will be as warm (and it is going to be very cold for the next couple days). Since I had a reason to go down I planned on doing a few other things that also needed to be done.

First of all I met my dad in town at the farm store to pick up 6 cattle panels to upgrade a little section of fence with the impending arrival of our bull, Hershey. The entire front lot (about 2 acres) is surrounded by cattle panels except for this one little section that just had the very old worn down woven wire/barbed wire fence. Considering our heifer Vicki can jump that fence at will we didn't want to see what would happen when there was a bull on one side and cows in heat on the other side! So, I dropped a bit of money and we headed to the farm (with a short interlude to pull the mailman out of the ditch).

At the farm I set up the new chicken pen (corner of a shed that had been used for puppies) and mixed up a bunch of feed for my dad. They should be good to go for awhile and I don't feel so bad about bringing the chickens down because at least they will get some eggs! In fact I think everyone (Dad, Stepmom, and brother) are excited about them ... except for my sister.

Despite the cold air and the wind it was pretty easy to put up the panels. In fact we were able to drive in a few t-posts with no problem. After we had the panels set up we set about cutting out the bull calves from the herd in order to wean them. Now, I have heard lots of great things about Dexters ... but, on Thursday I really experienced one. In the morning my dad put out the hay in a small pen we have in the corner of the front lot and then called the cows up (they do come when you call). They all walked in and started eating while my dad broke open the water tanks ... then, six of the girls must have received the memo because they just decided to walk out! So, when I showed up there were just three cows/heifers in there with the four boys. Showing our cattle sorting prowess we both walked into the little pen and I announced that I was going to sort the bull calves over to one side. Just as I said that the bull calves did exactly that! Dad opened the gate ... the girls walked out ... we were done and we were speechless!

This weekend is going to be very cold and while they have some good wind breaks out in the pasture the bull calves in the small pen for the time being had none. With that in mind we build a barricade of hay bales around one corner and put up some old panels around it to keep them from eating all of the hay. I think the boys will be as snug as a bug in a rug ... or at least as Dexters in a corner of hay.

It was nice to get out there and do some work that I had been meaning to do. It is just more difficult because it is such a long drive. After the afternoon of work and being informed that we couldn't keep our chickens we are all the more ready to make a move ... hopefully soon!

**I hope you enjoy the pictures of our cattle. From top to bottom: 1.) Ginger with her face all up in the camera; 2.) Vicki, who is staring to look very pregnant; 3.) Ginger looking longingly at her calf in the pen; 4.) The boys eating by their hay wall**

Friday, January 18, 2008

What, You Don't Like My Chickens!

"As part of the City's "Comprehensive Clean-Up Program," city staff inspected property located in Knoxville at @%#$ North Seventh. It was determined that a violation(s) of City Code exists. More specifically, the violation(s) include the following listed items. These numbered items may be referenced to the coordinating numbered code sections on the attached page.

The City has recently received a complaint about this property: There is a violation of Section 9-6B-2:Farm animals are not allowed in the City. Please make other arrangements for them."
So, that is the letter I received in the mail yesterday (along with a phone call on Wednesday). The letter goes on to say, "blah, blah, blah ... you have 14 days to get rid of the chickens ... blah, blah, blah ... if you don't get rid of them you are going to have to pay some serious fines ... blah, blah, blah ... Please remember the character of a neighborhood depends on everyone taking pride in their surroundings to maintain quality and beauty for the entire community of Knoxville."

Okay, so above you can see the picture of our movable chicken pen if you have never seen it before. I know that it isn't very pretty, but what about the house around the corner that has over 200 action figures and stuffed animals covering the yard! Or, the house up the street that looks like it is falling down and is for sale for only $20,000 dollars. Possibly we should consider doing something about our neighbors who moved out and only mowed their lawn ONCE this entire summer!

The law is the law, and I have already moved my chickens down to my dad's (more on that visit tomorrow) because I don't want to be in violation of city code. It just doesn't look good for a pastor to be knowingly breaking the law! But, I guess I just don't understand why it is the law. In West Des Moines (really fancy suburb of Des Moines) it is legal to have up to 30 chickens in your backyard! But, in Knoxville (a smaller rural community) we can't have that kind of filth.

Oh well, I'm really not to concerned ... I'm just disappointed because it was my one connection to the farm this winter. The chickens were my "doing" instead of just reading about it all of the time. We had been experimenting with feed rations, winter shelter, and other stuff and we had been having good results. But, now they are just down in the corner of a shed near my cows.

Just to show that I can be a "glass half full" kind of guy ... earlier this week my church board approved a motion to sell the parsonage that I live in, now it has to go to the congregation. The sale of this house would do a lot to help get the church out of debt and that is my main concern, but it will also help us make a move to the country. If the house was going to be listed this spring we would have moved the chickens anyways, this just forced us to do it earlier.

So, the moral of the story ... if your moving to Knoxville, IA don't bring your chickens into town! :)

**By the way, the second picture in this post is of the chickens in their new shed home**

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 4 Book Report

Soil quality is one of the most important things for a small scale beginning grass farmer. If you doubt me, then check out the great comment from Kramer in this post, or just browse through any small scale farming book or grazing magazine for a few minutes. You soil is the basis for your forages which makes it the basis for the entire farm (if grass farming is your thing). It is something you should take into consideration when purchasing a farm or planning you farm. So, with all of that in mind I was glad to see a chapter in Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable".

Here is some perspective from Mr. Macher on the importance of your soil on the farm, "The foundation of your farm and your most important production tool is a living, healthy soil." With that in mind it is important that you know about your soil type, of which there are over 18,000 varieties in the United States. You can find that information from local agencies in your area, and I suggest that you do because there can even be multiple soil types on your small farm. It is just one of the puzzle pieces of knowledge when it comes to creating and maintaining good soil.

While soil type is important it is most important that you know what your soil contains according to this chapter. Three major soil contents in the US are sandy soils, clay soils, and loam soils. Your sandy soils are are going to be up to 70% sand and drain pretty well because the sand allows the water to pass through. The sandy soils don't contain a lot of nutrients because the water washes them away most of the time. The clay soils will contain at least 35% clay and they aren't very good at draining away water because they are so compacted. Just think of working with clay in art class ... when it was wet it was slimy and sticky and when it was dry it was hard ... that is like clay soils. Loam soils are the best to have in most situations. They contain a mixture of roughly 45% sand, 40% silt, and 15% clay particles which allows them to take some of the best characteristics of the other soils.

Another important aspect of soil management that Ron Macher touches in this chapter is the reality that our soils are full of living things ... and they should be! The living stuff in soils (such as insects, earthworms, bacteria, and fungi) do tasks such as aeration, fertilization, nitrogen conversion (into something that is usable for plants), nitrogen-fixing, and they contribute in decomposition which all helps create better soil. If we desire to increase the quality of our soil we need to cultivate all of these living things in our soil instead of hindering them.

Crop rotation is something that I have touched on in other posts, but this chapter includes a good overview of the idea and some of the advantages. Ron Macher also throws out a few different 5-year rotation ideas. I think this idea of a crop rotation really fits well with Gene Logsdon's idea of "cottage" farmers. Adding crops to the farm does add the need for more equipment, but it also adds a bit of diversity and provides the ability to be more self-sufficient in your farming ventures. It is something I think our family is going to look into, especially as we begin adding more poultry and pork.

Of course what conversation about soil quality would be complete without a short mention of the numerous benefits of rotational livestock grazing. Management Intensive Grazing or Ultra High Stock Density Grazing are all about creating quality soil and quality forages.

It is evident that Ron Macher knows his stuff, and while there is a lot of basic information that I find in this book that is covered in similar books I think his specific guiding principles that he mentions in each chapter really give the reader something to think about and process.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

1930's vs. Now...

My brother ran across an interesting site the other day (don't know how) and they called to tell me all about it. It seems that you can go to the Iowa Geographic Map Server to check out pictures from your are now ... and back in time! It is really a pretty neat site, but it doesn't look like all of Iowa is covered in all decades ... nevertheless it was fun to check out. I assume some other states have a similar thing ... if not I guess I just found another reason as to why Iowa is so great!

But, the greatest thing about seeing these images was seeing how much the farm has changed in just eighty years. The picture here on the right is what the farm looks like today (click the image for a slightly larger version). Our farm is outlined in red and you can see that we have about half or more of the are in forests and trees. That nice looking pasture on the Southern section of the farm is actually pretty nice pasture ... except to get to it you must go down a hill, cross a creek that has no good crossing, and up a hill. Once you make it there is really no water (although there is a shallow pond that you could pump water from, but I don't have much faith in it keeping water in even slightly dry times) and no electricity. In our dreams we would love to be able to make hay back there and graze cattle, but it will take some work. The Southern wooded area is very overgrown and full of brambles. On the other hand the woods in the Northeast section are fairly open and has some older trees (less than 80 years though!). The biggest problem is getting into the woods because of the multiflora rose on the Northeast section. The top left section is where the Dexters are right now and is also where we made one cutting of hay this year after the land came out of CRP. It is okay land, but needs a lot of work!

Now, check out this picture on the left (again, click to enlarge slightly). This picture is from sometime in the 1930's and if it wasn't for the roads I don't know if I would even recognize it! When you zoom in on the farm at the website you can see all the buildings (most of which have fallen down) and areas that were used for pastures. It almost looks like a real working farm in this image! Of course you can see the beginnings of the wooded areas and what are probably some of the trees still on the farm, but for the most part it looks like a totally different place.

So, here is the question, and I would really love your opinions, which farm do you think is better? Is the 21st century land better or the 1930's land? For me... I would love to have the land back to the way it was in the 30's, maybe with a few more trees in the woodlot areas. I think it would be perfect for a diverse farm! It can be like that again ... but it will take time and hard work. Maybe this is something to shoot for?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 3 Book Report

Chapter three of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable" isn't a very long chapter, but it is chock full of good farming principles. That is probably why the chapter is titled, "Some Principles of Good Farming"! The whole chapter is only seven pages long, but I think these principles give the reader (in this case ... me) a lot to think about and work through. As I thought about his post I just thought I would touch on a couple of them, but after skimming over them one more time I decided that I would just throw them all out there and give a couple of thoughts on each one.

So, here goes nothing...

  • To be sustainable, a farm must be environmentally sound and socially acceptable. --Taking care of the environment not only keeps other people happy, but it provides longevity for your farm in future generations. It just makes sense! Also, by building a farm that is socially acceptable some of the generalizations and stereotypes about farmers can be busted.

  • Avoid debt. --Do you want my entire financial knowledge ... it is summed up in those two words! I don't know much about money, investing, or creating wealth. But, I do know that being debt free seems like a good thing whether I'm farming or not.

  • Keep costs down. --Kind of piggy backs on avoiding debt don't you think? But really, if I desire to have a full-time farm I am going to have to lower my costs and create great products ... it all goes back to thinking outside of the conventional realm of agriculture.

  • Try for low inputs. --It's all about sustainability, the less inputs the more the soil benefits and the more the bottom line is helped.

  • Do things on time. --This may be the key to any successful business! If you are going to have livestock, crops, and a farm based business you need to do your things like baling, weaning, and harvesting on time and in time (with the seasons).

  • Plan your farm to minimize work. --This principle is about the physical layout of your farm. Is your farm set up to maximize your effort without wasting it. I suppose I'm not going to tear everything down, but it is important to look at your entire farm with workload and a plan in mind.

  • Develop a system of production that balances farm resources and available labor. --Let me sum it up for you ... make sure you have enough time to run your farm! Don't bring in 60 cow/calf pairs if you don't have the time to work them, rotate them, or feed them in a timely manner. It does keep coming back to planning doesn't it?

  • Keep good records. --I'm going to lean on my wife for this one. She is the record queen, just take a look at her 4-H records someday! But seriously, it is important to know where you money is going and coming. What you are feeding your animals and what they are returning. How your rotations are working, and so much more.

  • Learn basic veterinary skills and tasks. --If you can do it then you don't have to pay someone else to do it. It is that simple!

  • Learn carpentry, electrical, and machinery repair skills. --See above!

  • Learn stockman skills, and keep gentle livestock. --Gentle livestock are not only easier to handle, but they gain faster, are more calm on the day you take them to be butchered, and generally make your farming life more enjoyable.

  • Take good care of your buildings, machinery, and livestock. --One word ... Stewardship! Be a good steward of the thins that you are entrusted with. You land, your family, your money, and you stuff ... plain and simple.

  • Have a good water system, and save ever drop of water that falls on your farm. --This doesn't mean that you have rain collection troughs everywhere, but it does mean that you take care of your soils and build up the organic matter so that it can absorb that much more water. Oh, and think about a watering infrastructure for your farm instead of just buckets and hoses (at least it is something to aspire towards).

  • Maintain or improve the soil fertility. --This one keeps popping up lately. I'm going to have to spend more time researching and learning about the topic.

  • Let the animals do as much feed harvesting on their own as possible. --Make the farm work for you instead of you for the farm. There will still be plenty for you to do even if you pasture your animals and stockpile forages for winter, so let them do some work also.

  • Use crop rotations. --They do so much to help that I can't even cover it all. But, let me say that there is a reason that rotations have been done for centuries!

  • Have 2 years' worth of hay and grain in storage. --If weathermen can't predict the weather what chance do I have of controlling it? It is a good idea to have stockpiled hay and feed. You might not have 2 years' worth, but building up a years worth is a good place to be.

Remember, these are my principles ... they are Ron Macher's principles. But, I think they are great basics and get to the core of what small scale farming is about and how it can be done. Do any of those really stick out for you?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Winter Digs for the Chickens

You may remember my previous post about building a winter home for our five laying hens. It was great because I had some good ideas from Walter Jeffries over at Sugar Mountain Farm and from the comments on this blog ... but, to tell you the truth not much really happened. Life took over for a little while and the chickens seemed to be handling themselves just fine. So, I guess let's just chalk this year up as experimentation!

But, really they have continued laying at what I would consider a good rate because we aren't providing any artificial light. Our five layers have been giving us between 14 and 18 eggs per week (enough for us) through this winter. Most of the winter they have just been on the garden in the same pen that they were in all year. It is in a good spot so that they are pretty well protected from the wind, but it is still all open.

As you can see from the pictures my wife finally decided to take some initiative and went to Wal-Mart to get $2.00 worth of clear plastic. It's not going to provide much insulation, but it does help some and keeps the wind out. Also, we have added some hay because we have been thawing a bit and they were getting pretty muddy. Besides providing a clean base and a little warmth the hay also provides a little food and insulation for the ground. Just today when I went to gather the eggs (three) I saw some bugs moving around, so I know that our combination is working.

So, here is our recipe ... one $9.00 plastic blue tarp left over from our small boat we sold, two bales of grass hay (from the farm), a few bungee cords (also from boat), and $2.00 of clear plastic from the painting aisle at Wal-Mart. A little more insulation and some light would help, but this seems to be working for us in the snow of Southern Iowa. Plus, the eggs keep coming so these girls are earning their keep over the winter!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 2 Book Report

Boy, I really have some catching up to do. I'm actually way past chapter two right now, but I think it was worth it to take a break from my normal blogging drivel to have a great interview like we just had with Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm. But, I actually do have some thoughts on the second chapter of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable." Overall it was a pretty interesting chapter that threw out some good basic information to consider when you are starting a farm.

It doesn't matter if you come from a farming background or have never lived on a working farm in your life, if you are going to farm you need to attack it with a plan. Just as it is with any business you can't just run out and start doing things without having an idea of your needs, skills, and goals. Much of this chapter deals with the evaluation of your resources. In the case of a farm resources means: capital, skills, labor, land, soils, water, location, climate, and equipment. I won't take time to discuss each one of those resources, but I will hit on a few that were especially interesting.

Of course when it comes to beginning a farm you need a certain amount of capital and skills, but you can be creative with those. Yes you need money to buy land, equipment, and livestock and it is important to have some skills (but you can learn as you go if you go slow enough) ... but, I thought Mr. Macher had some good things to say about the resource of labor. First of all, I believe it is important to realize that your labor is a resource. Mr. Macher wrote about thinking of labor in the terms of not just yourself, but also in the terms of your family. I believe one component of having a successful small scale farm, especially a full-time farm, is that it includes the entire family in the fun, livestock, and the work! If the family is going to be included in the labor "resource" than it is important that the whole family is on the same page. Also, in this section there was a very interesting table that gave average times of labor needed for different livestock and crops. The table comes from the University of Missouri and gives information such as: it takes 14.8 hours of labor per acre of alfalfa hay, 40 hours of labor for 100 laying hens, or 40 hours of labor for 1 sow producing 2 litters/year and to finish those hogs. I'm sure the numbers don't reflect everyone's experience, but it was interesting to see some averages. Looking at things like this will help you plan you labor and see what you are able to do.

Another resource that was interesting to read about was soil. I believe soil is something that the beginning farmer easily overlooks. Not that soil would be an end all of my land purchase, but that we need to be looking at our soil and seeing what it is all about and what it needs. In raising pastured animals you soil is really one of your most important ingredients. You need to the know the condition of your soils and the natural fertility that your soil has. If you stick with me through each one of my chapter reports I'll talk a little more about soil when I report on chapter four of this book.

The last resource that I want to touch on from this chapter is equipment. Not so much because it had a lot of new information, but rather because it brings back to the surface one of the main keys to sustainable family farming ... it is important that you don't look at equipment as your only tool. In fact what we need to be doing is thinking about how we can replace pieces of equipment with animals or use smaller more efficient equipment to do our jobs. Things like rotating crops in order to build soil quality, using animals to harvest our pastures so we don't have to make and feed hay all of the time, or use ponds as water sources for our livestock (I do agree with others that it is best to keep the animals out of the pond, but bring the pond water to them). Also, when you assess your resources don't forget that equipment includes more than just your machinery, but also things like your fence and buildings.

So far so good with this book. I think it will be a good addition to my farming library and will give me plenty to think about as we do our farm work and plan for the future.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sugar Creek Farm Q&A Interview - Part 5

Well, unfortunately for us this is the final installment of my question and answer interview with Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm. I want to extend a big THANK YOU to Kelli for taking the time to answer all of these questions and share some honest insight. Her responses were very helpful and I think they can help beginning farmers (like myself) and experienced farmers alike. If you are just coming across the blog make sure you check out Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. So, without further ado ... here are the last two questions and answers...

The Beginning Farmer
- How do you manage your pastures for your livestock and many animals do you have on the farm at any given time?

Sugar Creek Farm
- We tried rotational grazing, but it didn't work well for us because our pasture is a creek-bottom pasture and the fences were constantly getting washed out. Matt spreads manure in the late fall/early spring; mows for weeds - mainly just thistle at this point - at least twice during the year; winter seeds a horse pasture mix, because it has a nice mix of grasses and clovers which keeps a good ground cover during very wet and very dry conditions. We usually experience flooding in spring, and the last couple of years have experienced significant summer drought.

At the peak of the year, which would be about late August/early September, we have 9 cows with nursing calves, a bull, and 9-12 feeder calves (we sometimes purchase extra feeder calves to meet beef demand); the 2 sows and boar and 2 litters; 150 broiler chickens - we use a protected free-range setup on pasture; 40-some free-range laying hens and a couple dozen free-range Muscovy ducks. (The laying hens and ducks are not part of the farm business at this point.)

The Beginning Farmer
- In the future how would you like to expand?

Sugar Creek Farm - We'd like to acquire enough pasture and tillable land to offer some fully grassfed beef, and grow and mix all of our own feed for all of the animals. However with current land prices and the stiff competition for land, it doesn't look likely to happen anytime soon.

This coming summer we'll be more than doubling our number of broiler chickens, and I'd like to continue to grow that operation each year. Last year was our first year at farmers market. We sold at one last year and will probably be at two markets this year. I'd like to expand the layer hen flock, and figure out a good setup for raising meat ducks, geese and turkeys.

The Beginning Farmer - I want to thank everyone who followed along with this question and answer interview. I hope that it was as informative and enjoyable for you as it was for me. If this week was the first time you have come across The Beginning Farmer blog I encourage you to stick around and add to the conversation!

**Today's picture is copywritten image by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm**

**Remember to thank Kelli for this great information!**

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sugar Creek Farm Q&A Interview - Part 4

I hope you are enjoying this weeks farm interview with Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm. I think she has given some great insight to their farm and into the possibilities and realities of sustainable farming in general. This will be something that I will do from time to time ... as long as farmers are willing to answer my questions! If you would like to participate or know of a farmer that you think would have helpful insight just let me know. Now, onto part four (make sure you check out Part One, Part Two, and Part Three).

The Beginning Farmer - What has been one of the most difficult things you have had to endure on your farm?

Sugar Creek Farm - Generally I'd have to say Matt & I working together has been a real challenge :) We have totally opposite personalities, and our brains don't seem to think in the same way. This leads to some rather animated discussions! But it's also strengthened our relationship and, I know it's cheesy, it's helped us grow as individuals and as a couple.

As for specific events, any time you lose animals on a small farm it's difficult. Because you're working with relatively small numbers of animals, losing any one of them is a big hit. By far the biggest of these hits was last spring. We had purchased 3 purebred Chester White gilts and a Berkshire boar. We were so excited about expanding our little herd from 1 sow to 3. When those gilts farrowed they were horrible mothers and we lost all but 5 pigs out of the three litters. It was a huge setback, financially and emotionally. Sometimes, when dealing with animals, you can do everything right and still things just happen. We kept 2 of those 3 gilts, and this time around we couldn't ask for better mothers. They weaned 9 pigs each.

The Beginning Farmer - Talk about the transition from treating the farm as a hobby to treating it as a business. How did things change in your mind and in real life?

Sugar Creek Farm - It was more fun when it was just a hobby ;) No, that was actually Matt's (joking) response. A hobby is something you do for fun, and it's largely self-serving. But as we started having to make choices about things, such as not using hormone implants or sourcing non-medicated feed, it started to feel like a calling. It came to be about more than just us and feeding our own family. We live in a very conventional, commodity-farming part of Iowa where the ideals of "local" and "sustainable" are just starting to make their way into the vernacular. So we felt a calling to use our farm to promote and further these ideals. The best way to do that was to grow from hobby to business.

In real life, making that transition has meant spending more time on things like accounting, marketing, and sales. I actually kind of enjoy these activities. Matt would rather just be outside taking care of his animals. But he's had to spend a lot of evenings at the computer figuring profit and loss and forecasting cash flow. I think the thing we both hate the most is setting prices.

**Today's picture is copywritten image by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm**

**Remember to check back tomorrow for part five**

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sugar Creek Farm Q&A Interview - Part 3

Make sure you read Part One and Part Two if you haven't already had a chance. It is great that Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm was so willing to share! Remember if you have any questions go ahead and most them and I will pass them on ... oh, and don't forget to check out their farm blog. Kelli posts lots of great pictures and gives great insight into farming and family life on the farm.

The Beginning Farmer - How are you marketing your farms products and how did you get started with your direct marketing?

Sugar Creek Farm - We started out direct marketing because we had 3 finished steers and only needed 1/2 of one to feed our family. So we sold the remainder "on-the-hoof" to friends and co-workers. From there it just grew a little bit every year - we'd pick up a few new customers and raise a few more animals.

We have a listing on Local Harvest, and use our blog for occasional updates. At the beginning of each year we mail a newsletter to our customers with news from the farm and what will be available when in the coming year. The newsletter includes an order form. Otherwise our advertising is word of mouth.

Once we got chickens we made the leap to selling meat retail here at the farm. There are some hoops to jump through in order to be able to do that - insurance, health department, weights & measures, meat inspectors. The hardest part was figuring out who to talk to. Now that everything is in place it's no big deal. Having everything in place made it easy to start selling beef & pork retail, and took the pressure off of having to have every head sold on-the-hoof.

This past summer we decided to try selling at Farmers Market. (A couple more hoops to jump through to do that.) I don't think Matt thought it would amount to anything - he just thought it would get me out of the house a few hours a week :) But in retrospect it may have kept us from giving up this year. It provided cash flow at a time of year when we are usually short and brought us a number of new customers. It will be interesting to see how we do at it next summer, now that we have started to build a name and reputation for ourselves there.

We have one local bulk foods store carrying our beef & pork, Kountry Kupboard in Osage. It's been a challenge to figure out wholesale versus retail pricing, but overall it's been a very positive situation for us because it gets our name out to even more people within the community. Some people are more comfortable purchasing there because it's a Main Street store with set hours. And people feel good about purchasing there because with one purchase they are helping 3 local business - our farm, our local meat locker that does our beef & pork butchering for us, and Kountry Kupboard.

The Beginning Farmer - Which of your products has been the most popular or successful? Why do you think this is?

Sugar Creek Farm - I can't really say that any one thing is more popular than another, considering we sell out of everything! But I think the one that surprised us the most is chickens. They sell like hotcakes, which was a surprise because the price differential between our chickens and grocery store chickens is wider than it is for our other products. People are amazed at the difference in flavor and texture between our free-range chickens and what you get in most grocery stores.

**Today's picture is copywritten image by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm**

**Remember to check back tomorrow for part four**

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sugar Creek Farm Q&A Interview - Part 2

If you missed part one of the interview with Kelli from Sugar Creek Farm you can check it out HERE.

The Beginning Farmer - Is the farm your families main income source? Does anybody work off farm? And, how would you characterize family life at Sugar Creek Farm? (I realize this a lot of questions ... but, I thought they fit together)

Sugar Creek Farm
- Matt works full-time as a lineman for the local utility company. I work at home part-time as a software developer. So the farm at this point is a side business for us, and it has taken us a while to make the transition of it being a hobby to being a business. We wanted to grow the business without taking on debt. So our incomes have been both operating capital and investment for breeding stock and equipment. Our long-term goal would be to grow the farm to the point that it would replace my current part-time job. And down the road for Matt to have something to retire into at age 55.

The farm is definitely a family effort. Our daughter Madeline is 12, daughter Olivia is 10, and son Rafe is 5. Madeline has really found her niche on the farm with the pigs. She loves pigs, and is up at 6 a.m. every day to get them fed and watered before she goes to school - an especially challenging task this time of year, when ice has to be broke out of water troughs with a hammer! She has developed such a work ethic - something we see her carry over into her school work, sports, 4-H, and volunteer activities. At parent/teacher conferences I think every single teacher commented on what a hard worker she is. Olivia's favorite is bottle calves, but we didn't have the room to get any this year. A couple years ago she approached us to propose that she get some bottle calves in the spring, take care of them through the summer and sell them in the fall...all in order to prove that she was ready for the responsibility of a horse, and to earn some money with which to purchase one. She did just that and is now the proud owner of Star! Rafe just likes being outdoors and is already showing interest in gardening, and he also likes to help with the meat chickens when we have them.

So even if this farm never becomes a full-time occupation for us, it's worth it because our kids are getting the experiences we wanted for them. They know where their food comes from and the effort it takes to get it to the table. Even if they don't end up farming themselves, this knowledge will make them better food consumers as adults. And if they ever need to feed themselves, even if they're living in a city somewhere, they'll be able to do that with a garden and a handful of chickens.

The Beginning Farmer - Are there any organizations, conferences, or research materials you used as you got started?

Sugar Creek Farm - We joined Practical Farmers of Iowa and have attended their annual conference the past 2 years. The ATTRA website is a treasure trove of information, as are other farm bloggers.

In 2004 I took the "Grow Your Small Market Farm" class given by Penny Brown Huber. It was a turning point for us in treating the farm as a business.

I still feel like we're beginners at this! So I still read everything I can get my hands on, bounce ideas off other farmers that are already doing what I want to do, read lots of farming blogs, and attend conferences and workshops. I am always thinking about ways to diversify the farm, so there is always something to learn! We added Muscovy ducks to the farm last year, but so far we've not eaten (or sold) any. They just sort of free range about and we have a hard time getting near them. So right now I'm learning about ducks, trying to come up with a plan to actually manage them.

**Today's picture is copywritten image by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm**

**Remember to check back tomorrow for part three**

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sugar Creek Farm Q&A Interview - Part 1

If you have been following the blog for a while you will remember that I recently did a question and answer interview with Tim of Nature's Harmony Farm (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). I found the interview very interesting and information and I know that others did as well ... so, we are going to take another stab at it! This time I have had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm in Osage, IA. This was an especially interesting interview because they are from our state and because they have a pretty neat thing started. I will be posting two questions and answers each day this week (Monday - Friday) so make sure you check back each day.

The Beginning Farmer
- Kelli, thanks so much for your willingness to tackle this. I'm pretty excited to hear from someone who has been working for a while and who lives in my general area! First of all could you give us a little background on how you came to Sugar Creek Farm? Why did it get started, how did it get started, and when did it get started?

Sugar Creek Farm - We both grew up on farms and always wanted to get back to it on some level. We wanted that experience for our own kids, of stewardship and responsibility for land and animals. In 2001 our oldest daughter was old enough to show a bottle calf at the county fair. My brother thought she ought to do that, so he bought 3 Holstein bottle calves and helped her break one to lead at the fair. After the fair they came to live at our house for the rest of the summer, since we had pasture not being used. That lit the fire under Matt and the next summer we bought 4 of our own Holstein bottle calves. Nevermind that our daughter didn't want to show one again (though she did show again another year.)

When it came time for vaccinations and castrating, I remember asking Matt if we had to implant them with hormones. I don't know if I thought it was a law, or what, but he said no we didn't have to. So we didn't. When you live in a very rural, traditional, commodity-farming community you have to be able to defend your ideals if you're doing something "different". So I started researching and thus began our journey into sustainable agriculture.

At first our only goal was to raise the kind of food we wanted to eat - animals raised on pasture without added hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, and organically grown vegetables. We figured we'd raise what we needed for our family and sell any surplus to cover costs. We started to build a beef breeding stock herd so that we would know how our animals were treated from birth to butchering. A year or so later we added pigs and chickens to our farm.

The Beginning Farmer - What does Sugar Creek Farm consist of (livestock, crops, etc.)? How did you end up with the combination of ventures you have on your farm?

Sugar Creek Farm - We have 12 acres and raise beef, pigs, and meat chickens. Up until this year we also rented 20 acres of hay ground. I think we ended up with those because that's what we like to eat! These are also the animals we enjoy raising. Matt has experience with sheep & goats and just doesn't enjoy raising them. Our farm is all in pasture, so we also purchase feed from our local elevator.
We also have a large organic vegetable garden but at this point it's just for our own family, not a business venture. Extra's are shared with friends and neighbors. But if one of our kids ever wants to try a vegetable business I'd sure let them!

**Today's picture is copywritten image by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm**

**Remember to check back tomorrow for part two**

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Winter at Stoneyfield

As I mentioned yesterday I needed to make a trip down to the farm yesterday to do a couple of things for my dad. I was more than excited to have a reason to go down, even if it meant getting behind on my work, because it had been so long since I had a chance to see the herd. As you can see from this picture there is plenty of snow in Southern Iowa right now and even though we had grass stockpiled it is under snow and ice at the moment. So, it seems they spend much of their time up in the front lot where we feed them and where they have water.

Speaking of water ... along with lots of snow it has been really cold lately and we don't have any tank heaters in the cattle pen. So, when I arrived the tanks were solid ice from top to bottom (guess you can't always trust the Amish to do your chores the way you would do them). I spent a while hacking out the ice with an axe, and constantly pushing my cows out of the way so I had room to swing the axe! They were rather friendly today and I was able to get my hands all over them. As you can see from the picture they were also rather thirsty.

The picture on the left is of one of our heifers, Billie of K&K. She came to us from the Anderson farm in Missouri and I think she is shaping up rather nicely under that heavy winter coat. This coming year she will be bred to our incoming herd sire, SGF SANT Hershey, who is also dun. Of course we are hoping that she will throw us a nice little dun heifer calf in 2009, but we will just have to wait and see!

Now, this last picture is ... well, it is of my confusion bull! I call him that because I'm just not sure what to do with this little guy. He is around six or seven months right now and is smaller than everyone else that is younger than him. Because of his lineage there is a possibility that he carries the chondrodysplasia gene, which isn't the best thing if you would like to use him as a sie. So, he will probably end up in someone's freezer. Unless... someone has some non-carrier cows and they would like to use him to bring down their size? I think he has a good look to him for his size and age, but he is just so darn small. Either way, I'm not sure he will be ready to finish next fall!

So, there are some shots of the Stoneyfield herd in the snow. I was very pleased with the way the are looking this winter and I can't wait to see them in the coming spring!

Make sure you check out the blog on Monday because I'm having another farmer question and answer series...
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