Friday, December 07, 2012

The Tipping Point and Scaling Up

It is my experience that at some point in the life of a business or an organization things come to the tipping point ... the to the edge of a cliff. Once they are at that edge or tipping point there are a few things that can happen. Number one ... they can realize that they don't really like the direction they are going and either reboot or just plain pull the plug. Number two ... they can just stay the course that they are on and probably slowly fade over time because of attrition or lack of passion and excitement. Or, number three ... they can dive in even deeper and take things up a notch or two (of course that assumes things don't blow up in your face). Realize that I'm not organizational or business management expert, so those are just my non-technical observations.

The farm (Crooked Gap Farm) seems to have hit that tipping point or the edge of the cliff (depending on which mental image you would like to have). We started out with herd of Dexter cattle (a herd that was too big for my lack of expertise) and just six hogs on the farm the first year. From that point we have grown by adding enterprises, markets, and transforming our woodlot raised heritage breed pork into the centerpiece of our farm. Now we are at a point where I feel we either need to make some major steps to scale up the farm and the production or scale back down to a "hobby" level and produce enough food for us and a few others with the leftovers.

My pride says, "Let's kick it up a notch or ten and get going!"

My fear says, "You know it wouldn't be so bad to just have three pigs, a couple of cows, and a handful of chickens ... plus I wouldn't have to get up at 4:00 AM 26 weeks a year for the farmers market!"

My gut says, "I think we can do this ... maybe ... with some help ... I think ..."

Of course scaling up and jumping in even deeper means some changes and a different approach to many aspects of the farm ... all of that will take lots of thought and planning! I'll be taking some time over the next few posts to dig into the ideas ...

Do you have thoughts on scaling up small scale farms? I'd love to hear them!

8 comments:

Donna OShaughnessy said...

We reached the same exact point two years ago. Our solution ? I left my nursing job (25 years) we cashed in ALL our 401's and other retirement and sunk everything INTO OUR FARM. Last year we struggled. This year our profit margin will be best ever as we both only work on the farm. No kids at home, we're in our 50's. Wish we'd done it this way years ago.

The Beginning Farmer's Wife said...

The thoughts from the Farmer's Wife on a purely eating standpoint . . . scaling up will mean we can eat more of what we produce. Scaling down to hobby will mean that we won't eat (or I won't cook or eat) any of what we produce. Remember . . . face in the crowd. I can't know which animal is on my plate or in the package. :)

Rich said...

My farm is a little different than yours, but I've tried to grow by reducing my risk and trying to open up more options. I'm not sure if that is the best way to describe it, but it's the best I can do.

I started out growing winter wheat and raising cattle.

I "expanded" by adding grain sorghum, which was relatively low risk because initially I would double-crop it after the wheat. If everything worked out right, I could get a grain harvest in the fall, could winter the cows on the stubble, and plant sorghum again the following spring. So, in a good year, I should be able to capture some of the fertility from the wheat, make some money from the grain, save some money on winter feed, build my soils, etc. In a really great year, I could bale the sorghum stubble and plant wheat again.

If everything went wrong, I could just plant wheat in the fall and try again the following summer. I'd get a little benefit from extra organic material from the failed sorghum crop and I could use the fertilizer from the sorghum to grow my wheat. My only real expense would be for a little fertilizer, seed, and fuel. That expense is easily offset by the benefits of the extra organic matter.

So in the long run I'm only putting a relatively small amount of money at risk with the sorghum, and as a bonus I'm starting to have less money at risk with my wheat and cattle. Or, the risk is sort of spread around because they all complement each other.

Eventually (if it ever rains again), I can start to plant something like corn to spread my risk out even more. Or, I can expand my cattle by grazing stockers on some double-cropped sorghum-sudangrass (which I'm leaning towards).

I'm not sure how you could expand in the same way on your farm, but it's an idea.

Anonymous said...

After 10 years out of farming we couldn't take it anymore...so we cashed everything in and bought 40 acres on Lake Michigan. Like Donna, we are in our early 50's so this is pretty much do-or-die. In our previous life we were what I call "Monsanto farmers", so I thought we should do very well because we know exactly how NOT to raise food.
Wine Grapes, Hops, and waygu beef, all high-dollar inputs but we expect hihg outputs, or at least enough to pay the bills and go to the beach.
Good Luck and I am sure you will make the right decision. Oh, and don't ever forget...it is a business first and foremost, and then the "way of life" will follow.

WeldrBrat said...

I would hold off on all decisions regarding your future goals with your farm until AFTER our government gets off their pillows and goes one way or the other with the fiscal cliff infantile antics. Hubs and I were watching one of the shows on RFDTV with current reports, yesterday. There is no Farm Bill. If this game of Chicken goes full throttle, there may not be one. In that case... don't count on growing and going into exports. Remember the panic over 'pork shortage' just a couple months ago? We've already figured out how well their concept worked at dumping a surplus. Too many babies have been born, raised and shoved into apartment buildings. Ya' know? LOL

Rich said...

WeldrBrat, it might not be my place to comment, but you should never let things that you will never be able to control, control how you live your life.

After more than two years of drought with no rain and record heat, I learned that I can't make it rain no matter how much I worry, how mad I get at the world, or how much I want to give up.

It's a waste of time and energy to worry about anything that I can't control. I can't control the weather, I can't make everybody like me or what I do, I can't stop any stupid laws coming from any stupid politicians.

I can only control how I do my job, and I can control how I choose to react to the things I can't control.

Expand your farm based on the things that you can control, not on what might or might not happen in Washington.

Joshin Yall said...

Careful that you dont scale up too much and become evil. Who knows where that line is, but if you cross it, all the sudden you are big-ag. :)

I say go for it,risk is part of reward.

Jonathan said...

We've been scaling our farming up slowly over the past about 8 years. At the beginning we had a few steers; now we have about 40 head of cattle, 17 milking and most of the rest youngstock. At this point it looks like it won't ever become a fulltime occupation (although over one summer it did provide enough to be a living), but it has enabled us to work on other things that may eventually provide the income. Or it may turn around in this next year and start making money as the youngstock grow up.
This year the biggest problem is lack of feed, but I personally wouldn't be surprised to see that come down in the next few years.

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