Monday, February 04, 2013

Growing Pains :: Part One ...

You know the saying ... "Growing up is hard to do" ... That saying has always been a bit applicable to my life in general, but now that the farm is coming up on five years in existence I'm finding that it is also a fitting statement for my "farm feelings". Way back in the beginning (as if it was a long time ago) there were just a few hogs, a few chickens, some cows, and a dream. At that time the biggest stress seemed to be how I was going to market all of that pork I had growing on the farm ... as in six hogs!

I have been mentioning recently that the farm is at a tipping point where it either needs to scale up to market that it has created or scale back to smaller market that could almost be called a "hobby" (I've never allowed myself to call it a "hobby farm"). It seems odd to say that staying at the same point the farm is now at isn't an option, but it just really isn't. Thankfully (and we are VERY blessed) there is a growing demand for our heritage breed meat and that is making things such as farmers markets, restaurant sales, and more on farm sales not only possible ... but also profitable! The rub is that in order to do all of that right the farm needs to produce more.

Now I'm not talking about thousands of animals ... or even lots of hundreds of animals. Rather I'm thinking of reaching a the goal of marketing 200 to 300 hogs per year, a few hundred chickens, some turkeys, a couple dozen lambs, and whatever beef we can get off of the limited grazing acres. What I find myself struggling with is getting over that hump ... and this time it isn't because of the marketing because I've learned a lot in that department and I'm confident in Crooked Gap Farm Heritage Breed Meats! I'm struggling with how I can up that production on the farm in a way that sticks to my farming values!

Things like winter farrowing (talked about a lot here), feed storage, whether or not I should grind my own feed, fencing, water for livestock and water sources (well?), and so many other things are flying though my mind. On top of all of that I just want to grow now ... instant farm gratification anyone ... because I think the market is there and I don't want to wait for everything to on the farm to catch up.

So, how do you deal with the "growing pains"?

8 comments:

PeterBales said...

Ethan,
Hi! I just came across your blog the other day and am now following you! We're beginning farmers about 5 years behind you it sounds like. However, I'm also a contractor. In that business I've often been very tempted to start hiring people and grow my business whenever I can't handle all the leads coming in. After a while though, the tide seems to go back down and I'm glad it's just me doing the jobs again.

I'm not telling you to wait to grow, but in my experience I'd suggest growing in slow, sustainable ways, rather than ways that put all you've worked for at risk. I've read about too many companies that were small and successful, but tried to get too big too fast and crumbled under the debt and pressure to keep up the growth. Follow your peace.

Anyway. Those are my thoughts. Have a great day!
-Peter

www.NewFreedomFarm.com

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Hey Ethan. First thanks so much for the shout out about my farrowing blog back in Dec. Sorry for the delayed response.

We too suffer growing pains. Our organic farm exploded with demand for our meat , enough so I retired from nursing and now we both work on the farm full time. Then we got to the point that we needed to hire staff to keep up or try to sell the whole business. The farm is for sale now http://certifiedorganicfarm.blogspot.com/ If that doesn't happen then we are downsizing where we stand but how do we grow just enough to pay our own bills for a farm that is much to big for us to "retire" on. We have no idea. Growing pains...always

colliefarm said...

It seems like the general rule of thumb is always to grow gradually- at least that is the safest, most conservative, route. I face the same issue- huge demand, and the question of "when do I quit my job and do this full time?" If I were to borrow money and grow quickly, I could, but at high risk. Or I could grow slow, over 10 years or so, and be safer.

A big organic farm near us, that seemed to have it made, failed. It turned out that even though they had huge demand (more than they could supply), they grew too quickly, borrowed too much, and collapsed under the weight of payments. Cash flow got them. It was eye-opening to witness, and made me a little risk-averse in considering borrowing to grow, versus pay-as-you-go...

lawdingo said...

I completely understand your growing pains! We have started to promote our chickens just around my work and things have really taken off! We want to have more customers, keep our farming values, and meet customer demand. This year we are keeping record of sales and trying to find our balance of keeping up supply and meeting those increasing demands for our chicken and eggs. All of this grew from friends and an urban farm! Great preparation for our move to land in a few years. Ethan, you have given us the best advice in this preparation. You told us last summer at the Des Moines farmer's market to buy as much land as you can and if possible a bit more than you think you will need. We have taken this advice to heart and are preparing now to purchase 100 acres in a few years. We are delaying our dream but we thought better to do that than have our farm dream squashed by limited land resources. Thanks a bunch for sharing your journey with all of us!

Angela Johnson

Tara said...

I can completely relate to your situation. We presently have small numbers of livestock as we grow and learn, but we walk the tightrope of staying sustainable and achieving our ultimate goal of improving the land and trying to make our farming venture sustainable financially.

I'm curious about how you know that your land can support such a large growth in numbers. We have a quarter section with about 60 of that in forested land. Still, I'm concerned about the load on the land. At what point would we stop contributing to the vitality of the land and start degrading it?

As it stands, there is no way we will ever make a penny on pork when all is factored in. We are using a straight organic feed which is necessary here given the proliferation of GMOs in feed (a nonnegotiable for us). We're investigating the possibilities of feeding root vegetables throughout the winter, but still, we're looking at dedicating a large chunk of land and energy to making that happen. I'm not sure that any grain based operation is going to be sustainable in the future (if it's not the cost of buying it, it's the cost of fossil fuels to produce).

I have a friend that has a small abattoir on his property that allows him to feed his pigs the rumen and other bits from the guts of his grass fed cattle. In addition to that, the pigs get some cracked barley and graze (they also get all the garden weeds in the summer). His pork is divine and I really think this is a lot closer to how we need to be feeding pigs (and chickens). Unfortunately, I don't have that possibility available to me but we do plan to raise meat rabbits both for humans, but mostly for our dogs, chickens, and pigs.

Anyway, just hashing out some of the stuff swirling in my brain. I really enjoy your blog and I look forward to seeing what you decide and how things evolve.

Tara said...

I can completely relate to your situation. We presently have small numbers of livestock as we grow and learn, but we walk the tightrope of staying sustainable and achieving our ultimate goal of improving the land and trying to make our farming venture sustainable financially.

I'm curious about how you know that your land can support such a large growth in numbers. We have a quarter section with about 60 of that in forested land. Still, I'm concerned about the load on the land. At what point would we stop contributing to the vitality of the land and start degrading it?

As it stands, there is no way we will ever make a penny on pork when all is factored in. We are using a straight organic feed which is necessary here given the proliferation of GMOs in feed (a nonnegotiable for us). We're investigating the possibilities of feeding root vegetables throughout the winter, but still, we're looking at dedicating a large chunk of land and energy to making that happen. I'm not sure that any grain based operation is going to be sustainable in the future (if it's not the cost of buying it, it's the cost of fossil fuels to produce).

I have a friend that has a small abattoir on his property that allows him to feed his pigs the rumen and other bits from the guts of his grass fed cattle. In addition to that, the pigs get some cracked barley and graze (they also get all the garden weeds in the summer). His pork is divine and I really think this is a lot closer to how we need to be feeding pigs (and chickens). Unfortunately, I don't have that possibility available to me but we do plan to raise meat rabbits both for humans, but mostly for our dogs, chickens, and pigs.

Anyway, just hashing out some of the stuff swirling in my brain. I really enjoy your blog and I look forward to seeing what you decide and how things evolve.

Rich said...

"...I'm struggling with how I can up that production on the farm in a way that sticks to my farming values!..."

My question would be, what sort of problems are you struggling with?

Is it a lack of infrastructure? Feed costs? Or, is it husbandry problems like wondering if moving to a hoop house for weaned pigs being too much like confinement?

Walter Jeffries said...

Grow slowly. We have been easing up in size for a decade, very carefully expanding so that we do not outgrow our values, our land or our abilities.

We see our maximum as about ten cutter pigs a week (finishers) plus some roasters as well as spring feeder weaner sales. This is a number that we feel comfortable doing, that our land can easily support, that keeps us in the small farm threshold for our state (eases regulations) and which produces enough income to take care of our bills and some savings. We don't need more than that.

We never intend to capture all of the market nor do we want any one customer that is too large for us. We have been repeatedly approached by big buyers like Whole Foods and such but they would soak up too much of our production and make us dangerously dependent on them. Far better for a farm to have many small customers than a few big buyers.

Find your balance point and don't let yourself get sucked beyond it.

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