Prequel

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m going to write a series of posts about how we manage the “business” side of the farm. It is by no means a perfect process. If it were it wouldn’t take so long and I wouldn’t gripe about it so much.

We didn’t start out as a business. When we started our farm in 2002 with 4 Holstein bottle calves, it was just going to be a fun project for the kids to do. It would put a little money into their college accounts and put a little beef into the freezer.

But that all seemed to change when we made the conscious decision not to use hormone implants. Not using hormone implants is definitely not the “norm” around these parts. And when you do something that’s not the “norm”, be prepared to defend your actions. In researching our choice, I found out there was actually a name for what we were doing – “naturally raised”.

There we were, with 4 head of cattle but only needing ½ of one for ourselves. Why 4 head then, you may ask. Cattle are herd animals. When raised singly they don’t thrive as well and can literally die of loneliness. So you want at least two. Which means you want at least three, so that if one dies you still have two. And if you have three, what’s one more if the farmer selling you the calves happens to have an extra?

So even doing this just as a hobby, there’s still the business of finding someone to buy those extra 3 ½. In other words, sales. And for us, sales pretty much means talking to people. Spreading the word, mouth to mouth. And this turned out to work just fine. We were able to find takers for our extra beef the first several years.

After those initial years, our customers could pretty much be divided into 2 groups. The first group likes our beef because it tastes better than what you can buy in the store. Many people say it brings back memories of the beef their grandmother would fix for Sunday dinner. (And when we added pork and chicken we got the same comments.) It seems like people don’t even realize how different modern commodity meats are from the farm-raised meats they grew up on until they have some of ours. This group of customers doesn’t really care about the hormones and antibiotics. They just know good meat when they taste it, and they hadn’t tasted it in a long time until they tasted ours.

The second group of customers are the ones we say are “with the program”. They do care about antibiotics use in livestock, about implanted growth hormones, about humane living conditions for animals. This group of customers has been a little harder to ferret out than the first. The organic movement, the local foods movement, the sustainable agriculture movement all have been a lot slower to take around here than they have in other pockets of Iowa like Decorah, Des Moines, and Fairfield. But little by little people seem to be becoming more aware of these issues.

It was hard in the beginning because we were trying to target the second group of customers. But finding them was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So at a certain point we took “natural” out of our marketing almost completely, and focused on the “old-fashioned” aspect of it that more of our customers seemed to care about. However this lack in the second group of customers will hopefully turn out to be a good thing, because it means we have a lot of room for growth in that market for this area. It’s just been at the farmers market this past summer that we’ve really started to market ourselves as “natural” again, and find people that are looking for that.

That still doesn’t really explain why we grew from hobby into small business. The short answer is passion. Or perhaps more accurately, a rediscovered passion. We both grew up on farms, but for various reasons didn’t pursue agriculture as a career. I could say a lot about those reasons, but that’s another post for maybe never. But even at this small scale we’ve rediscovered the passion for farming we’d had all our lives. We want our own children to have the experiences we had growing up. And making “good food” available to those who aren’t in a position to raise it themselves is a passion in itself.

The long answer would also mention that the farm just sort of took on a life of its own, and our passion let us get caught up in it instead of having an actual thought-out plan.

Where do we see ourselves evolving to in the next 6 years? Believe me, the thought gets voiced every so often that maybe we should go back to hobby status. We can’t say as we’ve made a true profit in any of these years, through a combination of continuous growth, stupid mistakes on our part, and economic factors beyond our control.

What does any of this have to do with budgets and cash flows and business plans? If it were still a hobby we wouldn’t need any of those things. And perhaps there’s someone reading this that’s still at the beginning. Perhaps sharing our mistakes will save someone else the trouble.

To be continued….

Related posts:

Why we do this

Inspiration

3 years ago:

Houseguest

BWD

2 years ago:

Photo Friday: Baby

This entry was posted in Small Farm Business. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Prequel

  1. Ethan Book says:

    Thanks for the insight into your farm and your beginnings. I’m looking forward to reading more in the coming days. This should be good stuff for your customers, possible customers, and beginning farmers such as my self.

  2. mountain says:

    I really enjoyed this post and can relate to it in many ways. Many of our customers give us the same reasons for buying our lamb (which we have recently started selling directly from the farm.)The most popular reason is the ‘old-fashioned’ aspect!Mountain Dweller

  3. We are just starting out and I can’t wait to get all your good advice. We have very small farm so we have to work smarter not harder, I guess, if that is possible with farming and limited recources. We want to pick the best things to raise and try to control ourselves and not buy things unnecessarily. At this point in time, with all of our first flock of chickens killed by dogs, I think we would need to sell our eggs for $20 a dozen to barely break even. We love it so it is worth it! I’m not sure how to market our products so I am eagerly waiting til you get to that part. Beth

  4. Patti says:

    Such a pretty pretty house!!!!

  5. Thanks for the feedback everybody! Please continue to let me know if these posts are useful at all, and any particular topics you’d like to hear about. Marketing wasn’t actually something I’d thought of writing about, but I’ve added it to the list thanks to Kevin & Beth :)

  6. Chesterhen says:

    Thank goodness there are still people like you with your passion. Otherwise we’d all have no choice but to eat “feed lot” beef. I’m a customer from the second group you mentioned, although I can certainly appreciate the better taste of pastured beef and chicken. I’ve become acquainted with local meat producers in the Pittsburgh area through Slow Food Pittsburgh, who sponser a “laptop butchershop” a few times a year. Customers get to order select cuts of meat and meat products from local farmers selected for the way they raise their animals. It’s truly a great program. Is there a Slow Food Cionvivium where you are located?

  7. Noah says:

    I live down by Ames and have been interested in trying to give you a call for some beef and chicken, I’m definately one of the organic crowd out there looking for natural meat. We’ve been waiting until we can get a deep freeze though so that the trip will be economical.

  8. chesterhen – just in the last year a local Slow Foods group has been started in the Clear Lake area, which is about 45 minutes from me.noah – thanks for the note! If you’d like to be on our mailing list just email me your mailing address. I’m just getting ready to send out this year’s newsletter. Our email is themillers92 (at) osage (dot) net.