Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hope, Farming and the Lord 101

As I mentioned in some detail in my last blog, I underwent something of a baptism by fire when my first wife and I were separated and divorced. Between getting cheated on, getting divorced, selling up my farm, and watching my income as a feed salesman fall in half thanks to the BSE crisis, which effectively closed the Canadian border to most livestock exports, 2004 was a really, really rough year. I'll admit that I spent considerable time looking at my rear end to see if someone had attached a real big sign saying "KICK ME" because it sure felt like someone was doing so for most of the year.

However, once I came to the conclusion that feeling sorry for myself wasn't getting me very far, I thought maybe it was time to try something different. The upside to no longer having a home, a farm, a wife or a job worth having is that I was completely free to try again, and once I saw this, I began to incrementally take advantage of it. Long story short, I quit my feed/seed/chemical sales job about corn planting time in 2004, became an international hay broker, and I began to educate myself about "alternative" agriculture in a number of ways both practical and theoretical. I also got to know a pretty foreign horse lady...also recently divorced...who I took on a whole bunch of hot dates and who REALLY made me look forward to hay selling trips in the Southeastern US. Perhaps not coincidentally, about this time I started selling a lot more semi-loads of hay in Tennessee, particularly within commuting distance of Nashville. :)

We started selling beef direct to consumers in 2005/06. We rented a little bit of land and bought enough cattle to use the land efficiently by going partners with my good friend Bob Stannard (who grew his half of this business into a very successful company...Vermont Natural Beef..check his website out). Note that we owe most of our success to the fact that we DIDN'T buy land, fancy pickups, fancy equipment, tools or really anything else excepting a roll of electric fence, a water trough, and a pair of fence pliers. If one is going to succeed in making a start up work, one HAS to focus one's limited resources on owning productive assets. I'm not trying to toot our own horns over much but in agriculture thinking this way is REALLY outside the box. So is selling direct to consumers in order to capture 100 % of a consumers retail dollar instead of pennies on the dollar when one sells commodities wholesale.

Today, situation normal is that most conventional farmers invest several hundred thousand dollars at a minimum (and often much more than that) in start ups before they turn their first dollar in revenue. In most cases, IMO this is financial suicide and also a great way to give oneself ulcers. This is especially true in integrated agriculture (ie building chicken houses for Tyson or hog houses for Smithfield, etc.)...perhaps moreso because the degree of control you exercise over anything determining your profitability is low at best.

Changing one's view of the world one grew up in is a hard lesson of a thing to do. I love to read and I particularly enjoyed the following authors in 2004 and subsequent years (books in parenthesis): Gene Logsden (Chicken Tractor), Joel Salatin (You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming) and Allan Nation (Pasture Profits from Stocker Cattle). Also, Wendell Berry, who describes the community in which I grew up in startlingly accurate detail in books like Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow, Ben Green (Horse Tradin', The Village Horse Doctor) and David Newell (If Nothin' Don't Happen and The Trouble of It Is). Every one of these authors played a role in getting me fired up about rural living and making a living farming again.

I want to encourage farmers who want to gain some understanding of what Mr. and Mrs. Joe Consumer think of our food system today to read (sometimes with a grain of salt):

Holy Cows and Hog Heaven by Joel Salatin
Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
The Informant, Kirk Eichenwald

and to watch Food Inc., even if parts of it makes you mad, as it did me. Perhaps you'll realize, like I did, just how abyssmal a job our current crop of agricultural leaders are doing at addressing the issues presented. Perhaps you'll also realize, as I did, that maybe some of these books as well as the consumers that read them have a few valid points. Consumers aren't all whack jobs who want to run farmers out of business, although this is how they mostly get presented inside industry publications. Perhaps you'll wind up agreeing, as I do, that some of the practices common in commercial agriculture today are no longer defensible to today's consumer and they flat out need to change, the sooner the better.

I also highly recommend The Stockman Grass Farmer, a monthly publication chock full of successful direct marketers who have turned out of the box ideas into a successful full time living.

Gonna cut this short....hope it stimulates some thought. Never did get around to mentioning the Lord, but it sure makes a great title, don't it ? :)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paradigm Farms - The reason behind the name

This is likely to be a long post. It may well be so long that I wind up dividing it into two parts. If I had a hunting dog that wandered onto as many side trails and I seem to, I'd give him away, but when I tell a story orally I veer onto side trails all the time so why should writing be any different ? :)

As some of you know, I grew up on a working "conventional" farm which was situated among other working, "conventional" farms in a place that was then, and remains to this day, Canada's bread basket. As some of you may remember reading in our Paradigm Farms blog, I gained my passion for agriculture by following my grandfather, a gentle, patient and kind man, literally through every season when I was a child. With a couple of exceptions, his business and farming mindset was very conventional, if quite current, for the time and place in which he was brought up. He grew commodities (milk, oats, grain, beef cattle, dairy heifers, field peas and sweet corn for the canneries, etc.), and he sold them to someone else to do something else with before they ever their way to someone's table.

His type of commodity agriculture has always required a relatively large scale to produce an adequate living for the operator of choice. By the standards of the day, my grandad ran a large, prosperous farm. He farmed a LOT more land in the 1940's and 50's than I do today and he farmed it far more intensively (and some might reasonably say more successfully) than I do right now. He continued to grow his land base and continued to branch out his business right up until he retired, a whole bunch of years later.

My formal education, which I gained at the University of Guelph, Canada's best "land grant" university, did an excellent job of backing up everything I learned from watching and doing at home. So too did my first couple of jobs after college.

The problem was that by the time I graduated college in 1994, the profit margin in conventional agriculture was GONE. One could possibly make it work, if by chance one inherited one's land and equipment and/or had a spouse with a really good off farm job to support one's large and very expensive hobby.(I've done a lot of crappy things in my life, but to my credit I have never believed in putting my wife to work to support me ! Remember that, Melissa !) If you think horses are expensive, try 3000 (or 30,000) acres of commodity corn and beans ! I promise that after the bills come in, you'll run back to horses. Unfortunately, IMO, most ag industry jobs, land grant universities and most extension personnel STILL do an excellent job of backing up a business model that nearly guarantees failure for those starting out.

After my dad passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly, I returned home, bought our family homeplace, and did my best to make a go of it, still convinced in the precepts if not entirely in the economic reality behind conventional agriculture. As far as it went, I did it all "right", at least according to the extension experts and land grant university types, and through luck and some skill I made the operation modestly successful. What this means is that my business turned a lot of dollars. My cash flow was excellent. Unfortunately it was mostly flowing right back out the door. Even in my best years, I worried about how to make the business a truly viable long term model which would allow me to pay my bills, earn a reasonable living and continue to expand over time, hopefully without borrowing very much money.

I don't guess I'll ever know how that all would have turned out. I was blind sided by a divorce in 2003, and despite my ex-wife's intense dislike of me, she sure liked the thought of getting her hands into the little bit of money I had earned and saved. I sold our farm, which we had bought from my mom after dad died and which had been in our family for seven generations, to pay her out. I hated being forced to sell at the time, but maybe it saved me from an even worse ending a few years down the road. There was much that I loved about the way I grew up (and much that I still want to replicate today) but the business model that served my grandad never really did serve me. Failure has the ability to teach lessons much more effectively than success. I loved my first wife and I loved farming. I failed at both. The day my farm got sold was the day I fully realized my losses. It was the worst day of my life. I vowed that I was done forever with conventional commodity agriculture. My paradigm(s) had shifted, though to what, I wasn't at the time so sure of.

Two years later, shortly after I married Melissa, we bought a bunch of beef calves with a partner in Benson VT. The goal was to finish them all and sell them direct to consumers. We didn't have any money to buy grain but we had plenty of grass, so we grass finished every one of them. Surprisingly, we sold everything we finished, and even more surprisingly to me, the beef was delicious...among the best I have ever eaten ! To honour my mid-life re-introduction to a very different kind of farming, Melissa and I agreed it would be very appropriate to call our new venture Paradigm Farms.

People today remark to me that I walk around most of the time with a goofy grin pasted on my face. Damn straight I do. I'm a full time farmer. I've got one HELL of a wife. I have several viable businesses going on, and I'm living my childhood dream. If that's not reason enough to walk around smiling, I don't know what is !

Monday, July 26, 2010

Agribusiness Blasphemy

I've been a proud farmer all my adult life. To the bottom of my being, I believe in what I do and in what I stand for. First and foremost, I primarily try to act as a husbandman in all that I do. It's my job to tend after my piece of God's good earth and the creatures that roam on it and to do both in a manner that is respectful toward the part of creation which I have been entrusted.

My neighbours and my friends, representing small and large farms, both conventional and organic, mostly believe like I do, and they bring every bit as much passion as I do to the table each and every day.

I read a series of articles in a mainline agricultural publication earlier today that made mock of everything I and most of the farmers that inhabit my world stand for. The gist of the articles, and indeed, the underlying gist of most of the publication is that farm animals are nothing but protoplasm designed to be manipulated, caged and disposed of as we see fit with little or no regard paid to their needs, wants and desires. Indeed, one of the articles in the cluster of nonsense I read had the werewithal to suggest that animals are happier in artificial environments (think factory type caged laying hens and sows in gestation stalls) than they are living more naturally, and, unbelieveably to me, the article cited peer reviewed research to back their "facts" up. Even more unbelievably, there was yet MORE peer reviewed research in another article that suggested the environment benefitted in a number of ways by ALL factory agriculture choices, from monoculture corn and beans in the midwest to locating huge feedlots and dairies on brittle western land. By this point, I was shaking my head so hard I thought it was going to start spinning all the way around.

I'm left to wonder whether or not these people actually believe the nonsense they are spewing ? I'm also left to wonder, yet again, who'se agenda they are supposed to be protecting when they spew this stuff. I don't have to wonder whether or not farmers like me need better representation than we're getting from the folks doing this nonsense research or writing these garbage articles. I KNOW that.

In a burst of irony, this same publication had several articles in this very issue wondering why consumers are turning in droves toward local production, bypassing corporate agriculture with their food dollars. Well, duh.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where I grew up....

The little general store in the village, loafer's bench removed for winter, 1987.

When I say I grew up the old way, I meant it. This acre and a half was (and remains) our garden spot. Notice the rows of garlic mulched with straw. This became a hobby for one of my uncles during his retirement. Photo taken Nov 1999.

The view from the top of the hill at "Grandpa's", a 50 acre piece of pasture kitty corner to our homeplace. That is Lake Ontario in the far distance. We farmed most of what you see in the near distance. Photo taken fall 1990.

Our homeplace, Christmas morning, 1994. The house dates from 1869 and is the second dwelling on the farm, built by my great-great-great grandfather's sister.

Showing cattle, Durham East 4-H Show, Blackstock Fair, 1985. I'm the guy in the jean jacket, in fourth place when the photo was taken.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Trip to our family homeplace

I have been off, lollygagging around at our family homeplace in Ontario these past few days and leaving my lovely bride in Tennessee to tend the farm ! I returned to the US on just in time for Canada Day ! I had a great trip, and as usual I forgot my camera and only managed to see about half the people I wanted to. That's okay, as it gives me a reason to go back ! :)
Not really much to report on; the weather was fabulous (re: lovely and cool) the entire trip and everything went smoothly regarding my flights which was a bonus considering I flew to and from Buffalo, NY. I enjoyed the time with my family; my brother and his wife were up from Windsor with my niece, and as always, I enjoyed spending time with many of my old friends. I try not to rank any of my friends according to whom I like best, but I will say that it's nearly impossible to hide anything from someone who has known you since the cradle. :)
I engaged the services of Frank Stapleton, an auctioneer a few miles from home, to get rid of an old horse drawn buggy that my mother and uncles enthusiastically purchased for us at a neighbours auction some years ago. (Interestingly, Frank's auction barn is part of a complex he owns that also contains a gas station, a convenience store, a feed dealership and the post office all rolled into one.) When I discovered it was going to cost the price of a new truck to get the buggy to TN, buy a driving horse and buy tack, I determined the buggy needed to stay right where it was, though preferably in someone else's hands. As is usual in our little community when one doesn't have a long history of dealing with a person, we play the game of, "Who are your people ?" and "Who do we know in common ?" Frank started, and we didn't get past the first question before we moved to his office and he started telling me stories of dealings with my dad, my uncles and my granddad that I had never heard before. Several hours later, and much the richer for the knowledge and stories, I left the buggy to it's fate. As far as I know, it will be auctioned tonight; come to think of it, I ought to check the advert online ! :)
On the trip back to the States, I figured out that my phone also took pictures, and I have included a short selection of bad photographs (combined with poor commentary) taken between home and the American border.
Hope everyone has a great weekend and enjoyed celebrating Canada Day yesterday, or WILL enjoy celebrating the 4th on Sunday !

I couldn't believe the draconian speeding violation fines on the 407 ! Of course, this being Ontario, I took this shot while passing the sign at 135 km/h ! :)
My part of Ontario was originally settled by folks from Cornwall in England and also from Northern Ireland. To this day, Kendal has an active Orange Lodge, as do most of the small communities in my home county. Thankfully today the Orange Lodge signs are little more than a curiosity. A hundred years ago...even 50 years ago....a sign like this (posted, as this one is, at the entrance to a community) represented a real threat and was reason enough to keep moving along if one had an Irish Catholic surname. Niagara Falls ! Despite the lack of proximity, I flew to and from Buffalo, NY as it was nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than flying to Toronto. I took full advantage of the border crossing to re-acquaint myself with Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, NY.