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 ? :)


Funder said...

Several years ago I read Grass-Fed Cattle (along with most of the books you mentioned). I got all fired up to be a rancher. Now we live in the desert and I may never have the capital to run cows. ANYWAY! It's an excellent book. Not as overtly political, very practical stuff.

Jason said...

It's a good book; one of many that sit on my library shelf that I didn't have room to mention. Somehow, I missed this comment until right now ! :)