It may not be apparent on the blog. It may not really be obvious on the farm. Julie and I have scaled things back a bit this year. In the short term it hurts our bottom line (but not by much) but in the long-run I think it will pay dividends. It doesn’t matter if I butcher 500 broilers or 5,000 (the state-imposed limit). It matters that the food you buy from me is the best you have ever eaten. So good, in fact, that you take pictures of it cooking, post a picture of it on your plate on Instagram and, most importantly, tell all of your friends about the delicious chicken you bought from me. Then you will come back for more and word of mouth will grow our business. You are our marketing plan.
However, because we scaled back your friends may just have to wait until next year to buy a delicious bird from us. I have to make sure it is worth waiting for. If I just cranked out large numbers of mediocre birds…well…mediocre birds don’t start conversations. They are just something to eat. Average birds cost less than a dollar a pound so I can’t compete with that market. And I can’t market to the average consumer. I have to raise the very best and cater to those who appreciate it.
After a number of years of raising broilers we have tried it all. One year we butchered 75-150 birds every other Saturday. Think about that. All summer long. And we sold them all! But Julie was tired. She started losing her fingernails from scraping lungs out and her back hurt from standing at an odd position to do the work. Don’t forget that I have a job in town. Julie had to go to the chicken tractors at least twice daily to fill water and feeders but Julie just isn’t strong enough to move the chicken tractors. And we found that the CX birds have a hard time with our summer heat. When it’s triple-digits in the shade they just didn’t do well in our Salatin-style chicken tractors. Switching to hoop-style tractors helped bird health but we also have to be concerned with farmer health. We just didn’t want to go water chickens when the heat index was 112. Just as important we found that customers stopped cooking dinner in the hot weather. Our sales pattern (and this may only apply to us) was to sell birds between Memorial Day and July 4, then again from October 1 until we ran out around Christmas or New Years. Our current schedule produces birds only for those windows. Now our freezers are not filled (or failing) when the weather is hot and customers don’t want to cook anyway.
But it doesn’t stop there. If customers don’t want chicken in August, they certainly don’t want pork. Now we try to time our batches of pigs to be out the door by July 1 and little pigs arrive shortly after. Little pigs can manage in the heat well and will be ready to roast and serve with fresh apple cider in October or early November. And you should know that we don’t do large batches of pork. First, I don’t think I could market a dozen hogs all at once but second, and most important, I don’t think I could produce a quality product at my current ability level. So we usually run a batch of four pigs, three times/year. Does that seem like too few? It’s just the right number for our interest, ability, equipment and market. And, fortunately, that’s a lesson we didn’t have to learn the hard way, short of a half of a hog my folks bought for the processing cost after the customer evaporated.
But it’s not just a matter of working to meet customer time preference, it’s also about minimizing our distractions so we can serve you better. Let’s face the facts. If I didn’t have a job, we wouldn’t have a farm. That’s the awful truth. So we have to build the farm around Julie and the kids. What can they manage well? Right now we are focusing on dairy, eggs and pork, keeping each operation small. There are beef cattle on pasture but I manage them almost entirely. The rabbits are gone. The goats are gone. I miss the turkeys. We are focusing on just those three things: the best possible milk for our own table AND fat, healthy calves. The very best egg in the world from fat, healthy birds. Pork the likes of which you have never tasted from animals that are respected and live with purpose. Outside of those three we are educating our children, reclaiming our farm from overgrowth, heating our home with wood, putting up winter stores of food and hay, gardening and playing tag. And we can’t overlook the need for Julie and I to maintain our marriage. That’s more than just saying, “Hi” and kissing goodnight. There has to be time for us to rediscover each other as people. My marriage may seem unrelated to my chicken eggs but you have to know that there wouldn’t be any eggs to sell if my marriage failed.
I miss having them but there are no turkeys or goats or rabbits this year. We just don’t have the time. As we learn to do a few things well we will become more efficient…streamlined and that will open up additional opportunities on our farm. How many pigs did Salatin raise last year? A lot. How many pigs did Salatin raise in 1995? Eight. (Read under the heading “Hogs for Free”). You want to grow up to be just like Joel Salatin? Start small. And he didn’t just have pigs for the sake of having pigs. He had a job for them to do then he built a market for his products over time. We are taking our time. Our skill is growing. Our market is growing. We are careful not to allow ambition to overrun marketing and husbandry. We want to provide the best for you, ensure the best for our family and do so by limiting growth while we continue to learn.
Does this apply even if you live in town? I hope it does. What are you doing with your time? Are you really working toward your goals or are you just trying to keep up? Or, worse, are you just keeping busy? We have scaled back to move forward. Together.