Too Big to Succeed

This is in response to comments I got on my recent post titled “How Much Could you Make?”  Based on comments, my readers saw me as moping because my marketing skills aren’t where I would like them to be.  I suspect they are right, though I hope I wasn’t moping.  I was trying to say it’s tempting to expand and dive into any number of activities before I’m skillful at any of them.  Marketing is pretty far up on the list of things I need to improve but it’s more than just that.

My dad recently asked, “Why don’t you get some more layers?  That’s money you make every day.”  First, I appreciate my dad asking me questions. He’s not questioning my judgement, he sees an opportunity and wants to help me succeed.  He’s encouraging me to grow.

I think the layers are a good example of why I’m reluctant to grow.  A few layers are easy to keep.  A small home flock eats your kitchen scraps, weeds, bugs, etc. and gives you enough eggs to keep your kitchen hopping.  They are entertaining in the extreme.  Your only role is to ensure they have water, shelter and protection from everything that walks.  With a small flock the needs of the chickens are few.  Now.  Let’s shift gears.  Let’s go from three birds up to 300 birds.   Now you need in the neighborhood of 10 pounds of feed every day.  Now you need a much larger shelter.  Now you could lose a bird a night for a week and not notice it…that’s bad.

Each night we gather or 30 or so eggs in a basket.

We bring that basket in the house and set it on the buffet.  When two baskets are full we set out 5 or 6 egg cartons, sort and clean each egg by hand and label them for sale.  We get somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 dozen eggs each week in the summer, 8-10 in the winter.  We try to put an americauna egg in the front right of every box.  Blue eggs really freak people out sometimes.

While I agree we don’t get enough eggs, that’s where we are now.  My house holds 50 birds.  That’s it.  It’s a portable house.  I can’t build an addition onto it.  In the winter we house our flock in the greenhouse.  I can only fit so many birds in that greenhouse.  My infrastructure (or lack thereof) dictates my scale.

But my scale is also dictated by other factors.  There are only so many eggs I can lug up the hill in baskets.  Only so many eggs I can handle, clean and pack.  There are only so many hours in a day.  I’m nearing the ceiling for my skill level, my children’s ability to help at their age and my availability outside of employment.

It’s that last one that hurts the most.  I’m not even making enough money to pay the very modest farm payment, let alone live on.  I have to find a way to bridge the gap somehow.  At this time, we’re adding to our list of products using seasonality on our side.  But, as several commenters pointed out, I need to gain more exposure through everything from farmers markets to Facebook.  I just have to get out there.  But to get out there I have to have something to sell.  Now we’re back to the beginning.

It is a lot to think about.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s a lot of time invested in a helpless, tasty little bird with a narrow profit margin when my time is factored in (and I’d rather do nothing for nothing).  But it’s exposure.  Customers want eggs.

You see where I’m at here?  I need to grow knowing that not all growth is good.  I don’t want to overextend myself but have to do something to move forward.  I could quickly become too big to succeed complete with sick animals, neglected children and a failing marriage.  I’m using my time, putting my assets at risk and trying to anticipate customer needs.  I have to tread carefully.

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How Much Could You Make?

“How much money could you make doing this? ”

Oh, golly.  The sky is the limit on could.  Ask a more direct question.

“How much money do you make doing this?”

Well.  Yeah.  You see…we…um…not much.  I see the potential.  I know the market is there.  I just have a hard time introducing myself to that market.   We’re learning every day but we’re still in school.

You can do the math.  We raised 900 birds on a little over an acre to an average of 5 pounds dressed.  4500 pounds of chicken sold at a minimum of $3/pound.  Chicken feed isn’t free.  Chicks aren’t free.  Electric netting isn’t free.  Land isn’t free.  My time is worth something.  So, we come out a little ahead on our season but we’re not getting rich.

We do better with pigs.  Pigs need our attention for about 2 minutes/day, every day for 4 or 5 months.  Then we load them into a trailer (which can be hilarious frustrating interesting) and send them to town.  We have annual pig revenues in the hundreds of dollars.  Yup.

We’re small.  Many of the things we do are just first efforts.  We are still learning what works here.  Yes, I have read Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$: Net $25,000 in 6 months on 20 acres.  My copy is pretty worn.  Yes I have 20 acres.  Yes I raise poultry.  Yes, I have studied the 40 pages in that book on marketing.  I agree with Salatin that sales are driven less by advertising and more by word of mouth.  We have a superior product.  Our customer feedback is positive.  It just takes time to build sales…to get your name out there.  This is our third year raising chicken and we are taking it slowly.  We have to.  It would be very easy to outstrip our sales with production.  While we have always sold out on chicken and pork there is more than just numbers involved.  We have to find ways to get the work done.  Just doing the work is tiring.  We could raise more chicken but when?  I have no doubt we could raise more pigs but I don’t know how many more.  We need time to figure it out.

Could I make my farm payment from the farm?  No doubt.  Could I make a living by farming alone?  I don’t know.  I suspect I could but I need more time.  Time to learn.  Time to market.  Time to figure out what works.  Time to try new things.  Time to grow.

I have to learn about pasture management.  I have to learn about seasonal changes, annual changes, multi-year drought management, low-stress livestock handling, water management, nutrient cycling, winter stockpile management, managing differences between North-facing slopes and South-facing slopes….you see where this is going?  Orcharding, aquaculture, growing and marketing vegetables…on and on.  It takes time to learn/try/recover from each.  Time is not on my side but I have to resist the temptation to force something to happen.  It has to grow.  We have to move slowly.

Farming is a biological process.  Biological processes take time.  I could present you a business model that shows $X over X years but it would not be honest.  There is a lot of work to do.  There is a lot to learn.  Things take time.  You better get started now.