NOTE: The below article was first done for a presentation I shared at a local Weston Price meeting.
There is a growing demand for local and sustainable grown food, especially purchased directly from the farmer. Thankfully small, family based farms are stepping up to the challenge to provide exactly what consumers desire and bringing back a farming style that in recent years has slowly disappeared and been replaced by large mono-culture farms that have overtaken the country side.
While there is great joy in purchasing food, especially nutrient dense food, directly from local farmers, a disconnect happened during the years as large agriculture farms have dominated the scene. Too many consumers have stepped completely away from any knowledge or understanding of what it takes to grow and raise food. Perhaps, depending on their viewpoint, it’s not important that a consumer has basic understanding of what is involved in getting food to their table. It does become important, however, when consumers see a more expensive price tag on the food and don’t recognize why the price is higher than food at the local grocery store or even co-op.
Small, family based farms are faced with major challenges. An ongoing issue that always affects a farmers business either for the positive or negative is weather. In more recent years climate change is playing a more critical role in the success of a farm. The weather in Minnesota over the last several years has caused great difficulty through-out the state after many farmers had crops that didn’t successfully grow or the extreme weather has taken it’s toll on the health of their animals. Three years ago there were extremely warm temperatures and drought, then a very dry winter, only to be followed by a spring of extreme rain and then below average temperatures during the summer with drought conditions once again. This last winter isn’t far enough from memory for most to realize how difficult the extreme cold was, along with how much snow we had. A number of farmers I spoke with through the winter saw significant animal losses along with their increased feed costs, because animals eat more the colder it is to help their bodies stay warm. Because of the previous summer’s drought, there was a hay shortage. And much of what was available was of lower quality.
Outside of weather, newer issues facing farmers are all the law changes. This covers the gamut from health insurance, which can be a major challenge for a farmer who wants to be sustainable on his farm and not have to have a 2nd job to have insurance coverage, to the laws that dictate what a farmer can and can not sell, where they can sell, when they can sell, what they have to do in order to sell and so forth. Additionally, there are a variety of certification issues, for instance, being certified organic, that can keep a farmer covered in a pile of paper work.
Beyond that small family farms have to compete with prices put out by box store corporations and even with co-ops, despite the fact that their product far surpasses quality of their large store competitors. There are many reasons why large, especially large corporate based farms, can offer food for cheaper. To just begin to scratch the surface of that topic would need many more pages of writing and would be best handled as it’s own topic.
To help each reader get a small glimpse of what financially can go into providing real food to consumers we are first going to look at some of the financial challenges that face a small farm. We can’t cover all that cost that goes into farming, however we can get a basic idea of where our dollars go when we support our local farms.
To get the brain thinking outside of it’s consumer box, lets consider what it would be like to start a small egg business. This will give us a very generalized idea of why local, free-range, organic eggs cost what they do and also, truthfully, why they should cost more.
So, without further ado….
Welcome to the Weston Price Chicken Farm!
We are going to raise 100 chickens for eggs to sell and will start with day old baby chicks which we’ll raise. Some farmers choose to purchase pullets, these are young hens around 17 weeks of age who are just beginning to lay, but because we can’t control how those pullets were raised, what they were fed and so forth, that isn’t suitable for our desire to raise a free-range flock that forages for at least some of their food. Remember, we don’t just want any old egg that a grocery store could sell. We want nutrient dense eggs from hens that have been raised as naturally as possible.
What do you think our cost will be? Can we make a profit selling our eggs for $5 a dozen? Lets have a look at some of the most basic costs.
First, we have to get our chicks.
(-) 100 chicks @ $3 each = $300 Depending on breed, chicks can cost between $2-$7, each. True heritage breeds are often more expensive and closer to the $6 – $7 range per chick. We are also basing this number on the fact that we are purchasing chicks that are sexed. This means we are only going to get females and no males. Buying a pre-sexed flock has its plusses and minuses.
(-) 25lbs feed x 100 chickens = $1250 Chickens don’t start laying eggs until they are 6-8 months old. We are going to estimate that we’ll feed 25 lbs of feed during that time to each chicken. A full grown chicken eats an average of 1/3 lb of feed per day, per feed company recommendations. This can vary depending on how much the chicken is able to forage for food. The average cost of organic feed is $25 in MN, but can range from $20 – $40 per 50 lbs when purchasing a pre-mixed feed. One way farmers can “save” money is make their own feed, especially if they are able to grow it directly on their farm. However, growing your own feed has a decent amount of expense on it’s own, like the cost of machinery to plant and harvest. Or the cost of help to harvest plant and harvest the old school way… by hand.
We haven’t factored in bedding, housing, watering, heating for young chicks and so forth to get chicks to the laying stage. However, you can see we’ve already spent $1550 to just get them old enough to lay us an egg and an average of 7 months of time and effort have gone by without any money coming in and not a single delicious egg to enjoy. Hopefully our flock isn’t reaching egg laying stage at the start of winter or we possibly have another couple of months to wait for our first eggs.
A bit on housing expenses: Housing can vary in price, but for a flock of 100 we would want at least 500 sqft. for their enclosure space. If they weren’t free ranging during the day, then we’d want quite a bit more than a total 500 sqft. of space. Because there are too many factors to consider for housing cost, we aren’t even going to touch on the subject, but just know there can be some major expenses there.
The girls are old enough to lay, hurray! Now what are our costs?
Okay, so now our flock is old enough to lay eggs. The first eggs are smaller than average and are called pullet eggs. Four our illustration purposes we will just assume normal (large) eggs from the beginning. Our eggs are going for $5 a dozen. Now to rake in the cash… or maybe not.
100 chickens will lay an average of 70-80 eggs a day. Because of breaking, irregular eggs or any of the other number of reasons an eggs can’t be sold we’ll base our 100 hens giving us 6 dozen (72 eggs) a day.
(+) 6-dozen eggs @ $5 = $30 Here’s our starting point. Assuming we sell all of our eggs we will bring in $30 each day, BUT that has to cover our expenses. Also, there are many times that a farmer doesn’t sell all their eggs. It can really vary.
(-) 1/3 lb feed per chicken = $16.5 Basing this on $25 for a 50lbs bag of organic feed. A flock of 100 chickens will eat about 33lbs of feed a day. 1 lb of feed is $0.50. The more the flock is encouraged to free-range the lower the amount this will be, BUT depending on how the flock free-range preditors can increase the cost as they take their portion of the flock for filling their bellies.
Our profit is now down to $13.5 ($30 – $16.5) and all we’ve done is given our flock some feed. What else do we need?
(-) 6 egg cartons @ $0.35 = $2.10 We need cartons to sell our eggs in. We are going to buy new, which is what many farmers do. By law we also must have our eggs labeled with our address and date. On the cheep side if we purchase cartons in large quantities we can get cartons for around $0.35 with a label on it. Smaller egg producers can spend as much as $1.50 per egg carton when purchasing in smaller quantities or from local stores.
(-) $2 for misc. items needed There are all sort of misc. items a flock needs over the course of a month. Bedding, oyster shells (for extra calcium), grit, apple cider vinegar (if the farmer can afford it) and electricity to name a couple of items. We are going to average this out to $2 a day.
Okay, where are we at now for profit? We were left at $13.50 and now need to take away $2.10for cartons and $2 for miscellaneous items needed. This leaves us at $9.40 per day in “profit”. We still haven’t factored in all the time it takes to take care of our flock, clean and package eggs deliver eggs (and the gas money that takes). What about the work our chicken coop needs or just the fact that is has to be built. Often fencing of some sort is needed, even for a free range flock and a tractor if we are moving them to different locations. We have to pick-up feed or pay for it to be delivered. The list goes on and on for things that we need and need to do. Then we need to consider taxes, the government likes their portion of our “profit” too and insurance. It’s wise for a farmer to keep some type of product liability insurance. If we were going to sell our eggs at a farmer’s market we’d also have a fee to pay.
And we still aren’t done! Did you know chickens don’t lay eggs year around, at least not in MN! As the days shorten and get colder production slows down and can completely stop by December. It’s not uncommon for hens to not begin to lay again until end of February to mid-March. During those cold, dark days our flock also needs more food to help keep themselves warm. It’s also helpful to have alternative feed like alfalfa or fresh veggies to help keep the flock healthy since they can’t free-range. Bedding cost goes up since the flock is stuck indoors for a good portion of the time. We need to do things to winterize our coop, like getting water heaters to keep water from freezing and putting up additional shelter to keep the flock protected from the cold. Larger farmers can get around the no winter egg laying by controlling the “day light” for the chickens by turning on lights early in the day and leaving them on into the evening. This tricks the chickens into thinking the days are longer and encourages them to continue to lay, BUT this is not natural for the chicken. Like many dairy farmers who dry up (stop milking) their animals when pregnant or to allow them to have some time off from milking, so their bodies can rebuild their minerals, the same thing goes for chickens. It’s not a bad idea to let them have some time off from laying. Chickens have been bred to lay as the do, they haven’t always laid eggs for no reason other than to give us food! J It’s wise to let their bodies have a break if that is what they would do naturally. Beyond winter molting season can also find hens not laying eggs. This usual happens mid-summer through fall. Prime egg laying time! It can be a great discouragement when you have all these beautiful eggs to sell during the lush growing season only to have the hens stop laying eggs because they are molting. (Molting is when the chicken replaces all of it’s feathers with new ones. It requires a lot from the chicken’s body to do this and often leaves hens not laying eggs.)
Okay, back to our chicken farm. It would be nice to make even minimum wage for all this hard work that goes year round with no vacation time.
(-) 1.5 hours/day x $5.25 = $7.88 $5.25 is the current minimum wage for MN. We only have $9.40 left over from above and remember that really didn’t cover even close to all of our expenses. Nor did it factor in the cost of purchasing our chicks and raising them up to the age that they can lay.
We now have $1.52 left over…. Although not really.
Taking just a bit closer look at our flock.
Our chickens should live for an average of 5-8 years if they are free-ranging and are well taken care of. So, the following years we won’t have certain start-up expenses. However, a true free-range flock has it’s problems with predators. Just ask any farmer who raises a truly free-range flock. Those darn predators. Talk about an annoyance! Just when you think you have enough laying hens to meet your customer demand, there they go off to fill another animals belly. Chicken is on EVERYONE’S menu. No matter where you look it seems something is trying to kill a chicken some days. At Artistta Homestead we’ve had hawks fly down 5 feet in front of us and take chickens. In the last week we’ve lost at least 7 chicks/chickens to hawks which called for us to take more active steps to better protect our flock near our coop. It’s not as simple of an issue to resolve as one might think. There is also the issue of illness. We want to keep our flock healthy, but sickness can and does come and you can loose some of the flock to it. This is also an issue we’ve had some problems with at Artistta Homestead and a lot of time and also money can go into figuring out what the source of the problem is and correcting it.
Summing up the egg business.
So, would you choose to sell eggs? Is it worth the effort and expense to you? Does $5 for chicken eggs seem a little less expensive now that you have a small glimpse into some of the cost it takes to get those eggs to the kitchen table? To make it a sustainable business the flock has to grow. It’s difficult to keep a small flock and make any type of profit. As a consumer we like the idea of the small family farm with happy hens pecking away. It’s not that it can’t be done. It can and it is, but will likely be just one part of a farmer’s business.
Beyond the money.
Money is just one aspect of farming. A huge and very important one, but another element to consider is the toll farming can actually take on the farmer. When we moved to our homestead and told our family that we were going to start raising animals and growing our own food, with the hopes in the future to sell some of what we produced it wasn’t exactly thrill and excitement we saw on some of our family members faces. My husband’s parents both grew up on Iowa family farms. They saw the struggle their parents went through to provide for their families and I don’t believe they were eager to see us enter back into a life they had worked hard to leave. They saw my husband with his college education going to work in the more modern traditional sense and earning his income that way. Trying to make money at farming or homesteading…
Until recently, I don’t think I fully understood their perspective. How could I? I had no idea how much work it would take to provide food for just our own family, let alone consider trying to sell it to others. To say that there is a MASSIVE learning curve needed would be no exaggeration! I am not one to shy away from work. Frankly I thrive on it. Just ask my husband, but truly the work is endless and there is rarely a break from it, especially if you raise animals. It’s year round, night and day, sun, snow, rain. It can be glorious if you like to be outside, as I do, but it gets hard too. If you add into that illness of any sort and/or major tragedy, it can become a life that’s not worth it.
How can one not ask themselves, “why am I doing this” at that point. We all get tired. We all get worn down. We live in a country that thrives on the idea of a vacation, but check with your local farmers and see when their last vacation was. Even if they could afford it, their farm may not allow them the time to actually step away from it. If you go on a trip and have a dog you may consider having the dog stay somewhere else or have a dog sitter come in. Now imagine having a herd of cattle, a flock of chickens, dairy animals to milk. You can’t necessarily call the high schooler down the street to come take care of them while you head to Florida for some R & R.
Desiree Nelson from Nelson Grass Farm was kind enough to take some time and share a bit of what it takes for her family to farm. Read below and step into her shoes and see if you think you could do it.
The hardest thing about farming for us, and something we didn’t plan on, is how little time Ryan and I spend together since starting our own farm. Prior to our own farm, we managed a sheep farm together for 6 years. We worked side by side, brought our daughter to work with us, so all that time working we spent together as a family. We didn’t need home time and weekend time to get caught up on together time. That is one of the main reasons we decided to start our own farm. That is the lifestyle we wanted for our family. That is not how it is right now. Currently Ryan works a full-time job with overtime, and a part-time job. His jobs give us very nice insurance (something we have not had since I worked at the University of MN), provide our living and support our growing business –the farm. (To be clear, support does not mean we do not make a profit, there is capital investments that are needed to continue to farm and grow the business) He does the main farm chores each morning before he goes to work, unless he is working a double shift and then I try to get chores done before the kids are up. A majority of the days Ryan is not home for supper. I do the other farm stuff throughout the day; collecting and cleaning eggs, moving electric net fence that didn’t get done in the morning, filling supplies out in the pasture, being another set of eyes on the animals, and other basic husbandry and management. I also do the marketing, advertising, communications, web design and maintenance, social networking (except Ryan is the Twitter guy currently), feed ordering, research and development and the other departments needed to run a business. And muddling through regulations to sell food directly to the consumer and having your ducks in a row for this is a job in itself. Outside farming I have some part-time work from home, on-call work for the local public school, along with my home, yard, vegetable garden and motherly duties. Holidays and weekends are times to get caught up on farm projects in between other scheduled events (or “leisure time” ha ha). Ryan fortunately has a job with holidays and weekends off.
We did not start farming this way, initially Ryan was going to work part-time and do custom work for hire which would offer flexibility for farming. This proved to be too unstable in providing a living for us. BUT, we choose this. We both knew starting a business (any business) is hard work, sacrifices are made along the way, and it is only in the beginning. So the success of Nelson Grass Farm depends on how long our family can withstand the hardships in the beginning, and how long it takes to go big. Because that is when Ryan can quit his full-time job, which is the goal of our farm.
Stephanie Schneider with Together Farms was also kind enough to take some time and share some of her thoughts on farming with me. Below you can read a summary of some of her key points. She had so much more to share, but I decided to keep it to some of the more prominent points. If you ever have an opportunity, talk to Stephanie. She and her husband have learned a lot since starting their farm business. The same goes for Denise and her husband. I learn more every time we talk and I so appreciate the knowledge both of these women pass on.
What should a consumer know about starting a farm? It can be really, really hard. From the start you first have to find a farm. If you are within commuting distance to a major city (which you want to be, of course, because of marketing and sales) then you can’t afford it. Or, all you can afford is a couple of acres with a small home or trailer and then you can’t raise cattle and gain enough cash flow because of lack of space, so instead you’ll have to focus on a vegetable CSA or something along that line.
If you don’t have a lot of cash on hand finding an affordable farm is difficult. Down in Dane county (WI) a dairy farm just paid $17,000 an acre. You basically have two options if you don’t want to build a house or don’t have one you are bringing along:
· When grandma and grandpa died the kids sold all the farm land to the nearest industrial farm meaning you get a hobby farm that consists of the house and a couple acre lawn – typically the shape of a square because that’s the easiest for the big tractors.
Downside: You probably can’t make your living off the land and you now have what’s probably an old, big, (inefficient) beautiful house that needs love (and probably has lots of mice in it.
Upside: The house probably doesn’t require renovations and is probably a good size. Might have a few established perennials (fruit trees) and some lilacs.
· The other option is a bunch of land and an amazingly crappy house and scary outbuildings. This is also probably really far away from any cities. The well is probably a sandpoint or really shallow and needs replacing.
Downside: Now you have to also cash flow financially and mentally (!) renovating a house that will undoubtedly have lots of surprises hidden beneath the surface. So far, in our house we’ve had: so many mice it’s impossible to count, snakes, frogs, toads, and an opossum.
Upside: Lots of land – so you have real potential for making a living off of it.
Basically if you want beautiful, livable and with enough land for you to make a living on raising livestock then you can’t afford it until someone you love dies or until you make a bunch of money doing something else – or you picked the right numbers or you find an investor (hopefully one that shares the same morals and values or it could get sticky). Note: It’s almost impossible to get a loan to buy a farm if you have no experience or collateral.
Once you have the farm you need equipment and finding affordable, reliable equipment requires trust and patience. You also need animals, which can be difficult unless you are wanting the standard breeds like Angus for beef or Yorkshire for pork. The name of the breed of animal replaces breed quality. “If it’s angus, it must be good.” For Together Farms we decided to raise White Parks based on the most amazing steak we ever had in a restaurant in Madison and because their traits matched what we were looking for. We also used the Slow Food Ark of Taste to help us decide on the breeds to raise (we don’t have time or cash to buy the animals, wait for them to be ready and then butcher them to find out if the final product is going to taste good – the Ark helps us quickly narrow down our choices). We also thought we may as well try to save some species by going off the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy list but then quickly realized we can’t afford to drive to VT to get a new boar and buying a plane was out of the question, so the final deciding factor was being able to find folks like us that were successfully growing breeds in similar (and nearby) environmental conditions.
Beyond finding the farm and raising animals, having children has it’s challenges when trying to start up a new farm business. My experience is that we should’ve waited to really dive into farming until our youngest was four and that’s my advice to anyone thinking about starting. (But, once you find the perfect place you also have to start growing because now you are invested and the bank would like their money back – bit of a catch 22.)
Things to consider with having a farm and raising young children are:
· Children younger than 4 need constant attention meaning one of you will always have to be with or by the children. Or, in my case, holding them.
· This also means if I’m gone to farmer’s markets on the weekend (yes, Saturday and Sunday, on top of a full time job) then my husband Andy can’t be very productive and remember, we are weekend warriors….huge setback that we did not appropriately plan for.
· On the one hand – we are doing all of this for them (have this farm in the future and work together as a family) and also to feed them, but on the other hand we are completely neglecting them because all free time is spent dealing with “fires” or trying to prevent them. My dreams of homeschooling are quickly vanishing and I’m hoping to make up for it with my grandchildren or when the girls are a little older and can really help with the farm.
Farming is expensive. It takes all of your money and then some. We have used all our retirement funds, savings accounts, etc. Which may seem ridiculous and short-sighted but I have a hard time trusting Wall Street, have seen that the average ROR on just a grassfed beef operation exceeds average stock market returns and then once you are fully invested and there is a bad streak of weather which makes you question what the heck you are doing (!) well, now you are way too invested to pull out (and too young)!! Waiting for the cash to flow can be hard. On just cattle it takes at least 3 years if you have to breed a heifer until you have an animal for butcher. For pigs and lambs it’s 1.5 years. Even after the animals are raised and ready for butchering we have to pay for processing and storage on top of cash flowing raising the rest of our animals and owning the farm stuff. We also have to have the product before we can try to sell it to wholesale accounts (co-ops, restaurants, etc) and before we can sell it retail (farmer’s markets, food routes, etc). Hmmmm…how much beef will I sell in 3 years…let me consult my crystal ball…..
Be ready for some serious time commitment, because farming takes all of it. In the summer we work outside from sun-up until sundown. This means supper at 9pm and you have less time with your children. Weekends are the time we get most of our work done because of full time jobs. Juggling all that there is to do, plus participating in farmers markets, which are also on weekends and an all day affair unto themselves, can leave us exhausted and questioning how to get it all done.
Weather always adds it’s own spin to our lives. We purchased the farm in fall of 2009. The previous “farmers” couldn’t get the crops out of the fields until May of 2010 because the fall was so wet. Because of this we are now a year behind where we wanted to be. Looking back, this probably should’ve been a big red flag. In the 2nd year we seeded down the fields and then promptly received deluges of rain that washed all the expensive seed away. This also caused our pond to overtop which created all kinds of “downstream” problems. And of course it seemed to only rain on the weekends, making things all the more difficult for us weekend warriors. In year 3 straight-line winds destroyed the only fencing that was complete which caused lots and lots and lots of problems and was a huge setback (pigs namely). That year was also a drought and we had another very difficult winter spending most of our time getting wood for our wood furnace instead of other tasks. The fourth year saw drought again and the highest hay prices ever. This was also the year of the worst winter ever. It redefined what a horrible winter really is. The bright side is that our animals survived! So, we must’ve chosen those correctly and must be caring for them correctly. The not so bright side is predation became a big problem by the end of winter and not all the animals survived that ordeal. But, because of that, we now have a llama! Just having a llama is also king of a bright side! Moving onto year five, I think it’s going to be amazing!!!!!
As farmers we have learned to wear MANY hats, some that we aren’t so keen on. We’ve become accountants, grass farmers (soil fertility, stand management, poisonous plants), animal farmers, marketers, owners, vet, consultant, salesman, tour guide, chef, butcher, mechanic, weather forecaster, logger, delivery driver, teacher, parent, day job worker bee, professional fence installer, animal handler/wrangler, psychologist (to keep the other person from going crazy), event planner and landscaper (farm needs to look good for events). This is a part of the process. You have to learn to go with the flow and be flexible, at least to some extent. This may also shed some light on why emails aren’t always immediately answered and food route info is sent out last minute, almost always. 🙂
On a final note, we do plan to retire early from our day jobs so we can fully support the farm but first need some markets to be established (this means we need your support!); we are hoping Andy can go to half time within 2 years and Stephanie within 5 years. We are also looking to have a kitchen on the farm within 5 years so we can bring more convenient product to market – I’m hoping to start some product testing ASAP so email me or come to the WAPF event in Lauderdale on Aug 9 to hear all about it (especially you crazy busy moms)!!
Wrapping it up.
While I’ve focused on the difficulties and struggles facing small farmers there are amazing benefits. To sit down to a meal that you know you’ve grown and/or raised and enjoy the fruits of your labor is a special reward that can’t be replicated in any other way. To see the joy as children enjoy the scrumptious, nutrient dense food that you know is helping keep them healthy is a blessing unto itself. To talk to customers and see how your food is transforming their lives and gain new relationships through a network of both consumers and producer, this makes all of it worthwhile. Small-scale farmers and homesteaders are some of the most passionate people I’ve met. They’ve chosen their lives and although those lives are far from perfect, they love it, at least most of the time. It’s where their heart is.
Talk to your farmers. Ask them how they do it. Learn about what it takes for them to get you your food. If you find out they aren’t actually making ends meet, then encourage them to raise their prices. It can be hard to even consider paying more for food. It’s already expensive and most of us live on a budget, often a very tight budget. Where are we going to get the money to pay for the increasing prices of food…? But, on the other hand, where are we going to find the farmers to raise and grow our food if they can’t afford to stay in business. We don’t only lose access to the food when a farmer goes out of business we also lose access to the knowledge that is passed on generation after generation. In one year, tens of years, hundreds of years, of knowledge can simply vanish with the farmer. This is no small deal. It’s the farmers in our area that have the most experience about what works and what doesn’t. No matter how many books you read, conferences and classes you attend, it takes direct experience to actually grow and raise nutrient dense food successfully. There are far too many variables that play a factor. No book or books (or internet) can replace direct knowledge from a farmer who is doing it. We want our farmers here to stay, we want their children following in their footsteps. For those of us who are consumer we want our children, our friend’s children, the next generation of consumers knowledgeable and all the more important, growing strong because they are eating the food that provides their bodies with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and strong.