A fundamental change in how we do things here

It’s been quiet on the blog the past few weeks. That’s because we’ve been doing some soul searching and deciding what it is we do around here, and how we want to do it going forward. We’ve now decided, and have started taking action so it’s time to talk about it. As always, I try to be open and honest about what we do and why with everyone so here you go.

For those of you who’ve been on a tour, you know that we handle a tremendous amount of produce here every day. On average, we handle about 20,000 pounds of produce daily. That’s 7 million pounds of produce annually!

The produce has to be picked up at the farmers market, hauled back here, sorted, cleaned, and fed. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Christmas. Easter. Rain. Shine.

We routinely employ two people full time, plus various people part time, just to handle all of the produce. Most of the produce goes to feed our pigs, about 85% of it. The rest is used for compost. Produce was never our business plan, it is something that we accidentally started and have continued since 2014 because there was a need, and because it produced such a dramatically different product. But there is not, and never was, a business case for produce fed pork. We only charge the same price as pastured pork which is about 1/100th of the work involved.

If I look at the sales on our farm so far this past year, I can break down the major categories. Beef, chicken, dairy, pork.

Beef accounts for a little better than 29% of our sales.
Pork accounts for 25% of our sales.
Chicken at 17%
Dairy at 14%.

These four categories account for 85% of our total sales. However, pork, and the produce that we handle for it, account for 90% of our labor. 25% of the sales, 90% of the labor. We know we have a problem.

Part of the problem is that we are overstocked on hogs. Several years back, we had an order from a wholesale customer who went out of business before we could deliver the order. This left us with 135 pigs on the ground going into the winter of 2015/2016. By winter of 2016/2017 we’d whittled that number down to 95. We did this by selling some wholesale, doing lots of samples for wholesale customers (read: Give it away), continuing to move pork through our store, bringing in new pork products (hot dogs anyone?) etc. Basically we did everything we could to move pork, in every market. But we’ve been unable to reduce our numbers enough to get back where we needed to be, with enough hogs to supply our store.

I was unaware of any market where a small producer like myself could take hogs and just sell them live, so we were left with Craigslist and our retail store. This has been inefficient, time consuming, and frustrating. I don’t enjoy dealing with Craigslist people and pigs. For some reason I don’t understand, they are a bad combination. They routinely don’t meet their commitments and it’s hit and miss on whether they show up. They are sketchy at best and infuriating at worst. I don’t look forward to selling hogs.

It takes us about 8 months to produce a market weight hog. It takes us about 40 hogs per year to supply the store and what wholesale business we do, which isn’t much. For those of you who are good at math, it’s obvious it doesn’t take 95 hogs to supply 40 in a year, especially when I can produce new hogs in just over 1/2 of a year.

Fortunately I’ve learned there actually is (and was) a market in NC where I can take hogs and sell them as I do cows, goats, sheep, or anything else that farmers raise. This has always been one big downside to dealing with hogs, one I’ve heard other farmers complain about. No sale barn.

But no more. Thanks to Barrett at Dean Street Processing, who clued me in, I now know where to take my extra hogs so I can finally have the number I want to have, not the number that I happen to have.

We’ve worked exceptionally hard to develop our relationships with our produce farmers. We’ve worked hard on our wholesale relationships. We’ve worked hard to move more hogs through retail and wholesale. But as of Monday morning this week, we’ve begun to simply sell off our hogs ┬áto the wholesale hog market and reduce our head count to a manageable number which will be about 40 hogs total.

Truck and trailer loaded with hogs
Our big trailer, loaded with hogs for the market

However taking our hogs to market is a huge blow to our farm as we are selling hogs for literally pennies on the dollar. These are hogs that we’ve raised and fed for over a year and a half in most cases. We have a lot of sweat and effort in making these the best hogs there are, period. But sometimes you have to make the hard decisions, take your lumps, and move on.

Hogs in the trailer, ready to go to market.
Hogs in the trailer, ready to go to market.

Monday I took 19 hogs to the market. They weighed 7030 pounds all combined. That’s an average of 370 pounds each. These are huge hogs. Beyond what is efficient. Beyond what is practical. Beyond what will bring any kind of decent money at the market. But these are also pigs that eat some serious food. Kinda like:

Next Monday we will take another trailer load of hogs, with probably another 7000 pounds of pork moving out of here with one final load maybe later in the week. That should pull about 16,000 pounds of pigs off of our farm in a little over two weeks. That’s a significant reduction in head count and an even bigger reduction in pounds. Our plan for the future is to grow our hogs to about 250 pounds maximum, with a range of hogs from 15 pounds all the way through to market weight.

If you take the 95 hogs we had and assume an average weight of 300 pounds that means we had 28,500 pounds of hogs here to feed every day.

If we get to 40 hogs, with an average weight of 140 pounds, that means that we have 5,600 pounds of hogs to feed every day. This means an 80% reduction in our pig operation if you go by weight vs. head count. I don’t care what you are measuring, 80% is significant. However, cutting our numbers to an appropriate level and moving forward will allow us to do a few things.

  1. We will be cutting off some of our farmers at the farmers market. It’s not fun, and they won’t be happy because we are a service to them, but it will allow us to start making one trip per day instead of as many as four some days.
  2. We will be able to get our time back for actual farm work. We are so busy running up and down the road, loading and unloading trucks, that we don’t have time to do the things that need to be done around here. I have items on the to do list that have been there for over a year that we simply never have time to address. That list is going to start shrinking.
  3. This place smells like a pig farm. It’s not the pigs fault. We have too many pigs, on land that has had pigs for too long. We have nine pig paddocks on this farm in total. The best we’ve done to let a paddock rest in the past few years is have only seven in use at once and that was only for a week or so. With 40 pigs, we will have only four in use at once, with five resting and recovering. This will effectively eliminate the smell we (and you) have lived with the past few years.
  4. When pigs stay on land too long, they begin to erode the soil. We work so hard to build our pasture soil, and then right beside it we have pigs wallowing in the mud. While we’ll still allow them to have some mud, we will do it in a way that builds soil instead of eroding it. This means the entire farm will be building soil, not just parts of it. This better fits in with what we want to be doing with our farm.
  5. We will concentrate our pig operation away from the store and the house. By having our pigs located on the edge of our property, we combine the operation and move any now much smaller effects away from the store and our home.
  6. We’ve seen that events are a popular thing to have at our farm. We get requests to host weddings, have beer tastings, food truck rodeos, host farm organization events, etc. It’s fairly common that someone either suggests, or actually inquires directly about hosting an event. I pretty much turn them all down. The farm isn’t up to the standard I feel comfortable with to charge someone for an event and the pigs and produce are a large part of why. We can do a lot of good for the community and for our operation by having more events. We are going to do more once we get things in order this fall.
  7. We get a ton of new customers here, but the percentage that stay as repeat customers is fairly small. This is normal in our industry as people drift back to Harris Teeter but I think we can do better. Making a visit to our farm more pleasant will help bring people back. It’s always cheaper to bring a customer back than it is to bring in a new one.
  8. Lastly, and most importantly. I am going to see my kids more. I sold my company in 2015 because I wanted to spend more time with my kids. While 2017 has been a year of doing more with them than 2015-2016, 100% more than 1 is only 2. I was barely seeing them before and I’m only slightly better now. I routinely leave before they get up, stay gone all day, and see them at night. I may as well work a day job if I’m gone that much. Daddy, build me a bird house? Daddy, fix my bicycle? Forget it. I’m too busy. I’m awful proud of how these kids work on the farm, what they learn, and how we interact. But it’s too little and soon it’ll be too late. I’m going to spend more time with the kids and start doing some of the projects they want to do. That’s what this was all about when we started it. It’s time to refocus on what matters.

So in summary, we WILL have pork in the store. We will also have beef, hopefully even a little more of it as we’ll have more time to focus on the cows. We will also have more time to focus on the store itself as it really has become the heart of what we do here. We will hopefully be more of what you like about our farm, with less of what you don’t. In the meantime, if you see me heading down the road with the big trailer loaded with pigs, you know what I’m up to.

8 Replies to “A fundamental change in how we do things here”

  1. Sounds like a good decision for all the right reasons! Will always be a “repeat” customer and will continue to send people your way! Love everything about the way to do business!!

  2. Congratulations, Dan. Every business, as you know, sometimes requires the tough decisions to be made. As tough as they are, it sounds like you are making the right decisions — for your farm, your family and yourself. All the best from a loyal customer.

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