I’ve been trying to write this piece for a couple of months now, and while some of the delay is just from traveling or being busy with other things on the farm…a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is kind of a delicate issue. It’s really important how you talk about it, and though I’ve tried here, I will have undoubtedly missed something or failed to explain an aspect of this topic. Please let me know what I’ve missed, and I’ll address it through our website’s “Edit” function. So what is this thing I want to talk about? Some call it fraud, some call it re-selling, some cynically call it farming and for some it’s viewed as necessary—a temporary means to a worthy end. Regardless of how one feels about it, I think the key component to consider for any of these definitions is honesty. You see, people come to market to purchase products in a place that provides a different experience, a different relationship with one’s food and those who produce it and for what people trust to be qualitatively different and better products. Though it has been discussed in some forums, I think that most people don’t realize how pervasive it is and just how often they’re being lied to.
Why does it matter? For one, it matters because many farmers at a given market are not there because it is a hobby or a side gig after their day job. On the contrary, these farmers are trying to make farming their livelihood, and selling at the market is a way for them to get their farm into the local scene, meet people and to get direct markets eating their products and, ideally, coming back for more. At the end of the day, anyone who is farming is running a business and none of them can afford to lose money. This is especially true for anyone choosing farming as their (attempted) career. It is a world full of narrow profit margins, intense and unrelenting work that comes with challenges and frustrations that rival any occupation out there. It’s exceptionally difficult to turn a profit, grow a farm and set one’s self and family up for the long-term. It becomes something intensely personal and in many ways all-consuming. So re-selling with ill intent is not something one can take lightly, nor should it be taken lightly. Even if someone is re-selling with the purest of intentions, they will often sell their product at a price that is so low it’s often lower than the cost of production. Wisconsin has a statute highlighting how such practice is illegal, but I digress…
For a fascinating look at what California is doing about this issue, check out the Modern Farmer article HERE.
In order to share my thoughts on the matter, I’ll use one of the markets we’ve sold at as an example, but know that by doing so I’m not trying to call that market, its staff, its vendors or its consumers out. I just need to be able to relate some truths to you in a way that is based in reality. So this market is not a “producer only” market that requires people selling goods there to be the producers themselves. This market does not require that everything you are selling has been produced by *you*. The rules, as stated, allow for 25% of your products/sales (probably impossible to truly enforce) to be products that you buy-in from somewhere else—ideally another farm. It is a good market, in a community that strongly supports the market, it has a good management team and as with many markets across the state, it is a mixture of craft vendors, farmers, and other businesses.
Now, some people might wonder why any market would be “producer only”. That’s a fair question. My thoughts are that when a market does this, they are letting all of its customers know that when they buy something, they are dealing directly with the person who made it. This is important if you’re wanting to cultivate relationships between producers and their consumers, and people should also realize that it’s not easy for the producers to be at the market week in and week out. The farm doesn’t stop while they are away. It’s also important for consumers because questions can be answered directly by the producer. It’s a lot like going to Napa Valley (or even better, Sonoma/Russian River) and you go into an establishment to try some wine. Would you prefer to deal with someone who works there a few days a week and knows very little beyond tasting notes, or would you appreciate getting your wine poured by the person who planted the grapes, directed and participated in the care and harvest of the crop, selected the finest grapes for the finest wines and then made an array of products for you to taste, judge and hopefully purchase? We all know the answer to that. Well, unless the owner-operator is a real jerk and has a light pour 🙂
More importantly, and this is really what I’m writing about here, why would a market allow producers to sell products that are not their own? I think there are ways to do this that are straightforward and honest, and those ways hinge on clear labeling and enforcement of a markets’ rules, which are hopefully clearly defined and easy to enforce should the need to do so arise. In this light, there are different categories of vendors that I have experienced over the years, and if any of these descriptions resemble you, it is just a coincidence.
Vendor A: This vendor is a farmer. The vast majority of what he or she brings to market is something they’ve grown/made on their farm. They have likely maxed out their current potential at offering an array of products that will grab the attention of passers-by, so in order to increase what’s available at their stand, they buy something from another farm that they know will be popular. Let’s say they purchase fruit because people love fruit and this vendor doesn’t grow fruit. This works out for the fruit farm that may not be at a market, or it gives them access to a retail price when they’re used to wholesale price. This works for Vendor A because now they have fruit to complement everything else. This vendor will then label the fruit accordingly (i.e. Strawberries from Hill Farm!) and not pretend that he or she had anything to do with their production. There may, in fact, be more than one product from another farm that they sell, but the vast majority of what they sell is their own. This is important.
Vendor B: This vendor is a part-time farmer. What he or she brings to market is a mix of things that they have grown/made on their farm and an array of other products that were produced somewhere else. Their potential for producing a wide selection of products for customers is limited due to the fact that they farm part-time, so in order to increase what’s available at their stand, they buy a *lot* of things from another farm, group of farms or possibly even a food auction. There are many different variations on this kind of vendor. Some will label everything that isn’t theirs, some will not. Some will source only from other farms, some will not. Some will source from a food auction (there are several in Wisconsin) and buy pallets of products at a pallet price. I like being optimistic, so for this example we’ll say that our farmer grows some vegetables and then buys out-of-season vegetables, eggs and meat to compliment their offering. We’ll also say that Vendor B labels *everything* so that customers know that the majority of what’s being sold was grown by someone else, somewhere else. I should add that this vendor is often growing their farm operation, and that is not an easy thing to do. Re-selling other items can help a vendor doing this because they get to build their brand by being at the market and make a little more money that can go to growing their farm. In reality, this vendor is the one who will elicit the most questions.
Vendor C: This vendor doesn’t farm. What he or she brings to market is only what they’ve bought from other farms, a food auction, or maybe even the local grocery store. They may play the part of farmer, and they may even have a business that has a real farmy name. They may be the nicest person around, but ultimately they are simply there to take advantage of people who are paying what is sometimes a higher price for qualitatively better produce, meat, eggs, fruit, etc. They do not label anything in any sort of informative or meaningful way. They simply aggregate products, mark them up and sell them to you at a nice profit for their work…considering they did next to nothing. In case you’re wondering, yes I resent these sorts of operations a bit and precisely because of the hard work that is put into providing good food for people, which is consistently undervalued. Did you know that there are “CSA” (Community Supported Agriculture) programs popping up that use the term CSA, behave like a CSA but the only thing they have in common with an actual CSA are those three letters. Some might applaud their innovation, but it’s really kind of adding insult to injury when you purchase produce at the lowest price you can get and then turn around and sell it at the highest price you can get whilst pretending that you and the producer are one and the same. There *are* aggregators who serve as a sort of hub for other farmers, and they are usually very clear about who they are and what they’re doing. This is very different from what I’m trying to speak to here.
So, how do you know who is who? Here are a few suggestions:
– Look at the price. In Wisconsin, as I type this, it is -10F outside. This weekend people will go to farmers markets across the state and people will be there selling things like spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, salad mix, etc. It’s entirely possible that people are producing these things, though a few are very unlikely. In order to do so, you’d need a heated greenhouse at a minimum. That means that the cost to produce those items has gone up. Some of these products are very delicate as well, and they are very susceptible to the cold. So, for starters, cheap salad mix is a dead giveaway. You’d think that producers looking to take advantage of you would at least charge the higher price and take *full* advantage of what prices spinach and other greens can command when everything outside is frozen solid.
– Know how produce is grown, at least a little bit. Let’s start with products that require pollination. For example, a zucchini offered during the cold winter months means that a producer has a heated greenhouse with air and soil temps above 70F for ideal conditions (and why grow them if you can’t have ideal conditions?), the plants were started 40-50 days ago (so if you see any this weekend, that means early December) *and* the plants would require hand pollination since the insects that pollinate have long since clustered up for the winter (and many won’t leave the nest/hive until temperatures are above 50F). Hand pollination can be done, but it adds to the labor equation. Cheap zucchini in February? BUSTED. Tomatoes are similar in that they need a lot of heat, and they would require a heated greenhouse to not perish. The amount of time it takes to grow a tomato plant is quite extensive compared to something like greens (fruiting takes around 60 days after transplanting for the fastest, cool-weather varieties), so you’re heating that greenhouse for a very long time to get fruit. Peppers, again, would require a significant amount of heat (85F is optimum for germination, 60-75F for growing and below 50F plants will have big issues with ripening), they would require a great deal of time too (their growing season is 110-150 days) though they are self-pollinators. These are all complex details that a lot of people won’t know, which is fine. There’s an easy approach to all of this. If you see a fruit or vegetable that is usually only around during the summer, ask the person selling it where they grew it, how they grew it and so on. Anyone pulling off summer vegetables in winter and making a profit of some sort will love to tell you about it, seriously.
– Look around the vendor’s area. Some vendors will not label their products, but they’ll overlook the fact that their truck has a big box from southern Indiana in it. They might re-use smaller boxes, but fruit and vegetables in containers from California or other southerly states at least begs the question as to where they were grown. Local farmers are far more likely to have black crates or something else more durable for week-to-week use. Some vendors will not even bother to take products out of the palletized boxes they were purchased in at a food auction.
– Know when fruits and vegetables are in season. Anything not in season should make you wonder. As I’ve stated before, it is possible to grow a lot of things during the winter but it is far more complicated, requires far more inputs, has higher costs of production and in many cases it would require a lot more labor than usual. Here’s a good guide for Wisconsin.
– Think about the time of year. Earlier in the winter, for instance, it makes sense to see a lot of high quality storage crops. The further you get into winter, though, the more likely it is that storage crops may have suffered a little bit when it comes to condition. Again, it’s possible to have a root cellar dialed in perfectly, but if it’s mid-April and there’s still snow on the ground…it’s increasingly difficult to offer storage crops at market simply because they’ve been stored for so long. It’s also difficult to grow those same crops in frozen, snow-covered ground.
– Go to a farm’s website. This isn’t foolproof, but farms will tend to have pictures of their operation. A farm that has a winter growing operation will definitely want to be highlighting that fact as well because it makes them stand out, it is impressive as operations go and its direct verification that they’re the producer. You can even go to Google and look farms up on a map. Does a farm have a lot of out-of-season produce, produce that require pollination and it’s all pretty cheap? Assuming a farm keeps things centralized around the homestead a bit, an overhead look on a map will show you whether or not they have a greenhouse, a high tunnel, etc. Chances are, the cheap summer prices being offered in winter are there because whatever it is that’s being sold was grown in Mexico or beyond.
That last one is a bit intrusive, but it’s something I’ll admit to doing. I did it to provide visual evidence that a farm at a market we were selling at was in violation of the rules in that none of their tomatoes, zucchini, etc. that were being sold in the early weeks of April were being grown in a heated greenhouse. Therefore, they should have been labeled accordingly…maybe “Grown In Florida”. So why would I do that?
Ultimately, I realize people are going to do what they’re going to do. That said, if there are rules on how to present your products at market, they should be followed. They should also be enforced, but to be fair to management…they often don’t have the time, resources or knowledge to effectively police vendors. I often joke about creating a team of farmers who are willing to go to farms, verify what’s being grown and ask the right kinds of questions. Kind of like the California model that Modern Farmer wrote about (see link above if you missed it). That seems like a lot for just selling at a market, but if you are trying to create a marketplace that is providing local food to consumers, the most important thing in your toolkit is integrity. It’s also important that customers in Wisconsin have expectations that are grounded in the farming realities of Wisconsin. People often ask me why we aren’t selling a certain product, and I simply tell them that it is not possible or profitable to grow that right now—it’s out of season. Anyway, if people learn that you have no rules or don’t enforce them, that people buy-in a lot of their things from auctions and grocery stores and re-sell them at a higher price, that people are lying about producing certain items on their farms, or any number of things like these that are inherently dishonest and taking advantage of consumers…why would anyone continue to shop at your market? Now put yourself back in the shoes of the producer who is trying to make farming a career. Imagine being a part of a market that people stop supporting because they discover that they’ve been lied to and that much of what they see is just a facade and that there are truly only a small group of vendors at the market who are on the up and up and produce all of the products that they sell. All of that having been said, if consumers see a product they want, see that its label states it was grown elsewhere (so it is being re-sold) and they still buy it—-they’ve at least made an informed choice and the transaction was honest from start-to-finish. Assuming your market allows re-selling, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of transaction, even if it does frustrate me a little bit.
To wrap it all up, the moral of the story here is that all of the information you could want and more is out there. No, it’s not all on *you* to know everything and to ask the right questions. It is, however, up to you to create the sort of relationships you want to have, and if knowing more about your food, how it was produced, where it was produced and by whom is important to you…all you should have to do is ask. Any producer worth his or her salt will tell you what you want to know, and the more informative conversations you have the better you’ll get at distilling the truths and realities that are a part of each display at the market. More importantly, you’ll have formed relationships that are lasting and based upon a lot more than just a simple transaction on a Saturday morning. Good luck getting that at your typical big box stores.
If you’ve been following our Instagram page, you’ve seen that we recently lost a few dozen turkeys in a storm that dropped over three inches of rain. The forecast had called for rain, but not *that* much rain. Then, a day later, we get another one-to-two inches of rain in the morning. Luckily, we only lost a few birds after that one, but it was daytime and birds tend to do better with rain during the day, especially if things are going to go wrong. Anyway, that was the last of a series of incidents that have made it quite clear at this point that this is a bad year for turkeys.
Our first round of birds was broad-breasted white turkeys. We normally only get broad-breasted bronze even though they’re a tiny bit harder to pluck, and we get them from the same place. The same place and, by extension, the same genetics. A flock’s genetics isn’t something you automatically think of, but you should. Why? Well, our schedule was built around what we had always done, but these white turkeys grew a little slower so they ended up being underweight when it came time to process them. Not good. Well, not ideal anyway. We also lost a dozen or so during the brooding stage to a few freak situations where they more or less thwarted everything we had done to keep them safe so that they could kill themselves. It was just…weird.
Then there were the heritage birds that we hatched out from our breeding flock. Everything was going great, the hens had laid quite a few eggs this year and we had a very successful hatch overall. Then, we put them out to pasture when it was time and in two days they had all disappeared. Where did they go? What in the hell happened? No bodies. No feathers. Just, gone. We knew something was up, but with no evidence to go on you figure it’s either predators or they flew off into the woods and, predators. Then, we found that there was still a small handful (4) left, and we took great care of them to ensure that we could at least keep our breeding flock afloat. You see, our big tom was taken one night and the day before that, one of our hens was too as she sat on her nest. We now know that it was a couple of coyotes that were wreaking havoc on our turkeys (and chickens), had eaten through our electric poultry netting and taken advantage of a fence charger that we didn’t know wasn’t working. Easy to overlook when you put in a brand new battery only a few weeks prior, and the telltale *click* was heard for weeks until the battery finally died and we didn’t think to listen for the click. Then, I’m pretty sure that one of our guardian dogs (Kelby) decided to play a bit too hard with one of the young toms who had survived and then we were down to three survivors from the new birds, total. So, heritage turkeys were obviously not going to be sold this year. Our breeding flock is now down to a couple of toms and a few hens. Thankfully we’ve got them for next year.
A short time later, we got our usual broad-breasted bronze turkeys, and they did very well in the new brooder area we had created last year. Nothing weird, no strange deaths or disappearances. There *was* one instance where they crammed into a corner and killed a few of their own, but that’s almost expected with birds—though we rarely experience it and it is definitely preventable as long as you’re not raising white-feathered turkeys on our farm this year.
The third round of turkeys was close behind, as the window for raising turkeys in Wisconsin is quite narrow. It takes a minimum of four months for broad-breasted turkeys, and we typically raise about 350 turkeys per year amidst thousands of chickens. There’s only so much space to brood birds, so we have had to get creative. The third round was back to broad-breasted whites. You see, I thought it would be clever to switch colors so that when we went to catch them for processing we would know to leave the bronze and take the white (or vice versa). So much for being clever. Our luck being what it has been with turkeys this year, and it has never been this bad, the white turkeys had soon found new and ingenious methods to kill one another on accident. I’ve heard a lot of tales and stories about turkeys, and up-to-now, I had never really believed them because we had never had anything so outrageously stupid happen to us with our birds. Now we have, so I figure there must be some truth behind all of the things I’ve heard.
Which brings us back to this week and the storm that pushed us over the edge to no-turkey-to-sell land. We lost 50 in one storm and then another several turkeys died in the storm this morning to bring our numbers down to a point that we had to cancel an order for our birds. Now, I’ve listed turkeys as sold out, we have our list of individuals who reserved a turkey, and we’re going to hold on for dear life because we’ve got two more months of trying to keep turkeys alive on the farm. This has all been complicated by the fact that one of our guard dogs decided, out-of-the-blue, that he wasn’t going to guard animals anymore this year. We’ve tried several different times to train him back into the area, stayed out with him to see what he’d do and we’ve tried to normalize what used to be normal a couple of months ago. None of it works. He waits, he bolts, he runs somewhere and then we’re stressing out for hours looking for a huge, white dog and we fall behind on chores (etc). The frustration builds. So, he’s relegated to the kennel a lot right now. Usually, he doesn’t go too far, but he doesn’t make it easy to track him down and since I’m by myself during the day I don’t have much time to figure things out for him. Of course, this means that Kelby has to patrol the entire area by herself, and clever Great Horned Owls in our area are taking advantage of that and knocking off chickens and turkeys alike. Thankfully, they seem to only come around every 3-4 weeks for another whack.
As I sit here typing this and reading the words aloud as they pour onto the screen, this all sounds like a very long, frustrating list…and it is. That being said, after farming for a few short years one learns to *expect* things to go wrong. You’re never sure when it will, or how bad it will be, but it’s inevitable. Our skins have grown tougher and bear plenty of scars from working with Mother Nature and the great world of Agriculture, as every season is punctuated by instances that try your patience and ability to persevere. The way I see it, you have two choices, either curl up in a ball and quit, or ignore what has happened, will yourself to move on and find the answers to the question, “What do we do now?” This year, it seems as if all of our unfortunate instances have been focused into a short time frame and with turkeys. This is probably another good argument for a diverse farm, as we do have plenty of good things going on as well.
To conclude, this is just my acknowledgment of all of these things that have happened, and I wanted to share them with you so that you get to vicariously experience a farming world that is far less perfect than we tend to see in pictures, stories or in our own imaginations. Writing is a good way for me to decompress too, so there is a hint of selfishness in taking some time to outline what the past month or so has been like. For all intents and purposes, turkeys are no longer being sold this year, but we’re already looking forward to next year’s turkeys and I know I’ve got to take some time to work with Maria and refine our operation so that we can mitigate the damage if this sort of thing was to happen again. I’m very confident that we can improve and that we can increase our odds of preventing things like this in the future too. The only downside is that this season we only get one try. Now, we have to wait a year. Really, we only get what…40 tries? When you think of it that way, it highlights the importance of passing on knowledge to the next generation, but that’s another topic for another day.
Feel free to share this widely.
I apologize for not typing the entire document out here. You’re going to have to click, one. more. time. After a month of writing, editing, asking people to read and re-read and then editing again…I was wary of trying to keep my work all up-to-date and accurate on our website. So, I wrote everything off-line on MSWord. Below, is a PDF document that shows our farm’s financials over the first five years of our farm’s existence. I have also included some stories and explanations to contextualize the numbers.
I hope that this can be an informative piece for other (beginning) farmers, consumers and the organizations who work with these groups and beyond. I also hope that it inspires more conversations, particularly about the financial realities that come with starting a farm or just farming in general. I won’t write too much here, because the document is nearly 28 pages long. I know there is a lot more that I can say about everything you’ll soon read about too, but I had to stop somewhere. Feel free to inquire about anything you’d like to hear more about. I do have plans to continue writing about our story. This is a good start.
Ok, so it’s dark humor, but I feel like I should be sharing the good *and* the bad with you.
As you know, we planted our own corn last season. It was a bad year for corn because it was such a wet Spring, no one could plant it on time. Ours went in late, around mid-June, but it got in. Our corn took 85 days to get to maturity, so this is called “short corn”, or at least shorter than most of the corn around here (95-105 days usually). The corn performed really well actually, but it was still a wet year in the fields, so there was some mold on the ears and that leads to a lot of “fines” being mixed in with the grain as it is harvested because those moldy, crumbly kernels are kind of pulverized by the process. There are also “bee’s wings” which are the thin shell around each kernel that often peels off and flies around the field, the area around the bin and many even get in the bin. If it was more of a dry year, there would be far fewer fines and bee’s wings would likely come off better as the corn is harvested. The fewer fines and wings, the easier it is to dry your corn in the bin as these things are not in the air’s way. You can use a grain cleaner to remove this stuff as you put it into the bin, and we didn’t do that this year since we don’t have one. We’ll be getting one this year. Anyway, we got the corn combined in the beginning of December, and we put it in the bin and froze it. Then the record-setting Winter started, and I figured we were good until Spring and warmer temps (i.e. 35-40F for at least a week).
I figured wrong.
You see, everything I had read or been told up to that point gave me a false sense of security. Believe me, I researched growing corn, harvesting corn, storing corn and everything else corn, corn, CORN for months. My brain was saturated with corn information, but there were still those little things that end up wreaking havoc on your operation and eroding any peace of mind you thought you had.
So what happened? Well, I opened up the corn bin to do my regular inspection and it smelled musty. This is the first sign that something is going wrong. Then, I climbed down into the bin about six feet and waited for my eyes to adjust to the lighting inside so that I could see what was going on with the corn. As I climbed down, I noticed some water on the rungs of the ladder. This is a *MAJOR* sign that something is amiss. Once my eyes adjusted, I looked down at the corn and saw a few small circles of mold forming on the top layer of the corn. This, as I’m sure you realize, is not a good thing. I then looked up and saw condensation on the underside of the roof and some icy frost in spots where it was still cold enough to freeze the condensation on the metal surface. Basically, everything that you don’t want to have happen inside your bin is going on inside of ours.
Now, having researched everything, I definitely know what can be done at this point. I’m just not sure which action *should* be taken or when. So, I started reaching out to people I know. I wrote the bin company I purchased the bin from,
nothing. I wrote my contact with that company personally, nothing and–UPDATE–they got back to me today, so I’ll call them here in a bit. Greeeeeeaaaaaaaat. I read some more and found Matt Roberts at Purdue University, and he actually wrote me back and also put me in touch with Klein Ileleji, also at Purdue. They both took the time to respond, give me advice and make sure that I was aware of any and all safety issues involved. Basically, they’re my heroes of the day. So, thanks to them for taking the time to help out some random farmer in Wisconsin who had some questions and a need for a little help.
So, the corn is starting to mold on the top and it’s likely forming a “crust” which then forms a “bridge” and makes it harder to get the corn out of the bin. Actually, mold formation is not uncommon in grain bins, and it’s one of the top two problem areas for farmers who store grains (insects are the other). Some molds aren’t harmful, but there are at least a couple that can be harmful if fed to animals and harmful to people as well if inhaled. At this point, I’m pretty sure that the mold I’ve got isn’t the dangerous kind (yet), and it probably rode in on the fines and then the conditions became ideal for the mold to start growing. How did that happen though?
You see, I did do everything I should have, but I neglected to realize (or read about) how the head space in a bin (the air above the corn) can and will heat up on warmer days as the sun shines down on the metal roof and walls and warms them up. This, in turn, raises the temperature in the head space, which gets the mold to a happy place. Then, the head space causes some condensation to occur and that drips back onto the corn and the mold is fed its other main ingredient for life. The mold starts to grow, and the cycle continues and it will get worse and worse until you do something about it. What I needed to be doing on those warmer days–I think we’ve had 3 or 4 total since December–is ventilating that head space so that the air wouldn’t stagnate, warm up and cause trouble…woopsie! So, I’ll be remedying that situation this year and having that solution in place before harvest time.
So what else could go wrong?
Well, as you know, this year was a ‘wet’ year for corn. Normally, you harvest corn and it’s around 20% moisture in the field, hopefully less. This year, corn in our area was anywhere from 25-30% in the field, which is nuts. This is part of what caused the LP shortage, as farmers who dry with LP heaters had to dry their corn from 30% to 15% or less, probably less because of mold formation on the ears. That means around 14%. Our corn was at 26-28%, which is very high to be putting into a bin like ours that is a natural-air drying system. So, in a sense, the corn was kind of doomed from the get-go unless everything went really well. You can’t dry in Winter with natural air, at least not very well, because you don’t get many low humidity days and the temperatures below freezing don’t give the air moving through the corn much of an opportunity to glom on to some moisture and move it out of the bin. In that scenario, you ‘freeze’ your corn and wait for warmer temps and better drying conditions.
We did that, and it worked well…..until that head space warmed up. Now, in a normal year I could mitigate the problem by removing the moldy corn from the bin, core the bin to remove a lot of fines (where a lot of mold’s potential ends up after putting the corn in the bin), and then cool the grain down–again–to stop mold growth. Then, because it’s still so cold, I’d just haul my corn to the elevator and sell it. So, I called the elevators in our area and discovered that, due to the LP shortage, none of them are accepting wet corn. ADM is accepting wet corn, but at 20% or below. Since I can’t dry our corn yet due to the weather, dropping our corn 6-8% looks pretty impossible.
So, I’ve got wet corn that I can’t store for much longer or the bin will become a massive, moldy problem. I’ve got corn I can’t dry because the weather still isn’t suitable. I’ve got wet corn that I can’t sell because of the LP shortage. I’ve also got corn that I can’t even dry with LP (I could put a heater on our fans to dry the air that way) because the amount of LP it would take would cost too much at my scale. So, how do I get something out of this corn? Not counting equipment or the bin, we’ve invested a lot of hours in the field, hours researching and ~$4,000 in growing it this year and drying it a tiny bit. I thought of spreading it on the field, but then, there is three feet of snow everywhere and the ground is still frozen. I called DNR to ask about best practices for wildlife in this situation, and they confirmed that spreading it now won’t do much good for the soil and any wildlife could find it, eat it and maybe get sick from it if they ingested some of the moldy bits. So, I can’t spread it. Basically, I can pile it up somewhere, keep wildlife away and wait for the snow to melt, the ground to thaw, some green to return and then I can spread it. I could try composting it too, but I’m not quite set up for that. Either way, I’ll probably be watching a lot of work and money rot away over the next month or so and that stinks…pun intended.
We’ll see. Hopefully, I can solve most of the problems and feed at least some of it to the birds we have now. Some of the corn is definitely a loss though, and the chances that it all is a loss are probably in the area of 90%. A lot is going to have to go right over the next week or two, and during that time I’ll have to watch everything like a hawk so that the situation in the bin doesn’t get out of control. The last thing I can do is let the corn go crazy in the bin because then I’ll be unloading 1500bu. by hand and wearing a Tyvek suit, goggles and a respirator to make sure that I don’t get any bad molds on me or in my lungs (Farmer’s Lung is a well known disease caused by molds and is apparently incurable because the mold just works into your lower lungs and scars them up permanently if it’s not caught fast enough).
So, I’m laughing at the situation because I did everything I knew to do, what I didn’t know bit me and the easiest solution to the problem (sell it) is not available because of the LP shortage. Even the worst solution (spread it) isn’t available, hahaha. Either everything works my way for a week or so and I manage to dry it down and keep mold from forming, or the whole crop is a loss outside of what benefits I can get from spreading and/or composting it once it’s actually Spring. It’s dark humor because it’s still a multi-thousand dollar lesson to learn, but you can’t help but laugh because one little thing that was in your control got you here and your solutions are taken away from you by everything outside of your control. So, you make the best of the worst and get to work on something else once you’ve taken care of the situation.
There’s always more things to do on the farm, and most of them aren’t total losses. There’s also so much more to learn, and situations like this really drive that home. The word “Humility” is derived from the Latin word “Humilitas” which is in turn derived from “Humus” or “Earth”. It’s this sense of humility–being grounded, having a clear perspective of your place in context and maintaining a healthy respect for it all–that is a requirement for being a farmer. It’s really the same for just being a human, at least, as far as I’m concerned. It’s that humility that keeps you from going crazy when things go wrong, and it also fosters a reality where there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic and continue your dance with Mother Nature & The Ignorance (my favorite fake band).
Let’s hope for a normal corn year in 2014! 🙂 For now, I’m off to the bin to get started.
I recently gave a presentation on marketing, and we talked briefly about the price of eggs. A lot of farmers don’t want to mess with trying to sell eggs because of people who sell them for $2/dozen as some sort of hobby, usually ‘around the neighborhood’ or ‘at the end of their driveway’. In other words, since so many consumers are focusing on price alone, the eggs that a farmer would produce as a part of his or her farm-business can’t compete with hobby farm eggs because a farmer trying to make farming his or her livelihood has to actually account for the costs of production and try to–at the very, most miserable least–break even. It’s not only eggs at the end of hobby farmers’ driveways causing this either. I’ve seen eggs at farmers’ markets going for that price (which is crazy).
Anyway, I was researching the costs of production for conventional (factory) eggs, pastured eggs, and other egg raising methods when I found an interesting article at Mother Jones. The article talks briefly about eggs and then goes on to discuss the pork industry through a similar lens (i.e. price and *all* of the costs). About midway through the article, I read this:
“So we have a genuine quandary here: A farmer who’s just scraping by while doing the right thing by his land and his birds, charging a price that makes the whole concept of alternative food systems seem hopelessly elitist.”
(see the rest of the article here)
Now, the farmer in this story is charging $8/dozen…which is two-to-three times the prices you’ll find at markets in Wisconsin. Is that price actually elitist if what it really means is that a farmer can earn an honest margin for his or her work and–more importantly–keep on doing it? What does a farmer deserve to make? What’s a fair profit margin? Are farmers in Wisconsin charging enough for their eggs?
According to Health & Human Services, the poverty level for 2014 is $23,850 for a family of 4 and $15,730 for a family of 2. If a small family farm has an average profit margin of 20%, the farm would need gross sales of $100,000 to earn $20,000 in net profits. That’s ~$2,000 in sales per week to end up around the poverty line. Our farm charges $3.95/lb for a whole chicken, so that is around 112 chickens per week (5,824 chickens/year) to sell if each chicken weighs 4.5lbs (they don’t). You can buy whole chickens through major wholesale suppliers for as low as $.75/lb. If we could compete with that price, we’d have to sell 591 chickens per week (30,732 chickens/year) to make the same amount of money. Even if we competed with retail prices at a grocery store, Walmart often sells their Tyson chickens for $.99/lb. All situations above remaining the same, that’s 449 chickens per week (23,348 per year).
To give you some context for these numbers, we worked ourselves too hard last year and without hiring or partnering with someone or another farm…we’ll never do last year again. Still, even though we were exhausted in every way at the end of the year, we produced the most birds we’ve ever had on the farm. If you count up *every* bird we raised, we ended up with ~7,000 birds. I don’t even want to talk about how many eggs we’d have to sell each week at $4/dozen in order to achieve the same weekly sales (500 dozen!!). Incidentally, these numbers are highlighting how important it is for small family farms to have a diverse array of correctly priced products.
This also brings me back to $2/dozen eggs.
It should be obvious at this point that $2/dozen is below the costs of production for anyone who doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of birds in giant warehouses. Massive industrial farms had a cost of production of $.65-$.75/dozen in December 2013 (see stats here), and these are heavily subsidized, incredibly vertically integrated farms that have a Death-Star-like ability
to destroy planets to leverage the market to achieve the lowest costs possible. After they add their profit margin and a retail store adds theirs, *now* you’ve got $2/dozen eggs.
My problem with all of this is that under-pricing ends up creating an expectation in the marketplace that eggs can be produced on a small farm at that price *and* cover costs and a decent profit. They can’t. Not even close. This leads farmers who want to do right by their land, themselves, their animals (etc.) to opt out of raising eggs in many cases because their price–which should include the cost of production at a bare minimum–turns people off and makes some think of these eggs as elitist or of farmers’ markets as a place full of highfalutin’ snobs and farmers raking in hay bales of profit. This too is far from the truth, but it’s a common enough perception that it has real-world effects on farmers, many of whom are working extremely hard to still find themselves and/or their families earning a salary from their farm that qualifies them to be impoverished.
This scenario plays out over and over again. It’s either $2/dozen eggs…$2 bags of delicate greens in the middle of the harshest winter we’ve had in recent memory (on top of astronomical LP prices, which many greenhouses are heated with)…products that are purchased on the cheap at stores or food auctions and re-sold at a market…or products that are purchased from other farms at a pittance and then up-charged so that the end consumer isn’t paying the farmer who produced the product but only the person who brought it to market—they should both be paid of course, but fairly and in proportion to the work they’ve done.
These cheaper products might sell well, but ultimately they are working against small farms. In the long run, they’re a dead-end for whoever is selling them too, unless that person has another income stream to exist on…and the reality for most small farmers is that they cannot easily exist, especially in the beginning, without off-farm jobs. Those jobs take away from a person’s time on the farm, which tends to slow or limit the farm’s growth, but they also allow the person to keep on farming and trying to find a way to make the farm their livelihood. While some of this will be unavoidable for some time, making farming your livelihood shouldn’t come across like a radical proposition…right?
What we end up with is a lot of small farms charging cheaper prices for what they *do* produce and these products are only priced as low as they are because a farmer is scared-to-death of pricing it to reflect the costs of production *and* an honest profit margin. This expands the quandry up above to one where not only do small farms have to combat the idea that they, their products or their customers are elitist, they also have to navigate a market that is far outside of their control due to the major, global influences of industrial food systems while simultaneously finding ways to not be undermined by hobby farms or unethical farmers and/or vendors who are eroding farmers’ livelihoods out from underneath them with irrational pricing and unethical practices. Compounding all of this is how taboo it is for people to discuss their numbers (i.e. costs of production, profit margins, earnings, etc). A lot of farmers are likely charging too little because they simply don’t realize that they’re selling themselves out of business, and a short conversation about accounting could help change that overnight.
So what do we do? Can we ask people to not purchase those cheaper products because of their effects on small farming in general? Can we ask producers who are selling those items to increase their prices so that they make a better margin–even if they didn’t do anything to produce it in the first place? Can we ask them to do that without being considered criminals who are conspiring on price? Even telling the truth about a particular farm or vendor could get someone into legal trouble if they’re not careful. Is it even possible to have farmers’ markets that can really enforce strict rules without taking even more time out of market managers’ lives?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m very optimistic about our ability to find ways to resolve these issues. Some would argue that our society isn’t ready to believe in or support what small farms can do, or that the odds are stacked so heavily against small farms given the nature of our dominant food systems. I believe that it’s just a matter of misplaced trust. People like cheap food, but many people also like to think that they’re not being manipulated, lied to or fed by unhealthy, unsustainable, unethical and destructive food systems. Education is part of the solution, so talking about this with your friends, family and farmers is a good start. The more conversations that we have, the more likely it is that we can arrive to long-term solutions that work out well for everyone…and I mean everyone, even the ‘big guys’. So, yeah, I’m very interested in what you are thinking and what you have to say. If you feel comfortable enough to share your own thoughts, I’d love to read them. Thanks! 🙂