This Annual Report on our farm’s status–financial and otherwise–goes out with much respect to all our fellow small farmers and those contemplating getting into farming. This is an honest communiqué from the front lines of our struggle to establish a self-sustaining farm.
This has been a good year for Up the Lane Farm. An important year. Not profitable–not nearly. Actual real dollars-in-hand profit can seem like the unicorn of farm finances. Easier to spot in farming ledgers is the common asterisk: the year we replaced the tractor; the year we put a roof on the barn; the year we built fence or trenched water lines to the shed or put tires (or brakes!) on the truck.
(Did you hear the one about the farmer who won the lottery? He won three million dollars! The TV reporter asked him what he was going to do with all that money. The farmer answered, “I’m just gonna keep farming till it’s all gone…”)
We believe this year marks our arrival at the threshold of profitability. But getting here has been a decade of massive investment including purchasing a 70 acre farm, a tractor, a pick up truck and livestock trailer, a cattle chute, and many thousands of dollars of other basic essentials. In 2010, and in subsequent years, if we are fortunate, we will be able to show some profits farming. However, making money, while useful, can hardly be considered the real point of what we are doing.
To quote the inaugural essay on our farm’s web page, upthelanefarm.com: “…our farm’s business plan is based on the model of an independent Caribbean nation. We may struggle, even possibly forever (or so it seems), but we are free. And we are rather proud!”
The importance of 2009 is that it has proven to be a year of consolidation and growth for our farm. Our methods and philosophy have been improved; our marketing and sell-through has been strengthened; the scale of our operation has nearly doubled. Even as momentum is building for us, we are coming into focus. Things are coming together. We are learning and growing in our exploration of what we love to do. Put that in the ledger!
Part One: Farmer’s Market Success!
Our farm’s primary source of income–retailing beef at the Worthington Farmers Market–was up a solid 34% over 2008. This extends a trend we have experienced since we started at Worthington in 2006. We are now doing twelve times the business we did that first season. The Worthington Farmers Market is our home. Our customers there are like family. Their trust and cheerful goodwill is a bracing input for our farm.
One goal for 2010 is to grow Worthington Market sales another 20%. This would bring us to about the limit of how much beef we can produce using current stocking rates. It would mean taking fourteen or fifteen animals to slaughter. Any additional growth will need to come from increased stocking rates, which would mean that, happily, our ground is truly benefiting from mob grazing. Mob grazing gurus say we should be able to double stocking rates in just a few years doing what we are doing. (Why, that’s like getting another farm for free! they are fond of saying.) If this is true, all the more better. But even then we feel like we will be selling all we can produce to the public at the Worthington market–doing our best to keep the availability of various cuts steady and solid so as to match the quality and good value we are providing with an improved reliability of supply.
We seriously consolidated our position in the Worthington Market this year. In the winter–when the economy first shocked people into a kind of wariness–we introduced one pound packages of cubed stew meat as a cheaper alternative to roasts (typically three pounds each). We made the decision to not raise our prices in 2009. Both of these decisions were received enthusiastically. When we started the outdoor season in May 2009, we unveiled the new logo we had developed with Baltimore Ohio graphic artist Nathaniel Stitzlein, as part of announcing ourselves officially for the first time as 100% Grass-Fed. This new look is so strong and sharp. We expect it will serve us well for many years to come.
Now we are 100% Grass Fed, at prices considerably lower than competing grass-fed beef vendors. We agree with Joel Salatin, who says that, since grass feeding is the least expensive way of raising beef, it should be possible to price it so that it is competitive in the broader marketplace (with commercial beef that is both more expensive to produce and inferior in quality and healthfulness). He makes this issue into a form of proselytizing, for a better kind of meat and a better rural landscape. We are selling close enough to the cost of production that we feel we are well-positioned regarding potential changes in the marketplace around us. You never know when Wal-Mart will show up in the grass-fed beef arena! Or when someone like Kroger will try to set up booths at Farmer’s Markets–demanding entry!
In support of our retailing, we have launched a new farm web page, upthelanefarm.com. We get so busy at market sometimes, we have limited ability to fully explain ourselves to customers, especially newer ones with Big Questions about farming methods or grass-fed beef in general. It is handy to be able to offer them a business card and refer them to the web page, where we are posting all the kinds of information we can think of that customers seem in search of. We do not just want to sell meat, we want to strengthen in every way we can the farmer-consumer bond.
During the summer of 2009 we started experimenting with having farm tours. We did this on a small and personal scale, single families at a time. This was gratifying for all concerned. We will pursue this again when weather permits in 2010. Our aim will be to set aside certain tour dates and sign folks up for limited attendance. We do not want to disturb the cattle with too large a group, but neither can we make ourselves available for spur of the moment individual visits from any of a hundred families…
Part Two: Heavy Spending…
Behind our announcement that we are 100% grass-fed, is an enormous change in our farming methods and philosophy that has been underway for nearly two years. We stopped graining well ahead of May 2009, so that we knew all meat sold as of May would be grass-fed only. But in February 2009, at the PASA Conference in State College PA, I took a three-day course in mob grazing that gave our farm the template it needed to begin to make the most of grass feeding–both for the cattle and for the ground. We do not have very good role models in our part of Ohio when it comes to grass-fed beef, so traveling afar and returning with so much exciting information (and a reading list I have yet to finish getting through), was just what was needed at this point in our farm’s history.
Between May 2009 and November 2009 we fenced forty-acres of open grass fields into approximately five-acre paddocks. This was done all by hand, using our own invented electric fencing–a total of 10,000′ of fence line and 17 gates for only $5000. The way we fenced will be a separate post one day soon. We are rather proud about it and eager to share. Suffice it to say we are reliant upon the magical synergy of electricity and the contentment of our cattle.
To be able to roam this landscape alongside our cattle, moving them daily into fresh paddocks and hauling water to them, we purchased a Polaris Ranger which I admit, as a longtime dog lover, could be the best friend I have ever had.
We spent nearly $15,000 purchasing new animals this year, an increase of nearly 50% over the year prior. This represents a considerable expansion of our herd rather than merely replacing animals as they go to slaughter. We entered 2009 with eighteen animals, we now enter 2010 with thirty-one. We have made the aquaintance of new farmers who will sell us animals for years to come, including a source of the calmest Angus calves we have ever seen. They are actually as easy to handle and live with as Herefords.
We purchased and installed a household generator this year at considerable expense. This means we have power backup for the freezers, for the well pump, and for the electric fence. This cost us money, but the sense of well-being heading into January weather is priceless. As just one example, our cattle drink about 300 gallons of water each day. Without a well pump we would be hauling that water every day from somewhere in Columbus?!
Licking County has changed the rules about how we transport and handle meat at the Farmer’s Market. They want the meat in mechanical refrigeration units at all times, even at the point of sale. So we (and some other farmers we know) have had to decide whether to invest in making this possible or drop out of retailing meat. We purchased a step van and fixed its brakes and decorated it with our terrific new graphics and got freezers installed in it–another big investment.
We did not make any hay in 2009. (We were too busy fencing!) This is a big part of how we cut fuel costs to a third of what they were in 2008, saving nearly $1500. It would be nice to say we lowered our dependence on fossil fuels, but this year anyway that is not true because we purchased every bit as much hay as we used to make ourselves, meaning someone else used up the same fuel we did the year before. As we evolve with mob grazing, we should be trimming down the cost of purchasing hay radically. Then we will begin to be able to point to a serious decline in our dependence on fossil fuel.
Part Three: Forecast for 2010: Profit?!
Could this be the year we realize a profit? There is a chance the answer is yes. No fencing, no vehicle or equipment purchases, no growing the herd as we did in 2009. We will be able to cut back by as much as 50% on hay purchases. Also, we will be able to sell off some equipment we no longer need–hay-making gear, manure spreader, bale elevator. If the momentum we are experiencing at market persists, we could be celebrating our farm’s first year of profits. We feel pretty good about how smart and proactive our spending has been in 2009, however we cannot afford to continue being so smart forever, with spending being nearly twice as much as income. This is the year for us to hunker down and reap the benefits of all the improved methods and reinvestment put into play during 2009.