Immediately following the grazing season comes the speaking and workshop season. At least that is the way my life runs these past dozen years or so. And I still find it exciting. But thereon hangs a problem. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that many of the people I speak with about our farm and business are getting an impression at odds with the reality that I know. This is especially true when the group consists of young people interested in farming and thinking of vegetable production as a sizeable part of that farm income. Many of these come from an urban or suburban background with no farm experience; many are college educated. When the group consists of older livestock producers, the picture is quite different. Often then the issue is not enough excitement rather than too much.
I think young people of all backgrounds are going to be vital to what we are trying to do. And yes, I do think vegetable production is farming and I can see that it is hard work. But what I know is land based livestock production and I want to try to set a few things straight both for the optimistic greenhorns and the overly pessimistic veterans about farm based meats marketing, which is often thought to be a necessary part of modern livestock production.
One problem is that those of us who operate these kinds of systems, or work to build these markets, are excited about what we do. Nothing makes the hours pass faster than doing work that is possible if difficult, mostly enjoyable, and that is easy to see the point of. I regularly and sometimes severely underestimate the time it takes for me to do things. Just ask my wife, who sometimes wonders if I have gotten lost. I know the kick I get every time it is my turn to haul hogs in to the butcher, which happens every Wednesday. I stand there and watch them move off the truck and in my mind I am telling the hog industry that this is a few more head that they dont get. The satisfaction from that thought alone can keep me going for days, linked as it is with memories of the old days when the hog buyer never really knew whether he wanted my hogs, and certainly knew he wasnt going to let me in on setting the price.
To enjoy the work that much is a blessing, of course, but a mixed one. For this zest and excitement for the farm and business tend to mask important realities. One of these is that the time required to process and market meat is considerable. Another is that it takes a group of people with specific interests and abilities. Accountants generally do not make good farmers, and farmers are not sales staff. Sales staff is not talented at accounting either. As a rule of thumb, look for three distinct personality types to run a farm-based marketing business.
This is no place for the Marlboro man. And that is exactly what makes it exciting. At Pastures A Plenty, four adults run the farm and the business. All are employed full-time caring for 140 head of cattle, producing 1,000 head annually of market hogs and marketing the meat from the hogs. We think that it takes about two of us to run the farm, since the hog systems are somewhat labor intensive with the bedded animals. In point of fact, the two people are about three-quarters of each of two, I suppose and then bits and pieces of others plus kid labor. The farm has three children growing up here learning by doing, which really is the one thing I am positive we are doing right. That is the way families work best.
We have one person nearly fully employed scheduling slaughter and meat movement and dispatching based upon twice-weekly store orders. One of us is in charge of both the farm and the meat company checkbook and I do mean in charge. This person also keeps us compliant with the various state and federal rules. Two of us control and maintain inventory. Two work on new product development. We all share driving responsibilities. Two share maintenance of equipment and vehicles. Two work on local sales, while all do in-store demos and Twin Cities sales. One focuses upon communications in general. Most importantly, every one of us leads in some aspect of the farm and business. And we are fully employed, perhaps a little too fully in view of the fact that two of the four of us are approaching retirement age. Changes are going to need to happen.
Changes are going to be forced upon us too, and it is no sense minimizing this. We just heard from the company that supplies the base mix we use for our sausages that they will cease production of the product, due to having been notified by another company of its intent to patent the process being used to ferment the sugars and vegetable extracts. Our supplier has simply decided to discontinue the product rather than to hire lawyers to fight what essentially amounts to intimidation. This costs us the use of an excellent product, necessitates the search for a new supplier and perhaps makes our home-devised spice recipes obsolete. And honestly, if a fight were mounted and taken forward into the patent process, it would be good to remember that this is the same government agency that has allowed the patenting of life forms by the biotech companies. We simply dont know what the outcome would be.
Irradiation is on the horizon for us family meat companies. Another several spectacular failures on the part of mainstream American meat production and processing will result in the government clamping down on local butcher shops, requiring irradiation of all meats. The American meat industry will countenance anything, including peddling meat covered with sterilized manure, rather than allow inspectors the power to shut down a slaughter line or large plant. We know who the USDA and the FDA belong to, and it is not us, the American population. The current raw milk controversy is just the beginning of a long uncertain battle.
And as always, with all of this malfeasance on the part of officialdom and their corporate masters, we who have our livelihoods based upon a seller-buyer relationship must be careful to keep our customers up to speed and bring them along in their understanding in such a way that they do not become scared, but instead grow into the kind of allies we are going to need as the battle intensifies. It is probable that our farm and company should have one person devoted to communication full time rather than being satisfied with our current here and there, hit or miss contact with our customers.
What we have taken on in the attempt to market meat, an attempt that started with us being unwilling to be driven out of the hog industry is something that requires several different personalities, which we are lucky to have in our family group. It also requires a willingness to take on a great deal of risk as we move into an uncertain future. What it teaches us who were farmers getting into this is that there is other work in the world besides farming and that work deserves our respect. And I can say without doubt that no matter how our efforts might look from the outside, they are being carried out by folks who put their pants on one leg at a time each day. Sometimes the pants dont fit all that well either.
Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This appeared in Graze magazine.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010
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