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Mar./Apr. 2011 – The questionable benefits of new

Better to change business by degrees rather than direction

It has become a mantra—repeated tiresomely by speakers at trade shows and conferences—that if small farms are to survive (and maybe big farms too) they are going to have to change, to do something new. Old ways of doing things don’t work anymore. Successful farmers are the ones who have found a unique niche and boldly gone after it, tearing up hay fields and planting to medicinal herbs, selling off the cattle and seeding heirloom vegetables.
It is only right that conferences feature this kind of message, and you’ll find some of the same in the pages of this magazine too (follow Kelly Klober’s advice on p 8 of this issue and you’ll be planting gooseberries and pear trees!). New can be good for the farm.
But it seems to me that we haven’t fully accounted for the cost of trying something new. In my experience, new farm endeavors always involve: money, extra time, the acquisition of at least one piece of weird equipment and—a seemingly inevitable part of the learning process on a farm—dead plants/animals. Are the proponents of new farm endeavors accounting for the true costs of trying something original?
On our farm, we’ve had the best success in tweaking rather than going for holus bolus change. From wholesaling almost all our lamb to the local processor 7 years ago, we began to sell whole lamb to individuals. That required a couple of bigger freezers at home but not a new skill set. Then we started selling at farmer’s markets, which involved hiking the freezers into the back of a pickup and paying for a $140 sandwich signboard. From there it was a short step to turn part of our garage into a farm store. Out went the kayaks, in went the freezers. Looking back, it seems like quite a change, from a commodity-based farm to one with much more retail revenue, but each step on the way was small and largely painless.
One more example. Though primarily a sheep and hog farm, we had so many customers asking for chicken that, reluctantly, we started raising meat birds last spring. We gave the chickens an unused the corner of the pig barn, penned off a grassy area for them to roam, and scrounged a few waterers and feeders. Cash cost to set up for chickens was probably under $250. The rest of what we needed we already had—heat lamps, water lines, truck and trailer for hauling chickens to the processor. We already knew about livestock, so avoided the worst of the newbie mistakes. We did about 1,000 birds, in five batches, sold everything we produced and pocketed a true, tidy and reasonable profit. And it was largely due to us making an incremental rather than large-scale change in what we produce.
I have to say, despite my comments above, that I also learned something: Damned if I don’t enjoy raising chickens!