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May/June 2012 – Open for business

The conflicting opportunities of operating an on-farm retail store

After trying a number of ways to retail our farm products, including farmers’ markets, we have settled on selling from what we grandly call our farm store which is, in fact, one half of the two car garage attached to our house. The store consists of three freezers, holding pork, lamb and chicken, and two tables. It opens every Sunday from 11 am to 1 pm, for a magnificently un-Walmartish retail window of two hours. Including time to sweep out, set up a couple of road signs, the store requires about four hours of work a week.

Is it worth it?

A highly qualified: yes. Although our farm earns 90% of its revenue from wholesale sales, the farm store has better margins—ranging from 20%-30%. Per-day store sales average just over $500 with lows of $240 and highs of almost $1,000. Nothing else related to the farm pays as well for so little effort.

The store is also the face of the farm. At one time, farms didn’t need a face, other than a name painted in large letters on one end of a barn. But today’s consumer wants to see the farm and talk to the farmer. Perhaps I’m oversensitive but sometimes it feels like people doubt that we raise our own animals, and they question whether the pork in the freezer was really at one time a pig on our farm. They need to see that we are legitimate. It helps that we often have sheep in the front yard and that our farrowing barn (actually another garage—anyone see a trend here?) is nearby. There’s nothing like a 400 lb sow sneezing on you to make you realize the tenderloin is real.

The result of this close consumer/farmer relationship is that we have some truly incredible customers who are tolerant of the inevitable inconsistencies in non-industrial food production and of higher prices, and who give us great tips and ideas and who, well, buy a lot!

However, as we all know, a face can say many things, intended and unintended. Seeing the docking bands on lambs’ tails, we’ve had people accuse us of animal cruelty. A sheath of wheat on the farm store wall has lead to heated conversations about production (we are not organic).

My report on the farm store wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the incredible opportunities it offers to put your foot in your mouth. I have slammed food giant Sysco only to discover I was talking to Sysco’s regional manager (still made a sale though) and I’ve said bad things about cooked pigs feet to an Asian customer looking for pigs feet (no sale).

The singular disgrace may have taken place just last week when a woman, in her 40s, very trim and tidy, and recently arrived in the community, visited the store for the first time. She was one of the types that had many questions about how we treat our livestock. Though the store was busy and I was distracted, I marched her to the farrowing barn so she could see the most recent batch of sows and piglets. We were greeted by Red, a huge, cranky, beautiful sow, named for her colour, which is that of a newly minted penny.

“What a wonderful animal,” the woman enthused. Clearly, she was impressed.

A cagey man would have said nothing. But I could not leave well enough alone.

“Actually, she’s a real witch,” I said, then added as an afterthought, “Typical redhead.”

I looked at the woman. Her hair was the colour of a newly minted penny. Redder, even.

Farm store sales were slightly below average that day.