January 2018 Newsletter
Whats Going On At The Farm January 2018
Another year has come and gone. With the new year, come new challenges and more changes on the farm. In 2017 we saw farm market attendence, at one of the two markets we attend, drop for the second straight year. We saw several new farms open up and some older, very good farms, close down and we watched as Farm to Table Delivery struggled and eventually decided to leave the home delivery business. We watched what was happening locally and read everything we could find on what the trends were nationally. What we realized is that the market was changing, corporate America had taken notice of customers demand for organic produce and meats raised humanely and without the use of antibiotics or growth promoters. Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Aldi, and North Carolina based Earth Fare were doing everything possible to attract the customers that used to be faithfull farmers market customers. It didn't matter that the organic or "natural" chicken was nothing more than a confinement raised bird that had been fed organic feed. What mattered was that it was "organic" and it was cheap or at least cheaper than the free range chicken that could be purchased locally.
We also began hearing stories from farm market customers regarding other market vendors. We were being asked if certain "farms" were growing what they were selling or if they were simply reselling what they had purchased in Columbia. We saw deceptive marketing being practiced by vendors looking to capitalize on the buy local movement and customers desire to purchase grass fed or pastured meat products. We read articles where this was happening all across the nation and was causing customers to begin questioning if they were being lied to by "farmers". Between corporate marketing and the uneasiness felt by farm market attendees, farm market sales dropped another 30% nationwide in 2017.
On the restaurant side, we found more and more restuarants falling for the marketing of large corporations and nationwide purveyors like Sysco and U. S. Food. Companies like Heritage Cheshire Farm were becoming more widely used and advertised on restaurant menus as were chicken brands like Springer Mountain Farms. In the case of Heritage Cheshire Farm, the hogs are raised on concrete in the same way as a Smithfield hog; there is nothing different except for the Heritage in the name. Springer Mountain Farm is a small verttically integrated chicken producer based in Ga. These birds are the same breeds used by large intergrated producers like Tyson with the birds raised in a totally confined system as the other large producers. If you Google Springer Mountain and read their story, they specifically state their birds are raised indoors and never allowed to roam outside. They also state that they have been certified humane by an outside agency. No one I know has heard of this agency and when you look at the protocals that must be followed, they are nothing more than the standard operating practices of any of the companies raising birds in confinement. Just the word "farm" in the name formes images of green grass and open spaces rather than cramped houses and foul odors. Its all marketing.
We saw the corporate marketers begin marketing "cage free" eggs. The hens laying these eggs might not be living in cages but are still living in cramped houses with thousands of other hens. They never see the light of day or taste a blade of grass but consumers don't realize that. In fact, a lot of consumers mistake "cage free" for free range.
Free range is also a term that has been adulterated by corporate marketers. In the eyes of the law, a chicken can be sold as free range if it has "access" to the outdoors. This is accomplished by putting in small doors down the sides of confinement chicken houses. Recently Perdue ran a TV ad that showed 3 men standing outside of a chicken house discussing their new free range chicken. The scene was beautiful, green grass with a few white chickens walking around. The problem is, in real life, this would never happen. Cornish Rock chickens, as shown in the ad, won't travel that far to get grass; their body structure and energy required to move that distance won't let them. With their food and water in the house, and the limited ability of Cornish Rock cross chickens to move, the birds will remain in the house and stay within about 10' of their food and water source. Lets assume that the chickens did have the ability to go outside and enjoy the sunshine and grass, with about 20,000 birds in the house, and the inability to move the house between flocks, there would be no grass and the lot would be covered in manure making it unhealthy for the birds to be out in it. The ad was good marketing but wasn't reality.
Even the term "fresh chicken" has been maipulated in the favor of larger marketers. In the meat business the term "fresh" means never frozen. In the chicken industry a "fresh" bird is one that has not been kept at a temp below 26 degrees f. I'm not the smartest bulb in the pack but seem to remember that 32 degrees was the point in which things, including chicken, begin to freeze. The chicken cooler at the plant is kept at 28 degrees. I can assure you that when they put my birds in the cooler, they will be frozen when I go on Monday to pick them up.
Corporate America hasn't found a way to attact the pastured pork market yet. Though they have conducted experiments on raising hogs outside on dirt lots (hogs will eat all the grass off a lot in a matter of weeks), they haven't beeen able to do so cheaply enough to make it a viable option for them. Raising hogs in lots takes more labor, more feed, more time, and makes it difficult to sort hogs when there is a need to take one out of the herd due to illness or injury. The envirnmental conditions, like the week of cold weather we just experienced, effect the growth rate and can negatively affect the health of the animal. Raising hogs in lots also takes more land which can be hard to obtain due to high rent or purchase cost. I can assure you if Smithfield could find a way to raise hogs outdoors profitably they would have done so years ago. They realize that hogs raised on concrete don't have the flavor we can obtain by raising hogs outdoors and that nothing they can do, short of moving to an outdoor system, will change that.
Annie and I have been farming for over 30 years. We have seen market changes before and know we will continue to see them in the future; nothing ever stays the same. We knew we didn't want to move blindly forward like we did back in the early 90's when the hog market crashed and forced us to close down our hog opperation. We knew that we wanted to continue selling direct to the customer and local chefs. We discussed several options and decided that a set of outside eyes was needed to make sure the farm could withstand the changes we felt were coming and that would continue to provide growth which would allow us to move forward with transitioning the farm over to Amy and Jesse. In October we hired a consultant with the goal of finding a path to insuring a secure future for the farm.
Our consultant immediatly went to work on our Quikbooks program. He made changes to the reports which made it easier to get the information we needed to make good decisions; no more having to compile information from 2 or 3 reports. He pushed us toward building a better inventory system; Amy provided a lot of help in this area with an inventory app which we have provided to everyone that works on the farm. He also pushed us toward writting SOP's for all tasks that must be performed daily; this will take months to complete.
Probably the biggest change will be to the role each of us play in the operation. For years we have been involved in every aspect of the farm. When at the farm we have worked side by side with employees doing the feeding chores, cleaning the nursery and farrowing house, helping with equipment and building repairs, and building all of the new buildings and fence required as the farm grew. In the last year alone we built 12 new pasture houses for our new free range chicken lots and made several changes to our hog operation. We baled hay, bush hogged fields, and spread manure. We handled all of the sales to the chefs and made the weekly trips to the processing plant, deliveries to the restaurants, and manned the booths at the 2 farm markets we attend weekly. Over the years, the farm began running us rather than us running the farm.
Don't get me wrong, the growth this farm has experienced is nothing short of a blessing. Our growth has allowed us to build these new houses, hire full time employees, hire high school students for weekends and summer work, expand the number of chickens in our flock and hogs in our herd. But that is all in the past, we need to find other opportunities that would provide growth for the farm for the next several years and insure its viability for the next generation. Its the needed growth that will be our focus in 2018 and will require role changes for several of us on the farm.
One of the biggest challenges we face this year is with home delivery. Though Pastured Pantry has been a part of the farm for 2 or 3 years, we only used it as a home delivery option for our meat share. With the closing of Farm to Table we decided to take Pastured Pantry and expand it into a home delivery service. This move has required us to take labor that would be used on the farm and shift it towards packing orders and making monthly deliveries to the greater Charleston area. Beggining in January, we will provide FREE home delivery on all of our meat shares and FREE home delivery on any individual order totaling $70.00 or more. Orders between $50 and $70 will be charged a $10 delivery fee. All home delivery orders must meet a $50.00 order minimum. Amy is heading up Pastured Pantry and will be happy to answer any question you might have. Delivery dates are listed on the calandar on Pastured Pantry's website.
We will continue to participate in both the Summerville and Port Royal Farmers Markets. Annie and Marc plan on manning our market booths most Saturdays this year but you may also see some other faces on occassion.
We will work towards building our restaurant business both in and outside of the Charleston area. We recently made a Facebook post announcing a partnership with The Serge Group in Hilton Head which covers our supplying 5 of their restaurants with our pork. In upcoming weeks we will announce another partenership plus some new restaurant accounts that will be starting to purchase from us. These accounts are important to the farm and allow us to obtain volume discounts on our feed inputs and processing which help us keep our prices as low as possible to our market customers. Please support these restarants and chefs and tell them how much you appreciate their support of local farms.
For the past several years we have hoped to move towards vegetable production but have not been able to get this venture off the ground. Organic vegetables would be a natural move for the farm; we have the available land and we have an abbundant supply of manure to compost and use as fertilizer. The hold up has always been, and remains, labor. As much as we have tried, we can't find the labor required to raise, harvest, and pack vegetable orders. Last year we planted a small amount of sweet corn, squash, green beans, and tomatoes and sold it here at the farm. We are planning on doing the same this year and hope we can find a way to build this enterprise.
After holding our annual Family Day on The Farm event in October, we discussed making more changes for the upcoming years. We always enjoy having everyone come out and see the farm and learn how we raise their food. In the past we have tried to partner with a local charity or organization and feel our support was appreciated. We have had well known, local, chefs come out and prepare the meals and have had high school students and church organizations prepare the meals while both used our meats and eggs. The thing that we didn't get to do was to spend time with our customers and enjoy a laid back afternoon with them. We will discuss our plans in the upcoming months and will keep you posted in future newsletters and Facebook posts.
I know this newsletter is long but I have to let everyone know of a change that is being made at the processing plant. Due to all of the problems that occured at the plant this past Thanksgiving season and the large number of farms expected to request processing time at the plant this year, we have been asked to provide dates as to when we will need to process turkeys and how many we will have to process. The plant will no longer process turkeys after November 1st because of the number of growers that wanted to harvest fresh turkeys and the number of Holiday hogs the plant is obligated to process during the same time period. We need your help in determining how many birds we will need to raise this year so we can get our processing schedule to them. Please get your order in ASAP.
In the past couple of years we have used Facebook as a means of keeping people informed on what is happening on the farm as well as within the farming industry. We encourage you to post recipes, pictures of your meals using our meats, restaurants you dined at, and other information regarding farming that you feel our groups members would appreciate.
We have had several people tell us that they have placed their order or tried to contact us through the weekly order reminder. This reminder is not set up to recieve orders or comments. Any time you respond to the reminder, your return email goes to the webmaster and not to us. Please order through the website and use the "contact us" tab on the website to email us. When you place an order through the website you will get a confirmation email in return.
The year started out a little rough with an unusual snow storm and a week long freeze but that isn't going to dim the excitment we all feel about 2018. After 12 years of building a farming system that works for the envirnment, the animals, the farmers, and the farms customers, we know its time to move forward again and face the new challenges head on. We know our prices will never compete with the Whole Foods, Costco''s, and Trader Joes in the market place, but we know the quality and flavor of our products is something they will never be able to compete with.
We thank all of our long time customers for their support and welcome all of our new meat share members and home delivery customers to our farm family. Please don't hestiate to contact us with questions or comments and feel free to come out to the farm any Monday AND Friday, during market hours of 1 until 5, and take a walk around the farm. We may not be abe to accompany you but always encourage you to see how your food is raised and answer any questions you may have.
Annie, Marc, Amy, & Jesse