DECEMBER ON THE FARM
December is always our month to review. It’s a time that we look at everything that we did on the farm during the year and make decisions as to how we will proceed in the future. We make a tentative business plan and sales budget for the next year and try and decide what projects we want to tackle during the winter months. Normally we hold a few family business meetings during the month and hold our 1 annual Board of Directors meeting. Since incorporating the farm 2 or 3 years ago, we are obligated to hold at least 1 board meeting annually.
Some of our customers are surprised to hear that our small farm is incorporated. A lot of mid to large farms are incorporated: we incorporated in order to make the transition over to Amy and Jesse easier and to allow them to keep farming in the event anything happened to Annie or I. I can’t imagine the problems they would incur just trying to pay the farms bills if the bank account was locked due to our death. One of the nice things about a corporation is that it can continue seamlessly in the event the owner passes away.
We started the year right where we expected. Our restaurant and farm market sales were as projected and we were well on our way to completing our winter projects. In September of 2019 we had begun servicing the Charlotte NC restaurant market and had some good prospects that we expected to begin buying from us in 2020. Pastured Pantry had seen some decent growth in 2019 and was expected to continue growing at a steady pace. We felt good about what we were seeing and were planning on being able, for the first time since we started selling to the public in 2005, to pay down some of the debt we incurred in building the farm infrastructure, purchasing additional land, and buying the trucks and equipment required to run the farm. We felt deep down inside that this was our “break-out” year, that this was the year that would truly solidify the future of the farm. We felt that way until early March when, on a Tuesday afternoon, it was announced that all the restaurants would have to close due to the Covid-19 lock down. Restaurants made up 80% of the farms sales.
Once the announcement was made to close restaurants, we looked at how many chickens and hogs we were feeding daily, the cost of feed, and the amount of cash on hand. We quickly realized that we would be shut down in 3 to 4 weeks if the restaurants weren’t opened quickly. We immediately contacted our ag lender and discussed options, something that we had never dreamed we would be faced with. We were assured that they would work with us and by late Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, we had a plan on how we would proceed for the next few weeks. Plans were drawn to take hogs to a buying station on the North Carolina border and sold. Prices were down and every hog sold would be at a big loss but at least we wouldn’t be feeding them. Chickens would be fed out, processed, and put in the freezer; without the restaurants we had about 1 year of chickens out in the lots. We cancelled all hatchery orders for chicks and called our turkey hatchery and cancelled the 500 turkey poults that we had on order. By this point we were in survival mode.
On Thursday afternoon or Friday of the same week the restaurants shut down, we started getting a lot of phone calls; people were calling to ask if we had certain items in stock and what our hours were. Getting these calls isn’t unusual, but the number of calls we we’re receiving was unbelievable. We also began getting calls, emails, and texts from other farms looking for hogs and chickens. Since we are one of the largest pastured growers in the state, and one of the only ones that raise chickens year round, these farmers came to us looking for help getting meat to serve their customers; they were being inundated with phone calls too. The large processors were shutting down because of Covid and people were turning to the local farms for meat and produce.
Because our chef customers wanted fresh chickens weekly, we already had processing scheduled for every Wednesday throughout the year and knew that we would be able to process the chickens we needed. We had been preparing for the busy part of farm market season and had about 2-1/2 month’s worth of chicken and chicken parts in the freezer (we had planned on cutting back on chicken production a little during the summer months). Within 3 weeks of the lock down, we were sold out of the chicken we had in the freezer and were depending on our weekly processing to cover our demand. We had sold several hundred chickens and a lot of hogs to other farmers and had to tell others that called that we didn’t have any more that we could spare. After not getting chicks from the hatchery for 1 week, we called them and reinstated our weekly hatchery shipment.
As great as all of this was, it didn’t make up for the loss of the restaurant business; we had to let 2 people go, both part-time, a driver and a lady that helped take care of our chickens.
Home delivery and farm market orders skyrocketed. All of Hunters time was spent packing orders, something that was a small part of her job originally. We ended up having to hire another person to help pack the orders and Pastured Pantry had to hire an additional person to help deliver them. This continued through June before dropping back to pre-pandemic levels as grocery store shelves were restocked.
Fewer staff on the farm meant we needed to find ways of becoming more efficient. Something that we had considered for a couple of years, building a feed bin, now seemed like a necessity. Feeding chickens in the lot took almost 2 hours daily. We knew we could cut the time required to feed chickens to just a few hours a week by going to large feeders in each lot and by filling these feeders from an auger wagon, the auger wagon would be filled from the feed bin. Purchasing bulk feed would cut our cost slightly but the real savings would be from cutting our feeding time from 14 hours a week down to 4. In June we placed the order for a feed bin and we purchased a used auger wagon. The unassembled bin came in on July 3rd and was put together and erected in early August. The auger wagon was cleaned up, painted and greased and was ready to go when the first delivery of feed was made. This has ended up being one of the best investments the farm has ever made.
Everything wasn’t rosy however, market sales and home delivery sales dropped as people went back to buying from the grocery store and, the restaurants that did open back up, were buying more products off the Sysco and US Food trucks because they didn’t have the number of customers that allowed them the revenue to purchase from local farms.
In the spring our farm had made the decision to continue breeding and farrowing hogs at pre-pandemic levels and to continue bringing in 250 to 300 chicks a week in an attempt to meet the demand we had been seeing. With the rapid slow down in home delivery and market sales, and the lack of restaurant business, we were again struggling and contemplating cutting back. Like our farm, many farms around the state, were contemplating what the future would hold; would they be able to continue farming.
Amy found a way of tying our Ipads that are used as our point of sale devices, to our inventory. Now every time a sale is made, the item is immediately deducted from our inventory making it easier for us to monitor our inventory levels and minimize stock outs. This came in extremely handy during the late spring and early summer when our website orders were going through the roof.
A look back at 2020 wouldn’t be complete without looking at the processing issues we faced. Normally we sell about 2 steers a mouth; during the spring months our usage went up to a cow a week. Luckily, our partnering farm had taken a large number of steers to process just a few weeks earlier. Between his
cows and ours we had 10 cows in the freezer. Our relationship with a processing plant in NC helped us get additional processing scheduled and kept us well stocked in beef. As things progressed plants throughout the country became booked out with some plants scheduled out until June 2021 at this point. One of the plants we use told us they will no longer schedule cows for people that aren’t currently processing with them. We expect to continue to see beef processing issues through most, if not all, of 2021.
Though we did see some processing issues with chicken and pork, chicken processing continued as scheduled while pork processing was only canceled once and that was early on in April due to the plant being overrun with hogs to process. The plant we use for our chicken processing will now only schedule out 12 weeks which makes it difficult to increase production if needed, but helps them to insure all of the available processing spots will be used and their labor used efficiently. I can’t tell you how many times people have scheduled chicken processing and didn’t bring the birds. This is very costly to the plant and looks bad on all of the growers that process there.
One of the big bright spots this year came in the form of a USDA Value Added Grant we received in early September. The grant is designed to provide financial support in the development and marketing of our pork products. The grant doesn’t provide assistance with the raising of the hog but does provide
assistance in the processing required to make the final product and helps us with the marketing of that product. Our original plan involved producing products for both our family customers as well as our restaurant customers; the only difference in the product is the packaging size.
In October we began running radio ads in the Beaufort, Bluffton, and Hilton Head markets on 3 locally owned radio stations. We decided to run the ads for 3 months and then evaluate the results. We will evaluate the results later this month.
As I write this newsletter we have just been notified of the passing of a dear friend and a member of our Board of Directors; he was a very private man so I will refer to him as Mr. B. Mr. B has been a customer of the farm for years. Every week or two he’d come in, buy 2 or 3 dozen eggs and some of our pork sausage. Over the years we got to know each other better and he began asking questions about the farm and what our future plans were. At this time we had no idea what he had done for a living, only knew that he had worked in New York for most of his career. Later we found out that he had been a vice president of a financial division of a large insurance company; insurance companies take the money they receive from premiums and invest the money by making loans to other companies. After he passed we learned that he had been a graduate of Harvard with a degree in Economics. I have a degree in economics and am an MBA but the things he taught me, and the ideals and principals he insisted I have, could never be taught in any college or graduate program. I am forever indebted to Mr B and will never forget the things he taught me. Over the years he truly became a father figure and someone that will be greatly missed.
All things considered, I think we did a fairly good job of navigating 2020. By no means am I saying we came through it unscathed, but we did manage to come through it with a portion of our sanity left. I’m not proud of saying this but for the first time in my life, I was ready to through in the towel and quit farming. I went as far as running the numbers on how much we could get for the equipment and the trucks, trying to see if we could pay off our farm loans without having to sell land. In the end I balled up the paper and threw it away. What would I do with myself if I didn’t farm? What would this do to Amy and Jesse’s plans? What would we do with the land? Mow it every other week? I don’t think so.
During the next few weeks the family will be meeting to discuss our plans for 2021. We will also search for a new board member to fill Mr. B’s seat; I have a couple people in mind and think both will be extremely good additions to our board. I’m certain we will be faced with having to make some very difficult decisions due to the continuing effects of Covid and the uncertain market that the virus has created. But I’m also sure that we can find ways of navigating these issues and have high hopes that we will be back to more normal times come summer or early fall. In our January newsletter we’ll update you on what our plans are for 2021 and what changes we have decided need to be made.
I want to remind everyone again to follow us on Facebook. For the past couple of months we have been announcing specials and highlighting products on the Facebook page. All of these specials have been first come first serve and have been well received. There is now a link on the website directly to our
We wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year. We appreciate your continued support of our farm and cherish our friendships more than you know. Take care and stay safe.
Annie, Marc, Amy, and Jesse.