Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Losing Proposition

Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron?  Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger but let us not split hairs.  At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, is there true economic sustainability in small farming.  Of course, these are USDA 2008 census numbers.  We could have improved since then but it would be, marginally if at all.

This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on farm only.  The first three years growing, we sold at the bottom of the driveway and we made a modest profit.  We abandon the farm for, what we thought were lucrative spots at farmer's markets.  We stopped selling at farmer’s markets because we only sell what we grow.   Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety.  I want to be a successful grower, not a successful vendor.  Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables. 

This year we decided to break our luck and go back to the farm.  We set up signs pointing people up the drive to the house.  We got six signs printed up and placed them throughout the neighborhood only to have two signs stolen, the first time we used them.  Volume was not as great as hoped for, so we decided to move the veggies down to the street.  We are taking the tractor and the wagon loaded with what we have and set up shop at the end of the driveway.   It takes extra salesmanship and education but it feels right, lonely at times but at least not ALL day.  

Knowing I can tell you the exact history of the fruit, vegetable, egg or chicken should be a valued commodity.  The problem is we as consumers, do not ask the questions we should.  Next time you are at a market, ask what the name of the fruit or vegetable is.  The grower should be able to tell you the common name (lets face it, who can pronounce the Latin names?).  Which type of basil or tomato?  The point is the grower should be able to give you the characteristic or history of the plant.  Another question to ask yourself is the fruit or vegetable in season where you are, in Maryland tomatoes are just starting to come in.  Around here people selling sweet corn, before July 4th, are not selling what they grew. 

As consumers, we sometimes fall short when sourcing our food, which is why the Maryland Department of Agriculture just came out with language and policies for selling “Local” produce at farmers markets.  It goes to show you how widespread hucksterism has become, and how fed up consumers and real growers are becoming.  This regulation would not have come about if there were not a large outcry from educated consumers and people that really sell what they grow.  That is why it is called a “Farmer’s Market” not a Flea market

Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations.  We did not take on this farm with star struck eyes but with the realization that failure was more likely then success.  We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by going down front. 

That brings its own challenges.  We are trying to figure out what is the least costly way to staff the cart.  My suggestion bent towards the most logical and cost effective conclusion.  The person that makes the least amount, on an hourly basis, should be the person to sit down at the end of the road and read his bug book.  

So far, there has been some opposition to that plan from a member of the management team.  I do not want to alienate anyone on the management team so I will leave my wife out of this.  Seems even though I am not a paid employee (which makes me the lowest earner); I was informed, I have the most responsibility when it comes to overseeing safety, productivity and workforce harmony.  The idea is still in debate. 

I tried to unionize the workforce a couple of weeks ago but the vote was overwhelmingly defeated.  Somebody made the stupid comment that management was good therefore no reason to unionize.  I knew then, I was not working them as hard as I should.  I have to juggle my roles.  We will come up with a mix that allows some of our longest employees the ability to sit down at the stand and talk to customers, while I work in the blazing sun.  Let us face it we are not a conventional business using conventional business models.  Even though they are young and can work in the heat, it is important to us, to expose them to as many aspects of the operation as we can. in our minds we are molding future growers. 

This past weekend we brought in more money then the previous weekend and I think this trend will just continue upward the longer we are down there.  In the mean time: 

 

BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right.  If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.  

 

 
 

Times Like These

I know that we are not alone but, I do not know why it is everything we do seems easy until put into practice only to find it to be incredibly hard?  Take our latest foray into meat birds.  We went to a State sponsored poultry and rabbit processing class.  We took the test, passed and made sure the processing facility we would use was USDA inspected.  We then submitted our registration along with the fee.

While doing further research on the regulations we found that although our Department of Agriculture would allow us to sell our birds to retailers and restaurants our Health Department does not allow us to do so.  We have already gotten our feet wet with two flocks and sold most of them to a retailer.  I had to call the vendor and tell them until we got clarification from the State that I could not sell him any more birds.

We have one hundred more broilers in the pipeline and we are having problems selling the last of the third flock.  We can sell them from the farm; we just do not have the foot traffic to sell all of them.  We have canceled our peep order and will be getting no more for the season.  We did not expect to be an over-night sensation.  We did however over-estimate how quickly we could get rid of the birds on the farm.

At first, we priced them to cover our expenses.  The first two batches were somewhat of a disaster (see Learning Curves).  Therefore, cost per bird was high and we still lost money.  No matter were you are reading this, chances are you know the heat wave that is engulfing most of the country.  It is not fit for man, beast or vegetation right now.  We learned from the previous mistake and purchased shade tents (that lasted one day). 

We are still loosing birds to the heat despite reducing the number of birds per pen; we have fifteen in an eighty square foot pen.  Salatin recommended fifty, but we kept knocking that number down until we felt there was plenty of space and no competition.  It is just heartbreaking to walk out there after work and find ten birds expired.  The heat index hit one-hundred and twelve.  We were able to revive three of the injured but ended up having to put one of those down because he was to far gone and we could not let it suffer more than he already had.  That process did not go as planned either.  I will spare you the details but suffice it to say it was not a clean, pain free experience for the bird or I. 

As I have said before when anything goes wrong with a chicken most times it can be traced back to management and I cannot help but feel the suffering they must have gone through before their demise.  It was my fault and my guilt that has put a heavy burden on me.  Am I humane when I loose as many birds as I have?  I cannot even beat industry averages, and that kills me the most.  I know I am better then that and it is frustrating to see otherwise.

In this field, you cannot dodge the responsibility and blame others as we see all around us at the State and Federal governance levels.  We cannot sit back and say well it was your fault for not telling us in time or bring up some other lame excuse to deflect our culpability.  You take it on the chin, pick yourself up, learn as best you can to not make the same mistake twice and move on.  Yet the measures we have taken have failed.  The tents blew away twisting the cheap metals that bore the structure.  We got replacement parts from the manufacturer replaced them and put the tents up again to only last one day.  Yes, they were the least expensive and yes, I did get what I paid for. 

We are exceeding the national average for percentage of birds lost and that fact alone does the most damage to the evaluation of my animal husbandry skills.  It is not for a lack of trying we purchased shade tents, as mentioned, and fans for cooling.  The tents sit in rumpled heaps because they were in fact cheap pieces of animal fertilizer.  We are making ten by ten-square frames for the roof and creating lean-to for shade.  As with most everything, this is taking time that we do not have and adding work we do not need.

The fans help the most.  Once they were installed things changed drastically.  However, these are indoor fans not outdoors.  If we are home and it starts raining, we can get the fans to protect them.  If we are at work and it rains well, I am not an electrician but my guess would be they are not going to make it.  It is a temporary risk until we can purchase outdoor fans.

So far, the week before processing has been the worst week for losses.  It has happened this way for the first three flocks.  Yes, that is a clue to when our vigilance should be most acute with this next batch and we will take heed.  Nevertheless, it also shows you that we have sunk the most cost you can into raising a bird before processing.  They have been eating feed, drinking water and consuming labor for most of their brief stay on earth.  To lose them at this critical time is adding insult to injury.

I have read about the perils of heat and made allowances, such as, reducing the numbers of birds per pen, keeping them in the shade and close to shade as much as possible and providing plenty of access to water.  We exceed all requirements for feeding, watering and space.  We are now looking into outdoor fans.  That will be an additional cost but we hope to keep more birds alive so that we can recoup those costs.  It is all a money game and that is why we fail.  To us it is a matter of comfort and doing what is right for the animal not the bottom line.  Do not get me wrong, I graduated with an undergraduate and graduate degree in business, so I know the bottom line, I know profit and I know sustainability.  They are not mutually exclusive but I wonder if they are achievable given our history.  I just wonder at times like these..

 

Buy Local:  Do it now before you lose the chance, not all of us are able to do it without you.

 

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