One of the real blessings of our farm is a small grove of Black Walnut trees at the bottom of the hill by our barn. There are about ten tall, stately walnut trees, each reaching forty or fifty feet into the air. It’s cool there, the spreading branches casting a cool green shadow over the ground, creating a cavernous space for the cool breeze to flow through.
This is my retreat. At the foot, of one of these tall stately giants is a bench I love to sit on. It’s a retreat for me when I have had a really tough day. A refuge where it is quiet and peaceful. A place where I can escape the pressures running a business, dealing with all the challenges associated with being an entrepreneur. It’s also a place that I can say thanks for the blessings of this farm, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.
It’s also a place where I spend a lot of time thinking about the mission and strategy for our farm. We have a small farm, just over ten acres, and my objective is to show how a small farm can be sustainable, not just in terms of environmentally sustainable, but also financially sustainable (i.e. profitable). We are entering our third year, and we are going to turn a small profit this year– so it is working, but we still have a long way to go! My principals for the farm are simple: maximize value, diversify, and multiple purposes. This is how we are accomplishing each of these three.
We maximize value by focusing on selling our products to the end consumers. Whether is selling eggs directly to the consumer, or selling our wool and yarn directly to the spinners who turn it into finished products, or selling processed beef and lamb to consumers. The greatest value is derived (and the most margin) by selling as near to the end consumer as possible. It takes more effort, and we have to do a lot of marketing, but it’s worth it. For example, if we sold our wool in the ‘commercial market’ we would probably get (at best) $3 per pound. By focusing on the specialty craft market for spinners we average $20 a pound. That makes a huge difference for our farm.
The second key principle is diversification. Even within our primary operation (sheep) we have three different types of revenue streams: stock sales, wool, dairy, and meat. So, if the market for wool is down, we have the opportunity to recoup some of the lost revenue with meat and livestock. With our chickens we do both broilers and eggs. So, if something happens with the egg production, we should still be good with broilers. We diversify as much as possible. My only caveat here is we are pretty quick to cull activities that don’t fit or work-out. For examples, for a while we raised Shetland sheep, but we found that they just didn’t work well in our operation for a number of reasons – so we dropped that breed.
The concept of multiple purposes means that everything on the farm should serve more than one purpose. For example, our free-range chickens not only produce eggs, but they also scratch through the sheep droppings in the pasture, eat insects, and generally help soil health. Our sheep produce milk we use in our household, but they also provide milk we can use for baby lambs in our wool breeds.
This is how we are approaching the farm. It’s a work in progress and maybe in the next ten or twenty years we will get good at it!! And if you need to reach me, just check out in the Walnut Grove!!