The beginning farmer: Turning challenge into opportunity

Sound Consumer | April 2010

by Melissa Campbell, Stewardship and Land Associate

Having successfully cleared the major hurdle most new farmers face — securing land — Orting Valley farmer and owner of Crying Rock Farms, Joel Blais, now is wrestling with the realities of what it means to be a small-scale organic pork producer. Joel shared the following reflections about his biggest challenges:

The biggest challenges for a small-scale new farm are twofold: inputs and outputs. Inputs include a consistent network of necessary supplies such as hay, feed, medical treatment and information.

Take hay, for example: all the hay was sold off the land before I came on to the property and I need some carbon material for my pigs. Where can I get hay locally? Can I be certain it wasn’t treated with things that I’m trying to keep out of my farm? How about feed — who is the nearest organic feed supplier?†

Considering outputs, where can I sell one pig’s worth of sausage, one time, to generate enough revenue required to hold a slaughter date for the main crop? Where can I sell the rabbits in time to pay for the sausage grinder? The answers are easy for large-scale producers because it’s all done at one processing plant.

I resolved not to fit into the factory model for many reasons, and to look at these questions and challenges as opportunities. Now that the ground is drier and the grass growing, my sows are tilling up the new hop fields. This is what I want. I can’t afford a tractor, so out of necessity I have found a great process that is very healthy for the pigs, and the land.

There also are the operational challenges typically planned for, but you really can’t plan ahead for the magnitude. For instance, I never imagined what a diverse and complex predator problem I would be up against, or thought about how when I buy a pregnant sow, she’s really pregnant only 10 percent of the time.

Serendipitously, this has forced me to focus on smaller and slower growing breeds, most of which are turning into promising boutique offerings. I may have passed that opportunity by if I was focused on the conventional model.

Joel’s experience is not uncommon. As land prices, operational costs and equipment costs continue to rise, the challenges to new farmers are ever-increasing — requiring growers and producers to be creative, nimble and thick-skinned. Follow Joel’s story on his blog: www.cryingrockfarms.blogspot.com


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