An Open Letter on the Financial Agonies of an out-of-business American Farmer and a Plea for Understanding
This will be a very candid blog post.
Probably more so than usual. I always tell the truth on my blog, but I am very much an optimist and my writing tends to reflect that.
Where others see weeds I see wildflowers.
Where others see manure I see next seasons nitrogen.
Where others see nothing but hard labor I see an opportunity.
Where others see complete financial collapse…yeah, actually that’s pretty much what I see too. No amount of rose tinting is ever going to color these glasses again.
I am writing this down now because I have had a few people ask me “What happened last year? Things seemed to be going so well, what went wrong?” This is the story of what happened. It is also written to refute some very misguided gossip which has been perpetuated about our farm and which I would like to address. I can’t undo the damage done by gossip and vindictiveness, but I can at least stand and defend myself. For the past year I have said nothing in response to the untrue claims that have been made, it hasn’t seemed worth my time. But now as we are changing the nature of our farm business it seems appropriate to clear the air.
If you have a few minutes I’ll tell you the saga.
If you are a farmer: read it well, learn from my mistakes, and watch your step. There are worse things than cow pies to put your feet in.
If you are a local food enthusiast: read it well and understand where the farmer is coming from, why he sometimes seems grouchy, why he doesn’t let anyone on his farm anymore, and why he refuses your help when you attempt to get him to sell directly to consumers.
The saga begins…(yeah, it’s corny, I know…I’m a farmer, I like corn):
In November of 2011 William and I were facing a major crossroad on our farm. We were bringing in enough income to pay our labor expenses, part of our animal feed expenses, and pay ourselves just a little bit on the side.
We were going further in debt with every month we continued to operate and the slope into failure was getting steep and slippery. We had just enough farm infrastructure in place to go for full production on the farm, which was our only hope for continued survival and we decided to take that chance.
We researched our options in the direct-to-consumer market, asked people what they were looking for in a farm, researched some more, ran figure after figure on paper, had lots of internal debates about what to do and finally reached a decision.
We started marketing the Full-Diet farm in December of 2011.
People were excited about it, they shared the idea with their friends and by the end of January, which was when we needed to know how many seeds to plant for the coming year, we had no one signed up.
So we made our best guess as to what people would want, we planted for a spring crop and we increased our marketing efforts. We tried to locate an online service that would allow for customized farm member orders and finally settled on one that we were told would work.
We needed more labor in the garden than we had, but there was simply no money for it. Some of the laborers we hired were friends who didn’t show up for work for weeks and we fell behind during the Spring months. We should have let them go then, but how do you fire friends?!
We kept marketing believing that if we could get enough money down to put into raising the food for our customers we would be okay. We wanted to keep the price low so that average families could afford it. We didn’t want to just play to the elitist prices that local food sometimes resorts to for survival. We followed the same model which CSA’s have used for years: pay up front for the food this season, receive your crop when the harvest comes in.
Time passed swiftly, the garden was growing slowly, it appeared that we were ready.
And then there was a whirlwind….
July 1st hit us like a tornado on the prairie and complications we simply hadn’t anticipated knocked us flat on our rears.
Here is the brief list:
There were not enough seedlings in the garden. This was actually a preventable problem, but we didn’t see it until it was too late. We had the correct numbers of seedlings to be planted and harvested on a weekly basis, but we were not clear enough with our garden manager on the number of people we would be feeding and the amount of food they would be taking and so the correct number of seedlings were not planted. William was overseeing multiple construction projects on the farm and didn’t have time to double check, I was trying to fix problems with the ordering system and didn’t have time to double check. A small problem became a huge stumbling block.
The system that we invested in to schedule orders and deliveries did not work at all and had to be completely redone during the first two weeks of July. It led to confusion, misunderstandings on what would and would not be available weekly, and I spent a lot of time trying to fix the problems caused by a system that was supposed to prevent problems.
Our “best guess” in January of what people would want to eat in July was not very accurate. We did not have enough of some foods, and we had way too much of others.
An entire tank of milk was lost the day before our first delivery. This kind of thing happens occasionally on a dairy but it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. It put us behind on cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, and sour cream orders.
Because of the pitiful ordering system we had multiple customers who misunderstood the orders they had originally made on their Family Food Planner. The ordering system listed all of the products that would be available throughout the year all the time…even the ones that wouldn’t be available for another two months. We had farm members really angry with us that they didn’t get their carrots, even though the food planner clearly stated carrots wouldn’t be available until September.
Our employees were threatening to quit because of the amount of food that had to be harvested; they were working past the point of reason and we will be forever grateful for their efforts. We had no money to hire more labor to help them. I’m sure we could have found dirt cheap, illegal immigrant labor if we had looked for it, but that just doesn’t seem to be the moral answer. William and I jumped in to work in all the areas of the farm, even the ones we were not directly overseeing, typically working from 6am until well past 10pm every day but we could never get caught up on the work.
The delivery van needed major modifications to be safe and reliable for delivery but we had no extra money to fix it.
We were losing money on milk deliveries even PRIOR to the addition of the full-diet farm option.
And then the van broke down. My poor, personal, family vehicle which I had donated to the cause had finally given up.
We put our brakes on fast, we really didn’t have a choice, and we took a long painful look at the situation.
Because we trimmed our profit margin so slim, to make our products available to families without a huge income, we had a miniscule profit to start out with. If we tried to repair or replace the delivery van that profit margin would be absolutely destroyed and we would be operating at a loss for the remainder of the year. It wasn’t an option anyway, we simply had no money to purchase a new delivery van with.
It looked pretty bad. In fact it looked absolutely hopeless.
But then we’re farmers, we deal with bleak situations on a yearly, sometimes daily, basis. We did what we’ve always done; take stock of the situation and salvaged what we could.
They way we saw it we had only two options in front of us:
1. We could just declare bankruptcy and fold. We didn’t have the money to keep going with the home delivery option we wanted to do.
2. We could just leave the delivery service behind, keep growing the crops we had started, keep milking the cows, and provide the food we had agreed to grow with an on-farm pick-up.
We knew that we DID have lots of wonderful food in the garden, ripe, ripening, and still in its infancy; we had cows, pigs, and lambs nearing butcher weight; we had 25 milk cows and an amazing milking barn and equipment; 2000 broilers in the field, 400 turkey poults, and 500 laying hens in the pasture; and the water and land to feed our farm members all of the in-season, local food we could raise: exactly what we had agreed to do.
We DIDN’T have a delivery vehicle or adequate labor to bag, label, bottle, and prepare all of the food going out each week.
We had offered delivery as a free service thinking that the monthly payments would cover the expense. We were wrong. Plain and simple. We hadn’t calculated the cost correctly. We based our cost estimates on our existing delivery costs but the actual cost of home delivery was four times what we had anticipated and that cost difference just made it impossible. We should have known because at that point we had many customers to whom we had been delivering milk to at drop sites around the Portland area for almost two years, but we thought that with greater revenue it would miraculously make delivery less expensive. What we should have realized, and I am very sorry that we didn’t, is that taking a small money losing operation and making it larger just leads to a larger money losing operation, not an increased profit. For two years we delivered milk all over the Portland area and for two years we lost money on milk delivery every single month. Our dairy operation provided cash flow on a monthly basis but no profit. All of our profits were eaten up in gas, labor, and car care just to get the product to the people. The only profits we made were in selling the small amount of garden crops that we did. Every month that we delivered to drop sites put us further into debt. We were viewing every month we could survive as a success and a step towards profitability but it was an illusion
We made the only decision we felt was an option, we had to suspend deliveries altogether, both home and drop site deliveries. Bankruptcy was just not an option for us, we wanted the people who had entrusted us with their food dollars to get the food they had requested.
And that’s when things got exciting…kind of like that thrill you feel when you get to face an angry grizzly bear and you have nothing to defend yourself with.
Our farm members are really quite an amazing bunch. Most of them were pretty understanding at first. They came to the farm and we showed them how to harvest, they took the bull by the horns, and we all muddled through the first two confusing weeks while we worked to get the machine shop turned into a farm market.
And here is where we lost some people due to a HUGE false belief that some farm members embraced, proliferated, and still spread to this day. We were accused of being liars because we “obviously” had the money to pour concrete and fix up a machine shop so therefore we must obviously have had the money to buy a delivery van and we simply didn’t want to.
It is not true.
The answer to that accusation is simple: we did not have the money, but the landowner did. The wonderful people that we lease the farm from were kind enough to push the completion of the machine shop to the top of their long list of projects that needed finishing and which THEY were funding.
Some farm members, just a very few, got the idea that because we till the earth on the property where a large and lovely home is being built then we must have access to boat loads of funding and deep pockets of cash to solve any problem we may have, and that the landowner is in some way responsible for our business. This is NOT the case. We have common farming goals, we are working together to make this a sustainable, productive farm, but the landowners are not in any way responsible for the finances of C’est Naturelle Farms. We have an investor yes, but an investor is not the same as someone offering a grant. He is not giving us money for free, he is offering us money for infrastructure costs and operating costs only on a limited basis. And he expects to be paid back. We do not have deep, bottomless pockets to draw from. We are deeply indebted for a farm that isn’t even ours. We owe more on this farm than most people owe on their home, children’s educations, and daughters’ weddings combined. The only difference between us and the farmers who are in debt to a bank is that our investor really wants to see us succeed and is willing to mentor us and give us the time to make it work. Most banks just wait for the death of the business and swoop in for the kill. Still to this day we have people that attempt to hit up the farm landowner as if he owes them money, which is just absolutely ridiculous. It would be like walking into a bank and requesting money from the banker who gave the home loan to your neighbor who owes you money. I’ve explained this until I’m blue in the face, but the people who spread the lie just keep passing the lie around again and again. I’m thinking they won’t believe me until I file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
We made it through the first two weeks of post delivery pick-up, though we sustained a lot of loss during the first week in particular. The first day of farm pick-ups we had people that apparently forgot the “just enough for this week” goal of the full-diet farm. Most farm members requested enough beef and pork to equal about 8-15 lbs of meat weekly, but we had reports of people filling up entire coolers full of beef and taking it home. We had enough meat in the freezer for 80 families to have an average of 10 lbs/weekly for 4 weeks. That meat was cleared out in under 30 minutes by less than 30% of our farm members. I wasn’t present to stop it, I had to pick my children up from a pioneer trek they had gone on that week and William was in the garden instructing people how and where to harvest. By the time he got to the meat freezer it was almost completely empty.
We just chalked it up to a rocky start and kept going.
We were working long hours outside on the farm, we had to let our employees go with the exception of 2, and one of those quit, which meant we had even fewer hands to do the work necessary. We came in and tried to stay caught up on emails, text messages, and phone calls but it was a full-time job in and of itself and we simply didn’t have the time. We had cows, pigs, and poultry to tend to, garden crops to cultivate, milk goods to make, and farm construction projects to finish. Add to that 4 children to homeschool and my time to spend on emails and the phone was severely diminished. Most nights I fell into bed just wishing I didn’t have to get up in the morning and do it all again the next day. But I did, William did, and so we just trudged on.
And after the whirlwind there was an earthquake…
Then in the midst of our already flailing efforts to stay afloat a new point of confusion and accusation cropped up and spread like wildfire all over the internet: our animal feed contained GMO’s and we were supposedly hiding it from everyone.
Let me be very, very clear on this point: YES our feed did contain a percentage of GMO soy and corn, probably about 20%. However, we NEVER claimed that we were GMO free while marketing our full-diet farm, in fact we were very clear that we weren’t and we had some potential farm members opt to not participate until we could reach our goal of 100% GMO-free.
When we first moved to the Willamette Valley we purchased feed from a local source that claimed to be GMO-free and we advertised our products as such. But upon further questioning we discovered that all of their corn and soy came from the Midwest with no way of knowing if it were GMO-free or not and so we removed that claim from our marketing. This was clear back in the fall of 2010.
We were very open about our feed, we invited people to visit and see every aspect of our farm, and we have been completely open about our methods.
But in spite of this transparency we were accused of being deceitful, of being selfish because we were unwilling to sacrifice our meager profit for the good of the GMO-free movement, and being fake farmers because of our need to purchase an affordable source of nutrition for our livestock. People believed something about us that was false and then condemned us for not living up to their erroneous expectation.
That kind of slander is a gift which just keeps giving. Between that misrepresentation of our farming methods and the outright lie that we had buckets of money to spend and we were just pretending to farm but didn’t want to do the work required; we had a large portion of farm members who fell prey to the falsehoods and dropped out of the program. They asked for their deposit money back, claiming we had lied to them even though they had attended our farm tours, seen our feed and our methods first hand, that we had executed a bait and switch (I actually had to look that one up, I didn’t even know what it was), and who then spread the word that we were not good farmers because we 1. Didn’t deliver and 2. Weren’t completely GMO-free.
I’m thinking that by those standards 9 out of 10 farmers around the world are bad farmers as well.
In our membership contracts we state clearly that farm deposits are non-refundable. Almost all CSA’s do this, it is standard operating procedure for one very good reason: the majority of farming costs happen up front and there is no way to “refund” money that is now in cattle feed, seedlings, drip tape, and milk tank cooling. The only way to recoup deposit money is to take the food that was originally agreed upon.
So in a span of about 3 weeks we lost almost half of our customers. Some because of the long distance involved in traveling to the farm, which we absolutely understood and some to disillusionment brought on by a false belief, which we had absolutely no control over.
The worst part of these accusations was that the people making them didn’t come to us with questions, they took their grievances to people who couldn’t help them solve the problem and they spread frustration with no solution, and anger with no recourse. I had three people come to me directly with questions and concerns based on gossip, only three. Yet I knew of a large number of others who had heard of the gossip, or spread the gossip without bothering to speak with me at all or attempting to discuss their problems. I was grateful for the people who were direct and honest.
This was an especially dark hour for me personally. I could understand disappointment, I was disappointed; I could understand frustration and even some anger that our farm plan didn’t work out the way we had originally hoped it would; what I was not prepared for was the quantity and cruel quality of the personal attacks hurled at me personally, not as a business, but as a person, as a mom, and as a woman.
One of the things that shocked me most was the attack on our food choices as a family. We eat probably 60% of our diet from the farm, all of our meat, eggs, and milk and then whatever is in season in the garden. But I was viciously attacked by people who were frustrated over no longer receiving front door delivery; but they didn’t attack me on delivery issues, rather the attacks were based on the fact that my children eat Ramen noodles occasionally. And that I am not some kind of gluten-free, GAPS diet guru and cook. I never claimed to be, and I still can’t see what that has to do with the farm at all. The only farmers I know who never buy ramen noodles, boxed cereals, and candy are the ones who have come to farming later in life because they were looking for great food and decided to grow it themselves. That is not my paradigm. I am a generational farmer; I grew up on a farm, my parents had both raised a portion of their own food when they were young. It is what we have always done. We can our farm goods when we have time, but some years there isn’t time. Last year I didn’t can one single quart of tomatoes, I didn’t have any time to spend on food saving for my own family because I was too busy growing food for 40 other families. I know there will be people who may not like this, but it is my belief: I don’t farm for the food, I farm for the lifestyle. The food is a great by-product of the farming, but would I cease to be a farmer if I raised grass seed or alfalfa hay? Would I cease to be a farmer if all I raised were horses? I was condemned as a fake farmer, a “schmoozer”, and a fraud because I provide easy, ready-to-go meals for my children to prepare on their own when I know I will not have time to prepare a home cooked meal. Local food enthusiasts sometimes believe erroneously that those who raise the food they eat must go home to meals of fresh baked bread, bone broth stews, home baked pies made with apples from their own trees and crusts made from the lard they rendered themselves, and hand churned butter. It sounds nice, but I have to wonder…who is doing the cooking? The only time we get a chance to eat like that is when I take a hiatus from the work. The rest of the time it’s spaghetti or taco salad.
The cruelty got to be so severe that I finally suffered a nervous breakdown. When the phone rang I tensed up, couldn’t breathe, and broke out in a sweat. I couldn’t even take phone calls from friends. I was afraid to leave my house, I had to force myself to be where I needed to be to speak with people, a previously healed ulcer came back with a vengeance and I could hardly function through the pain of it. When I sat down to answer emails my heart rate would skyrocket out of control and I would freeze up in fear as I prepared to just click on every unopened email. I finally had to turn the phone and email over to our only remaining employee so that I could function as a wife and mother.
And because I took the only option I had to survive I was accused further of not being a good farmer; because obviously if you are going to be a farmer you should be able to also be a customer service representative, a 24 hour complaint desk, a real food guru, and a secretary. And here I thought it was about raising food.
And after the earthquake there was a drought…
This was literally a drought, not a metaphor.
On an individual farm basis we ran out of irrigation water for our dairy pastures on the first week of August which meant that we needed to supplement our cows with alfalfa 5 months ahead of schedule. This was a cost we had not planned on. To make matters worse there was a record drought throughout the Midwest which drove the price of alfalfa up nationwide. The cost per ton went up by 50% which pushed any hope of a profit completely out of reach. Not to mention that the limited supply of feed limited our supply of milk which meant no milk to skim for cream and butter, no milk for yogurt and sour cream and none for cheese. It wouldn’t have mattered on the finished products so much because with further study of Oregon laws we determined that the gray area for finished products with milk, even in a herd share, was simply too risky a venture to pursue. The county wouldn’t let us build a certified kitchen, the state wouldn’t permit us to prepare any finished goods without one so we were caught and couldn’t produce the milk products we had originally said we would.
With the lack of water we also had to let some of our garden crops go while trying to conserve the others in order to guarantee a crop of greens to over-winter during the cold months.
In hindsight it probably would have been best to declare bankruptcy then and there. But we just couldn’t do it. We already had so much invested in the animals and garden, we couldn’t let it go to waste. We had 40 families who loved the full diet farm, who came and helped in the fields, who offered kindness and words of support when they could see how hard we were struggling. We simply could not let them down.
So we limped along. We borrowed money to repay some of the deposit money a few farm members had paid. We couldn’t return all of it and we had to decide between those who had requested a refund first and from there further narrowed it by those who had expressed an interest in still receiving product and those who hadn’t.
We invited all of our farm members, current and past, to come to the farm and take what they needed. Many did and went away happy with what they received and some have continued to purchase from us on an occasional basis.
And after the drought came the winter…
We lost a few more families over the winter. Some couldn’t travel the long distance in the inclement weather, some grew tired of the limited variety of vegetables that are available locally in-season, and some hadn’t preserved enough food from the abundant harvest of the fall to get them through the winter season. As farm members fell away the cash flow we needed to attempt to supplement our offerings with those of other farms diminished.
At this point we had several farm members who had asked us if they could pay later for their food when money wasn’t so scarce, who had participated all through the harvest, taken hundreds of pounds of vegetables, fruits, and meat, who then decided to quit the farm; leaving behind unpaid bills, less products for our loyal customers, and a sour taste in my mouth for having attempted to be kind.
Winter gave way to spring, we all, farmers and farm members alike, rejoiced when fresh greens were available again. Mid-April one of our farm members said she had just barely used the last of her winter squashes which she had put away in October. We have delighted in the members who made the commitment and have worked along side us through the last year. We have enjoyed their children, seeing them grow, and introducing them to the new young animals on the farm.
The last year has seen friends gained and lost, beautiful crops raised, harvested, and enjoyed. We have worked past the point where we thought it would kill us, we have learned patience with those who have hurt us and increased in understanding. We have made plans to move forward with efforts to turn failure into success, we have salvaged what we could from the destruction of the past 12 months and lived in hope for something better to come from our hard work.
And now we stand, midway through another summer. The irrigation is two months too late for the garden so we have opted to leave it untilled in order to preserve the soil structure and the biological life within it.
We sold half of our dairy herd and yet we still feed over half of the milk supply to pigs because even though the demand for the product we produce is high those who would purchase from us have been told falsehoods and so we do not sell it.
The processed meat of over 20 milk-fed, pasture-raised pigs is in the freezer, unsold because less that 20% of their supplemental feed might possibly contain GMO grains and I have been branded a fake farmer because of it.
We have attended two different farming classes this summer. One sponsored by Greenacre Aquaponics and Colorado Aquaponics in Denver, CO and the other by Cornell University in New York. We visited with farmers, businessmen, bankers, Wall Street investors, U.N. workers, and college professors. The last day of the last class we attended one of the Cornell professors said perhaps the truest thing I’d heard:
“If you want to make money, don’t be a farmer. You’ll spend your life, spend your children’s college fund, lose your money, lose your friends money, and lose your friends. Don’t try to make a living farming. Get another job and take up farming as a hobby.”
It’s heartbreaking, it’s sad, it’s discouraging, and it’s true.
Except…he left us with a glimmer of hope which was actually why we attended these classes in the first place.
A glimmer of hope which means we can keep farming without sacrificing our children’s future, keep farming and yet actually have a family life.
We ended our attempt at a full-diet farm having lost over $30,000 dollars in the attempt, not including the farm debt for which we were already responsible for. We have several families wanting to do it again this year and we’re growing as much food as we can for them for as long as we can and sharing all of our harvest.
But of necessity we must change. Farmers across the country are changing, as a people we have to. We love the land too much to quit, but because the customer base demands an unreasonable price for a nearly impossible product most farmers stop dealing with customers, grow old and grumpy, sell into a corporate system, and some of the best farm goods in the world are lost in the maze of mainstream food. It is lost simply because the consumer, in a race to find the “perfect” food in an imperfect world, knock down, trample, and destroy the people who want to feed them.
5 months ago I sat around the table with six other farmers from my state voting district. We spoke of our farming experiences, the ups and downs, the challenges and triumphs. I asked them about their marketing efforts, about their relationships with consumers. Their responses surprised me.
Every one of them had started out selling food directly to consumers but one by one they had left the market. When I asked them “why?” their responses were all the same: consumers are too inconsistent. Their consumers wanted a product that cost too much to produce and then refused to pay the higher cost. They wanted Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’s products at Little Debbie’s prices and it’s an impossible request. They have all moved into wholesale markets and are now thriving or at least surviving with a higher rate of pay.
It is the same direction we are moving in, it is the glimmer of hope we found in our classes this summer. Controlled Environment Agriculture is a growing market, they are meeting with success and can’t keep up with their demand. They work with chefs and grocers who thus far have proven to be realistic enough to worth with and idealistic enough to help keep them inspired to explore new best practice farming methods.
We’ll be attending another class at the University of Arizona next January on hydroponics. We’ve found ourselves pursuing a new field on our same farm and we must retool ourselves to make it work.
How grateful we’ve been for loyal farm members who have labored with us to build something good. we look forward to continuing to raise food together. Our garden is your garden, come and be fed.
Maybe I’m not as jaded as I am afraid I have become, perhaps there is a little bit of rose left on the lenses.
People are worth believing in.
Kindness is worth the extra effort.
Compassion is always the best choice.
And hard work is never for naught.
If you put your heart into it, even if it fails, the muscle gets worked and stays tender.
Perhaps I won’t turn into a grouchy old farmer after all.
At least not today.
Today I am a farmer with a few friends left, and that’s something worth cultivating.