Friday, August 26, 2022

Farm Trip: After-action Report

From the comments of yesterday's post: 

I'm very interested in your visit to the farm. Blending old, proven ideas with some level of modern tech is so appealing. How they minimize dependence on cheap energy inputs, in all of their obvious and hidden forms, especially.

Me describing people with empathy

First observation: Every individual of this family is extraordinarily industrious.

It should be obvious that a farm that foregoes most modern, labor-saving equipment and chemicals will be labor intensive.

Everybody on the farm is lean and fit and radiates "good health".

Second observation: Every speck of "infrastructure" on the farm is rationally positioned and in top-notch repair. No ratty, falling down buildings or old, wheezy equipment here.

An enabler of getting by with a "lean" equipment set is that the equipment must have high up-time.

For example: The previous owner was into management intensive grazing and had subdivided the pasture into about six-million paddocks (slight exaggeration). After living with the paddocks for a couple of years the couple asked "How many paddocks do we really need and how much fencing can we realistically maintain over the long-haul?" Then they reduced the number of paddocks.

Third observation: The family is extraordinary in their ability to find partners and like-minded people to collaborate with.

For example: They are in a milk-share agreement with some other like-minded neighbors (neighbor being loosely defined as family or anybody living within five miles of them). Many families might have wistfully thought about getting a cow but been intimidated by the time commitment and the vast quantity of milk produced. Not this family. If they need 3/7ths of a cow then they get together with some other people and sort through which three-days-a-week they will be milking the cow.

Milk-sharing also means they can go on vacations, which is a very big deal as their kids get older. They only have so many more years before the kids leave the house or get sucked into the whirlwind of outside activities. They want to make those years count.

Fourth observation: They have a big wood-lot

They have ample firewood and places to collect nuts, mushrooms and to hunt.

Fifth observation: They are always picking up and dropping enterprises. In the jargon of modern business, they are agile.

Some enterprises prove to not be good fits in spite of all the research.

As the kids get older, enterprises that used to work might not be a good fit later.

People change as we get older. Work that we could tolerate can get to be too much. Sometimes a local supplier you depend on closes and you cannot afford to drive to Zeeland for that input. Sometimes the level of aggravation due to more BS in the outside world can become overwhelming and you don't want to deal with certain people. It is a case of "Know when to walk away, know when to run."

Many businesses, not just farms, fail because they cannot divest operations that suck resources but do not provide sufficient returns.

Sixth observation: Basically, there are two kinds of businesses: Businesses that provide commodities (fast-food joints, gas stations, box wine) and boutique businesses (up-scale restaurants, custom furniture, vintage varietal wines). Commodity businesses operate on razor-thin profits (or huge losses). Boutiques can be much more profitable on a per-unit basis.

Boutique businesses tend to service small markets that have not attracted big players with deep pockets. Boutique businesses also tend to be "high-touch" and people-interaction intensive. Grumpy old bears like me don't do well in boutique businesses.

This family seems to have mastered the art of developing and servicing boutique businesses.

For example, suppose you found that your patch of the earth grew exceptionally fine, honey-dew melons with fluorescent-lavender colored flesh*. You cannot sell them to Kroger's because they want millions of pounds delivered year-round and they want them at commodity prices.

What do you do?

You sell them by walking samples into businesses that cater "events". Caterers are always looking for an edge and for novelties. You build demand by delivering quality product, on-time and quantity + a small bonus. The nice thing about selling to somebody who caters is you have contacts that you might visit once a week and are selling as many melons to each contact as you might to 200 retail customers if the weekend's event is a big wedding reception.

The thing is that most people who would grow fluorescent-lilac fleshed honey-dew melons are adverse to walking into kitchens of caterers and then adverse to making custom deliveries on Friday afternoons.

This family has the broad portfolio of skills and personalities and several of them are unfazed by walking into catering businesses (for instance) and pitching their products.

Seventh observation: This is really a combination of the two previous observations.

Because boutique businesses are so rich in human connections, closing one of those enterprises causes a surprising amount of grief and sense-of-loss. Clients will be deeply saddened by your closing and since most good people-persons have a lot of empathy it means that they feel the client's loss too. Plus, you really LIKE some of your clients (collaborators and workers) and you cannot justify visiting/hiring if you are not making deliveries. People who thrive on human-human connections are pained by those losses.

The process of grieving losses is part of the farming business. The loss of animals. The loss of crops. Sometimes the loss of family members, either to death or to moving away or they might be seduced by different sets of values...The loss of clients and businesses.

Eighth observation: Picking up new businesses is a coping strategy to dealing with loss. Picking up new things keeps us young and our minds agile.

But learn something from your experience. Don't pick up a new enterprise that has all of the reasons why you dropped an old one. That way the new business will at least have the entertainment value that comes from high-centering the canoe on different rocks in the river.

Bonus observation: They have the equivalent of a very nice camper and every time I have visited it has been occupied by a "guest".

This is certainly not for everybody but they make it work.

Every guest is carefully vetted. Sometimes it is a relative who is visiting the region (maybe looking for work or working a local gig like pipeline welding). Sometimes it is a person who is going through a life transition and has been vouched for by the pastor of their church. For example: A single person who just returned from a long-term over-seas mission trip and they are re-acclimating to US culture.

As a guest, the resident(s) are not charged rent but they are expected to put in as many hours in the garden(s) and with the other chores as the matriarch of the house. Slackers are not tolerated.

Final note:

The family was incredibly generous with their time as they let us hang out with them yesterday. Thanks a million!

*I deliberately changed some of the details of this report to protect the privacy of this family. To the best of my knowledge they do not sell honey-dew melons with fluorescent-lavender colored flesh.


  1. That was a feast of astutely analyzed and well articulated observations. Well worth some re-reads. ---ken

    1. My guess is that observation about changing conditions stung a little bit; wolves and raising livestock in the Upper Peninsula and all that.

    2. Agreed Ken, GREAT insight. I'm facing a "blank slate" parcel of land, untouched for 50 years. A bit of paralysis by analysis at this point. Which is why I asked the question.
      Labor volume and motivation is expected. The math on a gallon of diesel vs. human power (and animal power) doing real work makes me pine for the days of cheap energy. Alas, those days are gone.
      Being flexible and pivoting based on market feedback is interesting. Not something I'd considered much in Ag. But that posture is the norm in the tech startup world where I live.
      Thanks for this Joe. I'd appreciate any follow-on thoughts should they pop up!

    3. The problem I had was Bill Clinton sighning NAFTA, GAT, the WTO and other orders that destroyed the US fiber industry of producing farms and ranches and the spinning, textile, fabric industries in Appalachia and putting us all out of business. My last shearing of about 500 angora goats and sheep couldn't be sold for what it would cost me to ship it so I gave away as much as I could and burned over a ton of it. I gave away most of my goats and shipped my sheep for slaughter. Then I found that I couldn't sell hay for what it cost to produce it as the market was flooded. And I couldn't find help to make 40-50 lb square bales. Kids don't want to do that kind of hard work anymore so my hay fields have trees growing in them as do most others around here now. The few cattle producers around here now cut other peoples hay fields for free just for keeping the fields open. And yes, the wolves became a major problem and the Bald Eagles killed many of my kidds and lambs. It was government that finished off my farming, not open, free markets.--ken

  2. ERJ,
    Your analytical skills and observations are useful and interesting. Especially coming from a manufacturing background.
    Thank you!


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