Hogs often get the limelight here, which isn't fair because it was the mighty cow who started it all. In 1995, married two years, with four kids between us to raise, we found this house in need of huge repair and its 10 sad acres. Doomed to be bull-dozed and converted into more conventional farm land, we found the owner and begged her to sell it to us.
She did. Perhaps out of the desire to see another farm family return an old dairy to its (50 years ago) glory or maybe she was just in the mood to be entertained. Either way she sold it to us and we got started. We owned one cow at the time.
And a couple of small steers, chickens , rabbits, dogs but just one milking cow named Kiki. Which brings us to today and the need, as we plunge towards the New Year and no real solid offers on our farm...the need to plan. But in order to plan one must review, as mistakes lost, are certain to be repeated.
We should know.
Those first tiny steer became beef to eat and Kiki produced more calves that became either our milking herd or more beef. To date we now rent an additional 40 acres to pasture our beef, dairy and swine.
The other cows produced as well, begetting more cows and more steers. We sold extra to our family, and then to our friends. When we had a whole extra beef in our basement freezer we sold cuts of it to friends of friends. I would even carry cuts of beef to my fellow night shift workers at the hospital who were happy to have farm raised beef delivered no less.
Soon we had a parade of folks in and out of the house, up and down our basement steps buying our extra beef. Keith saw opportunity, I saw twisted ankle, rickity stair related lawsuits. More animals reproduced so we began selling by the carcass. Either 1/4 or 1/2 or a whole beef could be bought from us. We took it to the locker and customers picked it up. We sent them a bill and they paid it.
We made the move to being certified organic and our customer base tripled. A new grocery store owner , Cassie Green of Green Grocer Chicago met us, and wanted our beef for her new store. We knew nothing of selling beef wholesale but she taught us. And she barely laughed (in front of us) when our "labels" on our first packages were nothing more than our business cards taped to the meat.
Three more grocery stores followed and it became clear we had not the room in our house to store all that meat. The kids were tired of sleeping on top of chest freezers. A milk customer of ours offered to finance an on site farm store for us. I am still blown away by that one couples faith is another couples small family farm.
Two years ago this month our farm store opened and we bartered for two large used upright freezers (in exchange for milk) to store our meat. People came and bought more. We are now considering the addition of selling to one more grocery store in Kankakee. We'll see. I still have last years laundry to do.
So today was spent looking at the beef numbers. After we voted of course. How many? At any one time we have 60 or so head of beef and dairy of all ages on our property. We sold 24 for beef last year. The first 16 beef ready for market in 2013 are already pre-sold, deposits in place locked in at last summers price. We have very smart customers.
A few weeks ago we bought more beef calves from an organic farm in northern Illinois in order to meet part of the future beef need WITHOUT increasing our dairy herd. But what did it COST us to produce those beef in 2012? Will the price increase cover the hay increase we have been promised? Will it be more profitable to sell the beef by the carcass? By the piece? In the grocery store? Out of a donkey pulled cart down Michigan Ave in Chicago's Loop? (only half kidding here) or in our little farm store?
Stay tuned as Keith and I plan to tell you those things many small farmers won't or can't.
The REAL cost of being "sustainable."