Monday, April 7, 2014

Back to Basics - Lessons from a Fellow Former Direct Marketer

I recently read an article by Colorado rancher Richard Parry, published in the April issue of The Stockman GrassFarmer.  Mr. Parry has been direct-marketing his grassfed lamb for a few years longer than we have - I believe he has around 700 ewes that graze on his 1100 acres near Ingatio, Colorado (in the southwestern part of the state).  He starts out by saying:

"Over the last several years, I've become convinced that being stuck in the middle scale-wise is incredibly challenging.  While I've written about this struggle numerous times, I've never written as concisely or as eloquently as Mr. Parry.  "You are," he says, "somewhere between a real business and a self employed Mom and Pop operation.  There is never enough money or enough time."  By contrast, small operations subsidize their living expenses with off-farm jobs. "You believe in the benefit of what you are doing," he writes. "Because of your belief system, it is worth it....  You have little time and money to spare, but you persevere."

Parry talks about reassessing his farm's assets - his "unfair advantage."  In his case, his family decided that it was the fact that they owned "1100 acres of verdant green irrigated pastures that [are] one of a kind in our dry southwest climate."  While their livestock operation is going back to a commercial (as opposed to direct-market) approach, the Parry's are "selling the view" - developing agricultural tourism enterprises to compliment commercial sheep and cattle production.

Given our own struggles to come to terms with the challenges of scale, I can imagine that Mr. Parry and his family also resisted the decision to shut down the direct marketing part of their operation.  However, his article ends on a positive note.  "Fox Fire Farms still has all the livestock.... What has changed is that it is back to low cost, commercial production."  Partly because of our ongoing drought, we're headed in the same direction this year - we don't anticipate direct marketing any meat from this year's lamb crop.  Parry concludes, "A correctly structured commercial livestock enterprise has a lot going for it, not the least of which is time for life's other priorities."  I find this statement especially encouraging as I head out to check sheep before driving to town to watch my oldest daughter's varsity soccer match.

In some ways, the changes at Flying Mule Farm have been forced on us - by the dry winter and by the economic realities of mid-scale livestock production.  These last several years have been stressful, as regular readers of this blog will no doubt acknowledge.  Mr. Parry's article has helped me realize that we haven't been alone in this struggle.  His ability to make positive changes to his operation that allow him and his family to make "time for life's other priorities" is incredibly reassuring and liberating.

Over the coming weeks, I plan to share some of our thought processes regarding our own "unfair" advantages and what they mean for the future of our business.  I hope my handful of readers will weigh in with their own insights and experiences!  Thanks to Richard Parry for stating the obvious: "Everyone does not have to be a direct marketer of meats."

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