Wes Hunter–Providence Farm, Part Two

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Editor’s Note: We continue our conversation with Missouri farmer, Wes Hunter, as he talks about the importance of his local farmers’ market and the customers he relates to there.

He also offers some advice to those thinking about becoming farmers and much more.

Part Two of Wes Hunter–Providence Farm. 

HandPicked Nation: Talk about your local farmers’ market and its importance in allowing you to do what you do. How has Providence Farm been embraced by the community?

WH: The more I think about it, the more I realize how essential a good farmers market is for the success of our farm, at least in starting out.

For one, as a small farm, of necessity we must pursue a lower-volume, higher-margin type of production, and we need to get every dollar possible back into our pockets.

We can’t get by on making less money on more ‘units’—which is a simple definition of wholesale marketing—because we simply don’t have the land base for that type of production.

So every dollar is important for us as a small farm, and the surest way to maximize those dollars is through direct marketing, and the surest way to successfully direct market for us is through a vibrant farmers market.

If you’re producing something truly exceptional, folks will be lining up to buy it.

By no means is this true of every farm, but for us I think it is. For example, not a lot of restaurants or independent retail grocers around here have much demand or use for veal.

And there are other small farmers in the area that can wholesale their chickens for less per pound than we can even produce our slow-growing heritage birds.

So those two things certainly limit our market for those items, because we have opted for producing fairly unconventional meats. Farmers market customers, on the other hand, are considerably less price conscious than restaurants or grocers and are often more willing to try something new.

Two, the things we produce tend to require a fair bit of customer education, and a face-to-face conversation across a farmers market booth is the best way to do that.

Our customers need to know the difference between crate-raised veal and our pasture-raised rose veal, or between typical fast-growing hybrid chickens and our slow-growing heritage chickens.

A sales brochure or restaurant waitperson just can’t convey that information as well as we can.

Three, as a beginning farm I don’t know that there’s any better way to build a good solid customer base than through a vibrant farmers market.

And with little free capital, there’s no substitute for the week-in, week-out sales that a farmers market provides.

The farmers market at which we sell—Farmers Market of the Ozarks, in Springfield, Missouri—is just such a vibrant market.

There are lots of really good farmers producing really good food, and the weekly customers are a testament to that. To be sure, the market attracts a lot of folks who come for entertainment purposes, to get a bite to eat from one of the food trucks, a pint of locally-brewed beer perhaps, to listen to the musicians and maybe to buy a bag of granola and a couple tomatoes.

But it also attracts the serious local-food shoppers, the ones who take their food seriously, and are greatly interested in what is in—and what isn’t in—their food.

That aggregation of serious shoppers is why we are a part of this market, and why the market is so important to our farm’s bottom line.

After nearly a year of selling at Farmers Market of the Ozarks, we are finally starting to see repeat customers.

The difficulty for us is that, for example, our veal customers don’t eat veal every week, so we might only see them once a month or so. And we’ve got one customer in particular who will come and buy six to eight chickens at a time, but we’ll only see her every couple of months.

Time will tell, I think, how well we are truly being “embraced,” as we become more and more familiar to local customers.

HPN: What advice would you give someone who wants to start farming?

WH: Books and conferences and talking to other farmers are all good, but there’s absolutely no substitute for hands-on experience.

I, at least, find myself wanting to get everything figured out and just right before I ever begin, when what I should be doing is jumping in and getting my hands dirty and learning from my mistakes.

That doesn’t mean being careless, but it does mean not being overly careful. Perhaps a corollary to that is the idea that, in my experience, things tend to be a lot easier than you might be led to believe.

You can read books and books about how to raise chickens, for example, which breeds to choose, what sort of balanced ration to feed them, where to house them, all the possible disease and illness they can succumb to, on and on, and come away with the idea that chicken raising is an incredibly complicated and risky proposition.

Or you could get a few chickens, buy a couple bags of feed, allow them a crude space to sleep, give them plenty of room to roam and scratch and peck the ground, and just figure it out.

Yes, it’s good to have something to refer to in times of need, but if your animals are raised well you’re not likely to be inundated with disease anyway. You can learn a lot about how to successfully raise animals by just watching them.

To further the idea of gaining experience, I would suggest seeking out experience in as many aspects of farming as possible.

One, it will make you a more well-rounded farmer. No farmer should be a specialist. And two, you might likely discover that you really enjoy something you had no prior idea you’d enjoy.

I, for example, never thought I’d want anything to do with dairy cattle. But once I started milking our old boss cow Gail a couple of years ago, because she was the only one in our herd who had previously been milked and we thought we might as well give it a shot, I found that I loved it.

I’ve also come to the realization that market gardening is not for me. I enjoy a small kitchen garden, but I don’t enjoy the challenges of growing large quantities of lots of veggies and having to make them presentable and salable.

There’s no way to know what you like to do or don’t like to do except by doing it.

Staying along those lines, I’d suggest diversifying as much as possible, because you may be surprised at what customers do and don’t respond to.

We started 2014 with a moderate flock of laying hens, intending them to be primarily for ourselves, and thinking we’d just sell excess eggs at the farmers market. Then we had customer after customer coming up to tell us how great our eggs were, that they were the best they’d had, and we finally decided to purchase more hens to increase our egg production.

If we hadn’t dabbled that little bit in selling eggs, we’d have missed a great sales opportunity.

I think the other takeaway from that story is the importance of producing a truly top-notch product. Our eggs were the highest priced at farmers market, but because of the way in which we raise our chickens and the type of egg they therefore produce, the customers didn’t care.

And what’s an additional $1.00 a dozen anyway, when it apparently buys you a greatly superior product?

If you’re producing something truly exceptional, folks will be lining up to buy it.

Don’t expect that kind of treatment if what you have to sell is merely mediocre.

Lastly, I would highly encourage anyone interested in farming to take a long, serious look at what they really need to survive.

If more people took a deep look into their budgets they would almost certainly find they could live on a lot less than they currently do.

Despite what you might be led to believe, you don’t need an active Facebook page or Twitter account to be a successful farm. Consequently, you don’t need a cell phone, and you don’t need internet access.

You don’t need a nice laptop. You don’t need a big gas-guzzling farm pickup—I drive a 22-year-old little Chevy S-10—and for that matter you can probably get by without a tractor.

You don’t need to eat dinner at a restaurant ever, and certainly not often. You don’t need a big, well-decorated house. You don’t need new clothes. (You probably need to be presentable when selling your farm products, but you can find nice used clothes at the thrift store.)

Your farm doesn’t need brand new, tight wire fences. You don’t need the latest in stainless steel vacuum-operated equipment to get the milk out of a cow.

You don’t need to go on vacation, and if you’re young and fit and healthy you probably don’t need health insurance.

In the interest of full disclosure, because this sort of thing is too often unnecessarily vague, and to put concrete numbers to it so your readers can see specifically what I mean by all this, we have figured that we, as a family of 5 (myself, my wife—both early 30’s—and three children, the oldest of which is 8), can get by fairly comfortably on about $12,000 per year for all personal expenses (not including farm expenses such as feed, seed, processing, etc., which are included in the costs of their respective enterprises).

We produce a lot of our own food, lowering our grocery bill. Our monthly electric bill is about $100 (this includes water, since we’re on a well). Our home phone is under $25 a month. Mortgage, including taxes and insurance, is about $400 (I realize this is quite remarkable).

No cell phone, no internet. We stay on farm pretty much all week, so we spend little on gas, and what gas is used for farm expenses (such as picking up feed, or taking animals to the butcher) is charged to the particular enterprises.

I’ll stop short of saying that any of those things we do without is inherently bad, but it should be clear that they are by no means necessary, and they are perhaps specifically unnecessary for anyone who wants to farm and make a living doing so.

I’ll also say that we make a clear distinction between having little money and being poor. The two are not the same, and it would behoove a lot of would-be farmers (and current farmers, for that matter) to make that same distinction.

We live a good life. We eat well. Our wood-heated house is warm in winter. We are not, in any meaningful sense, wanting.

HPN: When you’re out in your fields and you have a moment to reflect, what thoughts come to mind about living the farmer’s life?

WH: I think often of how surprisingly enjoyable the little things in farming are.

Maybe it’s getting a newborn calf out of the dry creek bed and carrying her to the barn with her mama following behind, because bad weather is coming.

Maybe it’s catching, killing, and plucking a chicken for dinner that night.

Maybe it’s digging a row of potatoes and filling a 50-lb sack to the brim, knowing that by a little work we’ll eat well over the winter.

I think, too, of the things we don’t have, and how truly content we are without those things. I find it a joy to not have a cell phone, and a joy not to have to pay for one.

The same goes for on-farm internet access. Or new cars, or new clothes, or any host of things really.

We have opted for a very simple life by modern standards, and that simplicity is incredibly freeing, both mentally and physically. Every dollar we don’t spend is a dollar we don’t have to earn by the sweat of our brows, giving us time to fully enjoy a farming life.

HPN: Any last words? What have I not be clever enough to ask?

WH: We send out a monthly e-mail newsletter, and I’m always careful to thank our customers for their continued support, and try to make clear how important they really are to us and our viability as a small farm, and the idea that how they spend their food dollars really, truly matters.

Our food system as a whole is so convoluted, so messed up, that it can be easy to find something merely better than what’s available conventionally and think of that as a good thing.

But because of the state of our food system, it’s incredibly difficult not to find something better, because the bar has been set so low. In other words, finding something better is no guarantee that you’ve found something good.

I like to make this claim most pointedly with our heritage chickens. The state of industrial chicken production is atrocious, and pasture-raised chicken production in undoubtedly better. But it’s not hard to be better than industrial chicken production.

There are still so many things wrong with modern chicken production that go beyond where the birds are housed, whether in a factory house or a mobile pasture pen; the very birds themselves are a problem.

The point of this is, of course, for consumers not to be content with merely finding something better, but to not stop until they find something truly good.

Yes, this takes time and effort, but the results have the potential to be wide-reaching.

, I think we, as consumers, wield a lot more power than we tend to realize.

HPN: Well, Wes, thank you very much for all your heartfelt answers today. We really appreciate it.

WH: Thank you so much! I enjoyed it. And thank you for shining a spotlight on our family’s farm.

Does anything Wes said inspire you want to start your own farm?

Photo credit: Craig McCord