I started farming to raise food for friends and family, but the land I purchased was near a highway -- very visible to 55,000 cars a day. I knew that there was a chance that I'd sell things, and had worked out a basic plan to sell dressed pastured poultry, even to the point of buying a professional plucker and teaching myself to process birds and practicing on roosters purchased at auction.
So now, three years later, I'm at a point where most of my 12 acres are used in one way or another, and I'm pretty much at the stocking capacity of my little farm. 60 pigs of various sizes, 450 chickens, 300 turkeys. I produce between 20 and 30 piglets a month, between 300 and 500 turkey poults a month, and roughly 200 chickens a month.
This month is the first month that the farm is operating at an operational profit. That is, my costs are less than my proceeds but I'm at a deficit if I figure in the money invested so far. When I was penciling out the basic plan for the farm I figured it would probably take 3 years to settle out; we're about on schedule there.
The biggest thing has been experimenting with products that are both easy for me to deal with, and support a price high enough to allow a decent profit margin; I'd start with a few animals, get some experience, and after a year or two decide whether to get bigger.
Pigs have turned out to be a favorite of mine. They're relatively easy to care for, they're interesting animals to have, and there's a ready market for the finished product, whole, half or in cuts. Plus if the world does end I know what I'm eating. The surprising thing is that one of the easiest ways to make money with pigs is just selling weaner pigs. You can get 2 litters a year from a good sow, 8-10 pigs each litter is possible, and they'll sell in this area for $100 each, yielding you between $800 and $1000 per litter. It takes about 1500 pounds of food to feed a sow for 6 months, at a cost of about $275. So every time you sell a litter you make $525 or so. I've heard pigs called "mortgage lifters" and I understand better what they meant by that.
So here's the weird part. If you can make $300-500 per year per sow, why not have a lot of sows? Like 500? Seems like a good way to make a lot of money, right?
Farming is a commodity business. It's very tempting to grow a whole bunch; when times are good, there's lots of money, and things are great. But then the inevitable downturn happens. Maybe they name a disease after your product ("swine flu", anyone?) or the surgeon general decides it's unhealthy, or there's a huge recession/depression, or whatever, and all of those animals are suddenly not an asset but a liability.
So I think I'm going to cap my production somewhere around the total that I'm producing now. I'll join the ranks of the "artisan" producers, quirky people who produce stuff the way they like it, and if people don't like it, well, might as well eat it yourself.
I think that where I'll expand is into the teaching part of this. I enjoy the process of teaching, and there's plenty of interest in "how to do it" topics like butchery, dressing poultry, and so on.
This is a bit contrary to the traditional "business" ethos that mandates that when you make a profit you do all you can to grow bigger. I feel that pull.
3 weeks ago