Friday, November 28, 2014

The snow line

Getting close.  Figure about 300' above me.

part 1: Trying to make a profit every way possible: Tim Young

Tim and Liz Young
Tim and Liz Young have been trying to make a go of the farming business for quite a while; at the bottom of this post  you'll find a number of links to various entries I've written over the last few  years for background if you're interested.

Oh yes, I should probably mention that this is entirely my opinion, and that I have no connection to Tim and/or Liz Young or any venture they are involved with, in the past, present or future.  

The basic problem that Tim has is a pretty common one.  He's actually an excellent example of an approach that a lot of people take to farming, particularly if they have little or no experience at it.  Here's a summary:  

Decide that they want to farm
Locate land and usually buy it to start the farm
Start raising things on the farm
Figure out that the hard part isn't raising things, it's selling things
try their best to sell their products
rethink the whole goal.  

What's interesting about Tim is that he's very persistant.  I've got to give him every credit for the various ways that he's tried to make a profit.  He's also got a pretty good sense of marketing, and has been very successful at getting press coverage of his various ventures. 

But there's something odd about all of his ventures.  Here's a quote from an interview he gave to the NY Times :

"Nature’s Harmony will never make the Youngs wealthy again, but they seem past caring. “A lot of what I’ve done in my business life, I don’t think it really means anything,” Tim said. “There’s this whole — you’re seeing a lot of it now with all the politics and bailouts — way to make money in the world but not really do anything to contribute. I feel like what we do is important. But it’s not financially rewarding. Who cares? As long as you can make it on your own.” He tugged on his weathered hat and added, “Let me tell you something: we’re going to eat well.”

What's odd about this quote is that Tim has repeatedly promoted making a profit; he's offered classes on how to make a profit with his farm, he's talked a lot about profitability on his blog and in his podcasts (both of which he's removed from the internet since) and he's talked a lot about his business acumen and abilityt make money -- just not, apparently, from his farming ventures.  

So to have a new venture tied to profitability seems an odd direction -- from telling people that profits weren't his goal to proposing to tell people how to make money...  Ok.    

There's an old saw about how to make a million dollars.  It's basically to put an advertisement out there that says "Send me $10 and I'll send you the secret to make a million", and you buy some stamps and some envelopes, and in reply to each $10, you send them a sheet of paper that says "put an advertisement out there that says..."

If I'm gonna buy a book on how to make money, I'd like it to be written by a guy who's made money; it's that basic conflict that makes it hard for me to believe that he's got anything more than the $10 advertisement out there.  

The new venture he's trying now appears to me to be a variation on the $10 advertisement.  It's a preparedness blog and website, heavy on product suggestions and "online store" items, and he's claiming to have "over 25,000 awesome people subscribe to weekly updates" ...which seems a little suspicious since his farms facebook page has 8,000 likes for its entire lifetime, multiple likes from each person...   

All credit due, there's some interesting content that he's put out there (not from him, just links to other stuff) and I'm sure that he's got stuff to say...  Maybe this is the sort of venture that will work out for him where the other four related startups didn't.  

In part 2 I'll talk about an alternate path that might have worked better for Tim and produced the results that so many people (Not just Tim) want from their farming venture.  

Background on The Youngs:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

China and the USA - Buying local helps

Recently there's been articles about how the market for chinese food to come to the USA is opening up.  They're talking about raising chickens here, shipping them to china for processing, and then back to here for consumption, for instance.

Before I talk about that, I'm going to post a picture from my childhood.   It's not a personal picture, but it's a picture of what the smog was like in Los  Angeles in 1968 or so:

 The air in Los angles was so bad in the 50s and 60s that I remember my eyes stinging from the fumes when i walked to school in 1968 and 1969.  It was so bad that you couldn't see a hundred yards.  It was so bad that the schools would discourage children from playing or even being outside.
China is facing the same sort of pollution problems that we had in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s and it's going to take a big effort by the chinese to bring that pollution down to something like what we have now in the states... but right now it's bad in China.  

So what does this have to do with US chickens?  Well, when you buy locally produced (local in this sense means "made in the USA") meat and produce, you're getting a benefit that you may not have thought about.  The places that produce that food all have to work within the US regulations regarding pollution and impact on their local communities.  

From the memory of my stinging eyes I can clearly see that the regulations have made a difference, and whenever you buy something made here, in the USA, you're supporting a business that is doing the right thing, or at least better, than the alternative.  

I'm a supporter of Country Of Origin labeling for this reason.  Where your food comes from counts.  Support the countries that do the best job with your dollars.   This applies to all of your food, and even to the country where your food is processed.  The factory in china doesn't have to abide by the USA pollution rules, and while it may make the shareholders a few more dollars is it really worth it?  

Personally I don't think so.  

Monday, November 24, 2014

Picture post: airedale terrier puppies

Litter of 10 pups, 5 male and 5 female.   They'll wean december 20th.  perfect timing for holiday gifts.  Each pup gets a sifferent color collar so that we can tell them apart.  They're purebred and at this age are pretty identical.  Personalities are starting to come out now.   Lots of puppy wrestling and growling this week.  

Farmland price bubble

Graph was a comment in a dicussion you'll find here.  
This is a graph showing iowa land prices vs cattle prices, and it came up in a discussion of how people who didn't inherit land might get into farming - check the caption for link to the discussion, but there's a different take on this, too.

Take a look at the value of land.  It's been going up like gangbusters for 8 years; the average value of land I'd guess from this graph, over time, adjusted for inflation, is somewhere around 1200.  That same amount of land right now is selling for 4200, an increase of over 300% in 8 years.

Billonaires are getting into farming.  I've written about belcampo meats before, and now they're trying to produce in the face of a historic drought.  Welcome to farming, billionaires!  All the money in the world won't make it rain.

Some of the land prices  might be explained by the high corn prices in the last 4 or 5 years, but not all of it, and corn prices are down this year -- record harvests will do that.  What I'm seeing is money sloshing around looking for something a little less scary than the mile-high stock market, and something with a little better return than a CD or bond or bank deposit.

This is land prices contrasted with what you might do with the land -  graze cattle, or raise forage.

I think it looks bubbly to me.   And it's particularly interesting because I've been complaining about high cattle prices...  this graph ends about the time that cattle prices started to go through t he roof too.

I'm a bit of a contrarian.  I was telling people to buy real estate in 2009, and that's what I did.   If I were in a position to want to sell in the next year or two, I'd want to seriously think about putting anything farmland on the market this spring.  I don't think that these prices will last.

Spinning my gears

When chopping the corn noticed that the chopper had an odd vibration, which took me a while to figure out because, well, when you're on the tractor and chopping nothing is holding still.  Turns out that one of the gears that transmits power to the corn head was worn enough that the teeth would slip about 5% of the time, and as the slippage happened, it was wearing the gear out and was happening more frequently.  

 I'm not a farm implement mechanic by choice, but I'm getting better at it.   After years of tinkering i've got a fair grasp of bearings and bolts and roll pins and cotter pins and so on.
 After getting the gear out it doesn't look all that worn, but when I looked at the other gear it was running against, it was clear it needed to be replaced.  I always wince when I see replacement part costs; the big gear in this exercise was $280.  The smaller one $85.   Probably 2 hours to take it out, and then I couldn't get the bearing off of the shaft that it was mounted on, so I called uncle and took it to the local tractor dealer, who grinned and took it apart for me for $140.

I'm not going to kick too much about it.  This pair of gears was used for hundreds of acres of corn every year for 15 years, so I figure that this repair, properly done, will probably outlive my active farming lifespan.
The corn itself is now ensiled -- chopped fine and packed tight and covered with a tarp.  It'll stay that way for 90 days while it ferments in the pile, and the resulting half-fermented corn and corn stalks will form the bulk of the cattle feed late in the winter and early spring.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Refining the farm: Year 8

When I first started my farm I had the rough idea that I'd grow a little of everything; certainly enough for personal consumption and gradually increase the production of things that would sell.   This is a nice ideal, but didn't really work out in practice.

Let me give you an example:  the sheep
Twin lambs from 2012 

First, sheep, in this area, are a nearly perfect crop.  They eat grass.  they are impervious to rain.  They are fairly popular with most americans -- lamb chops anyone?  -- and with a bit of luck your flock can grow quickly.

I chose a breed of sheep that naturally shed its own wool, which spared me from having to shear the sheep every year (and incidentally from wool-guilt:  If I were shearing the sheep, I'd feel duty bound to find a market for the wool, and honestly, there isn't much of one here) and were relatively low maintenance.  I chose sheep from a fellow who's is about 10 miles from me, so the sheep are acclimated to this weather and seasons and honestly, the sheep did better than I deserved.

Better than I deserved.  Regularly had a 2.0 or 2.1 birth rate (more than a twin birth per ewe).  I lost a few to the electronet fence and a few to dogs and coyotes, but generally speaking the sheep did what they were supposed to do:  Eat grass and gain weight.

In fact, if I were to talk to someone now, I'd probably say to look carefully at sheep.  Not much input and pretty good value.  Pretty easy to raise them organically.

With all that good, what was the problem?  

I just couldn't work up an interest in sheep.  I didn't really care for them as an animal.  Most of the time I dealt with sheep was pretty aggravating -- for the sheep and for me, too.  They are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and no matter what dumb thing one of them does, all of the rest of them do it too.  I learned a lot about fencing and a lot about chasing, and in the end, it just wasn't much fun.

So I ended up taking the sheep to the auction; and I got a good price for them, but it still felt a little like failure; some part of me wanted to be good at sheep, too.

But what i've been doing is specializing my farming.  I understand pigs pretty well, and they understand me.  I like them as an animal and as a product, both.  While pigs are interested in getting out of their area, they tend to come back, and I can't think of a time I saw something that a pig did that I didn't understand at some level.  Where the sheep were a complete mystery most of the time.

Chickens, pigs, cows.   that's my current list of main products, and I'm considering getting out of the chicken business.  I'll keep a few laying hens for the kitchen, but I just don't enjoy them as much as I do the cows & pigs.    

Specializing in a smaller number of products allows you to equip and manage those products better than if you're generalizing.  Every new animal or crop has a learning curve, and in order to get a good grasp of it you really need to think about it as a multi-year learning process.  And sometimes what you learn is that you don't really want to do that.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Not winter yet... in the NW

image courtesy of
Next week will apparently be a very cold time in the midwest, but not so much here in Washington.  Our climate is pretty mild most of the year, tempered by the ocean water.  We get chilly, but never too cold, or too hot.  Our daytime temperatures are in the 50s right now, with evening temps dipping to the low 30s, but even temps of 32 degrees aren't very cold.  Nothing like the midwest has as its usual or what they're about to get, apparently.

Our temperature range is one reason why I'm concentrating on forage production, and on animals that use that forage.  We've got excellent conditions for growing for at least 9 months of the year, and in a warm winter, like now, for longer than that.

The challenge with farming is to figure out something that works for your ground.  As much as I'd love to grow watermelons (and I have grown them here in western washington!) it takes a fair bit of effort, and it's easier, and there are fewer inputs (farmer speak for what you need to buy for your crops to thrive) with things that are suited for this climate, and these soils.

My garden list runs heavily towards brassicas and root crops, squash, potatoes.  They all grow well here and don't require much to do really well.

My forage list is grass and alfalfa this year, with a bit of corn.  I wanted to make sure that I could raise a complete ration for a dairy cow on property, and so far so good.  I want my cows to be on a 1 mile diet.  that's the goal there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

corn chopping: 5 inches of rain and counting

The weather station is getting a workout
Rainy season has started in earnest.    I installed the new weather station about a week ago, and its showing a little under 5 inches of rain accumulation in the last 7 days.   The rain is complicating
the final chopping of the corn; there's some areas of standing water on the field, and some of the field is pretty soft right now, but making slow progress.

The biggest difficulty in chopping the corn has been some mechanical issues with the chopper.  Threading the drive chain incorrectly, one of the bearings for the main gear broke, and there's been some learning curve - shear bolt education - and some operator error.  We're mostly past that stuff now, and are chopping this morning.

We haven't had any below-freezing weather of any sort.  The grass and alfalfa have just taken this to be a long spring (albeit with shorter days) and it's growing still.

picture taken in the brief bit of sun we got.  alfalfa in the foreground, corn in back.  corn chopper is a little to the right of center in this picture, against the corn.  click on the pic for a bigger view.   

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Please vote today

If you're in snohomish, or king, or island counties, there's a chance you could even vote for me, and
as much as I'd appreciate it, there's a lot of downballet races and initiatives that could use your input.

So find your ballet, and grab your voters pamphlet and take 15 minutes.

If you hate the way the governments been doing, you might consider just voting against every incumbent.  That's a little drastic; there's a lot of good in that bathwater, but if you're unhappy
then take an action to make some change.

I'm not going to endorse a candidate or initiative here (other than myself.  I'm pretty darned good!) but if you don't vote, someone elses voice gets heard louder than yours, and honestly, I'd rather hear yours.