Monday, January 11, 2016

The crazy plumber

A year or two after I started selling animals I had a man come by the farm; he was compact, energetic and had great eye contact.  Jerry was a plumber or HVAC guy; he had one of those trucks you see with his name and picture on the side, and inside it you'll probably find all of the tools of his trade.

Jerry had grown up on a farm, and had moved to this area for better economics, but really missed having some animals, and he'd been driving by, he explained, and saw my animals and farm from the highway, and decided he'd stop by and see what I was up to.

So I spent an hour or two talking to him as I walked around and did the chores for that day, and he was an attentive audience as I talked about this or that.  I'm interested in the economics of farming, and he asked questions about it; what do the chickens cost, how much feed was, how many chickens I lost; and from his questions and comments it was pretty clear that he'd spent time on a working farm.  Mostly because the hobby farm folks never care about the dollars and cents part, but the commercial farmers that I know all know what their costs are down to the penny.

A good way to pass the time and at the end of my rounds we shook hands, and he drove off.  I didn't think much of it, but I wasn't too surprised when he was back about a week later.  He'd asked about my laying hens, and I ended up selling him 6 of them, and lending him a cage to transport them with.  I was pretty sure he'd be happy with the hens; they were at point of lay, and there's nothing better than fresh eggs, and chickens are pretty easy keepers.   But business is business; I charged him a deposit on the cage that was my cost to build it, plus a few bucks.  I learned to do that because my chicken cages were popular, and disappeared pretty  regularly.  this way if it came back it cost the customer nothing, but if they kept it I could replace it without losing any money.

the chickens went into the cage, and then into the back of his truck, and I watched as his huge portrait on the back of the truck faded away down the road, and then went back to doing what I was doing.

I was surprised to see him back about a week after that, and this time he was very interested in the pigs I was raising.  How many per litter?  How many weaned per litter?  Any health issues?  Do you have to help a sow farrow, basic stuff.  I ran through the basics of pig husbandry, and asked him if he was interested in breeding pigs; he was, he said, but needed to find a place; how big should it be?  I talked him through what I'd recommend, and off he went.

A few days after that he bought four little gilts from me, and a boar piglet.  I was surprised because he told me that he lived in the city, but he said that he'd rented a place and that he was going to keep them there.  Turns out the place was just down the road, maybe 500' from my front gate, and I could see his truck go out my gate, turn down the road, and then into the next driveway.  I thought to myself that this guy was pretty dedicated to farming, but that he'd do ok.  I did note where he was going; I could see it from my property, and I was curious - I kept an eye on that little plot he'd rented, glancing over now and then.

Over the next month I noticed several pens go up, and then a big chicken coop, and then a second truck showing up; Jerry purchased more chickens from me, and then said my price was a little too high; he'd found a source for chickens for $5 each (I was at $20 at the time) and i explained that older hens, after they'd been laying for a few years, typically got sold cheap, and that the $5 chickens were probably older, and he brought one over, and it was pretty clearly an old hen from a commercial facility; the beak had been dubbed and the bright yellow legs of a younger bird had been replaced by the more washed-out color of an older hen.  But he'd purchased 200 of them already, and I felt a little bad giving him the bad news, he seemed to take it ok, and off he went.   this is where I started calling him the Crazy Plumber in my head; there wasn't any rhyme or reason to his purchases; completely by impulse, but it's a free country :)

So this pattern continued for the next 6 months; every few days he'd show up, and have another animal; a pig, a few chickens, a guinea fowl, some turkeys, and he'd present them to me, and I'd give him an opinion on the animals condition, and he'd go off with the animal and add it to his collection.

This had started in March, and now in July I noticed a sign up, "pigs for sale" and positioned on the road so that people coming off the onramp would see it as they came to my farm, and I had folks who I had given directions to my farm tell me that they'd come and purchased pigs from me... but they hadn't.  they'd purchased piglets from Jerry, and I didn't know where he was getting them from, but this was a bit annoying, so I had to start telling folks how to get to my place.  the old directions were "get off the highway and look on your left for pigs; I'm the only pig farmer on the road"; now it was "get off the highway and look for a big hoop barn on your left; that's my farm".

I heard from several people that Jerry was selling "young" hens at $10 each, half my price, and that he was selling piglets for $25 less than mine, too.  And I reminded myself with a rueful smile that competition happens, and being open about farming and practices had a downside, too.

Part of the way that I learned about these sales is that people would believe that they were buying from me, and call me to complain about something that they'd bought; the hen wasn't laying, was losing its feathers, the piglet wasn't thriving, normal retail conversations.  But I had to explain that they hadn't dealt with me, they had been dealing with Jerry, and pointed them his way.

I've always had a money-back-or-replacement guarantee on my animals, for the first 30 days, at the customers discretion.  I am curious about why they want to exchange, but they don't really need a reason.  I've found that it's just been better to take the small occasional loss from an excellent return policy from time to time than have any more unhappy customers than possible, and over time this policy shifted the business back to me.  I was selling stuff I backed up, and had the inventory most of the time to just swap if they wanted.   People notice quality, and if you're in the business for the long term, that can make all the difference.

So as we moved on to fall, I noticed Jerrys van less and less, until finally a strange truck appeared at my driveway one morning.  Keith explained that he'd been working with Jerry on the farm, and that Jerry had decided to move on, and would I be interested in the animals they had?  Possibly, I said, let me take a look at them.

I so went over and looked; and there were the 5 pigs I'd sold earlier in the year; in pretty good shape.  Maybe 70 or 80 of the old laying hens, and a few turkeys and ducks.  Why do  you want to sell?  We just don't want to farm anymore, says Keith.

I ended up buying back the livestock for about 1/3rd what I'd sold it to him at, which wasn't much, but it gave me enough margin than I figured i could make up for the sales that I'd lost earlier in the year, and I loaded up all of the animals and brought them back.

I couldn't mix the poultry with my flocks; I don't know what they had, so I built a pen over on the side, and ended up selling all of them to one group of Nepalis (people from Nepal); the pigs went into a quarantine pen so I could observe them for a few weeks to make sure they were healthy, and eventually the four gilts all had nice litters for me.

And Jerry?   About 7 months later he showed up at my farm gate, this time with a set of cows that he wanted to sell.  Was I interested?  I'll take a look at them, I said, and he took me down the road about a mile to a second field he'd rented.  I ended up buying those cows off of him, figuring I could auction them at a profit (beef prices were high at the time) and made a few hundred off of the transaction.  

And that's the story of the crazy plumber.


Leon said...

:)) Great story. I've met a few people like that.

Steve said...

Summertime only farmer? Good story to read.