Saturday, November 22, 2008

Want to buy a "virtual" pig or lamb?

Making this farm pay is a real headache, but I think I may have a partial solution.

We get a lot of interest in the meat and eggs we raise from colleagues at college and in the community. We raise a lot of food here, and would like to make some money off the surplus. Given time to get these old overgrown orchards and pastures back into productive grass and apples, we could raise more, much more. We do sell some food already. We sell eggs. We also sell Aimee's plant starts and raw fleece. And then we just give some away, quite a bit, mostly because we can and because we like to. The eggs and chops we give out are extremely popular.

(Aimee has a kind of rough schedule so everyone she knows, close friend or not, gets eggs once in a while. I tend to give chops to those who ask, but also as a kind of thank-you to anyone who's been helpful to me recently. I guess Aimee is more of a democrat, while I'm looking for a return on my investment. Capitalist.)

But we can only legally sell the surplus meat if we truck the animals live to a USDA approved butchering facility some sixty miles away. This is not really very sensible right now for two reasons. The first is, we'd need to shell out nearly two grand for a suitable, street-legal, safe, heavy-duty livestock trailer. We have a tiny home-built box trailer that's legal and that cost a couple hundred dollars, but we can never take it more than a few miles. I accidentally twisted the frame, so the tires wear out too quickly. I can make it to the butchers and back, but not much more.

There are a gazillion things we need right now more than we need a livestock trailer, including a new car for Aimee to get to work. A non-starter.

The second reason is, sixty miles is a long haul for an animal that's already terrified and going to die soon.

The first problem could be overcome if it were a good investment, if we thought we could sell the meat at a good price. The second, well, it would make the animals and us pretty unhappy. Butchering season already makes me miserable.

But recently a colleague asked us if we'd grow out an extra pig for her and her husband, possibly in consort with another couple we know. I told her, sure, probably not a problem. For our own use we usually grow two pigs every two years because one pig is lonely and two pigs is more than I can eat in a year. But we can comfortably get two pigs every year and grow one extra for a friend or consortium of friends.

And this year, with seven breeding ewes and two rams at work we will have between six and ten lambs. Some of those, the surplus males, can also be "virtualized:" sold soon after birth, but "boarded" here until slaughter.

And then the animals can be trucked just the fourteen miles to our local butchers who does a great and legal job for half the price if the person using the meat actually owns the animal that is delivered. I still could use to get a new trailer, but I can keep my eye out for around for a small box trailer in Uncle Henry's, our local classified weekly. Maybe I can find one for under five hundred bucks.

A sensible solution.

And then I read on Stonehead's blog that he's working out much the same system.

It's the wave of the future. Virtual livestock. And it could be really helpful to my farm development project.

I want to eventually have a farming operation that grows all our own fuel and most of our bulk food, and makes a couple to three thousand dollars cash a year. This is realistic. We already grow all our own fuel: five cords of wood a year, worth about $1,000 to us in offset expenditure. We already do pretty well on food. Meat, eggs, potatoes, cabbages, frozen and canned tomatoes, and beans are the key crops that keep most or all winter, comprising about half to two thirds of what I eat and about a third of what Aimee eats. This is a lot of offset expenditure, and it makes for an interesting shopping trip for Aimee, since most of what she gets for me is premium stuff like coffee, a bottle or two of cheap plonk a week, some bread, some granola. That's about it. I really don't eat very much bought-in food.

But we only make a couple hundred dollars a year on eggs and fleece and plant starts.

Livestock is our best option right now for income. I keep imagining a terraced vineyard on these well-drained south-facing slopes, but right now, realistically, we're best at growing animals, and the meat we raise is premium quality and very valuable. We raised about 400 pounds of pork and lamb this year, which at, say, an average of six dollars a pound is worth $2,400. We probably spent about half that much to raise it and butcher it. Figure we can make one or two dollars per pound profit.

The money we make can be reinvested into the operation. We need that trailer, we need more fence, we need a new bushhog, we need just a ton of stuff to help us get this land productive again, that we can't afford because farming is only a second income for us, not a first, and because our primary jobs pay the mortgage and pay down consumer debt and give us savings but not much more. Certainly there isn't any money or additional debt load we could afford to accelerate the farm development project.

Even so, it will be a long haul.

I wish I could have gotten my hands on this place twenty years ago, before the real decline set in. I'd have been able to get up to a decent level of production in three years instead of the ten it will likely take, and could then retire earlier on the farm income and my service and college pensions.


  1. I hope the Virtual Livestock works for you. The main problem I've encountered so far is getting people to pay on time. They're people who are known to us, but it's shocking how quick they are to find excuses for not paying. Even worse, some of them offered to take Virtual Pigs to help us after other people failed to pay for and collect weaners for fattening.

    I long ago decided the worst part of farming is dealing with "customers". In fact, I was saying to the Other Half tonight that I quite enjoy not seeing other people for up to a week at a time as I have much better conversations with my pigs, they're more reliable and they laugh at my jokes...

  2. Not having to deal with people for a week or more is a luxury I only really enjoy in summer. That's the worst thing about being a college professor, that you're employed to talk to people.

    As for virtual pigs and lambs, I guess we'll see.

    Thanks for the comment.


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