Category Archives: Know How

Connecting With Consumers

When speaking with potential customers for the first time and trying to educate them about your operation, it is very helpful to understand what perspective it is they are coming from. In general, we have found that there are a few main reasons people seek to purchase food from small-scale producers. I am in no way attempting to tell you that every person you come into contact with is going to fit neatly into one of these descriptions. But what I can tell you is that the vast majority will exhibit many of the traits contained within one of these descriptions, and understanding these approaches from their perspective on the front end will help you greatly when educating them about what it is you are doing in order to turn them into a repeat customer. While they most likely care about more than one of the categories listed below, one of them will be the primary reason they are talking to you. Learn to discern what it is that is important to them, and spend most of your discussion on that topic to address their main concern.

Organically Produced

While they probably don’t care about your having a little green and white sticker of accreditation from a government agency, they want to know that you are using organic practices and methods to raise your livestock. What this means to them is that things are chemical free, antibiotic free, gmo-free, etc. It probably has not occurred to them that being pasture based isn’t required of organic standards as they are very laser focused on having something that is “pure” in their minds. Explain to them how you are equal too or better than the standards set forth for certification. This type of shopper would respond well to an alternate form of certification such as Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) or American Grassfed Association (AGA). A lot of young families with small children fit into this group, or those with food sensitivities. And you’ll speak with a lot of mothers in their twenties at a farmers market who are very concerned about what it is you are asking them to feed their kids. They want to know in no uncertain terms that it is safe!

Local & Environmental

This individual is concerned with buying as close to home as possible, and being chemical or gmo-free is a distant second in their mind (often times to a fault in my opinion). They simply want to buy food from a local farmer, most likely for environmental reasons associated with food miles and freshness. Most of the food in this nation does travel 1500-2000 miles before arriving onto someones plate. Focus on explaining how many of your resources are located within a 100 mile radius of your farm. The only thing I get outside of that 100 mile radius are our day old chicks, and occasionally some stocker calves. This is very big deal to a lot of people, because that keeps food miles down and means we are supporting our local economy. They are typically also very interested in supporting local businesses, and may be a small business owner themselves. Many small business owners will support you simply because they understand local economy, and are often a sub-group in an of themselves from the “local” crowd. You may also see them buy one or two products from you, and one or two products from one of your competitors so they can spread the love so to speak. Most likely, “relational” ranks high on their list too and they will shop at a farmers market 48 weeks out of the year with a grocery list in hand.

Relational Buyers

While local and organic are probably high on their list too, this type of buyer wants to “know their farmer” and “know their food”. They care more about you, your family and building a lasting relationship more than anything else and become emotionally tied to your farm. Quick updates shared on social media make them beam with pride and keep them connected to you year round. They are probably even willing to live with a few conventional means of producing food so long as they are well informed and can make that choice themselves. Knowing exactly what they are getting from a consistent source they trust makes them feel safe about their purchase. This type of buyer will most likely support you thru thick and thin and be around for years to come. The number one thing on their list is knowing all they can about you, your methods and building a high level of trust. You can be bluntly honest with this type of buyer and they’ll respect you for it. If you breech their trust, it will be devastating to them.

Humanely Raised

I try not to pigeon-hole people, but the fact of the matter is a lot of shoppers fall into this category. That is especially true of females, and former (or soon to be former) vegetarians who no doubt make up a large percentage of your customer base. What was true decades ago is still true today: The average shopper making the buying decisions for a family is going to be a female between the age of 20-65. Generally speaking, females are much more empathetic than men and humane standards are huge for them emotionally. While nothing is unimportant to this particular shopper, how the animals are treated is by far number one on their list. The fact that you are pasture based is going to be a huge selling point for them, and pointing out things like access to fresh grass, fresh air, fresh water and sunshine being the norm for your critters will go a long way. Many females are omnivores dressed in vegetarian clothing for this one reason alone. They don’t have an issue eating meat, but they want to know that the animal had a fantastic life up until its last day. In their minds, this one thing justifies it being acceptable to eat meat. This group also tends to be fairly relational as well, and once they trust you are raising the animals as God intended and not stuffing them into a CAFO they will support you.

Anti-BigAg

Believe it or not, I have had customers show up out of the blue with wallet in hand after watching something as simple as “Food, Inc.” and becoming angry at how big ag and big corporations are treating food like any other commodity and attacking small farmers. These folks had absolutely no intention of buying that crazy expensive, over priced local food twenty-four hours earlier but watching a documentary on Netflix was like flipping a light switch. The idea that large food companies would drag a local farmer thru an expensive court battle just to snuff out one little drip of competition infuriates them to no end. Folks in this segment may seem politically charged and motivated, and its not uncommon to find a very libertarian bent to many of them. A lot of left leaning folks from the “local” crowd also fall into this category. Keeping the little guy down thru regulations and threats of legal action make them madder than a hornet, and voting with their wallet is how they react.

Health Conscience

This crowd wants a truly beyond organic product and tends to be very highly educated about what pasture based meats have to offer in terms of health and nutritional benefits. They were probably part of the “organic” crowd at one point but have progressed beyond that and are much more discerning. They are also willing to pay what they must for a very high quality product and will demand things like 100% grass-fed beef and gmo-free inputs. If you don’t meet all of their criteria on that front, they probably will not support you at all. Most likely they embody many if not all of the attributes from the other categories and in particular the pasture based, relational and local aspects. Many of these shoppers will also be very open to alternative healthcare methods like homeopathic remedies and the use of essential oils to combat common illnesses. They also tend to be regulars with a chiropractor, small health food store or acupuncturist and those types of businesses can be a great way to connect with this clientele so consider networking with them.

The “Good Food, Feel Good” Crowd

A lot of casual shoppers at a farmers market fit into this category. They enjoy hitting a market once or twice a month, especially during nice weather days of summer and fall. They love getting a fresh tomato, some sweet corn and a package of wings or bratwurst for the grill that weekend. The real taste of real food appeals to them greatly, but they have not yet had that paradigm shift where buying local is an intentional and regular part of their lives. Rubbing elbows with a couple of farmers on a Saturday morning gives them warm fuzzies and they enjoy the social aspect of the market as much as anything else. These shoppers are a fairly decent stream of income for you at a summer market for a few packages of your high profit items, like grabbing a $12/lb package of bacon for a BLT. Some of them will graduate to the hard core local food crowd for one reason or another, but don’t expect many of them to convert anytime soon. They are there because you have good tasting stuff, it’s a nice day out and they feel like splurging on something artisanal instead of buying “that other stuff” at the supermarket. This crowd is trending upwards at farmers markets, as they hear their friends and family talk about how great tasting local food is. Market to them purely from a retail aspect and connect with them on that feel good level. But have your antenna tuned in for the ones you begin to see regularly and who begin asking more questions. They are on the brink of having that mental break thru.

Planning Ahead Your Farming Season

One of the things I most enjoy about being self employed in my niche of farming is the seasonal aspect of it all.  Because we live in the Midwest, we have a true winter and as such our poultry production takes place from the beginning of April with our meat chickens and runs thru late November with the turkeys.  While we also raise cattle and hogs, poultry is by far the largest labor input in our operation and by the time late October rolls around I’m physically and mentally ready for it to be over for certain.  Once Thanksgiving hits, a big mental hurdle is reached and a sigh of relief can be felt in the Simpson Farmhouse!

With only our cattle and perhaps a few pigs to care for thru the winter months, I have the opportunity to take a much needed and extended physical rest in December, January and February.  The further I get into my personal “lunatic farming” journey, the more convinced I have become that we are hard wired by our Creator to work cyclically throughout the year just as nature does.  In nature, you see a slow start followed by months of intense production which then culminates in a dormant time of rest.  Speaking for myself now that I’m in that groove, like nature I feel revitalized and ready to hit the ground running come spring.  Personally I don’t mind working as hard as I do for nine months out of the year because my batteries get recharged during the winter break.  My longest day of the week remains Saturday since I do a weekly indoor farmers market from November-April.  The rest of the week often times finds me sleeping in and my greatest task each day is keeping the wood stove toasty warm.  Now that isn’t to say I don’t have things to do, that is never the case on a farm and if you own a business.  However, I can chip away at things or work on small projects as I choose rather than working like I do during the rest of the year.  And if I want to take an entire day and do nothing beyond checking on the cattle, I have that luxury.

With all of that said however, winter offers us a great opportunity not only for a physical break but also to make the rest of our year physically (and mentally) easier as well.  I’m not one to make any resolutions once January 1st rolls around, but after a month of limited physical work in December and with the holidays behind me I do find myself recharged and thinking about the coming year.  This has become my greatest opportunity to read and plan ahead for the upcoming season.  While I’m getting a respite from the daily rigors of farm work I can do a lot of things that will save me time, money and frustration for not only the upcoming season but possibly many years down the road.

For instance there are many years we have built a large section of fence each spring.  I have used my winter break to plan, route, measure and prepare a cost estimate for that project.  Once I have my plan in place I call the contractor that assists us and get my name in line for the upcoming spring.  Obviously, fence makes your life easier and allows you to grow your business if you are raising cattle, pigs or lamb.  If you don’t plan ahead you’ll never know if you can stick to your budget or get the contractor to show up before the middle of summer.  Around here, there are few livestock fence contractors to choose from and even fewer good ones.  They all book up fast so waiting until April or May to make that call is a huge mistake.  Fence is one of the greatest investments we have made to date.  Long term, our cattle will be the backbone of our financial income stream and the fence makes them the easiest and most enjoyable part of my day from a labor standpoint.  A well thought out system make cattle very easy to manage, but attempting to plan that system on the fly after the contractor shows up is a very bad idea.  Taking the time to sketch it out, mark it in the field, mentally chew on it and revise it before construction begins is a wise use of time, time that winter affords me.

Another thing I tackle early on in the year is our poultry production schedule.  Much like the fence contractors, dates can book up for poultry butchering if you wait too long (especially for turkeys, I schedule mine a year in advance).  It’s also a good idea to have your hatchery dates planned out in advance as well, particularity if you order in larger quantities.  Just try calling a hatchery a week or two before you need 500 chicks and see what happens!  By late January, I’ll have all of my poultry hatch dates lined up and butchering dates scheduled for the year.  This not only helps me by locking up dates in advance, but also helps our butcher and hatchery plan as well.  With all of these dates planned out, I’m now ready to advertise and begin selling slots in our bulk chicken program.  Since I know my production dates, I can list the pickup dates and times right from the start for our customers.  I have to do all of this anyway, so it makes sense to get it done early so I don’t have any surprises later in the spring.  And our customers like knowing in advance which dates they will be headed to the farm to get their bulk chicken orders.

Like any bulk program we offer, we collect a deposit up front from our customers to secure their spot in our discount chicken program.  They get a discount for paying up front, and we get some much needed cash heading into the spring.  We then use that cash to pay for the first batch of chicks, feed, bedding, supplies etc.  Last year, we took a portion of that cash to purchase some of the fence posts we needed for our added grazing plan.  As you can see, sitting down and intentionally planning in advance when you have the time to do it pays dividends all the way around!  There is nothing worse than waiting until the last moment, when you are already swamped with day long farm work in the spring, to try and schedule something as crucial as a contractor or butchering date.  One frustration can lead to another and before you know it your whole summer is a mess.

I also use my winter break to read any farming books that I need to, attend a farming conference or to study up on something in particular that I might be adding in the upcoming year.  Perhaps there is an online course I want to pay for and take, winter or early spring is great time for me to make that purchase and block out some time to absorb the course.  Although I’m quite a few years into working on my farm full time, I certainly don’t know everything or have it all figured out.  For example, we bought our first cow-calf pairs a couple of years ago and up until that point I had only been purchasing stocker cattle for our beef operation.  Cow-calf pairs were a whole new world for me and I found myself needing to learn how to wean calves, understand the differing nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating cows, prepare for calving and more.  There is always something new to learn, and for me to best time to do it is while I’m sitting next to the fire in my recliner while it’s cold outside.

Lastly, we also take time to evaluate our marketing strategy for the upcoming season in the winter.  Applications for summer markets begin going out in February and often times are due by the end of March or start of April.  If you are considering changing, adding or starting with farmers markets winter is the time to be researching them to find out which one is right for you.  We also begin planning when we’ll be offering bulk pork purchases as well as how many beef we’ll be selling retail vs. bulk.  Again, we solicit our customers who make those bulk purchases for a deposit which is then used to help offset the purchase of livestock, feed and equipment for the upcoming season.  In the case of cattle, I’m always working two seasons in advance so collecting deposits in February and March of the current year will allow me to add additional stocker cattle in April that will finish in late the following year.

What about your upcoming year should you be planning now?  Are you going to add any new species to your operation this year?  Is it time to scale up an existing enterprise and if so what is your marketing strategy to sell that product?  Are you finally ready to build some permanent fence?  Will you be applying for any grants and if so when are those applications due?  I would suggest writing down what big ticket projects you want to accomplish, enterprises you want to begin or expand and new skills or knowledge you would like to acquire.  Once you have that done, list out some key dates you need to meet and put your plan into action!

Take advantage of the winter time and use it to both rest and plan.  I believe you’ll find that your summer will be much more enjoyable, and profitable, as a result.

Pigs And Salt Poisoning

Often times I will get asked a question concerning the health of animals, and frankly many times I don’t have any knowledge of a specific disease or issue.  I’m certainly not the proactive type when it comes to the biology side of things, and tend to be reactive.  In short, I usually don’t learn about something until I have to deal with it first hand.

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine called me in a bit of a panic.  He had a few healthy, happy Berkshire pigs out on pasture and suddenly one of them was lethargic, loosing weight and near death.  We were both at a loss as to what was going on but thru some research and a phone call to a local vet, he figured out what had occurred.  What was the cause?  Salt poisoning, or more specifically “Sodium Ion Toxicosis”.

I didn’t have much solid advice to offer Patrick at the time, but we put our heads together and thru a lot of care and determination, he and his wife Tania saved this little piggies life!  After the dust settled, I asked Patrick if he would be willing to write a guest blog article for my website.  I learned a lot thru his unfortunate experience, and hope that you can do the same.  We all know that making certain our animals have access to fresh water is important, but what you are about to read demonstrates just how imperative that is:

My Experience with Pig Salt Poisoning

My name is Patrick and I am a client and now friend of Darby Simpson. He asked me to write a guest post for his blog but I am not a writer, so please bear with me as I try to walk you through my experience with salt poisoning and how it could happen to your pigs.

I received my piglets in early June from a small homestead about an hour away from me. I am located just outside Renfrew, Ontario Canada (Google Maps link) just to give you some perspective.

We started the piglets in our barn and then several weeks later we moved them to the yard where there was LOTS of grass for them to enjoy. Once they were properly trained on the electric braided wire we moved them on pasture/forest with the same setup. I was running low on feed and made an order from the farm we get our feed from. We use organic pig starter and grower from a ‘local’ farm (2 hours away) that actually grows most of the ingredients onsite. The Ingredients are organic Corn, Soy Beans, Barley and Oats. It also has a bio-ag mineral premix mixed in at a ratio of 25 kg (55lbs) of Bio-Ag per Ton of feed.

This is where my timeline starts…

Wednesday: I have an SUV with a 5×10 open trailer that I use to pick up grain in bags. On the Wednesday that I was supposed to pick up the grain it was raining so I did not pick up the grain and postponed to the next day. It would have gotten wet and eventually have molded which is obviously bad for the piggies.

I was pretty much out of feed, so I decided to look in my barn at what was close to pig starter. I just finished raising some meat birds so I had some left over chick starter so I decided to give them a full bag of that. A full bag should last them two days (at this age) and since the next day I would be gone most of the day I decided this would be perfect. Feed pickup day is long for me and with other house chores, I do not get back till later in the day.

Also, on this same Wednesday our well filter in the house became clogged with mud. We had a power outage a day before and when our well starts back up in can suck up some silt and clog the filter. I changed the filter and we had water again. It is important to note that my pigs use the same watering system that Darby recommends, ran with garden hose back to the house. I also noticed the clogged filter AFTER I checked the pigs that day.

Thursday: I made the long drive to the farm outside of Smiths Falls ON, chatted with the farmer for a while and returned home. I was going to check the piggies after unloading the grain but when inside the house, I realized I had no water again. I checked the filter and it was clogged again. I changed the filter, then promptly started to panic that my well was getting low. I started calling some neighbours for advice as I have only lived on well for 3 years so am not sure what other things could cause the issue. Then I made dinner. Note: I did not check the piggies.

What is Salt Poisoning (or Sodium Ion Toxicosis)? I had no clue before this incident.  Essentially it is an excess of salt that goes to the brain and is caused by excess salt in the diet or having no water for as little as 24 hours. When they start drinking again, they gorge, which then forces the salt to the brain. Here are some better explanations and resources:

Friday: I wake up, try to make coffee and no water again. Panic is over, now I am just depressed and frustrated. I am not working off the farm right now, so money is tight and this well thing sounds expensive. I go and check the pigs and bring them some pig starter and check their water (like I do every time) and I realize that they do not have water. I just changed the filter in the house and was getting water again, so they should be getting water. I start to backtrack down the hose and find that one of the hoses has become disconnected and water is just constantly flowing… into pasture. I swear a lot at this point, hook the hose back up and make sure the piggies have water. At this point I realize that this was the cause of the mud in the house filter and that the pigs have been out of water since Wednesday afternoon. I feel bad, but the pigs are happy and now have fresh water, so no harm and lesson learned… or so I thought.

Saturday: I go check the piggies in the morning with the kids, check the water and all is good. Feeling pretty good that I avoided disaster, I then notice that only 5 piggies are coming to greet me and normally all 6 come visit. I see that the solar panel I use is on the poly wire (like it was knocked over) and so I right away assume that the pig is out. I do a quick look and do not see her so head back to get my wife ‘cause catching a pig will be a two person job. My wife comes back and we do another walk to look for her and Tania (my wife) finds her ‘sleeping’ under a bush. We go to get her up and she starts to stumble as she walks. We follow her for a bit and she just lays down again. Tania is able to pet her, roll her over and move her around without any reaction from the pig. Very weird… We also notice that she just looks skinny and not as nice as the others. We assume she has some dehydration or something, and decide to take her back to the house.

Back at the house we put her in a large dog kennel filled with hay and let her rest in the barn. We try to give her water, but she is not moving her mouth at all… It is just not getting into her. We call a local vet, and the receptionist tells us the vet is not available. We call another vet, speak to the receptionist and after she consults with the vet she tells us that our pig most likely has Salt Poisoning and that the vet will not come out as he will just be taking our money because the pig will most likely die very soon. We are devastated and in tears. We start doing some reading online about salt poisoning and realize that most pigs die if they get a severe form of the poisoning and our pig looks like she has the severe symptoms (like being almost comatose at this point). She is also having convulsions that seem to be getting worse. We go and buy a large syringe so that we can try and get some water in the piggies mouth. That seems to work a little bit. Sometimes she is just comatose and does not move, and other times she laps some up. We check her and try to give her water every hour, but do not leave a container in the kennel.

This was a picture of the pig on the Saturday after we brought her back to our barn. Note how lethargic she is and how much weight she has lost.

Sunday: Piggie is up and moving but also is having much larger contractions than the day before. We think they are farther apart but without being in the barn with her at all times, it is hard to tell. She is now drinking from a container on occasion and seems more lively, but those convulsions are a bit violent (and demoralizing). You wonder if you are letting her suffer for nothing, but we make the decision that since we have seen improvement, we will continue. In the afternoon, we give her a small amount of feed which she eats.

This was the pig on Sunday, pushing her head against the kennel to try and relieve the head pressure caused by the salt poisoning.

Monday: Much better day. A lot more lively, but still doing things like resting her snout on the bars to the point that it leaves a depression. We find out that this is a symptom of head pain and they are trying to counter the pressure that is in their head. Sigh… Call the vet again, to see if they have any ideas and they tell us to buy some electrolytes. Turns out that the local feed store has electrolytes for pigs (same stuff for cows and horses, just different amounts) so we start giving her water with that in it to hopefully help out. We decide if all goes well over night, we will move her back to pasture the next day.

Tuesday: She looks good in the morning and is REALLY wanting to get out. We give her feed and more water and decide to wait on moving her as we have friends coming out in the early afternoon that can help us. When they come and we go out to move her, we see an empty Kennel. Luckily she escaped and ran back into the original barn we raised her in. After much work, we catch her, and wrap her in a towel because she was cutting herself as she was ramming the inside of the kennel so hard trying to get out. Once wrapped in the towel (over her face as well) we can hang on to her and bring her out to pasture with the others. The other pigs sniff the heck out of her, but accept her back just fine. She looks happy and nervous to be out there, but it was a stressful couple of hours.

For the next couple of days, she looked fine, and was getting right in the feed and water with the rest of the pigs. She is below weight but as of this writing seems to be gaining well (almost 3 weeks after return to pasture).

This photo was taken approximately one week after the symptoms set in. She is recovering nicely and adding weight back on.

Some of the hard lessons we learned were:

  • Water is absolutely critical to the health of the pig. This seems obvious, but our screw up almost cost us a pig and did cause the pig a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.
  • We also started an animal first aid kit that includes the syringes and the electrolytes.
  • Have a relationship with a vet and find a good one before there is a problem.
  • Have a backup way to water your pigs (we had this, but did not use it because I thought they had water).
  • Have a place and plan to isolate and control a sick pig. Steel cage kennels will not hold a pig.

Thanks for reading and I hope this article saves you from one day experiencing the same problem, or helps you get through it if you do run into it.

Patrick Leclerc
coyoterockfarm.com