It’s 2am and -4 degrees out. NEGATIVE FOUR! I just woke up to collect eggs, stoke the woodstove and sit thinking. We’ve been harvesting turkeys, chickens and started in the geese yesterday. It’s been wretchedly cold out, but there’s always a silver lining- it has not been windy and yesterday we even had a sunny day. Wednesday we worked on harvesting the 64 chickens and got them all finished. I always feel a hole in my heart when the Bubsters leave. I adore them, but aren’t they lovely to look at all cleaned and bagged, off to feed many customers with their bountiful delicious muscles and healthy fats.
Our turkeys have been super heavy and this has been showing us we are getting older! Lifting 20 to 30 lb live weight birds up off the ground into the kill cones, then out again and over and into to the scalder, then out and into the plucker, then out and into the cooler positioned in the sled, then up and out of the cooler into the house (our old house) and up the stairs, and then they are eviscerated and a wee bit lighter. But schnikes, do that 21 times and your back, arms and shoulders will feel it!
What I’m sitting here thinking this morning is why it’s so hard to make a living as a farmer. Especially with poultry. I don’t want to always be completely transparent about money and margins, but with poultry I think it is REALLY important to explain why we ** almost ** don’t want to do it anymore. A turkey takes 6 months to raise. He will cost about $5 as a baby bird to purchase, and will eat around 80 lbs of feed in those 6 months (that’s 180 days or so). Organic feed costs between 50 cents a pound, and 25 cents (when we buy whole grains in the later part of the growth cycle, not ground chick starter.) We feed about half and half, so 40 lbs at .50=$20.00 + 40lbs at .25= 10.00 so we’re at $30 in feed expense PER TURKEY. Plus the $5 to buy each bird to raise.
So we have $35 invested in each bird. We had 21 turkeys to process, because although we ordered 25, we had some casualities (our mortality rate is excellent actually, turkeys are notoriously difficult to raise, especially when little.) Most of the casualities happen early, before we’ve put much feed money into the birds. But we had one big tom turkey who must have landed on his leg wrong, because one day he just couldn’t walk 3 weeks ago. I harvested him for our own use, but that’s a lost sale, which takes away the over-all profitability of our turkey project. Then after harvesting we found one bird with something odd going on inside after we eviscerated, I think it was another leg injury, but it affected him internally, needless to say, that bird was another financial loss for the turkey project.
I excitedly weighed a couple turkeys after they chilled and were bagged up. We had a 16 and a 22 lber. Most are on the 20 lb side (we had an unusually high number of males, who do grow bigger and heavier) We charge $3.50/lb. So the 16lber is $56. And we have $35 invested in that bird, we had to tend her for 180 days, and THEN harvest and process her. $21 in profit to do all that? What makes up for it is the 22 lbers bringing in $77 in gross profit, minus the $35 in expenses and we’ll make $42. So it balances out to be profitable, but for all the work, is it worth it?
Here’s the overall project
Start with 25 poults at $5 = -$125
We raised 22 to fullsize ($30 per bird in feed)= – $660
Expenses are $785 in total, plus our labor, which is not paid technically, all our number are a mess- I sigh with the truth that we’re basically unpaid interns on our farm right now. It’s only when we look at numbers and work to improve things that this will change. Hence this article.
We ended up with 20 turkeys to sell and say they average 18 lbs (I’ll know the exact numbers after we weigh them all) 20 x 18=360lbs of turkey x 3.50= +$1260. Which sounds great, woohoo! But, take off the expenses, the costs to buy and feed the turkeys, and we’re left with $475 in profit. That will pay our internet/phone bill for what, not even four months? Also, that is NOT enough profit for the amount of time and work it took us. This is precisely why we tried to scale up on turkeys the year previous, but that just didn’t work. Our farm is just not set up for raising pastured turkeys on a large scale in this predator rich region.
Chris at Nami Moon Farm wrote a post detailing turkey “numbers” in this excellent blog post: the Price of a Turkey.
I’ve been working on this part of the post for a while, and I think it shows what I’m talking about. If you have a dayjob which pays $10/hour, each 8 hour shift you make $80 profit, in trade for your time. $80 x 40 hours/week is $400 a week. Of course taxes are taken out of paychecks, but it’s an interesting comparison with $475 turkey profit made in 6 MONTHS. So, to equate a $10/hour job with farming, we need to be harvesting and selling the equivalent of 20 turkeys every week. This is the “scale” piece that is so missing from many aspiring new farmers’ perspective, and even we haven’t made it work, not yet.
Part of the new farmer/entrepreneurial learning curve is understanding how to equate your new chosen job with financial terms you previously understood, and likely took for granted; the almighty paycheck.
Responsibly providing for yourself is one big benefit of getting a paycheck. I definitely took that wonderful, regular cash-influx in my life for granted in the past. And I won’t lie, I miss it. Even though my paychecks were never enormous while on the time-clock at a job, that bi-weekly check was still a regular financial addition to my bank account. Most working folks rely on that money, and plan around it. Some live beyond those means and use credit cards to finance their life activities. I feel so silly when I reflect on how I viewed my paycheck as an hourly tithe. When I got it, it was mostly something to spend, like an allowance.
The thing with day-jobs that is so ‘easy’ is that you are simply trading your time and effort for money. When you are a new entrepreneur, like a farmer, you don’t have a paycheck and when you do make any income, you put your business expenses and growth first. Your time and effort are are essential for success, but not something you can pay yourself for, unless you are successful in bringing in lots of cash over the business expenses. (Which rarely happens as you start up.) Honestly, I don’t know any farmers that give themselves a paycheck, and we are included in that group. But I aim to change that next year. I want to give to our public radio stations, to the podcasts I listen to, be able to buy gifts instead of always having to do homemade things. I want that freedom to not worry about every single penny, and always be paying farm bills exclusively. One could argue it’s our own fault if we aren’t making enough from the farm to pay ourselves. In fact many sustainable farming elders speak this- grow enough to pay yourself! But it took us forever to figure this out. And we weren’t opening a business with a giant loan to set it all up, it’s been shoestring and bootstrapping, and lots of help and support from family and friends.
As I cleaned eggs, I was listening to a farmer podcast called Growing Farms. The topic of the episode from June this summer that I listened to was “Is starting a farm really as stressful as it seems?” The host goes on to explain some of his trials and tribulations of his summer so far. One thing that really caught my attention was his lamenting over how broilers are not as great as the “poulet rouge” chickens, and he eluded to some of the problems he’d had with his cornish cross. I once again, want to share that there is nothing wrong with these birds, and heart attacks will happen if you let the birds just eat and eat and eat, especially over night. But what struck me was he was admitting he didn’t really like these birds. They are not his passion, but the previous year he had done so well and had such a great reception, he built a whole business around them, and now not only are they not selling as fast, he has a whole bunch of frozen birds that no one wants to buy, and another 700 birds currently growing and where are they going to go? He should be raising the birds he loves and is passionate about, not the ones that he thought he could turn a quick dollar on. Just my opinion.
However, the most valuable part of the episode was when he talked about stress and how to de-stress as a struggling new farmer. Talking about absorbing and reflecting on the good moments, and keeping your chin up- it is SO hard when things are not going as well as you planned or how you thought they would. Everyday now, I am doing what I love. I am surrounded by animals that I adore, and doing what I set out to do. We have simply AMAZING family, friends and customers. It’s been a struggle, and still is.