Thursday, April 16, 2020

20-20 Hindsight

If you could have predicted exactly how the current pandemic was going to play out, what would you have done differently?  This is actually a very important question and not just a game for us because there is a very real LARGER consequence than just our own personal success or well-being.  To help make the point, I am going to reference our laying hen operation, but it isn't just about that.

Pre Covid-19 Trend Toward Convenience Over Local
In the three years prior to 2020, many small farms that raised/grew food for local outlets were finding the demand to be soft and declining for their products.  Part of the issue had to do with the 'convenience' factor.  The additions of places like Whole Foods and sections in larger groceries touting 'local' options gave an already limited audience even more options to acquire product that they believed were, in fact, from local growers.  Sadly, part of the problem is that the definition for 'local' was inconsistent and usually expanded far beyond what the customer was envisioning.

You can also point to trends for how people eat, but you have to remember that the trends in rural Iowa are often behind the trends cited in the larger media markets.  In 2018/2019, there were claims that the trend was to eat more meals at home.  But, the driving force was prepackaged delivered food.  Again, convenience was the driving factor.

Let's be perfectly honest.  Local food is often inconvenient.  At least it is not convenient in the same ways that people seemed to be wanting.  A small, diversified farm is not able to maintain full store hours at multiple locations.  They are often unable to find the time to make home deliveries for all of their customers.  Usually, local food is grown in amounts that are too large to just be a 'hobby' and too small to interest the groceries and retail outlets, unless they too are a small, local business.  Most local growers have a full slate of tasks as it is, so pre-cutting your meat and veggies so you have an easy time of preparation usually does not land on the 'to-do list.'

As many Iowa growers looked at 2020 from the lenses that they wore towards the end of 2019, the outlook was bleak.  Weather, among other issues, were already making growing challenging.  But, many of these growers would have accepted that challenge with relish if they had felt there was a solid demand for their product.

Case Study: The Genuine Faux Farm Laying Flock
Over the past several years, the Genuine Faux Farm laying flock has produced over 20,000 eggs every calendar year.  Our production typically ranged from 20,000 in a year when the laying flock puckered up (stopped laying) during a very cold stretch to 25,000 during a season when all went well.  These are production numbers that average between 52 and 68 eggs per day.  Considering we have to wash all of these eggs, package them and get them to customers, I can still honestly say that we were comfortable with this level of work and fine with the amount of compensation we were receiving... as long as we could sell all of those eggs.  But, we couldn't.

This next part is not meant to be a criticism of the fine people we have served over the years.  Many of you have moved on to new locations or new phases in your lives.  Some have made other choices.  It is what it is.  But, the fact is that we were often finding ourselves trying to move extra eggs when our storage refrigeration was too full to put in new eggs.  We donated eggs a few times - nothing inherently wrong with that - except there is a very low limit to how much a farm, such as ours, can claim for food donations on our taxes.  So, we end up paying for the privilege of having the egg enterprise on our farm.  If our income balanced out differently, we might even have been willing to raise a flock and donate everything.  We threw eggs into our CSA shares, even though they weren't technically part of the CSA a few times as well.  That might have bought some goodwill (and I hope made people happy) but it did not show us that we had the demand to justify continuing at the levels at which we were consistently producing.

We saw our own trends and the larger trends toward convenience and we made some adjustments.  Our flock now lays around 45 to 48 eggs a day... and Rob looked for some off-farm income.  If we over-produced, then we'd donate and not worry about the farm's bottom line.  We would still have eggs for the folks who want them at about the numbers the demand seemed to be calling for and maybe everyone is happy?  As a matter of fact, since we reduced the flock we HAVE been consistently selling out, but not saying 'no' to requests either.  It felt like we had hit the new mark for demand/work hours balance.

Then, suddenly, we have a pandemic.  And, everyone realizes that perhaps we might have been better off if we had more local food sources because our industrial food supply chain isn't built for the conditions the pandemic has created for us.  Demand for our eggs now outstrip our current supply. 

At some level, we, the farmers, feel some guilt for not just having extra capacity for just such an emergency.  Yes, of course, we would love fill every single request.  It's nice to make sales and bring in income.  It is also nice to know your product is desired.  But, there is also a very real feeling that this is an area we could contribute and we are failing to do so.  It doesn't matter that we made decisions based on the best information we had at the time, we still have to deal with those feelings.

Local Foods Is Not A Faucet
Local foods is not a faucet you can turn on and off when you feel you need it.  It might feel that way at some level because the pandemic is hitting us at the beginning of the growing season.  It is likely that local growers will do their best to put in more product in hopes that this demand will not fade by the time their crops reach harvest stage.

I'll say this once and then get off of it.

If we all worked to support local foods consistently, then it would be a stronger asset to us now, when we need it most.

As it is, there are some who will do their best to support our communities by raising local food and making it available.  We will count ourselves among those individuals.

What Is the Genuine Faux Farm Doing to Respond?
We would not be telling the full truth if we said we believed this resurgence would last without a hiccup.  We WANT to believe it will, but we have enough experience in local food farming that we're unwilling to buy the car without a test drive.  On the other hand, we feel a responsibility to do our part and do the right thing.  So, here is our response:

1. Rob will continue with his off-farm job, so there are upper limits to what we can achieve.  But, we're still trying to make adjustments.
2. We received hen chicks today in a number that takes us back to prior production levels.  Again, you can't just turn the faucet on - these birds won't really get to laying until late August and September.  Hang in there with us and I bet we can provide eggs for all who have expressed interest so far.
3. We are still planning on raising 500 broilers this year.  This comes to about 400-450 available for sale. 
4. We have ordered 70 turkeys to raise and will have them available in the Fall, just as we have for many years.
5. We are still planning to grow only 2 acres of produce, as compared to prior year's 5+ acres.  But, we are making a shift to increase some products that produce more crop iterations so we can have more food available (lettuce for example).
6. We will continue with the flexible farm credit sales approach.  It is receiving positive reviews and will give us flexibility to offer what we have - when we have it, without the pressure to just fill bags and boxes.  Our feeling is this just might feed the people who patronize our farm more effectively right now AND it does provide you all with a bit more convenience.

Gratitude Is Still Part of the Package
Thank you for supporting our farm.  Thank you for supporting local foods.  And, please continue to support local food consistently.  We are getting an illustration of how important it can be as we watch product being destroyed in our bulk food system while people go hungry.  This is NOT about our farm but it IS about ALL of us.  If you know people where you live who have the heart and soul to produce local food, loan them a tiny bit of your heart and soul and an appropriate amount of your cash (if you are able) to pay for their labors - so local foods can be strong for us all.

Rob & Tammy Faux
Genuine Faux Farm
Tripoli, Iowa

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