Archive | April, 2012

Farm Marketing: Using Your Brand

24 Apr

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GreenMachine Business Card

Now that we’ve got part 1 out of the way, and we’ve already established our farm’s identity or “brand” it’s time to put it into action. This is the part where so many otherwise great farmers fall flat.

So what’s this branding business all about anyway?  It’s about immediately identifying your farm to anyone and everyone all of the time.  Obviously, it’s hard to do this verbally, as you’d go hoarse pretty quickly trying to shout out your farm name to everyone who passes by in a crowded market.  We need a to convey this information visually.

You can’t just slap our farm logo and name on a big sign and call it a day either.  What happens when a customer buys a bag of spinach and gives it to their friend?  The friend may think it’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten, but unless the bag has some sort of identifying information on it, they may never know it came from your farm. One opportunity lost.

The key to successfully using your logo/brand is consistency.  Consistently applying your branding is one of the most common mistakes that I see farmers making.  The font, colors and feel that are used in your logo aren’t just for your logo.  If you print something for your farm, a label, a CSA signup sheet, an invoice, it should use your font, your colors and should have a similar “feel” to your logo.  All of your materials should present a “unified look” to your customers.

“A unified look makes it easier for anyone (new and old customers) to readily identify you. Creating a thematic “look” for your business isn’t difficult. Many aspects of promotion are already commonplace but underutilized or not coordinated: farm invoices, farm checks, business cards, signage at farmers market and farm stand, produce bags, case labels, farm truck lettering/artwork, T-shirts, hats, and stationary letterheads.”- The Organic Farmers Business Handbook, by Richard Wiswall

The big companies that you’re competing with all know the importance of branding.  They all have multi-page branding guides that they distribute to their underlings.  These guides list out in exacting detail the exact colors that may be used in printed or online materials, the exact fonts to be used, and even the acceptable sizes that a logo can be printed in.

So how do we brand our farms to compete with the big boys?  Well, lets start out by clarifying that branding isn’t going to make our farm or products anything that they aren’t.  If we grow bad lettuce, good branding isn’t going to make it sell any better.  Branding is connecting your awesome product to a mental construct in the mind of your customer.  To make that association stick, we have to repeat it constantly.  We have to apply our branding to everything that leaves our farm, and a lot of the stuff that stays on our farm.

One of my favorite tricks (if you can call it that) for applying a farms branding is using commonly available 2″x4″ labels. You can download a 2×4 label template for free and use it to make labels for most of your farm products: bagged greens, baked goods, jams, jellies, you name it. Make sure that you’ve loaded up your logo fonts on your word-processor and use them! If you don’t have the fonts that are in your logo, you can use whatever font you’d like, but use it consistently. Consistency is key.

Raw Milk Witch-hunt

20 Apr

What do you get when 14 people come down with E. coli and less than half of them have consumed raw milk?

That’s right, you get a raw milk witch-hunt!

Nevermind that the “the source of the infection has not been confirmed”

Come on everyone! Grab your pitchfork, your torch and let’s get ’em!

I was just informed that the source of this “outbreak” is the farm were we got raw milk for most of my childhood. The farmer is going out of business. His milk has been tested for E.coli bacteria from 4 weeks prior to the illnesses, with zero samples testing positive.
It’s only a matter of time before the local media gets his name and really makes it a circus.

The local farming community, which has really taken off in the past year or two, is reeling.
We all know that it could easily have been an one of us.  E.coli in beef, lettuce, milk, eggs, it’s all happened before, and could happen again despite our best efforts.

 

Chickens!

19 Apr

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When I checked the incubator last night before bed, I thought I heard a few eggs peeping.

New Chicks!

 

Sure enough, this morning there were two little chicks in the hatching tray, with another half-dozen eggs pipping.

 

Cinco looking at baby chicks

Cinco loves baby chicks.

Incubation: The Home Stretch

18 Apr

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Well, it’s only 3 more days until the first of the chicks should start hatching, so there were some incubation-related things on the to-do list this evening.

At about this time (3 days before the hatch) you’re supposed to quit turning the eggs and raise the humidity to around 80-85%.  The egg turning part is pretty easy.  I took the eggs out of their trays and put them in a hatching tray that slides into the incubator.

eggs in hatching tray

On the incubators inaugural run we had one chick hatch out in the middle of the night and then get all peppy.  Unfortunately, the low sides of the egg trays aren’t much of an obstacle to a peppy little chick and it fell over the side and died. This time I made up a hatching tray that has higher sides and no extra space around the edges that a chick could fall through.

Humidity is more of a challenge.  I’ve seen folks who use little reptile terrarium humidifiers controlled by humidistats, and while that looks like quite a slick setup, it’s out of the budget for this year at least.  Fortunately, we have a relatively easy low-tech solution.

wet rag humidifier

I keep one egg tray in the bottom of the incubator with a wet rag on it.  I just re-wet the rag two or three times a day, and it seems to keep a relatively constant 75% according to my $5 pet-store hygrometer.  I’m not too worried about that 5-10% that I’m missing off of the recommended 80-85% because hygrometers are notoriously inaccurate, and my incubator windows are fogged up, which tells me that the air in there is near saturation.

 

Fence Lines in the Dark

16 Apr

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Fence Lines in the SouthEast pasture

My dad is getting ready to put in a livestock waterer in the middle of a large field on the SouthEast corner of the farm.  When complete, this waterer will serve 4 paddocks made by bisecting the field North-South and East-West.

There were flags out on the hill marking the location of the waterer, but we had to mark out the fence lines today.

Easier said than done.

These fence lines are all longer than 1/8 mile, and they traverse some pretty gnarly hollers.  For all of you North of the Mason-Dixon line, a holler is what we call a ravine.

We started off with one person standing in the middle, at the waterer, and one person standing at the fence line. The idea was that the person at the middle would maintain a straight line of sight to the fence, and signal the other person to plant flags when they were in that line-of-sight, thereby perfectly bisecting the pasture.

The problem was, that not one of us could see the other through the trees and hollers.  Even the flourescent-pink landscaping flags didn’t help.

After a few attempts, we gave up until dark.

After the sun went down, we grabbed a lantern, and a few flashlights and went back out to set up some fencelines.  We stuck the lantern in the middle and walked in towards it.  a light through the trees in the dark is a heck of a lot easier to see than a little pink flag in the middle of the day.

 

Fencelines.  Check.

Now just the small matter of trenching in 1200 feet of water line, installing a Tire-waterer and installing close to a mile of hi-tensile electric fence.  You know, the easy part.

Farm Marketing: Identity Design

13 Apr

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Ok, quick!  Think of the last thing you bought from someone’s farm.

What did their logo look like? What color(s) was it?  What did their text look like?

If they’re like most small farmers, you probably can’t remember.  Maybe they didn’t have a logo at all, and maybe it was just pretty “blah” to look at so you forgot all about it.

You want your logo and farm name,which should be part of your logo, on everything.  Your logo is the way to get your farm name out there, to get your customers to associate your product (a tangible thing) with your farm (an intangible entity). This is what they call “branding.” Your brand is the idea that is in your customers head, about what your farm and your products are about.  This idea all starts with your farm name.

Farm names come in roughly 4 different categories (at least according to me).

  1. Geographical – describing a place or landmarke.g. Windy Hill Farm
  2. Personal – describing a person, usually the proprietore.g. Smith Farm
  3. Conceptual – describing an idea e.g. Pastoral Fantasyland Acres
  4. Hybrid – a mix of any of the above

So which one of these types of names are best?  There is no best, but there sure might be one that suits you a lot better then the others.  I have a general rule of thumb that says to look at what the majority of people around you are doing, and don’t do what they do.  For farmers, this means usually staying away from geographical names unless you have a darn good reason for doing so. If I had a dime for every geographical farm name, I could afford a pretty nice farm of my own.  If you’re trying to come up with a name only use a geographic name if you have a place or landmark that is truly historic or meaningful.

So how about personal names? Personal names are great, unless you have a funky name that a majority of people are going to have a hard time with.  Even so, feel free to have a little fun with names. Nicknames, ironies and oxymorons are all fair game.

Conceptual names can be the best of all (in my opinion) when done correctly.  Conceptual names need to convey an idea that is central to your philosophy/story.  To do it right, you’ll have to distill your entire philosophy down into a very few words.  Shoehorning a big idea down into a few measly words is tough, but totally worth it.

Hybrid names?  Well, it’s anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the other three.

 

So, if you already have a farm name then you’re in good shape.  Stick with the name you’ve got.  There’s no use changing horses mid-stream.

If you’re trying to come up with a name, start by listing a few ideas, themes, or categories that you’d like to have in the name.  For example, I used “Agriculture” “Environmental” “Industrial”
Brainstorming list

Then as fast as you can, write down every word you can possibly think of within those categories.  Don’t censor yourself during this process, write it down even if it sounds stupid,  try to get down as many words as possible.

It also helps to write down as many different words for “Farm” as you can think of.  (Ranch, Gardens, Acres, Pastures, etc.)

Once you’ve got your lists of words, look through them and start coming up with some combinations that you like.  That should at least give you a starting point for coming up with a name.

Now if you have any artistic leanings whatsoever (stick-figures totally count) start doodling based off the same word list, and see if you can’t find a few images that work together. If you don’t have any artistic skills, go to our good friend google and start looking for pictures that you like related to those words.

Here’s my first sketch of what would become my logo. For someone who’s been around cattle for half his life, I sure can’t draw them very convincingly.

Green Machine Farm Logo first sketch

 

Now we have a name and ideas for a logo, it’s time for the last piece of the puzzle, a typeface.

Typefaces or Fonts are an often overlooked and abused tool for conveying meaning.  A well-chosen font can help reinforce the message that your name and logo are sending.  Start hitting all the free-font internet sites and browse to your hearts content.  Make sure that you’re picking a font that compliments the “feel” that you’re going for (e.g. clean & modern, old-timey, rustic, earthy, etc.)  Jot down the names of any fonts you like, and download them on your computer.

Using your new fonts, type out your farm name in a word-editing program and see which ones you like.  Remember your Shakespeare: Discretion is the better part of valor.  Use the most subtle font that still conveys that feel that you’re going for.  You’re trying to convey your message, not beat people over the head with it.

At top are the two fonts I ended up using: BorisBlackBloxx and Avenir.

Green Machine sample fonts

Ok, one more choice to go.  Color(s).  For reasons that will be explained later, it is usually cheapest to stick with a 1-color logo.  To make it cheaper still, stick to a common PMS color.   What’s a PMS color?  Well, it’s not that important right now, it’s a printing thing.  But if any of those common colors look good to you, pick it and stick to it.  You’ll thank me later.

Here is my color: PMS 3425 – Kelly Green.

PMS 3425

Anyway, it’s at this point that for-real, professional software is needed.  We’re talking about the good stuff, Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign.   If you have these programs and know how to use them, then get to work!

If you don’t have the programs, or the know-how to use them, don’t worry.  There are people around you who do.  Pay them to do the work, it’s worth it.   Look around for a commercial printer, screen-print shop, or a sign & banner place.  They’ll usually have a small staff of designers who can design you something for $60-120.

Take in your sketches or pictures from Google, your farm name, any fonts you have chosen, your color preferences and let them do their work.

Next Time: Branding consistently.

Farm Marketing: Ur doin it wrong.

12 Apr

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first sketch of Green Machine Farm logo

Marketing.

Yeah, it sounds like one of those dirty corporate words to me too. Yuck.

But, lets face facts, farms are businesses.  If we really hope to be sustainable, that means financially sustainable (AKA: profitable) too. And there are few businesses out there that get to profitability without doing a little marketing.

The problem is that most small farmers are terrible marketers.  They are not alone in this.  In fact, most small business owners are terrible marketers, but farmers in general seem to have a few unique obstacles to overcome.

Small sustainable farmers tend to have an almost visceral disgust of marketing.  I can’t blame them because I too share that disgust in some cases.  But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Marketing is a very basic business tool and can be used for good as well as for evil.

Marketing: Noun

  1. Selling of Products or Services: the business activity of presenting products or services in such a way as to make them desirable

So like it or not, we engage in marketing every time we go to a farmers market or talk to a customer.  We are engaged in marketing when we attempt to describe our farm, our process, and our products to anyone.  Heck, if you’re anything like most of the farmers I know you probably love talking to your customers about your farm. We love to tell our story.

The problem is, while most of us farmers are fairly engaging on a personal level, we don’t expand our story into our wider presence very well.  I rarely go to a farmers market and see a stall that really has a well-defined, unified look that tells the customer who they are, or what they’re about.   Remember, there are a lot of people out there who are intimidated or uncomfortable initiating conversation with strangers, so we need to be able to get our message across without necessarily speaking.  Even those customers that you do speak with have started to form opinions about you before they even start to strike up a conversation.

If you are selling products in a retail store, where you the farmer are not there to tell your story, then your marketing is even more important.  You cannot tell the story, so your product, packaging and sinage has to tell it for you.  Worse yet, your message has to compete with the messages of Tyson, Land ‘O Lakes, Dole and all the rest of the big food companies. With that kind of competition we can’t afford to have bad marketing, we need better marketing to accomplish our goals of creating a better local food economy.

As you may know, I am about to embark on a move up North, and probably will not be able to farm full time for the next year.  I still think that I can leverage some of my experience to help other beginning (and established) farmers to get their marketing house in order.  I have worked for 5 years as a Graphic Designer at two printing companies, so I’ve seen every mistake in the book from our local clients.  Save yourself some trial-and-error and learn from their mistakes.

So here are the biggest problems that I typically see with farmers marketing:

  • Bad identity design
  • Inconsistent identity / brand
  • Failure to describe benefit
  • Failure to use technology

 

Now that we know what’s wrong, stay tuned as we fix these 4 problems.

First up, Identity design.

 

 

Drought Planning

9 Apr

I was printing the latest Missouri Grasslands & Forage Council newsletter today (I currently work at a printing company.) The main article “Managing the Spring Flush” was written by Mark Kennedy, who taught the NRCS grazing school that I attended last week.

While managing the rapid spring growth is a worthwhile topic for anybody involved in pasture-based livestock, I was sort of shocked to see that managing during drought was hardly mentioned during the two-day grazing school. As cattlemen (and women) all across the South, Southwest and Plains are finding out, drought is a real downer. (This warm winter sure didn’t help either)

I used to always be in awe of my Grandparents, and particularly of how they were shaped by the Great Depression for the rest of their lives, even though it was over by the time they reached adulthood.  Since the “Great Recession of 2008”, I feel like our generation has got just a little taste of what our grandparents went through, and maybe it will help us start planning for the bad times, instead of the good.

It seems to me that the good times practically plan themselves.  Sure, you can have problems with expansion, liquidity and all the rest, but good times are generally pretty forgiving of mistakes.

In pasture-based livestock, planning for the bad times means planning for drought.  No matter where you live, you’re going to experience drought to some degree at some point in time.  And if you’re in the grazing business, that means that at some unknown future date, your land will suddenly support fewer animals than it does now.

Julius Ruechel, in his excellent book Grass-Fed Cattle, strongly advocates that all stockmen make a drought plan well in advance of needing it.  According to Ruechel, you should plan to destock your herd as you see that rainfall levels are falling below averages for your area.  Destocking should start with all of your culls and market animals, leaving a core brood herd of your very best animals. Here’s a PDF from Texas A&M that outlines the process pretty well.

Since I’m about to move up North to Minnesota and embark on a year of living as a farmer-without-a-farm, I’m going to get busy writing a thorough drought plan.  Hopefully, a nice spreadsheet thing-a-majig that will track rainfall averages, and calculate out the carrying capacity, and then tell me how much destocking needs to happen.

Here’s a little something I stumbled upon today whilst perusing them internets.  Noble Foundation’s Managing During Drought.

I hope that Living in the Upper Midwest, and having a Texas-Oklahoma level drought plan ought to put us in pretty good shape.

Getting to the bottom of Greenhouse Gasses: Part 2

7 Apr

If you didn’t catch Part I, you might want to go get caught up. Don’t worry, I’ll just wait here.

So, About that UN report. You remember, that scary one called Livestocks Long Shadow, the one that said meat is ruining the environment? Well it has some unpleasant things to say about today’s meat industry, namely, that it is a big emitter of greenhouse gasses, and a big contributor to environmental degradation.

The environmental degradation caused by large confinement operations is pretty well known.  You’ve got some pretty unpleasant problems with runoff and water quality, as well as problems with odor and air pollution.

But the UN report has some criticisms for pasture-based livestock as well.  In fact, the single biggest source of greenhouse gasses in animal production is from “Land Use and Land Use Change.”

To make matters worse, there is even an Australian study that claims that grassfed beef emits more greenhouse gas than lot-fed (confinement) beef does.

lot-fed beef in Australia is favorable, since this production system generates lower total GHG emissions than grass-fed production.”

Oh No!

To get to the bottom of the issue, I tracked down a copy of the article from the journal Environmental Science & Technology.   I wanted to see exactly what their methodology was; how they were coming up with their numbers.

I’ll save you all of the boring academic writing and summarize what they did.

The study’s authors found that cattle in feedlots eat a higher-energy diet than cattle eating grass.  Higher-energy equals higher weight-gain.  So the cattle gain weight faster which means that the feedlot cows are slaughtered at a younger age, and have less time to burp up methane.  Their grain diet also contributes to slightly fewer burps per day than a cow that’s eating grass.

So even though the feedlot cattle require more energy to grow the grain and transport it to the cows, their reduced methane emissions (burps) and shortened lifespan are enough to put them ahead of grassfed cattle.

Sadly the Australians are not alone.  There are other studies that back them up.

“Total CH4 emission (enteric + manure) was least for the [Grain] diet, whereas N2O and CO2 emissions were greatest for the [Grain] diet. Total greenhouse gas emissions were least for the [Grain] diet when [Carbon] sequestration by grasslands was not taken into account.”

Wow, this looks bad for grassfed beef doesn’t it?  I mean, who would have thought that cows eating grass are worse for climate change than feedlot cattle?  It kinda sets you back on your heels a bit when the more natural option is calculated out to be worse for the environment.

But don’t run screaming for the exits just yet.

Did you catch the last line from that quote?

“Total greenhouse gas emissions were least for the [Grain] diet when [Carbon] sequestration by grasslands was not taken into account.”

Hmm, that sure sounds odd.  So the scientists in this study know that the grass pastures that cattle graze on take carbon out of the air and sequester it underground, cancelling out some of the greenhouse gasses that the cattle emit, but they don’t count them in their study.  The Australian study is the same way. It does not subtract the carbon sequestration of the pasture from the emissions of the grassfed cattle.  So is this some big conspiracy to make grassfed beef look bad?  Well, I’m no big believer in conspiracy theories, so there is probably a better explanation.

If we dig into the UN report, we get a hint about why that may be.

The full potential for terrestrial soil carbon sequestration is uncertain, because of insufficient data and understanding of SOC dynamics at all levels, including molecular, landscape, regional and global scales (Metting et al., 1999). According to the IPCC (2000) improved practices typically allow soil carbon to increase at a rate of about 0.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.

So the science about grassland carbon sequestration is far from thorough, but they can safely agree that “improved practices” can sequester 1/8 ton of carbon per acre per year.

The USDA has a different estimate of carbon sequestration by grasslands:

[USDA scientists] estimate that these 36 million acres of CRP lands can store 7 to 13 million metric tons of carbon a year for the next 25 years.

So that leave us an estimated 0.19 – 0.36 tons/acre/year!  That’s quite a big number.  That means a 50 acre farm could put away up to 18 tons of carbon per year.  And keep in mind that that estimate is for CRP fields, which are essentially unmanaged, with no animals on them.  With actively managed mob-grazed pastures there is no telling how much carbon they could sequester.

One of the goals of mob-grazing is to make the cattle trample carbon into the soil in the form of dead leaves, grass stems, and hay.  When a herd of cattle is actively made to bring carbon-containing dry matter into contact with the soil carbon sequestration is bound to happen at a higher rate.

It looks like there is currently a gap in the scientific data.  A gap between current cutting-edge grazing practices (mob-grazing) and the data on pasture carbon sequestration.  But while the knowledge gap exists, the scientists are still excited about the potential, proclaiming that better grazing could lead to: “substantial increases in carbon pools.”

And from the UN report:

Improved grassland management is another major area where soil carbon losses can be reversed leading to net sequestration, by the use of trees, improved species, fertilization and other measures. Since pasture is the largest anthropogenic land use, improved pasture management could potentially sequester more carbon than any other practice.

So this is the state of our science today.  We know that our grasslands and pastures sequester carbon, but we don’t really can’t say how much.  If we knew how much, we could factor that into the equation and I have a feeling that grassfed beef would look a lot better in the comparison.

My back-of-the-napkin calculations put grassfed beef’s carbon footprint equal to that of US feedlot beef when using numbers from the USDA’s CRP study and the Australian study.  I can find no studies that examine the carbon sequestration of mob-grazed pastures, but I suspect that when those studies are done, the results are going to blow people away (in the good way).

 

Stick around for Part 3, in which we discuss ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our cattle.

Candling Eggs

7 Apr

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Clear eggs after candling

It’s been 8 days since the eggs went into the incubator, so it’s time to candle them.

Candling is the process of holding the egg up to a very bright light to see if there is a chicken developing in there. The eggs that don’t have anything going on inside are called “clears” and are pulled out of the incubator.  The rest of the eggs are put back, and in a little under two weeks, they ought to hatch.

You can buy egg candlers that run from $10 up to several hundred dollars, or you can make your own.  Being the frugal, DIY type, I prefer making my own.  Of course, I haven’t made my own, because I have something that works just as well: a LED flashlight.

First, make good and sure that all the lights are off in the room you’re candling in.

Next, I make a circle with my thumb and index finger and hold the flashlight with my remaining fingers.  Put an egg on the circle you’ve made, and you’ve got an egg candler.

Here’s what a “clear” egg looks like.

Bad unfertilized egg - clear

They have a tendency to glow really brightly when you shine the light through them.  There are no dark spots or lines in the egg at all, except for a slightly darker area of the yolk. If I’m in doubt about weither an egg is really clear or not, I leave it in the incubator.  I’ve had no problems leaving clears in for the full 3 weeks.  I’ve never had one explode or go rotten at all.  In fact, when I’ve pulled 3 week old clears out of the incubator, I’ve gone outside and smashed them without any stinkyness at all.   So go ahead, be a bit lazy about candling and pulling clears out, it likely won’t hurt anything.

If you candle a few days before hatching it’s much easier.  The good eggs will be completely dark except for the air pocket at the big end, and the bad eggs will be either completely clear, or some degree of translucent.

Here is a good egg.

Good egg being candled

Notice that it’s much darker than the clear, and if you look closely you can see the dark lines seperating the embryo from the “white” of the egg.  It’s pretty hard to take a good photo of an egg being candled, but a good egg will almost always have small dark spot with small dark “veins” radiating out from it.  If I see anything at all resembling dark lines, I assume it’s good and put it back in the incubator.

There can be dark circular lines or rings in a bad egg due to bacteria, but I try to candle the eggs pretty quickly to get them back in the warm incubator.  If there’s a bad egg in there, it can wait till later to be found and pulled out.

128 eggs incubated, 17 clears so far. We will potentially have 111 chicks in two more weeks!

Our problem with clears is definitely resolving itself. I think that it was probably due to my relatively young and inexperienced rooster. Earlier in the year he was having trouble mounting the hens. At times he would lose his balance and fall off face-first over the hen. We haven’t seen him doing that at all this spring, so he seems to be doing a better job.