Market Realities

I started this blog years ago now, partly because it was a hot summer and I was annoying Linhda by whining about not being able to get outside, but mostly as a record of what we were trying to achieve.  We were committed to growing meat ethically – treating our animals with the love and respect they deserved, and ensuring they had the best possible lives.  That grew to a desire to promote that message of ethical eating, the aim being to connect people back to the source of their meat.  For the record, we’re even more committed to that course now, years on, despite the pitfalls we’ve managed to uncover on the way. Oh so many pitfalls…

This blog was my way of documenting that journey. We had a huge learning curve, and I wanted to record that so that others might benefit.  To my mind, that makes recording the failures more important than recording the successes.  Sure, reading about how something worked for somebody can be helpful, but only if you plan on doing the same thing exactly the same way.  There might be a hundred ways to achieve a goal, and you’re much more likely to find the way that works best for you if you know the problems to avoid. As a result, we’ve been committed to recording everything that happens, warts and all.

Piglets! These little buggers are the reason we do all of this.

There’s a commercial reality to what we do that I often find bothersome. Our motivation is the animals whose wellbeing we promote, and it seems tacky at times to have that mixed with a money-making operation. The commercial side of what we do is necessary however, and that’s for a few reasons.

  • Firstly, part of the message is that meat shouldn’t be cheap, not when it’s raised properly. I often think that were I a multi-bajillionaire, I’d still do what we do but I’d give the meat to people for free.  However, that would actually dilute the message.  Raising animals the way we do is more labour intensive and has higher costs, and as a result the meat should be more expensive.  The supermarket’s message is that pork and chicken should be dirt cheap, but the reality is that this only happens at the expense of the poor intensively farmed animals.  Part of our message is that people should eat the right kind of meat, but maybe eat meat less often if the cost is a problem.
  • Secondly, the commercial part of what we do is the vehicle we use to deliver our message. We are able to talk to hundreds of people, show them a superior product, and speak to them about just how happy the animals are.  We are able to, face-to-face, connect people back to the source of their meat.
  • Lastly, I currently have a fulltime job, and want to be able to devote all of my time to the farm. That’ll only happen when we can support ourselves from it.

The result of all of this is that our commercial venture is a necessary evil, and one that I struggle with a bit. I think our customer interactions are excellent, including our social media activities.  We genuinely engage with people (e.g. we don’t buy likes on FB, but garner then organically; we are transparent and answer questions openly; we only use our own pictures rather than steal them from the internet etc.), and we build lasting relationships.  However, the part where it comes to collecting money is still a struggle for me.  I’m really just not that good at it, but I’m working on it. 🙂

This has led us to adapt and evolve our business model a bit, and it’s one that is unique amongst the people we’ve met.  Stepwise, the evolution looked a bit like this:

1        We started with internet bulk sales.  We’d spoken, and visited with, farmers who were of a similar size to what we’d been thinking.  The business model they used was bulk internet sales, and while that works well in the eastern states with a much higher and denser population, it was never going to be enough to support us in the Adelaide market.  We pushed this for a while, trying to expand into a restaurant and family co-ops market.  That actually worked to a limited degree, and we maintain those relationships still, but it still wasn’t enough.

One of our restaurant customers.

2        We branched out into farmers markets.  This proved to be a huge step forwards for us, though it came with its own learning curve.  Commercially, farmers markets are probably enough to support us and they allow us to connect with a lot of people. However, there are a lot of people trying to do what we do, which is part of the reason for this post (I’m still getting to the reason 🙂 ), and we want people to be more invested in our farm and the way we do what we do.

Our first market customers ever!

3        We implemented a Community Supported Agriculture scheme .  This is the one I’m most excited about, as it connects people to our farm.  All of a sudden it’s not just me talking to people about what we do; it’s people directly invested and interested. I can’t overstate just how exciting this is to us, and is something we plan to grow.

Underlying all of these commercial decisions was our level of production. We had some problems, mostly linked to our nutrition and the fact that I was adamant that we’d not just follow the commercial feed route.  I have blog posts that explain all of that fully.  We’ve overcome those problems now though, and our production is increasing to the point where we now, for the first time, have a bit of a glut of pigs.  That is an amazing problem to have and allows us to promote our CSA shares a bit more, and to reach out to our restaurant network and offer them pork again.

The end result of all of that is a business model we’ve not seen elsewhere.  It’s completely underpinned by our ethos and our ethical aims, most of which make our job harder to be honest. 🙂  We originally adopted an approach that had worked elsewhere, and tried to adapt it to S.A. with limited success.  Evolving that to suit the market here is what’s worked for us, and has left us with a unique model.

Just as an aside, we’ve adopted some farming practices that we’d seen had worked elsewhere too.  Sometimes that works well, and other times it doesn’t.  The trick is to learn from others but then to be adaptable.  Feed the results back into your decision making and your farming/business model, and don’t be scared to change them.  If I was asked to give one piece of advice to a new and budding farmer, it would that message of adaptability.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe that somebody who does something similar/adjacent to us is copying us. My ego isn’t quite that well developed. 🙂 By the same token, I’m keen for people to learn from both our successes and mistakes.  It probably wouldn’t make sense for somebody to try and pick up what we do and adopt it in its entirety, but there are things we do that might slot nicely into somebody else’s model.

So 1200 words in and I’ve not explained why the blog post.  I’ll do that by posing a question: What do communism, churches, and farmer’s markets all have in common?  They all sound good in theory, but become problematic when you add self-interested people.  Feel free to quote me on that. 🙂 I mentioned earlier that we blog about our practices, warts and all.  This is one of the warty bits that people need to be prepared for.

Me and my three girls at the Salisbury market, where we started.

 

The Evanston market. This isn’t around any more, and we didn’t many opportunities to go due to other commitments.

 

Riverton is a monthly market we recently started. It’s a nice demographic and Riverton is just beautiful.

Back in our internet sales days we dealt with few other producers. We reached out to those around us and built relationships, and we even traded with them a little (e.g. bought breeding stock).  Those interactions were entirely friendly and amicable.  Starting at markets, on the other hand, was eye opening in just how different these fellow-producer relationships were, and in fact, just how unpleasant some of the interactions and practices were/are.

We’ve been to several markets, and I am not in any way singling any market or producer out.  In fact, some of the unpleasantness has come from markets where we don’t even have a presence!  I’ll include some examples here though, all of which are generic.

  • I’ll preface this example by saying that we’ve at times been our own worst enemy. We welcome questions from the public, and encourage them to ask us anything at all about our practices.  We don’t try and hide any of it, and actually go out of our way to expose practices where we think there may be a point-of-difference. An example of that is my post on castration, where we explained, in detail, how and why we castrate, with the full understanding that there are people who disagree with that practice.  With that attitude in mind, we’ve approached other producers with questions about what they do.  We’ve only ever asked questions we’d expect customers to ask, but weirdly enough, we’ve almost every time been met with hostility.  As a result, we don’t ask those questions any more. 🙂

A subset of this is seeing customers interact with producers, which has mostly been on social media.  I keep track of a number of other producers, both competitors and just people I’m interested in.  I’ve seen a number of times where customers ask questions like I’ve described above, and where they’ve been met with blankness, hostility, or even with having conversations deleted and being blocked.  We also hear those stories from those same people who then come to us to ask the same questions.

  • The over-use of terms like “ethical” and even “free range”. I’ve met a number of producers who use these as marketing terms, but that’s about as far as it goes.  They interchange terms like “free range” with “free to roam” (what does that even mean?!), but clearly keep contained animals. They in no way own what they do, but rather portray something different for the purposes of marketing.

In fact, this links in with the first point.  You can’t promote yourself as “ethical” and then not be able to answer people’s questions as to how you meet that definition.  You need to be able to assure them that the animals are truly free-ranged (e.g. free-range standards, pictures, farm visits), explain exactly what you feed your animals and why you made that choice, and you need to be knowledgeable about what you do.  I’ve seen producers give horribly inaccurate advice, and even be schooled by the people who were originally asking them the questions. How can you expect to build a trusted relationship with people if you clearly lack fundamental knowledge?!

We have a number of customers now who started our relationship by having chats, sometimes weekly, and sometimes having a few chats before buying a single thing.  They then maybe bought a couple of small things as a test, and now come back every week, often buying all of their meat with us.  These people have all engaged us on social media, a lot of them read this blog (hey guys!), and several have even been out to our place to meet the animals.  Now a number of those people started talking to us because they were unsatisfied with the answers they got from other producers, and they stayed because we answered them.

  • An extension of the above is people who keep a small number of animals for the sake of social media photos, but then just buy in the production beasts. We know our own level of production intimately.  We know exactly the demand we can support.  Right now I have just over 100 pigs, and I can just support our 1.5 markets and CSA scheme, with a couple of bulk sales thrown in to soak up a small glut.  We’ve met people who seemingly have 20 or 30 pigs, and yet support several times the demand we do.  How does that work?  I have no problem with people buying stock in if they need to.  I have no problem with people working their way around production slumps.  What I have a problem with is people who bang on about the ethicality of what they do, clearly using the term in a marketing sense, but then aren’t at all open about where the animals are actually coming from.
  • Linked to all of the above is people with more intensive practices sneaking into farmers markets. This is the one that bothers me the most. These are people who, like the above mentioned “ethical” folk, see a marketing potential and try and leverage that with intensively farmed meat.  I clearly can’t start pointing fingers at specific producers or markets. It would be unprofessional, despite how much it bothers me. However, there is a local market who promotes an openly intensive farm as ethical production. They’ve been challenged on that fact, and just doubled-down in their defence of the practice.  In fact, to make matters much, much worse, the market in question held up the producer in question as a shining example of their stall holder’s ethical practices.  They did this after that producer plagiarised the blurb from our market flyer and posted it as their own vision. Pretty much word-for-word.  Seriously.

This bothers me on so many levels.  97% of the pork in this country is intensively farmed. We’re the 3%, and we work so bloody hard to spread a message.  The best way to do that is via these markets and by showing a superior product.  Like I said above, that product is more expensive, and it should be!  What an intensive producer at a farmers market is doing is mass producing miserable animals and selling them at a farmer’s market premium.  From a marketing/business point-of-view, it’s genius.  From an ethical point-of-view, it’s freaking criminal.  The 97% have their market. It’s the supermarkets and the big processors.  Hell, their market is most of the freaking country.  People like us are trying to drive a wedge in there and show the public that they have options outside of this, and a market allowing an intensive farm in actively undoes some of what we’ve achieved.

  • We’ve had other producers slyly attack us, normally in a fairly passive aggressive manner, taking shots at us on social media or doing some weird things at the market (I can’t be more specific without looking like I’m doing the same back 🙂 ). We’ve always found these puzzling, as they normally make the attacker look petty and in no way hurt us. It’s telling though, and shows the hostility that you can face if you’re seen as a threat.  Of course, the irony is that we don’t want to be a threat.  We want everybody to do well, as a strong market is only good for everybody. That’s a surprisingly difficult message to get across though, and I have face-to-face tried to explain it.
  • A minor one, and something that is probably more a personal annoyance to me, is the multi-generational farmers who throw shade at us. I have nothing but the utmost respect for farming families who have been in that game for many generations. They and their knowledge are treasures and something that we, as a country, need to actively preserve.  However, that in no way means you should discourage fresh blood.  We’ve not seen a heap of this, and not outside of market interactions, but it does happen, and it’s so very short-sighted.

These kinds of farmers have been blessed to be born into that life, and they’re stewards of invaluable information, but those families, more and more, are moving off the land.  Yes, you may be able to claim a great-great-grand daddy who was a farmer, but what happens when your kids want something different?  We know and deal with a number of multi-generational farming families, and we know some whose kids are keen to continue the family business.  However, we know as many whose kids aren’t.  What happens then?  From our experience, those kids either sell or lease the farm.  Farm land around us is $4k to $5k per acre, which means that any even half-decent sized track of land is worth, literally, millions.  Even leasing it is expensive, and then you have the expense of farm equipment on top of that.  That means that the big farming families get bigger, or we lose that land to overseas investors – they’re the only two with the required money.

So let’s look at a purely hypothetical situation where new farmers can’t afford to get into the business and where the people with the knowledge, the big farming families, don’t think that anybody else is able to be a farmer.  What would happen in that situation?  We would lose the land.  We would lose the knowledge. We would be less for it.

We need to encourage first generation farmers.  We need to make it affordable to them and we need to train them.  More than that though, we need to lose the attitude that only multi-generational farmers are really farmers.  What industry doesn’t benefit from injections of fresh blood and new ideas?

There’s another similar thing we’ve seen that I find more funny than annoying, and that’s linked to people who use popular words as marketing terms.  We’ve seen people who have very tenuous links to previous generations of farming who then claim to be part of a long line of farmers.  Working a fulltime non-farming career for your entire life doesn’t mean you get to claim to be the nth farmer in your line.  Using that logic, Peyton is a third generation farmer. J  I hope that one day she can claim to be second generation, and I hope that any kids she have choose to be the third.  I’m not going to force that though, and I’m not going to look down on anybody who actively chooses a farming career or is trying to learn.  Australia needs farmers and we need to build and retain that knowledge.  The more the merrier I say! 😀

  • We’ve seen some more macro-scale, or market-to-market, examples too:
  • One market actively spreading disinformation about another. This was pointed out to us by a number of our customers, all of whom were blocked on social media when they tried to correct what was being said. It’s just poor form.
  • Markets who think that putting “Farm” in their title, and pretending to espouse the cause of farmers, makes them anything other than a platform for resellers. Having traders go to a wholesale market on a Thursday night and resell their bananas on a cold Adelaide weekend morning in no way makes you a farmer’s market.  The produce will probably be cheap, but you’re not interacting with a farmer and you have no idea where your money is going.  Word to the wise: always look for a stallholder guarantee when shopping at a market.  The market should be the one giving the customers assurance that the stallholders are actually the producers.

There are a lot of examples there, and I have many, many more.  I think it all boils down to one overriding cause – people’s self-interest ruling them.  It makes sense to a certain degree.  I mean, people need to make a living, right?  There’s a ground swell of support for ethical eating, so why not take advantage of that?  I understand the cause, but I wholly reject the result.  If you can’t actively demonstrate ethical practices, then don’t claim them.  If you need to include intensively farmed pork in your offerings, then don’t call yourself a farmer’s market.  If you need to attack another producer or market, then rethink your career choice.

To me, this is exactly the same root as intensive farming practices.  It’s people putting their interests ahead of the animals they’re supposed to care for.  It’s a small step from this to putting pigs in sheds and chickens in cages.  You’re exploiting those animals either way.

Our stall at Wayville. It’s improved a heap since we started, and now looks like a market stall. It used to look a bit like a concrete dungeon. 🙂

 

A recipe card from the Wayville market.

Now, as I said above, the drive for this blog post was to expose an unsavoury part of our business model for educational purposes.  However, it’s really not all doom-and-gloom.  We’ve met a huge number of amazing producers, many of whom I have the greatest respect and admiration for.  Those that impress me the most are people that we might seem to be in competition with, but who are still open to a chat and an exchange of ideas.  We’ve been able to share what we do and learn from what they do, and both sides are better for those exchanges.

A majority of the people we’ve dealt with at the markets, in terms of staff and stall holders, have been great.  With any group of people you’re going to get your bad apples and personality clashes, which is just part-and-parcel of people being people.  We have found people like those described in the examples above though, who do things I completely disagree with and for obvious reasons of self-interest, and they have clouded the experience.  I’m pretty thick-skinned, and for the most part I just laugh it off (not the intensive farm at a farmer’s market though – that REALLY pisses me off).  Linhda, on the other hand, got to the stage where she stopped going to market.  She has a much lower threshold for people being mean, and where this just kicked me into pig-headed mode and made me more determined, it genuinely hurt her.  By the same token, Linhda doesn’t think I should be posting this blog post.  She’d much rather that we let sleeping dogs lie, where I’d much rather poke some bears. It’s a yin and yang thing. 🙂

In all seriousness, and Linhda’s glares aside, our evolving business model has exposed us to some eye-opening people and behaviours.  Where I had quite naively assumed that people who do what we do would share a similar ethos, we found that perverted by self-interest.  It’s probably more a metaphor for humankind than anything else, but is something that would’ve been easier to handle had we known it going in. Hence my wall of words in this blog post. 😀

The Gawler location is gorgeous. Fun fact, Pioneer Park, seen behind the stall, was Gawler’s cemetery back in the day. Interesting and super creepy.

 

The Gawler Market has a huge family atmosphere. It is SO much fun!

 

This gorgeous girl came and visited during our last Gawler Market before the winter recess. 🙂

 

2 thoughts on “Market Realities

  1. J & D > First some background observations: (1) Yours is the first blog on farming/smallholding/crofting/homesteading that we’ve come across that’s by a fella (2) Yours is the first blog on those matters that we’ve come across from ‘down under’. (1+2) It’s good to have find a different perspective on things. Now to your post: There are similarities between our situation and yours, but even greater similarities in values and ethical practices. We can relate to what you are writing about. Reading of your experience helps us to understand the difficulties and disappointments we continue to face. We too want everyone to flourish – on the basis that everyone finds their own niche, applies themselves to their task, and collaborates with others, regardless of whether they are doing something similar or different. We can all help each other to succeed. But, truth is, there are many folk who seem incapable of seeing life in this way. Our experience has taught us to just walk away from these people, and save energy for those with whome we can work to mutual benefit. But, ultimately, we must not be ashamed to accept for ourselves the benefits of our own achievements.

    • So I’m the first Aussie AND the first fella? A twofer! 🙂

      I love the fact that what we find her resonates all the way around the world. I think that much of what we find is more a reflection on humankind in general rather than farmers/small holders in general. Basically, people can be shit – it’s not just farmers. 🙂

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