Stacking Up versus Piling On
Proponents of diversified family farms like to talk about “stacking” farm enterprises. Stacking refers to the possibility of adding profitable new farm ventures to an existing operation with minimal added cost. A popular example is adding laying hens to a beef or pork operation. The hens don’t require any extra space since they follow the other livestock through their rotations. Stacking is a great idea. There are efficiencies to be gained as the cost of labor, real estate, equipment, and marketing can be shared by multiple enterprises.
Theoretical farming exists in the universe of blogs (ours included, mea culpa), books, magazines, and conferences where ideas all make sense. Applied farming exists in the universe of bleeding knuckles, dead chickens, frozen pipes, and broken hydraulic lines where these ideas start to break down. We know this all too well. We farm right in the junction of the theory and the application. We often talk about the farm that exists in our minds versus the one that we live on. One place where there is friction between theory and application is that the scale and scope of the stacked enterprises are sometimes not compatible. So while two enterprises might be able to share land, labor, equipment, etc., one of them might not be worthwhile unless it is scaled up to the point where it dwarfs the other enterprise it was intended to complement.
Case in point: Joel Salatin wrote a detailed article in a September 2014 issue of the Stockman Grass Farmer (sorry, it is only available in print) about their changing pastured poultry practices. It was a useful article, highlighting areas where their practice has evolved over the years, filled with statistics to quantify the scope of their projects. He is famous, deservedly so, for popularizing the idea of stacking laying hens with cattle in pasture rotations. One interesting detail in his article is that they need to have more than four hundred birds in order to provide a good return for the labor cost of moving housing or fencing, feeding, watering, and collecting eggs. When he started, he had 100 layers, yielding about 30 dozen eggs per week. But he calculated that based on his labor, he should have charged $10 per dozen. The only thing that made his efforts profitable was that the chickens were able to forage most of their food. Once he increased his flock to 400 and then to 800, the chickens would strip the pasture of edibles immediately, thus requiring the majority of their feed to be supplied as grain. The catch was that now that he could spread his labor over 280 dozen eggs versus 30 dozen, he had increased his feed costs. The tail was so big that it started to wave the dog. In Joel’s case, this hasn’t proven to be a problem, but it does point to a potential problem for farms that aren’t ready to make the leap to the industrial scale at which Joel now operates. That’s great for him, and we mean that wholeheartedly without any attempt to snipe at his success. Is it great for our situation?
Using Joel’s numbers, here are the questions we need to ask. Can we develop a market for sell 300 dozen eggs each week? Can we afford to lose money on the enterprise or to add non-paying hours to our workday during the time it takes us to build up to 300 dozen eggs? How long would it take us to get to that level? Do we have enough time to deal with daily or weekly egg sales instead of our current monthly bulk meat sales? Would we need to buy a tractor in order to move the housing for that many chickens? Would we need to invest in egg washing equipment, a delivery van, order processing software, etc? None of these are insurmountable, but the reality is that adding such an enterprise to our farm would not be trivial. Without pushing a sharp pencil first we could be setting ourselves up for a disaster.
There is tremendous pressure on direct-marketing farms like ours to diversify to become everything to everyone. And for seemingly good reasons: customers like one-stop shopping, diverse farms have a fallback when a particular crop or product fails, and perhaps most importantly, our quintessential idealized farm is the diverse Old MacDonald farm from our childhood picture books. That pressure leads farmers to keep adding without evaluating if the new enterprises are truly stacking together or if they are just piling up. There is a big difference between stacking and piling. In the four years we’ve been at it, we’ve seen burnout, depression, and failure among farmers. The illustration in the sequel to the Old MacDonald story needs to show him bleary eyed and slumped over an empty bottle of bottom shelf scotch wondering why he ever decided to add that animal that goes “Cluck, cluck”. Everything was great until he added the “Cluck, cluck”. It would be absurd to assign all the blame for farm failures to this single cause, but it apparent to us that unrealistic expectations of how much can be added to a farm are a significant culprit.
We’ll apply the idea of stacked enterprises rather literally in this situation. Sorry for the low quality cellphone picture, but what do you see stacked in this picture?
• At the bottom of the stack, we have what will be compost in 2016. It isn’t compost yet. It is still wood chips, hay, and oat straw bedding being mixed with manure and urine. After we clean out the hoophouse we’ll let this compost for a year and then apply it to the fields, adding fertility.
• Next on the stack – before the hay and straw become compost, they serve as bedding keeping the pigs warm and dry.
• Next on the stack – before the hay and straw become bedding, they serve as food for the pigs. The portions that aren’t eaten are trampled down and end up as bedding.
• Next on the stack – we have the pigs themselves (actually there are two layers of pigs stacked on top of each other), providing saleable meat and also providing manure for the aforementioned compost.
• Next on the stack – we have chickens. The chickens live with the pigs. Hawks, weasels, foxes, and raccoons don’t like visiting the pigs, so as long as the chickens stay nearby, they are safe from predators. We only have a few dozen chickens, enough to give us eggs for breakfast. They also contribute a small amout of manure to the compost.
• And at the top of the stack – we have the hoophouse. It gets stacked use by functioning as winter quarters for the grower pigs on one side and the bottle calves on the other side. In the spring, summer, and fall, it serves as short term housing for several groups of piglets as they are weaned. We also hope to start our spring broiler chickens in the hoophouse before turning them out to pasture.
What else could we stack here? We are absolutely certain there are ways we could creatively add depth to our farm, and we’d like to explore our options. Who knows, but rabbits or earthworms or mushrooms might all work into this system. But we don’t want to add on in such a way that causes us to expend more time or money than we can justify. We need to focus on those things that we can do efficiently and sell profitably. Sustainable agriculture isn’t sustainable if the agricolae can’t sustain it, right?