Searching for Scale

September 4, 2020

The same view is never the same, posing new questions every day. 

This penetrating rising sun recently asked what scale we need to become sustainable. As the sun moves to the heart of matters, a ready answer was not forthcoming, which is why the question was posed. So, we have been pondering the response.

I recently read of a successful regenerative farm in Missouri that produces 250,000 lbs. of product per year. Not having measured progress in that denomination, I wondered what we produce. Are those live pounds or packaged ones? Packaged is about 45% of live beef, 60% of live pork, and 50% of lamb. Interestingly, an 8 lb. hen produces 30 lbs. of eggs per year, nearly 4 times its weight. Is production what is sold or what is raised? At first glance, we currently raise about 170,000 lbs. of product and sell about 50,000 lbs. per year on 350 acres. We rely on about 4 full-time personnel to do so. How do we compare?

What would an industrial grain farm produce on those 350 acres? Assume the acreage is all planted to corn, yielding 150 bushels per acre. Each bushel weighs 56 lbs. So, 350 acres x 150 bu/ac. x 56 bu. = 2,940,000 lbs. This is 11 times what we produce, and is done with one full-time person and $1 million of equipment. What a startling difference in scale! This is what we are competing with. 

If entering into business, which path does one choose, that 11 times more productive than the other, or that which functions in balance with the environment and long-term health of customers. These are not necessarily simple trade-offs. Does one aim for quantity or quality?

We strive to raise more product and develop more customers and increase the volume and profit of our enterprises. Part of us envies the productivity of the industrial model. We want to grow so our business may be more than one person's passion. We want to sustain our partners and employees, with a full return of wages, benefits, and livelihood into the future. We accordingly strive to increase scale to achieve this, but to what extent? 

At what point does the scale become destructive to the health of underlying ecology and customers? We do not want to be 11 times our size, but perhaps we can narrow the difference to 5 or 6 times, while still providing social, environmental, and financial benefits. We are artisanal and always want to remain so.  We are discovering our scale, but don't yet know how to define it.

This friendly hog was in that horse trailer just minutes before, as we were trying to load him onto a stock trailer with a compadre of his. The stock trailer backs up to the horse trailer, the back gate is lifted, and the hogs walk from one to the other. The problem is the trailers are not flush against each other, so about 2 feet of daylight stand between them on the sides. A few planks of this or that usually creates enough of an illusion that the hogs flow from one trailer to the other without issue. Except this one! He did not want to go straight ahead, decided to test the illusion, and plowed his way out the gap between the two trailers. It is hard to stop a 300 lb. hog when he is determined, so he won another week of freedom. We will try again next week. 

If we had proper hog-loading facilities or equipment, we wouldn't have this issue. The animals are so healthy, under Clark's direction, and the meat is so good that we will resolve this problem one way or another.  

Land responds differently to pressure from animals, depending on type of soil, fertility, and management. About 30 acres of our sheep-zone have not been mowed all year, which includes these paddocks. The concentration of the flock has been high enough to keep most weeds and woody species at bay. Clark had been diligently moving the flock every two days onto fresh 2-acre paddocks. This take a lot of work, erecting and taking down nets, and moving water and mineral. But the result is well trampled paddocks, fully grazed forbs and grasses, not much of a weed problem, and thriving lambs. Ironweed is the biggest culprit in our pastures, and in this picture it is hardly evident.

It costs about $20/acre to mow a field, so that has been saved on these 30 acres. Can we accomplish the same on the other 60 acres of the sheep's grazing block? We are hopeful, which is a critical character trait in this game!

One of the pleasures of work on artisanal farms is that fairly regularly one is entertained by antics of animals nearby. The other day, I was repairing a leak in a water line, and looked up to discover Scout comfortably perched on hay bales six feet tall. How the heck did he get up there? I sure didn't lift him up. He'd have to jump seven or eight feet to land that high. He was proud of himself. Amazing. 

Shortly thereafter, I was opening a gate near the edge of woods where the sheep flock had just loitered, when I happened to see a white face staring at me. It was Coquie! What was she doing in that spot, and why was she staring at me at that moment? During the heat of the day, she sneaks off to the cool woods. She heard my truck and was inspecting. Within another few minutes, she returned to the field where I was working, ready to be fed. Was she playing peek a boo? 

One can enjoy animals' sense of humor, if one will. 

Above we have shredded-pork tacos, with feta cheese. Guacamole and salsa were added. This was made from pork shoulder. It was irresistible, of course. You can do the same by slow-cooking a shoulder at 200 degrees for ten hours. 

May we each find the scale we seek in personal and professional quest, 




Drausin Wulsin

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