Small Acres – Part 2

IMG_2552This is part 2 of a 5 part series.

In the second breakout session of Putting Small Acres to Work, Keith and I split up.  I went to a session on the IL Cottage Food Law (which I’ll write about in part 3), while Keith attended Adapting to Changing Consumer Trends at Farmers’ Markets and Adding Value to Your Products.  When we got back together for the third session, he told me that he thinks I would have rather been in the workshop he was in.  Actually, the two made good companions and complemented each other perfectly – as did all the sessions we attended!

Back to the subject at hand… The session was presented by Matt & Debbie Daniels of Bear Creek Farm & Ranch, in Palmer, IL.  They’ve been on their farm for 17 years.  It has 45 acres and they raise everything naturally.  They started out like we did – raising a few (50) chickens for themselves and friends.  Then raising a few more and selling some at the farmer’s market.  They grew so much that one year they raised 4,000 chickens!  They also grow fresh produce to sell at market and a couple of stores.  They went on to say that at first they sold chicken in two forms: whole intact, or whole cut-up.  As time went on customers started asking for specific parts only, such as breasts or leg quarters.  That was a small market at first, but now about 80% of their chicken sales are parts and pieces.  This left them with the problem of what to do with the extra pieces no one wanted – backs and necks.  The only way they could sell those parts was to reduce the price so much that they would be losing money.  Their solution:  value added products.  They thought they could add value to those pieces by making them into chicken stock, cooked chicken meat, chicken salad and dog food.  This is where their story overlaps with the session I was in regarding the cottage food law.  It isn’t legal to make and sell these type of products in a home kitchen.  They decided to get a food managers license and build an on-farm certified kitchen in their garage.  This is an expensive – and extensive – project that they emphatically stated needs to be started by working with the county health department from the beginning!  If there is no way you can afford to build your own certified kitchen, you can get the food manager license and then look at finding a kitchen to rent.  Check with churches, community centers, or county extension offices.

The value added idea was expanded into other areas.  In addition to the broth and other chicken products, they could make pickles, dried herbs and peppers, butter from their milk.  These things have a longer shelf life and could extend their sales.  A head of lettuce could be sold as is, but when that lettuce was washed, cut and had other veggies added to make it a salad, they were able to sell it for a much higher price.  There are drawbacks to that – the time it takes to cut and prepare these foods, extra handling, packaging and storage.  But with some research they found that storage time could be extended by briefly soaking the veggies in a a solution of 1/2 oz of hydrogen peroxide to 1 gallon of water (which is something I’ve read in other places).  Obviously, refrigeration would also be a key component into keeping cut veggies fresh, and freezers are needed to keep frozen things frozen.

For marketing their products, they sold at farmers’ markets and stores.  When selling these types of foods at a market, you need to check with each individual market to see what is legal to sell there.  I know that at some markets you can sell frozen chicken, eggs, etc., because they have electricity at the area.  Farmers who have freezers and coolers load them in their vehicles, or some have larger trucks with freezers/coolers permanently installed, and they can plug into the power source at the market.  The one I attend does not have this option, so those items are not allowed to be sold there.  Canned foods, dried foods, baked goods and fresh produce are all that are allowed.  When marketing to a store, you need to be able to consistently supply a high quality product.  Bear Creek Farm has a buy-back agreement with stores – whatever is left after a specified period of time, they will buy it back from the store.  This seems to apply mostly to fresh food, like sprouts.  This agreement allows them to command a higher price for their product because they are assuming the risk of loss of sale, not the store.  They also do home deliveries.

Other ideas for value added products that can be produced are cut flowers that are made into bouquets, pumpkins or gourds that are painted or carved, making wheat grass juice, using apples to make applesauce, apple juice or apple pie filling.  They also mentioned that they are planning on adding a greenhouse and high tunnel, which will extend the growing season.  They sat in on those same sessions that day, along with us.  (Part 1 of this series is on high tunnels, Part 4 will address greenhouses.)  A note that Keith wrote down is “texting and facebook with products available”.  I’m assuming that means they use these ways to notify existing customers of what is currently available.  Interestingly enough, using social media to promote your farm will be Part 5 of this series :)

On a side note, we got to chat with Matt & Debbie for about a half hour when the whole event was over and we’ve decided that at some point this summer we would like to drive down there and visit their farm – by appointment, of course.  To learn more about their farm and where you can buy their products, go to their website:  www.bearcreekfarmandranch.com.

Stay tuned – in a couple of days I’ll post about the IL Cottage Food Law.