How to make 25k per acre without a tractor

Subscribe to the Successful Farming Podcast:

Apple Podcasts

Spotify

Sticher

Jodi:
Tell me the history of your farm. How'd you get it started?
Jeff:
Yeah, so we started... I think it's my sixth season farming. So started in early 2017 and basically, I don't have any farming background to speak of. Just started learning some stuff and I was working a corporate job and we bought some land in the country. Bought about nine acres and decided I want to start growing some vegetables or start a little garden. I bought 25 chickens and I built a little chicken tractor, a little covered house that I could move around in the backyard, and it would keep them safe. And I raised them until they were big enough to harvest. We harvested those chickens, and I gave some to friends and family and people just told me that it was the best chicken they ever had and you could really taste the difference because they're eating a lot of grasses and bugs and living the natural life.
Jeff:
They're getting fresh air and sunshine. They're much healthier and you could taste the difference in the meat similar to grass fed beef, kind of has a richer flavor. It's healthier for you. These are kind of like grass fed chicken in a way. And so, we had those chickens and they tasted fantastic. They're healthy, they're clean. We didn't have to use any antibiotics and that kind of stuff. And I said, hey, maybe there's something to this. It wasn't long after that I started growing and raising more birds. And then I got into raising ducks and maybe six months later I had like 300 ducks in the backyard. Wife's like, "What happened?"
Jodi:
How big is your backyard? Did you have enough room? Describe the area that you're living in.
Jeff:
So the property we have is about nine acres, but I was only farming initially on about two acres because most of it was wooden and not available to farm on. So we cleared about a two acre section pasture. It was a lot of pine forest that we logged the trees out and turned it into pasture. And then we quickly outgrew that and leased some property across the street from a gentleman who has another five to seven acres, roughly. In all, were farming on about seven or eight acres. And we found a way to make it work on a small scale.
Jodi:
You also have developed your farm into kind of a silvopasture-type of environment. Can you explain what that is and what's all involved with it and what made you decide to do that?
Jeff:
Yeah, so the pasture raised poultry was kind of the initial impetus, I guess. The first thing that we started with on the farm. And so I started raising these birds and because we had logged that section, which is about two acres of pine forest, we took out all those pine trees, which didn't really provide any habitat for wildlife or any much value other than two by fours, we took those pine trees out and then we were seeding out our pastures and trying to turn it into new pasture for our poultry, but we left the stumps behind or the loggers left the stumps behind. So it was very uneven grounds, very rough, kind of rough ground initially. So using a model such as a chicken tractor that can move across the ground wasn't going to work in our situation. It was too many logs on the ground, too many holes, stumps, things of that nature.
Jeff:
So what I did is we bought these electric netting. We used that to keep the birds safe. It's about a four-foot-high netting that we can set up in a perimeter and it's electrified from a solar charger and that keeps the predators out so foxes and raccoons and that sort of thing don't eat our birds. And because of that, I can set it up around those stumps and around those obstacles. And then I realized that we can actually do this in wooded areas. We have some other areas of the farm that have standing trees that are more wooded and we can set this net up and carve out a section to put our poultry in. So that gives us a lot of opportunity. And I started thinking about it. Hey, maybe I can plant some trees out in this pasture.
Jeff:
We have now what's called a silvopasture system, which is essentially trees incorporated with livestock in the same land space. And so we have planted out our pastures with different fruit and nut trees. We can set the netting around those trees and those trees are wildly spaced enough that enough sunlight still hits the soil, allowing our grasses and small grains to grow. So I can grow small grains and forages for our poultry, grass and grains, I'm growing poultry, and I'm also growing tree crops on the same land space. So basically, three different products off the same land space.
Jodi:
What kind of grains are you growing for them?
Jeff:
We have experimented with just putting out different seed. You know, one of the big costs of raising poultry is our feed cost. And we have to buy them a lot of feed that's mostly comprised of different minerals and corn and soy. And I thought to myself, well, what can we do to try to minimize our inputs? We want to be a regenerative farm and try to minimize our inputs and our expenses as much as possible. I thought, well, maybe we can grow our own feed. And so we started seeding out our pastures with different species such as clover. We planted wheat and oats in the wintertime. We'll also plant things like millet and these small grains. It just makes sense, let's let these grains go to seed and just move the animals to the food rather than buying the food and shipping across the country to our farm.
Jeff:
And we can just let the animals harvest it right off the stalk. It made perfect sense. And so we're able to reduce our feed bill and to reduce our carbon footprint that way, which is fantastic. It does take a little bit of playing around with it and try to get the timing right. You know, get the birds in there at the right time when the grains are going to seed. So we're still trying to figure out that perfect timing, that perfect amount of space for the birds, but it's something that we're going to continue to work with this year.
Jodi:
You mentioned predators before. What kind of predators did you have and how big of a problem were they?
Jeff:
Predators have been probably our biggest challenge on the farm because we're using the netting system. It works pretty well to keep a lot of the four-legged predators out, but the birds are exposed to any aerial predators. So, raptors. We're having a lot of hawks and eagles and at nighttime we have owls that will come. So one thing that we've done to help minimize our predator pressure is we've added geese and we found the geese... It's interesting. You have to either use one goose or a lot of geese. If you use two or three geese, it doesn't work, because then they kind of just pair up together and do their own thing, leave the birds to be the sacrificial lamb, so to speak.
Jeff:
If you have one goose and they kind of look at all the young birds as their own, they protect them. They'll squawk and flap their wings and make a bunch of racket. And they'll chase hawks out of there and keep them out during the daytime. We still do lose some poultry to birds at night, we'll lose them to owls. Occasionally we'll get a fox that'll dig under the fence or jump it or something like that.
Jeff:
Ideally, we would have a dog, a livestock guardian dog to keep our poultry safe. But I haven't found one yet just because we have a lot of neighbors and that sort of thing. But the geese have really helped our predator losses dramatically.
Jodi:
I've been chased by a goose before. I understand how vicious they can be. So, with your poultry, you also incubate your own eggs. How does that work?
Jeff:
We keep a laying flock and I was raising chickens in the beginning and then I started raising ducks. I saw an opportunity there. There weren’t really any farmers doing pasture raised ducks and where we are in the southeast close to the coast here in Charleston, South Carolina, we get a lot of rain and it's very low land. It's very flat, and so ducks are happy. When it rains and it's soggy out in the field... The wetter, the better for them. So the ducks worked really well. Plus, when we move them every day, they can kind of herd in one direction. We've actually moved four or 500 birds at a time down the road, just steering the lead duck in the right direction, have 500 birds falling behind it. And it's quite comical when they're walking down the street and they're holding up traffic.
Jeff:
But we do hatch all of our own birds on farm. We have a laying block about 200 birds with males and females. And so we'll get the fertile eggs and we'll hatch all the birds. And what that does is a couple of things. Not only reducing our cost, but not having to purchase those chicks, but they're healthier when we can hatch them on farm and keep them warm and happy. And then we can also select for certain traits that we might want in the adult birds. So whether it's growth ability or temperament...
Jeff:
In fact, I would say that for someone that's looking to start a pasture poultry operation is starting with the proper breed. Whether you want to do it for meat or for eggs, there's a lot of birds out there and summer market is dual purpose, but if you're going to do meat birds, for example, you need focus on that. If you're going to do eggs, you need focus on that because farming’s hard enough as it is. There's so many variables out there. And so you really need to kind give yourself the best advantage.
Jeff:
In fact, I'll put together a little template that just has some recommendations for the top breeds, so it's ducks and chickens, for people that are interested in getting into this for meat and for eggs.
Jodi:
You're kind a DIY-type of guy too and you've built hoop houses, solar powered systems, and tinkering around with other things on your farm. Can you give me examples of some of that stuff?
Jeff:
Yeah. So as a regenerative farm, some of the things that we want to do is we want to minimize our inputs and part of that comes with trying to build a lot of our own infrastructure and to be successful, and to be profitable, the way I approach the farm is I didn't want to spend a ton of money on a whole bunch of infrastructure and all these parts that you can buy. And a lot of times what I've found is for someone that wants to do pasture poultry, for example, if you want to raise a handful of chickens in your backyard, you can find feeders and waters and these sorts of things at a big box store. You can do that easily.
Jeff:
But if you want to scale that up to a few hundred or few thousand birds and make it a small commercial farm, there's really not a lot of infrastructure out there. There is some stuff that's made for the big poultry farmers who are doing millions of birds a year, and if you want to invest a half a million dollars, that's your choice. I didn't have the means to do that. So I started building a lot of different infrastructure to try to save money and make these designs that were really custom fitted for our farm and our size and our situation. One example would be our feed. We bought feed in bulk and we need a place to store that. And so I could buy a feed silo, which might be five to $10,000 to store three to 10 times a feed at a time. Or what I did was I found an IBC tank, which is international bulk container and said, they're coming up these 300- gallon plastic tanks. And I cut a small door at the bottom.
Jeff:
And so the feed can go in the tank. It's stored in there. We just lift the trap door open at the bottom and we can store about a ton of feed in that. I can make one of these for about 75 bucks. I now have seven of them and so as I scale up, I can store more and more feed and I can purchase in larger quantities. And I think that's key is to try to minimize your expenses in the beginning when you're farming to try and stay out of debt, I think is very key.
Jodi:
But you have gone into debt. What happened?
Jeff:
Yeah. So in the beginning I was trying lots of different things, trying to throw everything on the wall and see what would stick. I was buying the shiniest tools and I was trying poultry, we raised pigs. I was raising multiple types of poultry. We did a garden, we did several dozen pigs and tried to do that. And that was kind of a fiasco and, just trying so many different things and changing designs. And basically, I was just getting distracted and wasting a lot of time and a lot of money trying to throw a lot of stuff on the wall to see what would stick. Long story short, I ended up spending close to $75,000- $80,000 on a credit card, which was bad.
Jodi:
Oh boy.
Jeff:
Bad choice. Yeah. And so it was a really tough time. Fortunately, I was still working off the farm to support the farm and keep going, but that debt is really, really a tough hurdle to try to overcome. And so part of what I've been trying to do is put together a program that people can follow and say, hey, here's the infrastructure you need. You don't have to spend $75,000 like I did. You need to have a plan. You need to follow a certain plan so you're not getting distracted and buying certain things and you need to make sure you don't go into debt. And so that's part of the reason why we built our own infrastructure and we follow a strict schedule in order not get out of hand.
Jodi:
Yeah. And you've sold your ducks to restaurants and so forth. And then COVID hit. What did you have to do to pivot, to make up for that?
Jeff:
Most of our pasture is poultry. As you mentioned, we were selling to restaurants. We're doing about 98% wholesale. I really tapped into the wholesale restaurant market and learned how to market the chefs, and that was very beneficial. When COVID happened and all the restaurants shut down, I knew that we need to make a change and we had to pivot. And so we started pivoting to direct consumer. So we started attending one of the local farmers markets. We quickly grew and started attending three different farmers markets within a three-hour drive of the farm. And since we were raising ducks, I learned that not a lot of people eat a lot of duck. You know? There's some people out there that love it, but they might have it on occasion or for Valentine's day or something like that, for example, but they're not eating it every other night, like chicken.
Jeff:
So I was trying to think of how can we make this work? How can we sell this direct to consumer? And so one of the things we did was we started adding value to our products. So instead of just selling whole birds or leg quarters and breasts, we were now adding value to it. So we would take... If we part out a duck and we have the carcass that's left with the bones, we could make a bone broth out of that. And so we're utilizing all the parts. We'd sell the feet and bones as a bone broth. We could make different flavored sausages and [inaudible 00:12:54] and prepared products, such as do confit. We had a chef that we're partnering with and he was making duck confit and we're selling that at the market. And so we're able to expand our offerings.
Jeff:
But the other benefit of that is we were able to really increase our profit margin. So instead of selling a bird wholesale and after expenses, we'd have $10 left as our profit from selling one bird to a restaurant, now we could add value to that same bird and we can increase our profit margin by seven times, and you take home $70 for that same bird. And what that means is that now we can raise fewer birds on smaller acres, and so we're only farming on about seven acres in this pasture. We grossed close to $200,000 on those seven acres.
Jodi:
Wow.
Jeff:
So approximately $25,000 per acre, and we don't even own a tractor. So there's ways to do this and be profitable and successful on small acreage.
Jodi:
I'm going to talk about some of the educational things that you're doing. You're offering some classes and very freely giving your advice to people and how they can do a lot of the same things that you do. So, for someone interested in starting a regenerative farm, what would you say are the key aspects?
Jeff:
There's a lot of different approaches to farming. And I think small regenerative farms are really the future because you're in control of your destiny more. You can minimize your expenses and you're not at the whim of commodity pricing, right? And it doesn't just have to be poultry. There's lots of different options. But in terms of regenerative farm, the keys for me, I saw three important things, three important steps if we wanted to be a regenerative farm. The first was to minimize our inputs. And so the way we've done that, I've alluded to a little bit how grow some of our own feed, patching our own birds. We also use solar power for heating for our birds. We're trying to minimize our inputs and minimize our expenses as much as possible. The second thing we want to do is we want to have no waste.
Jeff:
We want to recycle things. We use all of the manure as we move the birds across our fields, all that manure is getting distributed across the field and it's becoming an asset rather than a liability. So that manure is full of nitrogen. It's adding fertility to our soil. In just three years, we've increased the organic matter in our soil by 3%, which is pretty dramatic. Most farmers know that organic matter is really a great measure of how well your soil can hold water and hold carbon and how productive it's going to be. The other benefit of that is all that organic matter comes from carbon from the air. So, we're sequestering carbon. We're helping the environment. We're increasing our soil fertility and we're recycling things such as the manure. Also, if we have like a dead bird or if we have cracked eggs that we can't use, things of this nature, we'll put these in a bin and this might sound a little gross, but we put them in a bin and we keep them in the pen with our birds.
Jeff:
And there's a fly called the black soldier fly, which will feed on food waste and dead animals and that sort of thing. And so these maggots will hatch in this bin. They grow very large and they're about 40% protein, 50% fat. They're very nutritious. And they'll actually crawl out of that bin once they're about to pupate, and then the birds can just eat them right there. And so we're recycling any waste product that we might have had. And then the third thing that I believe is key to regenerative farm is integrating and using diversity. Like I said, in our silvopasture, for example, our birds are integrated in with our pasture and these trees. So the birds act as our fertilizer program, our lawn mowers, and our pest control for the trees. The trees provide shade. They provide a wind break. They provide protection from aerial predators.
Jeff:
They keep our soil cool and shaded in the summertime. There's long-term carbon storage in those trees. And then the roots of the trees also prevent flooding. Someone's seen a pasture when we've had a really heavy rain and it's just soggy and you get your tractor stuck. Those trees will help soak up that excess water and so the fields aren't as muddy and wet. And they also help to moderate the temperatures. So when we utilize livestock and trees and grains and things together, you can really get a really nice synergy. And that's what's important to us is to grow food that's healthy for the animals, healthy for the consumer, and also is good for the environment. And that was kind of what laid the foundation of our farm.
Jodi:
How many years have you been doing this now?
Jeff:
This will be our sixth season.
Jodi:
Wow. You've come a long way in a short period of time. Takes some people generations to do what you've already done in a half-dozen years. All those synergies kind of go along with profitability too. Especially for small farmers, what advice do you have for them to increase their profitability?
Jeff:
First of all, don't blow a bunch of money on big, expensive equipment. We don't own a tractor. The few times that I've needed a tractor, I've used one, or just rented one from somebody or hired somebody to do what we needed to do. You can minimize your expenses by building your own infrastructure that you need. You can lease land. So we were only farming about two and a half to three acres and then we had a neighbor who has about seven acres that I had approached, because he wasn't doing anything with his land. It was just lying fallow and said, "Hey, could I bring some birds out here? I'll keep your grass cut for you. They'll kind of be your lawnmowers and adds fertility to it. You won't have to mow." And he said, "Sure." And I said, "What do you want?"
Jeff:
You know, I'll lease it. I'll pay you whatever you want. He said, "Nothing." He said, "I'm just happy to see it go to use." So we lease seven acres, basically free of charge, which is pretty incredible. And I think there's a lot of opportunity to do that. I think there's a lot of land that isn't being used. So as said in the beginning, don't even worry about buying land. You can lease land, you can use land that's not being used and you need to have a plan. So the other thing is I didn't have a plan. I was distracted. I was watching YouTube videos and reading all kinds of books I could find and trying the next best thing. And I was really just wasting a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of energy. And so I think you really need to be focused in on what you're doing and have a plan for that.
Jeff:
And then you also need to figure out your marketing strategy. At the end of the day, you can have the most regenerative farm, you can have all these great things going on, but if you can't market and you can't sell it for a profit, then there's no point. You're not going to be farming for very long. And so that was key for us. Our marketing strategy was to go off to those wholesale markets. So with restaurants, we still do a fair amount of wholesale and also the direct consumer, you know, utilizing those value added products and increasing our profitability that way.
Jodi:
So is it just you working on your farm or do you have other help?
Jeff:
Yeah, in the beginning it was just me. Now I have someone that comes and helps a few days a week on the farm and then I also have some help with the markets as well. But I'm the primary person on the farm here.
Jodi:
What future plans do you have? Any expansion or adding anything to the livestock realm?
Jeff:
In the future, I don't think we'll do any more livestock species per se, but we're going to plant out more fruit trees, try to fill out our pastures that way with more fruit and nut species. And then this year we really want to try to push the envelope as far as agriculture's concerned and see what's possible. Doing things like experimenting with reducing our feed bill, trying different alternatives sources of feed, planting out more grains and also innovating and also educating. And so, I'm trying to put a little more focus this year also on sharing some of the things I've learned and helping other people not only be profitable, but learn how to scale up and start a small farm and be successful doing it.
Jodi:
And where can people find that information if they want to learn from you?
Jeff:
I'm on Instagram and YouTube. Farmer Jeff Siewicki on both of those channels.
Jodi:
Excellent. Jeff, I think that's all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention that listeners should know?
Jeff:
I appreciate you bringing me on and I would say for folks that are already farming and let's say you have a tractor and you're growing corn and soybeans and they're thinking, oh, I'm past this. You can start now. You could raise some livestock, you could raise some poultry, cut off a few acres that you have. In fact, I would say if you have a tractor and you're growing corn and soybeans, you've got an advantage, because here you can grow all your own feed, and one of the biggest expenses are feed costs and you can really hit the ground running. So I'd say anybody can do this. It's simple. And if you're interested in learning more, feel free to reach out to me.

Most Recent Poll

How much planting have you finished?

0-25%
25% (17 votes)
I just want to see the responses.
23% (16 votes)
75-100%
22% (15 votes)
25-50%
10% (7 votes)
I haven't started yet.
9% (6 votes)
50-75%
6% (4 votes)
I don't grow crops.
6% (4 votes)
Total votes: 69
Thank you for voting.