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Climbing Tree Farm Benefits from Profit Teams and Extension Support

Strategies applied at Climbing Tree Farm can be applied to other farm businesses to enhance operations.

Colby and Schuyler Gail didn’t realize that when they acquired their first eight sheep in 2007 that they would eventually become farmers. Schuyler viewed the sheep as a way to manage grass on her grandmother’s property and provide meat for the family. The couple slowly expanded their herd of sheep and began raising chickens, starting with 50, growing to 125 in the next year and scaling up to 1,300 birds in their third year. By 2010, they had a mix of 300 laying hens, 1,000 meat birds, and sheep to sell. Pigs were added to the farm that year as well. Today, pork is their primary product.

The land that hosts Climbing Tree Farm has also evolved over time. Between 2012 and 2015, they leased a large piece of land that enabled them to rapidly grow the business. In 2015, however, they decided to not renew the land lease due to a tenuous relationship with the landlord. They returned to farming a smaller property which also meant reducing the number of animals in their herds. Today, they still farm the same smaller property but market their pork to high-end outlets. With no employees, no permanent fencing, and no tractor, the farmers rely on their own labor, a truck and trailer, an eight by ten foot shed, Port-a-hut shelters, and two tarp sheds made out of old billboards to raise their pigs.

Profit Team Project Overview

The Gails first learned about the profit team project in 2015 from the Columbia Land Conservancy. They were searching for the right property for the farm. Considering the existing challenges in finding and financing new land and the need for a veterinarian for the pigs, Climbing Tree Farm applied to and was accepted for a profit team project.

Similar to many other profit team participants, their priorities evolved over time. With their project, the Gails conducted a financial analysis to evaluate farm operations on a smaller piece of land and consulted with individuals to optimize land management, attended a financial management class for women in farming, met with consultants to evaluate business structures and to find new markets and customers, established the farm as an LLC, met with a veterinarian, and worked with an engineer to design equipment to increase labor efficiency for feeding pigs. Additionally, through the Van Noble Farm profit team project, a swine specialist from Iowa offered a workshop in Enfield, NY, which Colby was able to attend to learn more about herd health.

Results

Pigs at Climbing Tree farm. Courtesy of Small Farm Quarterly.

Despite the fact that the project initiated from Climbing Tree Farm’s search for land, conducting a financial analysis helped Colby and Schuyler realize that it was possible to operate on their current property if they developed new markets and grew their pasture management skills. Schuyler notes that working with Steve Hadcock from Cornell Cooperative Extension was incredibly valuable. Through the financial analysis with Hadcock, they realized that farmer’s markets were not as lucrative as wholesale but also not as personally fulfilling. As a result, the farmers began shifting their marketing priorities and brought in a professional to help them network with new customers. Schuyler reflects, “having our business adviser has helped us …forge our way into a tight-knit community, so I think that connection will help us continue to grow,” as word of mouth amongst customers carries.

From a farm management standpoint, there were numerous additional benefits from the project. Climbing Tree Farm is more aware of the needs of the animals, especially when operating on a smaller piece of land. Now that the pigs are getting more forage, less money is spent procuring grain or milk as feed. Small tips for improving farm management is coupled with better record keeping. Data is now available in a more timely fashion to help guide decisions. Forming an LLC also mitigates personal risk associated with raising livestock, which had become a concern with the rise in lawsuits against regional farms with livestock. In considering profitability, Schuyler also notes that since the beginning of the project, their ratio between gross and net profit has improved with these changes.

Bearing in mind the limited amount of equipment that Colby and Schuyler use in raising pigs, ergonomics and efficiency are also very important to them. The engineer focused on designing a “milk jug squisher” to enable them to quickly empty bottles of unsalable milk as feed for the pigs. This machine is anticipated to significantly improve quality of life as well. Schuyler explains, “every bottle that we open is poured out … by hand, and then you have to squish the bottle and replace the cap, so it takes a really long time.” The resulting machine will therefore not only save time in emptying product but also will reduce the physical stress from the repetitive motion of twisting off the cap of individual milk jugs.

If the farm were given the opportunity to participate in the project again, Schuyler states “I might have a party at my house.” Elaborating on this idea, she explains that the way in which their animals are raised is an important component of differentiating their business. Being able to show potential customers the conditions in which the animals are raised and offering samples of the meat prepared by a caterer can go a long way in cultivating and inspiring new customers. Additionally, they are still currently seeking a veterinarian with expertise in preventative healthcare for their pigs.

Reducing Exposure to Risk

As advanced beginning farmers, Colby and Schuyler were at a point in their farm operation where they needed to analyze the risk management strategies for their farm. The USDA defines five categories of risk that farmers can face. Production risk results from the variable conditions encountered by farms in growing crops and livestock. Price or market risk occurs due to the variable prices received by farmers, especially in commodity markets. Financial risk is created when a farm borrows money and then has to repay on that obligation. Availability of credit is an additional type of financial risk faced by beginning farmers. Institutional risk is the uncertainty of government regulation and enforcement. The final category is human resource risk, which occurs when personal relationships or health impact the performance of the farm business.

Climbing Tree Farm decided to review their business structure to decrease their exposure to risk. They formed a limited liability company to protect their personal assists and to have additional protection from litigation. A limited liability company is relatively simple to set-up and provides a legal means for separating and personal and business assets. The LLC structure gives additional protection to farm business owners by separating personal assets from business assets, and therefore reducing personal risk from a legal proceeding, business dissolution, etc. The chart below summarizes three common type of farm business ownership structures and some of their features.

Strategies for Success

Strategies that Colby and Schuyler applied at Climbing Tree Farm can be applied to other farm businesses to enhance operations.

  • Network and learn what resources may be available to you. Several components of Climbing Tree Farm’s project were cost free, like consulting with a local CCE agent. By meeting new people and asking questions about potential resources, Climbing Tree Farm was able to take advantage existing resources that had been available to them even before the profit team project.
  • Base decisions on solid numbers. By working with a consultant to conduct a financial analysis, Colby and Schuyler were able to understand the costs and potential benefits of pursuing various farm improvement strategies. This information helped them choose the best course of action that met both personal and farm needs.
  • Consider quality of life in business decisions. The “milk jug squisher” will improve ergonomics and efficiency on the farm, and the decision not to sell at farmers markets reduces the stress and long hours spent in a busy market booth. These changes will improve quality of life on the farm, and in turn, improve operational longevity.

Information for this case study was collected in August 2017. For more information about the Profit Team Project, please visit https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/projects/profit-teams/.  This project was a collaboration of the Cornell Small Farms Program, NY Farm Viability Institute, and NY FarmNet, and made possible with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.

Kacey Deamer

Kacey Deamer

Kacey is the Cornell Small Farms Program’s communications specialist. In this role, she manages all storytelling and outreach across the program’s website, social media, e-newsletter, magazine and more. Kacey has worked in communications and journalism for more than a decade, with a primary focus on science and sustainability.

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