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A Farm in Transition (Part 4)

Through this blog series we would like to bring you along with us to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers. This is the last installment of the series, and we hope you have enjoyed it.

Shortly after expanding our turkey operation, I read a book by Joel Salatin called Family Friendly Farming, which was one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. It showed me that a farm could and should be much more than I envisioned. It should be welcoming, not forbidden; full of life, not disease and death; and most of all it should be family-friendly. This is exactly the opposite of what our farm often was when we were in the turkey business.

So I kept reading Joel’s books, and they kept convincing me that a farm could be much better for the animals, the environment, the consumer, and the farmer. My dad and I visited Polyface (Joel’s farm) in 2011 for a Lunatic Tour (see videos below). On this tour led by Joel himself, I was able to ask him how we should go about extricating ourselves from the turkey business and transitioning to an entirely pasture-based farm. He said, “Big ships turn slowly.” I thought about this and decided to start turning the ship – we just didn’t know how long it would take.

We thought it could take 15 years or more, so we started making as many changes as possible like burying water lines that would allow for more frequent rotations with the cattle. We started stacking enterprises like pastured pork and chicken to compliment our beef. We also continued to do our best to entrench ourselves in the world of pasture based livestock and not continue to get caught up in traditional agricultural practices. So we attended seminars and events such as the Sustainable Ag Conference by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the Grazier’s Marketing School put on by The Stockman Grassfarmer.

So little by little, we made improvements that moved us more toward a completely pasture-based farm. And then 2020 came along.

Early this year we placed a flock of turkeys that started like many other flocks. They had a case of E.Coli early on in their 4-month stay at our farm and were on antibiotics on and off throughout the grow-out period. Then around Easter, we had a couple days of increased mortality and our integrator thought it might be bird flu. There had been several cases of bird flu in the company in previous weeks and everyone was a little on-edge. So the integrator reported our mortality to the state vet who then quarantined our farm. The state said no traffic could go in or out of the farm so that meant that we couldn’t do several other things necessary to conducting our other farm operations. We had a load of cattle that had to go to the processor, and we were constantly needing to move meat to and from freezers on the farm. We were eventually able to conduct the necessary activities once the bird flu test came back negative, but the whole experience opened our eyes to the reality that the turkey business was no longer a complimentary enterprise that could coexist on our farm.

Before we could terminate the turkey contract, we had to deal with some potential problems like the debt on the turkey infrastructure and making sure there would be sufficient income to cover what the turkeys had once produced. To help walk us through some of this, I reached out to Polyface to see if Joel did consultation work and if he was able to do it for us. It turned out his schedule had some openings because a lot of events had been cancelled due to coronavirus. So we set up a date in April and we picked him up at the airport and showed him around the farm the next day. We brainstormed about repurposing the turkey barns once they were empty, and Joel was very helpful in digging into various enterprises and showing us where profit was gained and lost. One of the things that stuck with me the most is when I asked him that if he were me, would he would be nervous about getting out of the turkey business. He responded that he would be nervous about staying in it. We were all mentally exhausted by that evening, but we were very encouraged and knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. We got Joel back to the airport the next morning, after which he posted this on his blog.

We were fortunate to have a lot of things that were giving us a tail-wind and allowed to go through with committing to an entirely pasture-based, direct-marketing farm. With all the bad things that coronavirus brought, it made our meat sales soar to a level we never knew was possible. In February of this year, we had overhauled our website and prepared it to better handle traffic and to be more organized. We had also began a Home Delivery service that was up and running and ready for the heavy order volume we would see this year. We had more grass-finished beeves that were fat in early 2020 than we knew what to do with. We were very close to dumping some of them at the salebarn for lack of a better market. Fortunately a wave of demand for locally produced grass-fed beef was just around the corner. We were able to quickly adapt as the market changed by finding a new delivery van and another walk in freezer. These things and more allowed us to reach the capacity necessary to displace the enterprise on our farm that at one time seemed like it would never go away.

We had also geared up and expanded our pastured egg enterprise so that by the last turkey flock, we were marketing around 150 dozen eggs per day.

We also geared up quickly in April and May for a pastured broiler enterprise that can produce up to 10,000 broilers per year. Polyface’s pastured broiler model was perfect for us in that the infrastructure is relatively inexpensive.

So the main point is this: consumers that demand ethically-raised pastured proteins can change our food system dramatically. We’re living proof of that, and we are extremely grateful to those who have made such a wonderful choice with their food dollar.

We know there will be great challenges ahead that we cannot foresee. But we also know that a local, pasture-based food system supported by wonderful customers like yourself creates resiliency that the industrial food system will never be able to reproduce.

Thank you again for investing in our farm and for reading this blog series. I hope it has allowed you to get to know us and connect with us. We look forward to serving you.

Enjoy these photos and videos that show you some efforts we’ve made toward this transition in the last decade or so.

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A Farm in Transition (Part 3)

Through this blog series we would like to bring you along with us to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers. 

By the mid 1990s our family’s farm had been downsized because of adverse conditions in agriculture and other reasons discussed in Part 2, so my dad, Gary, began looking for various options that would allow us to remain in agriculture but be able to operate on a smaller land base. He found one option in the classifieds of a local newspaper: an ad by a turkey integrator looking for potential contract growers. He responded to the ad and eventually decided to enter into a contract to grow commercial turkeys.

If you aren’t familiar with how the contract poultry industry works, here’s a quick introduction. The integrator is a company that “integrates” the poultry into the market. They bring truckloads of poultry to a large processing plant every week for slaughter. In order to produce these large numbers of birds every week of the year, they contract farmers to grow the birds for them as a subcontractor. The growers are responsible for the land, houses, water, equipment, and labor needed to grow the birds. The integrator brings the birds and the feed and sends a crew to harvest the birds when they are mature. The poultry houses are built to the integrator’s strict specifications and the labor is performed in a specific manner as dictated by the integrator. A service technician (as referred to by many integrators) makes rounds weekly to all of the farms that he or she is responsible for. The grower’s compensation can fluctuate based on how a particular flock performs compared to other growers’ flocks harvested around the same time.

The houses that the integrator required were 50 feet wide by 500 feet long. The integrator placed 7500 turkeys in each house, and by the time the flock was mature it was very difficult to see the floor due to the turkeys being so tightly packed inside. Feed is delivered in semi trucks as needed in bins outside the houses and is augered in to a feed line inside that the birds eat from. Water is sourced from wells on the farm and is used as the primary medium for medication that is used often to combat the disease that comes so easily in these confinement environments. Our turkey operation could consume as much as 15,000 gallons of water in 24 hours during hot weather.

So by April of 1996 we were now under contract with a turkey integregrator and were working hard to at our new operation in hopes of our family being able to stay on the farm.

We would persist in the turkey business for a number of years and even expand it in 2010 with an additional 2 new-style houses. At the time of this expansion, we still had not gained the vision that we have today of an agricultural system that regenerates instead of denigrates. As I was getting finished with college, I knew I wanted to come back to the farm, but was struggling with a way to produce another salary from it. One enterprise that we knew produced fairly consistent revenue was the turkeys so we decided to start the ball rolling with the expansion.

Simultaneously, we launched a grass-fed beef business. We figured that if one failed at least we would have a backup enterprise already running. These two businesses over the years became more and more at odds with each other, which we will talk about more in Part 4.

The next part of this blog series will take a look into our current and perhaps most profound transition to date, which is one not only of methods but of philosophy. It’s a transition into a perception of farming as a land-healing ministry, and not merely as a means to make a living. Until then, check out the photos below to see what the turkey operation was like.

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A Farm in Transition (Part 2)

Through this blog series we would like to bring you along with us to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers. 

In this issue of the series, we will see our family make one of the biggest changes that any farm can make – a relocation.

In the late 1970s, after visiting a daughter in South Carolina, my grandparents, Jim and Anna, decided to escape high land prices and harsh winters and purchased the farm that we currently operate in Chester and York counties.  Gary also moved down in 1980 after selling the Indiana farm and purchasing another farm in Chester County.  The plan was to expand their row crop operation with the main crop being corn.  The first few years were very successful, and they continued to expand even purchasing another farm in York County and had about 1200 acres planted at the peak.

An anhydrous ammonia applicator used to apply nitrogen to a corn crop.

One key to their corn operation was the source of nitrogen they used.  It’s called anhydrous ammonia, and it is injected into the soil with an applicator that has knives fed from a pressurized tank much like a propane tank.  While this method is effective at making the plant grow fast, it also has downsides such as difficulty in handling and the inherent danger of a pressurized gas capable of severe burns.  In 1989, as my dad was transferring the product from one tank to another a hose that he was close to burst.  He had to spend some time in a burn hospital and doctors though he might be blind, but thankfully he was able to make a full recovery.  As we will discuss in another part of this series, one viewpoint that we have developed is that farms should be family friendly.  Chemicals create dangers on farms along with a host of other problems.

Their method also relied on deep and heavy tillage with the thought being that the soil acts as a sponge and the deeper your sponge the more the corn plant can access water.  But no matter how deep the sponge is, you have to have rain for it to absorb.  The inconsistent rainfall in the Southeast eventually proved to be a primary obstacle in relying on a crop such as corn for such a large portion of the farm’s revenue.

By the early 1990s the decision was made that in order to help satisfy the bank and avoid bankruptcy our family would need to sell around 1000 acres and some equipment.  We were able to lease some of the farmland back for a time and transition to another crop that had long been a staple in the south: cotton.  But cotton production and harvesting methods were rapidly changing at this time.  Round-up Ready (genetically modified) seed was starting to be available which would allow the crop to be sprayed “over the top.”  The glyphosate chemical would kill weeds and grass, but the crop would remain unharmed.  Also, many of the local cotton gins were closing, and harvest methods were shifting from wagons to modules which could be transported more efficiently to gins further away.  For us, this meant that some of the recently acquired equipment was going to be obsolete soon.

Some years were better than others, but among drought, the farm crisis of the 1980s, a changing cotton industry, and a number of other exacerbating issues, the Watsons were once again looking to make changes in order to survive in agriculture.  This transformation had to be more robust than merely gearing up for a different crop if Watson Farms was to stay intact.  Some of the changes we will see in the next part of this series are a new venture into contract poultry in the mid-1990s and integrating the next generation into the farming operation.  Stay tuned!

The article and photo below was published in The Herald newspaper highlighting the unconventional practices used by my dad and granddad.

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A Farm in Transition (Part 1)

A lot of what we do as farmers is try to adjust to an ever-changing context in order to stay relevant to customers while still being profitable.  In other words, what got us here won’t get us there.  This is definitely true for us here at Watson Farms, and we would like to bring you along with us through this multi-part blog series to show you how we have adapted in the past and how we intend to adapt going forward.  We have made some big changes lately to our operation, and we want to show you how we got here, and how you can join us in our mission to be better farmers.

Let’s start back in the 1950’s when my grandparents, Jim and Anna Watson, living in southern Indiana, were expanding both their farm and their family.  By the mid-1950’s they had 4 children, and like farm families today have to do, they also had to get creative to make ends meet.  Jim got a good-paying job at a power plant across the state, which in turn provided an opportunity to purchase a farm nearby in order to be closer to the plant.  This second job helped the family expand the farming operation which was centered around corn production, but also involved cattle and hogs.

Their methods were viewed as cutting edge back then, and they were untested as to the long term impacts on the environment.  But nonetheless, this was the way that vast numbers of farmers across the country were heading: using herbicides and pesticides, chemical fertilizers, feeding grain to cattle, raising pigs in confinement, etc.

As the children got older, they too became a part of the farming operation and the family moved back to Freelandville, Indiana where they were from originally.  They continued to expand the farm with a major enterprise being a farrow-to-finish hog operation that became a means of marketing cheap grain into a more valuable commodity.  The family also purchased a meat shop in the small town and supplied beef to surrounding communities with their own cattle.  This enterprise was not only successful in its own right, but also served as an excellent learning experience for my dad, Gary as he and I would decades later begin direct-marketing beef once again.

So there is a quick snapshot of several decades of the beginnings of Watson Farms.  Next, we’ll look at yet another incredible transition for the family in order to keep farming even though it meant moving 600 miles away, and then enduring multiple crises in the 1980s and 1990s.

Until then, take a look at an aerial shot of the Freelandville farm in the 1970s complete with a 1000-hog per year farrow to finish operation and cattle feedlot.  By the way, some of the equipment in the photo is still with us today although with a little more rust.