TFWF#46: Bridge of Swines

It has been over a year since we were flooded by a very rapid two meter swell of the Waikawa stream which flows through the farm. That night the stream broke its banks and caused a flood throughout the lower paddocks. Myself and a number of very helpful neighbours spent the night catching black pigs in the darkness and bundling them into trailers and higher ground.

The very next day we fenced the only suitable piece of high ground that would hold the pigs, an old horse arena. Since that day the grower pigs have lived in and around the horse arena.

Keen not to be caught out again over the winter I decided to not let them back into the lower paddock until the threat of flood was over. The problem with the lower paddock is that the only road in and out of the paddock passes through a ditch that overflows during flood. What I needed was an emergency exit for the pigs and so the ‘Bridge of Swines’ was born.

Its taken me a few months to put the bridge together, mainly because of so many other things to take care of and the terribly wet winter that we have had. I wasn’t sure that the pigs would even use the bridge once built, they are not used to walking on solid ground. But I knew that if I needed too I would be able to herd them over a bridge with some encouragement. As the winter went by the horse arena (made of sand and designed to drain quickly) became too small and muddy for the pigs so we started to allow them access to the paddocks around the arena. This gave me an idea.

Behind the arena there is another gate into the lower paddock, but to access the paddock you have to cross through another section of the large drainage ditch, this would be perfect for a small bridge. This bridge would allow the pigs permanent access to the lower paddock and they would still be able to come back to the arena for feeding and sleeping. This meant that feeding would be quicker and easier as they are all in one area and I would also not have to worry about the pigs in the lower paddock at night.

Building a bridge.

It’s amazing what you can find online, in fact it’s daunting. The amount of images and videos and ideas about building farm bridges was simply too much to decipher so I reverted to an old farming book from the 1930’s. This book had simple line drawings of simple bridges that could be made simply by a simple person, me.

When we moved onto the farm most of the flotsam and jetsam that you normally find on a farm had been removed except for a few aluminium beams that used to be part of a lean too. Without the plans and the rest of the structure they have sat around unused for three years. At just over seven meters they were perfect for the structural beams of the bridge.

Having decided that the bridge would be 1.2m wide I calculated how many planks I would need for the span, how many cuts from 4.8m lenths and the total amount of wood required. After all that complicated maths I quickly learnt that pre cut 1.2m palings were actually cheaper that cutting my own (I can never understand the mind of the retailers), so I bought a whole bunch of them and got to work.

After bolting over 40 planks onto the metal frame we had a perfectly good bridge with no sides and a very serious bounce. Given that I already knew the pigs would be wary of crossing the bridge it was very clear that if the bridge was too bouncy a 60kg pig would never use it.

So after a bit of research I realised that I need to strengthen the bridge with either suspension or a simple handrail. Given that wood is so much easier to work with, the handrail structure was the answer.

So the final bridge looks like this, it is a bit rudimentary and still has a good bounce but the electric wires help to strengthen it and of course ensure the pigs don’t fall of the sides.

Yesterday was the opening ceremony and whilst a lot of pigs turned up for the show they were not too keen to cross the bridge. As always with pigs you always have one brave soul and getting that one over the bridge with a little bit of pig feed temptation would mean the rest would follow.

They have had access to the bridge for over 24 hours now and I am please to say that most of them are actually happy to cross the bridge (in both directions) giving them access to new pasture and their safe home. Its been a long time in the making but the pigs are back home in the paddocks and its good to see.

I will be moving this blog over to our website http://www.woodysfarm.co.nz soon, so please make sure that you are registered for our newsletter so that you get updates on new blogs.

TFWF#45: Sharing the survey results

This particular blog is specifically to thank my loyal customers and to share some of the many excellent responses that we received from our recent customer survey, and if you have not yet taken the survey you can do so HERE.

Last week we sent out a survey mainly for two reasons. I have come to the conclusion that simply growing pigs and selling the meat is not a sustainable business, after fixed cost are deducted (almost 70% of which is pig feed) the rest of the money we receive from sales goes on farm and vehicle upkeep. To make it even worse I cannot run the farm, sales, website, marketing and meat production alone but finances mean that I can’t afford to hire anyone either, I believe this is called catch 22.

The answers are, of course, to reduce costs and/or increase sales revenue. Our main costs have reduced slightly as we have found a new feed supplier who has managed to get us down from 70c to 65c per kg, however to counter this the pigs have increased and we are now getting through 230kg per day, or nearly 7 tonnes per month. Butchery and processing costs vary but are mainly stable.

This leaves increasing our sales. To do this we either put the prices up (we are cheaper than most Freedom Farmed products), we start producing more artisan products like charcuterie or we find products that we can sell to complement our own products and meet our ethical standards. And it was with these questions in mind that I produced the survey.

We sent our survey out to our newsletter list, our Facebook friends and twitter followers and were very pleased that so many people took the time to answer the questions. I was even more please to see a lot of really excellent and useful comments (and some not so useful – luckily the survey is completely anonymous)

Having received these great responses I thought I would take some of the more regular questions and give you some answers. Once again thanks for the questions, ideas and comments. Here we go:

 

We want more frequent shipping days and not sold out so often?

Absolutely, so do I. The problem is that we don’t have enough pigs for that. Our pigs take eight months to grow to the right size (slower in winter) as opposed to intensive pigs that get to weight in just 5-6 months. We are now supplying over 600kg a month but we know we need more. Because of this I am soon starting an approval and audit scheme for other free range farmers to grow and fatten pigs for Woody’s Farm to sell. Don’t worry the pigs will have the same care and freedoms that ours have and will be processed by our butchers to ensure continuity.

 

We want to see your products at more famers markets or in retail?

I love going to the farmers markets and meeting customers but it takes a whole day and the farm suffers as a result of this, the reality is that when I am off the farm the pigs are not getting fed and the work not getting done. Because of this I have had to scale back the amount of markets to one per month however I have been considering employing someone to attend the markets fro me and this might be the answer for 2017. As for retail markets we have been talking to some big retailers, like Moore Wilson, but we will have to consider their margins and the quantities they need on a regular basis. At the moment I am considering a product range specifically just for them (and potentially others in the future).

Can we come and visit the farm?

When I started the farm I wanted everyone to be able to visit the farm, I wanted to show people how we farm and educate children on where bacon and sausages come from. The reality however has been that a lack of manpower and facilities (in case of rain) has made this very difficult to arrange. That said we are planning to have an open day later in the year when the weather is a bit dryer. This open day will be limited to a small number of visitors (as a trial) and we will be charging a small fee for the staffing and facilities I will need to hire for the day.

Additionally I will be holding a more detailed course for people who are interested in small scale pig farming. At this stage I hope to hold this late 2016 or early 2017 depending on when I can get the information together for the course.

Why can’t I buy individual items, not packs?

I do understand that this is frustrating but it is based on three major factors, the first is that my IT skills have not yet risen to the challenge, secondly the boxes that we use to despatch the goods need to be over 50% full and so we have calculated that their must be a minimum of 6 items in the box. Finally the reality is that all the meat we currently sell comes from a pig that we have slaughtered, unlike a butcher we can’t just buy a loin or a leg, we have to use the whole pig so by mixing the packs I can be sure that every bit of the pig gets sold. Supermarkets have made us think that we only have to eat what we want but we hate waste and so we have to sell the whole pig, its called sustainable eating.

All of that said, as we get bigger we will find that we can be more flexible and rest assured our website will become more flexible in the future, I’m working on it now.

Do you have a farm shop we can visit?

We do have a shop on site but we don’t have opening hours because I can’t guarantee when I will be available to take customers. At our shop all the stock is frozen and normally held for farmers markets. However if you do what to come to the shop email me on info@woodysfarm.co.nz with your preferred day and if I can find enough customers for that day I will open the shop. If you have already ordered from the website and collected meat you will know that we are very flexible.

Can you give us advise on having our own pigs?

As per my blog I have enjoyed being very open about what I do and how. However as time has gone on the number of emails we get asking for help has increased and I am now unable to reply to them without incurring costs (lost time etc). In addition to this some of the help that we offered to others in the early days has been used to set up competing business which have copied us (even the format of their website). Therefore I have just started up a side business for consulting on matters related to pig farming, business start-up and even website management. If this is of interest to you then please email me for more details at info@woodysfarm.co.nz.

 

Finally we asked you what would you think about us supplying other products online and the answers were very interesting. During the last three years I have met and talked to lots of like minded farmers and producers and I think it would be great for me to share these suppliers products with my customers. I wanted to know wether you would be happy to buy other products that were not made/grown on Woody’s Farm, here was the response

I was really pleased that 65% of people would like us to produce Charcuterie and 28% wanted other pork based products, this is something that we can make out of our own meat and I have recently started to look into this side of the business. More to follow. What was even more interesting is that 37% of respondents would be happy buying other meat products from us, once again this is something I have been wanting to introduce and have started talking to specialist farmers about building this into our business.

 

Bye for now!

TFWF#44: Introducing Porky Points

As always it has been far too long since my last blog post. The unfortunate thing about blogs is that they are so exciting at the start of a journey, you just want to tell the world about your great idea and what you plan to do….then the reality sets in and the work piles on top of you and you realise that its not all roses and the hard work wears you down. You realise that you don’t want to tell the world how tough it is and how you just don’t have the time to sit at a computer and type something that reminds you of your struggles. Then the nail in the coffin comes when you realise that not only does your blog not provide an income it actively helps others to learn from your mistakes and create competing businesses.

All that aside, lets start with a thank you that I have been promising for years. I have been planning for a long time to implement a loyalty scheme and also to offer a reward for recommending a friend. Like everything it seemed simple but actually became very complicated to implement on the website. I am please to say that at long last perseverance has paid out and I am very pleased to announce the launch of the Woody’s Farm loyalty programme called Porky Points.

Woody’s Porky Points is our way of saying thank you for supporting our business and our ethical mission to encourage free range pig farming. All you have to do is click on the tab on the right hand side of the screen and join our loyalty program to start earning points. Once you have enough points you click on that same tab and start spending – its easy.
You can get rewarded for completing all the actions below and once you have amassed enough points you can spend them via the same tab.
Now please understand that the Porky Points is currently in a testing phase and we will have some problems along the way so if you have a problem using it or just can’t get started then please email me at info@woodysfarm.co.nz and I will sort it out as soon as I can. I once again thank you for your support on this and everything else.
You can read more about our loyalty scheme HERE

TFWF#43: The great sales conundrum.

Its been busy on the farm since the flood. Not only has there been lots on fencing to be done we have also changed our structure for feeding, sorting and weaning the grower pigs, in addition to this we have also had eight litters in two months and increased the breeding herd to 22 sows.

Whilst we have been busy many of you might have also noticed that we have been absent from the markets, the cafes and the restaurants. Our disappearance from the outside world is due to, what I shall now call, the great sales conundrum (or GSC), brought about by a lack of good free range pork producers and a plethora of supportive customers.

The GSC is basically an over demand of product and whilst I know I am lucky to be in that situation I really don’t like letting people down, turning down opportunities or being sporadic in supply. In order to explain my conundrum in more detail I thought I might outline all the potential sales channels that we have, each with their own pros and cons and then I thought it might be nice for you all to give me some advice and feedback, via a comment on here or on Facebook.

Farmers Markets.

When we started the business we always planned to attend farmers markets, we chose Fielding and Thorndon because they appeared to be authentic grower markets. Unfortunately as time went on we found ourselves competing with a butcher from Wellington in Fielding and a general retailer selling meat from the store in Hawkes Bay at the Thorndon market. Despite this I really enjoy the markets, I get to meet a great deal of lovely customers and characters, I get direct feedback and its a great opportunity to grow business opportunities. I have also been able to try lots of different cuts of meat to see what sells best and showcase the quality of the meat. On the downside the markets take three days of valuable time on the farm, a day to prepare and two days at the markets, and the success of the day is very dependant on the weather. Financially the markets work for us because we sell direct to our customers and the only extra costs are the market fees and the fuel.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Online Sales.

We had always planned to sell product via the website but we never had enough stock to attend the markets and sell online. The flood changed all that when we were unable to get to the markets and had a trailer full of meat to sell. We thought it best to trial online sales and managed to sell out in 49 mins. After that first trial we continued attending the markets and also selling small quantities of meat packs online. In August we took a break from sales to focus on the farm and came back in September with a greater focus on the online side of the business. The packs have been selling very well, I have enjoyed the customer feedback from all over the country and without any middle men we make a full margin (less the costs of sales). Obviously it takes a day to prepare and pack and we worry about the delivery arriving fresh but so far all has gone well and we have successfully delivered over 800 packets of bacon and sausages. I do miss getting to meet my customers face to face but the gain in time on the farm is, at this point, much needed.

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Restaurants and Cafes.

I love working with the owners and chefs of restaurant and cafes. These are the people that challenge the preparation of food and have the experience to truly grade the quality of our meat against others, it is their feedback that helps me to provide better quality product to everyone. I have been lucky to work with some excellent restaurants who have respected the way we grow our meat and promoted Woody’s to their customers. But, with only limited stocks at the moment, we have to manage our profitability and therefore we focus on our direct sales via the markets or online. This means that we are not able to supply the chefs on a regular enough basis, or large enough quality, and will often loose out on opportunities.  My goal is to be able to work regularly with a small number of restaurants around the country as soon as our stock levels rise.

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Speciality retailers.

Without a doubt the best way to promote your product and your brand is to have product in front of customers all the time. Unfortunately markets are only once a week and selling online relies on customers to find you, not the other way around. Putting product on the shelves in speciality stores who promote quality, niche products associates our brand with theirs and  encourages sales on a daily basis. The downside is again that retailers also need to make money, to pay their associated costs, and with limited stock we simply cannot afford to be on too many of those shelves. Additionally, whilst speciality retailers are very good at explaining to their customers about the provenance of the food they sell we, as the grower, do not get to talk direct to our customers, something that I think is very important.

Supermarkets.

In my previous life as a consumer electronics executive I spent a lot of time selling to supermarkets. Unfortunately supermarkets have all of the bad elements of speciality retailers with none of the good elements. They are not willing to take the time to talk about provenance, they do not fairly share profitability and over time they gradually reduce the value of your product in the consumers eyes, normally by heavy and unwarranted discounting. Any farmer who works with the supermarkets knows that the vanity of a high turnover of stock is not a replacement for the low profitability. Of course nationwide exposure and a single point of delivery is attractive to some, but not us.

Having broken down the pros and cons of all our potential retail outlets I am keen to hear what you think we should do, and who we should focus on. At the moment our limited stocks means that we can only afford to concentrate on the markets and online store but we hope to be able to continue supporting the restaurants, cafes and small speciality stores that we currently sell too. Moreover the chiller trailer is currently out of action so we have to concentrate on online sales until some work has been carried out on the trailer, when that is fixed we intend to attend one market a months and sell online twice a month. Maybe one day we will have greater exposure across the country.

TFWF#42: The night the arks floated

As many of you will know the night of the 19th June was a very wet one for much of New Zealand. Here in the Manawatu we were hit very hard by the run off from the Tararua Ranges. Our farm is split in two by the Waikawa stream, a normally calm babbling brook that you can wade through in gumboots. On the night of the 19th the water level rose to almost 2.5m, breaking the councils measuring system in the process, and the flow peaked at over 200,000 litres per second (on average it is normally around 500l/s). The noise all over the farm was deafening and, it was scary.

The day started early at 5:30am with preparations for Feilding Farmers Market at 8am. At 6:45 I left for the market and whilst the weather was far from enjoyable I had a great day with lots of new and old customers dropping by. We had been warned about the rainfall but standing in the town square it looked like the forecasters had been a little overly cautious, the showers were interspersed with sun and did not feel like flood levels of water.

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The weather forecast for 19th June, watch for flooding they said…

It wasn’t until I left the markets at about 2pm that I started to see the volume of water that was starting to build up in the paddocks and roadways on the journey home from Feilding through Sanson and into Levin. As I drove through the puddles the tension regarding what I would find back on the farm had started to build. Turning into the driveway I could already see the Waikawa stream was high and loud as the water crashed into the banks.

After any market I am tired and frankly want to sit down and have a beer but as always I have a number of food and farm related jobs that have to be carried out. I counted the remaining meat, loaded the fridges, filled in my paperwork and got changed into my farm gear in order to head out to feed the pigs. I filled up the feed buckets and headed out to check on the grower pigs who live in the paddock closest to the Waikawa stream. By now it was about 3:30pm, the rain was still falling hard and the paddocks were very wet, but the stream was no higher than I had seen it before and the water seemed to be draining freely via the drainage ditches that the previous owners of our farm had, poorly, installed. Feeling a little calmer about the situation I went back home to check the forecast, the councils data for the stream and eat some lunch.

The rain continued, hard. My stress levels continued to build. Every couple of hours I headed out into the farm to look at the stream and check on the paddock with the grower pigs. 5pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, the water was rising but seemed manageable. The drainage ditch was now flowing over the track into paddock and would make moving the pigs to higher ground difficult but not impossible. Night had fallen and it was getting hard to see the real situation, at 9:30 I headed out again to look at the paddock and found that the water had risen further, the pigs were not in danger but if this carried on I was in real trouble of endangering life unless i did something.

At times like this the first thing you need is moral support, with my mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second I was running the risk of becoming too overwhelmed to actually do anything. At 10pm Claire asked me to take her down to the paddock so she could see the situation herself. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised that the river had actually peaked at 10:20 and broken the banks at the end of the paddock, as Claire and I arrived we were faced with total carnage as the river made a horseshoe type flow across the paddock cutting it off from the farm. The paddock track was impassable, the drainage ditch had overflowed and the water running over the track was almost waist deep. We could see the pigs in the first section of the paddock, all huddling in their ark shaped house completely surrounded by water, they had no higher ground to get too. It was a terrible sight and both Claire and I had to take a moment to calm ourselves. We decided to go back up to the house and try and call Russell who used to farm all the land around this neighbourhood, we thought he would surely be able to make some suggestions (we later found out he was in Fiji on holiday). Meanwhile I set out in the dark to the DOC campground which backs onto our paddock to see if I could get to the pigs from the other direction.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this 'river' was actually the farm track into the paddock.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this ‘river’ was actually the farm track into the paddock (thats my car parked on higher ground). And those rope like things are the high tensile fences being swept away, the pigs are in the paddock on the right.

Pulling into the campground the sitting water was everywhere. I got out the car and made my way to the fence line, it looked like I could get through and get to the pigs, my plan was to cut some fences and let the pigs get to slightly higher ground in other sections of the paddock. As I walked towards the paddock a quad bike pulled into the campground, thinking it was Russell and at the same time finding the whole darkness, headlamp and roaring river thing a little creepy I headed back to my car. The quad was being driver by Brad, another neighbour, he offered to take me over to the fence line on the quad, I jumped on. We both climbed over the fence and went to look at the pigs. Water was everywhere, at least 12″ deep, but much of the paddock was above the waterline and most of the pigs were at no risk, we kept walking over to the first section that Claire and I had seen underwater about half an hour ago. It looked like the water had receded a little but you couldn’t tell what was likely to happen. Having spent weeks putting electric fences all over the paddock splitting the land into smaller sections for rotation of the pigs I now knew that the only thing I could do was cut the fences and hope the pigs worked out the best places to be. Soaking wet Brad and I jumped back onto the quad and headed for my car.

Back at home Claire had been unable to get hold of Russell and I simply didn’t know if the water was rising or falling, it was now about midnight and we had no option than to call around and get help. Our friends in Otaki couldn’t get through, the highway was cut off just outside Otaki by a stream crossing the road and the Waikawa had actually washed away the highway just north of Manakau meaning that we were also cut off from Levin, isolated in both directions. Our only option was the neighbours and what followed was nothing short of a miracle of logistics by Claire. Whilst the names will mean nothing to you just marvel at the organisation as we rallied the neighbours at midnight

  • Doug was home alone as Julie was stuck in Levin, he couldn’t leave his children who were asleep
  • Claire offered to babysit Doug’s kids but then we needed someone to babysit Fred, also asleep.
  • Denise came around to babysit Fred
  • Brad came back to help, sporting what I think was a wetsuit
  • Chris got our of bed to come and give a hand
  • Doug arrived in his Land Rover

We had a team and we set to work trying to grab as many pigs as possible and get them to higher ground or, thanks to Doug and his amazing trailer towing skills, into the stock trailer. What followed was a torchlit version of a black and white slapstick movie as one by one we dived at black pigs, missed, landed face down in the mud and tried again. We soon got a rhythm and by the time my grip gave out, from the power of grabbing the pigs by their fast kicking legs, we had caught and re-homed about 30 pigs of all shapes and sizes. It was about 2:30am.

As we returned to our respective homes everyone looked drained and ready to sleep, except Brad who I think could have carried on all night wrestling pigs. After a well needed warm shower I sat down at the computer and informed all our Facebook followers that it was looking very unlikely we would be at the Thorndon Farmers Market that day, despite having a trailer full of fresh meat. It was now 3am and I had been awake for 22 hours, tomorrow the clean up had to start and the pigs needed somewhere to live other than the back of a trailer.

From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all those people that came out to help that night, some of you might be reading this. Apart from simply being a really nice thing to do I suspect that you probably saved a life and definitely saved my business. Thank you so much.

TFWF#41: Part 3 – Money

I started Woody’s Free Range Farm with animal husbandry and welfare as my number one concern but after 18 months the reality of farming, just like any industry, is that money comes a very close second. Just like any startup business, we are very reliant on much bigger businesses who will only give us a fair go if we have a good cashflow position and pay our bills regularly, companies like abattoirs, butchers, feed mills and courrier companies.

For every person that dreams of giving up the corporate world and starting a small farm (or even worse a pig farm) there will be many more who tried it and failed when they realised it was eating away at savings and, rather than providing an outdoor lifestyle, it actually tied them to the farm every single day of the year.

Choosing farming as a new career is not an easy path to take and I believe that the key to making it work for me has been a mixture of stubbornness, competitiveness and being a control freak. However all of those ‘admirable’ qualities aside the main reason the farm is still going and the business improving is because of the savings that I had before we started the farm.

Farming is expensive. Aside from the cash flow issues of feeding animals for eight months before being able to take any produce to market there are also the capital costs of simply running a farm. We are lucky enough to have eighty acres of land but with it comes an obligation to look after the land, and with that comes costs. We have to pay the mortgage, rates, earthworks, farm structures, vehicles and water reticulation. All these expenses need to be paid and with only, at this stage, six pigs to sell a month we simply can’t rely on just that income alone.

Our largest ongoing cost is animal feed. In order to ensure the consistent quality of our meat we buy in a special feed formula for our grower pigs and another specific feed for the breeding herd. We do supplement this with used brewers grain which we collect for free from The Garage Project in Wellington but this is just a ‘filler feed’ and does not replace the professionally designed feed formula that the pigs get fed. Each and every day our pigs get fed at least 1kg of feed per animal per meal, and have two meals a day. On average a kilo of feed costs $0.83 per kg, this soon adds up depending on the number of pigs on the farm. At the moment we have 57 growers, 20 sows and 3 boars all eating 2kg of feed per day – thats a total of 160kg of feed or $132.80 per day.

On the other side of the coin our income has, up till now, almost exclusively come from the sale of meat at farmers markets and through restaurants and cafe’s. We are small and can’t meet demand but since the beginning of this year we have taken 32 pigs to the abattoir and sold 2403 packets of meat, this equates to 1239kg of pork including 5425 sausages and 233kg of bacon and ham. We have been lucky in that we have had no problems selling our products but our sales methods are also very time consuming and mean that I get to spend less time on the farm when I need to be at the markets or collecting the meat from the butchers.

Our prices are closely matched to retail prices. We are obviously more expensive that intensively reared meat but I have always tried to keep the prices at a level that most people can afford, if only for a special event. Our bacon is often cheaper that the Free Farmed versions for sale in the supermarket and always cheaper than the products available in high end stores such as Moore Wilson and Commonsence Organics, this is because we are the producer and there are no middle men or retail margins to be paid. Our goal is to be able to supply you with excellent meat products are reasonable prices, and by making a purchase you are 100% supporting us the growers.

Despite all this the reality is that we are currently not growing enough pigs to make enough money to run the business in the black. We simply need to breed more pigs and with this will bring the economies of scale that will make the farm a viable business. I write this blog not to complain or to plead poverty but rather to ensure that anyone with an interest in a similar lifestyle understands that it will take time and during that time you will need savings, a great deal of will power and probably most important…a very supportive partner.