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#39: a look back at 2014

We dont always have the time to look back at our lives, and even if we do have the time we often don’t have the inclination. However as its the end of our first year farming I thought I should look back and see what, if anything, I have achieved.

Of course its easy to say that in a year when achievements have been coming from every direction, a new country, a career change, a marriage, a baby and so on (not all of that happened in 2014 but most of it did). The problem is that it has been a frantic whirlwind of events and activity and I am running the risk of not appreciating the memories and learnings.

Its been just over a year since we moved to the farm and after a short time as bare land owners we received our first livestock on the 11th December 2014. The nine piglets from Wanganui did us well and got us through the first few farmers markets and indeed one lucky Sow (now named Ruth, after Ruth Pretty the chef) became the first pig to be mated and have a litter on the farm.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

When I look back at the pictures of me surrounded by those motley coloured pigs, pink buckets in hand and a small pile of feed bags I am amazed by the growth that has happened. If we just look at the numbers on the 11th December 2013 we had a total of nine piglets on the farm, as of today, 11th January 2015, we now have a herd consisting of:

  • 3 Boars
  • 8 Sows
  • 7 Gilts (young sows)
  • 40 Growers
  • 34 Piglets

The infrastructure in December 2014 was basically two large fields with perimeter fencing only and one small transit paddock. A year on and we have 18 four line electric fenced paddocks with detailed maps of the farm in order to ensure the pigs are tracked and accounted for, the water pipes are easy to find and the electric fence on/off switches are everywhere. Not only has it been a great deal of hard work and time it has also cost a great deal of money, the steel fence posts are $7 each and I would estimate we have used at least 200 posts alone, not to mention the gates, the gate posts, the wire (thousands of meters), the insulators and the tools required to do all this work.

The breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming

A panoramic photo of the breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming. At roughly 12 acres the herd have about 1 acre per paddock and normally house two Sows per paddock

After a few months of breeding herd preparations and feeding the ‘bought in’ growers we were greeted by a barrage of piglets in May, starting with Paula on the 1st May, then Marigold, then Jennifer and finally Clarissa squeezing into the month on the 31st May. The following month the month important of our litters was born, our first son, Fred. The numbers on the farm were building quickly.

That same month was our first time at the Farmers Markets. My fear of meeting customers and selling on the street was eclipsed by my fear of driving, parking and reversing with a chiller trailer attached. I had never towed a trailer before and had never been to either of the markets to scope out the trailer driving skills needed. It seems like such a funny thing to have been worried so about now that I look back, but at the time it kept me awake at night.

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

The markets went well. I enjoyed them on that first day and I still enjoy them just as much after neary a year. I like meeting the people that eat and enjoy our meat and I also like to be able to talk about our farm and why we do what we do. The markets were also our greatest marketing venues, we met restaurant owners, chefs, foodies, blog writers and eventually in the middle of the year a producer from the iconic TVNZ Country Calendar.

As the year went on I scoured the country looking for breeding stock. We had pigs arrive on the farm from Gore, Masterton, Featherston, Feilding, Levin and the Hawkes Bay. By the time the Country Calendar cameras arrived we had become a fully fledged (but still small scale) pig farm. The show explored our reasons for the farm, our plans for the future and ourselves. It was a most enjoyable experience.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew, just another day…

As the year came to a close the focus switched entirely to the production and supply of the Christmas hams. With such a large amount of produce being sold in one month it very quickly became apparent that the Christmas hams are actually the make or break of a pig farmer and no mistakes could be made. Not wanting to let anyone down we launched the sale of hams on our website, pay a deposit and secure your ham. Within just two days 80% of our hams were sold. What followed was a frantic plethora of spreadsheets with names and collection points, final prices and preferences for sizes. It was our first year and we had a lot to organise and learn. We bought boxes, labels, sticker and bags and I spent a great deal of time trying to get it 100%. Of course I didn’t manage to achieve 100% satisfaction but we were pretty close and we learnt from our mistakes, bring on next year.

Twenty Fourteen was a year of arrivals, markets, deaths, piglets, births, trips to the abattoir, fencing, water reticulation, weddings, family, Woody catching his first rat, Fred eating his first meal, damaging cars, fixing cars, floods, cameras, building houses, meeting customers and much, much more.

I wonder what Twenty Fifteen will bring?

TFWF#37: keeping the Wolf at the door

The last few weeks have been a blur to me. It is only when I look back at the photos on my phone, or the notes I have made,  that I remember what I have been up too. Like most people I sometimes get home at night and wonder what I did that day and was it useful and did I enjoy it?  Luckily even though I don’t get chance to write that often I do make little notes about what is going on and that helps me when I come to properly write it down.

THE FARM

Spring has brought with it two things, grass and wind. The grass is great and when we come to bail it and graze it I am sure it will bring in some welcome capital. The wind is not so welcome. In the last month we have had (in the same day) severe gales from the SW and the NE. On one occasion, as I was feeding the pigs in the breeding paddock, a plume of smoke appeared from nowhere. Thinking that somehow a farrowing hut had caught fire I rushed to the paddock only to find that the source of the smoke was not fire but dust and the dust had come from the hut as it was picked up by the wind and flung upside down. With the rain and the wind so unrelenting the prospect of leaving the pigs (in this case Delia and Hugh) without a hut was impossible so I opened the gate backed up the Land Rover and started the long process of turning the hut over the right way.

Isn't that door supposed to be the other way up?

Isn’t that door supposed to be the other way up?

In the extreme weather the task of tying a strap to the skids and using the car to put the 500kg hut up the right way is frustrating to say the least, but as I started to right the hut another plume of smoke arose from the dusty ground in the distance. That morning I watched three half tonne houses being flipped by the unusual SW wind and as the rains poured down I battled the inquisitive 200kg sows as I righted them. Farming is a complicated career, a career that really needs you to be prepared for anything, a jack of all trades. You may think that today you will just feed the pigs and undertake some general tasks but the weather, the electrics, the water or maybe the animals will have different ideas.

THE PRODUCTS

With the weather battering the farm I took the opportunity to investigate some new products. Ever since I started my journey to farming I wanted to produce specialist meats like long cured hams, prosciutto and pancetta but with the MPI rules I am not able to do this myself so I had been looking for a like minded producer who could do it for me. After just a few conversations with Gabriel at Big Bad Wolf I knew I had found the right partner. Big Bad Wolf is a gourmet charcuterie based in Wellington and they were excited to work on some projects with Woody’s meat. Our first project was the ultimate in paleo, tasty and efficient snacks – the pork scratchings (or crackling to those who don’t know). Pork crackling is simple to make, just take pork skin (with a little bit of fat) and slow cook it under the expert supervision of Big Bad Wolf, the results are these bags of salty goodness (nicely displayed in a case created from the off-cuts of a pig ark):

Pork, pork scratchings, woody's free range farm, bacon, crackling

‘Woody’s by the Wolf, paleo pork scratchings’

Our second ‘Woody’s by the Wolf’ project will be dry cured pancetta. This slow dried cut of Berkshire belly has been marinating for over a month in a mixture of fresh herbs including juniper and bay and is sliced extra thin. It can be eaten raw but we recommend you either gently fry (without extra oil) and simply serve as a crunchy snack or use as an ingredient in any meal from a pasta dish to an wrapped chicken breast. More on this delicacy in a few weeks when we have sliced and packaged it.

Collaborations with other like minded companies are not only enjoyable they also help to make the most of our limited stock by producing extra special artisan products and also help with cash flow as our meat stocks fluctuate month by month. In addition to working with Big Bad Wolf we have also started working with a local boutique company to produce a range of Woody’s marinades made from organically grown NZ fresh fruit specifically to enhance the flavour of our meats and create instant meals. Pork is a diverse meat and it works well with fruit, we have all experienced pork chops with apple sauce but what about belly slices in plum marinade or adding a citrus glaze to a scotch pork roast. If you have any fruity ideas why not drop me a line and in the meantime I hope to be able to share with you our product range in a month.

THE SUPPORTERS

I realise that I spend most of my time apologising for not having enough stock and I am also aware that unless we grow the farm quickly we will not be able to run a sustainable business. Its one thing to sell out but another to let good customers down. However I have been very pleased by the support and interest that we have received from our customers at the markets and various restaurants/cafes and butchers. One such restaurant that has chosen to help support us is La Boca Loca. Lucas is ‘el jefe’ at La Boca Loca and has a stall next to me at Hill St Farmers Market every other Saturday and was on the hunt for some pigs heads for cooking up some genuine pozole. Its great to be able to sell parts of the pig that people don’t normally eat so we were able to supply him with two heads and a whole bunch of trotters for the feast. I never got to try the pozole but I’m told it was excellent

Another restaurant that we welcomed to take advantage of our open door policy was The Whitehouse who are opening up a new restaurant soon and wanted true free range on the menu. We had a great tour of the farm and I showed them the whole process so they could get a feel for the lives of the pigs. It was really good to have them here and hopefully one day you will be able to taste some of Woody’s meat in one of their restaurants.

THE PRESS

I can’t finish this blog without mentioning our latest bit of fame in the Manawatu Farming Lifestyle paper. It came out last month so you have probably missed out on a hard copy but the web version is still available here: http://issuu.com/nsmm/docs/mfl_sep_2014. Not only did we get a double page spread but also the front page, exciting times and much more to come from our marketing department (me).

Do you like my cover page pose?

Do you like my cover page pose?

TFWF#36: In which we eat bacon.

The goal of Woody’s Free Range farm is to be transparent. I am not a believer of false promises nor do I trust a business that does not use its own products. Because of this I have always been integral in preparing and tasting every product you eat with the Woody’s brand on it.

However I have never specifically tested our products again the others in the market, until now. Obviously I have been eating bacon from different suppliers and brands all my life (except for the short, obligatory, vegetarian stint when I was a student). I have eaten bacon all around the world (tip: don’t eat bacon in China) and as such I would not say I am an expert but I do think I know a little about the meat.

Over the last few months, since we started to sell our product, I have had a number of comments from customers about our meat. Overwhelmingly the comments about our bacon have been excellent, most say its like bacon used to be (more meaty), but some have said it was a little salty or a little fatty and so I decided to find out how we stack up against the competition.

A week ago we bought two lots of bacon from Countdown to compare to our own, one is a top of the range Free Farmed bacon and the other a top of the range Supermarket, intensively farmed, own brand bacon:

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Brand Product Price ($) Pack size (g) Price per kg Notes
Freedom Farms Eye Bacon, Smoked Rindless $9.50 250 $38.00 Free Farmed
Countdown Signature Middle Bacon $5.99 400 $14.98 Intensive Farmed
Woody’s Free Range Farm Middle Bacon (Berkshire) $9.66 284 $34.01 100% Free Range

Note: The Freedom Farms bacon was on special at $9.50 with normal price $11.29 ($45.16per kg)

The plan of the test was not to grade the bacon from best to worst (afterall you could hardly expect me to be unbiased could you) but it is rather to simply show you our findings in photos and a few descriptive words.

The first thing we did was take a slice of each bacon and lay it on a grill pan;

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We immediately noticed a few things that are apparent in the photo. Firstly our slice (left) had more fat, this is for a number of reasons, firstly free range pigs will have more fat and this was a winter pig that puts on fat and grows slowly but was also dryer and much more meaty and non see-through. The middle slice (Free Farmed) had the fat trimmed off and was wet and much thinner (you can see through it). Finally the intensive bacon (right) was again very wet (even had some odd jelly on it) and was again very see through.

We cooked all the bacon in two different ways, on the grill and in the pan so that we could cook them all at the same time and also measure the fat that came out.

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During pan cooking the Woodys bacon had the most fat but this allowed the bacon to gain crispiness during the cooking. The free farmed and intensively farmed bacon both had a brown liquid seep out during cooking and burn on the pan, this hindered the bacon from crisping up and started to burn instead. They both also had white foam appear on top of the meat, this solidified after cooking had finished and is due to the high water content of the meat. Next we grilled the bacon, which helps to separate the fat from the meat and I took close up pictures:

I am hoping that the above pictures allow you to see the clear differences between the different type of meats before and after cooking, look at the colour, the crispiness and even the size difference after cooking. The thickness of the bacon was a major contributor to the texture after cooking. The thinner meats were chewy and like cardboard whereas the Woody’s bacon was meaty and softer to chew.

Once again I realise that this is not a scientific experiment nor is it objective but I do hope that the photos let you get a bit of a feeling for the differences between the meats. I have deliberately not spoken about the taste because this would be too subjective.

The experiment also helped me to understand more about the fat in our meat, and whilst it helps with the cooking and tastes great I will be focused on trying to reduce the fat in our pigs as the farm continues to grow. The bacon we used was from a smaller breed, the Berkshire, and would therefore have more fat than our other breed, the Large Black. It was also a winter growing pig which is a slower grower and puts on more fat. Of course we could trim the fat off our bacon but it affects the flavour so I have decided to poll our customers to see if they want trimmed bacon or full fat?

Hopefully this is of interest to some of you and we will be back to normal farming talk in the next Tales from Woody’s Farm. If you do buy some of our bacon and you have some feedback (good or bad) please feel free to review us at Woodysfreerangefarm on facebook, comment on this blog or send us an email at info@woodysfarm.co.nz.