07 April 2010

Worth It?

Can you make money at farming? Perhaps a better question is: Is it worth your time? But in answering that question, you need to give some thought to all the various meanings of the word "worth."

Let me give one example that's on my mind from yesterday. As I've posted before, when we lived in Illinois we developed a nice clientelle that was interested in duck eggs. They're hard to find, rarely appear in stores, and those who really want them are willing to pay a premium. We charge $5/dozen.

Since we're talking "worth it," let's first look at some basic facts. Last spring, we ordered a straight run of 30 Cayuga ducklings. They cost us $93. We lost a couple of them to accidents and random fatalities, and I butchered about ten of the males. Right now, I think we have 18 or so Cayugas in the barn. A few of them are males that escaped my knife last fall. Figure we have 15 females. (I should mention that Cayugas are not an optimal laying duck, but Mrs. Yeoman Farmer prefers their eggs, and the males provide a bigger carcass than the specialized laying breeds like Khaki Campbells.)

We got a few eggs from precocious layers last fall, but not enough to pack up and take to market. They began laying in notable numbers in January. At their peak, were were getting over a dozen eggs a day from the flock. That's tapered off in the last week or so, and we're now getting 6-8 eggs per day.

Yesterday, I took a load of 27 dozen eggs to Chicago with me. We have a Filipino customer who brines them in big buckets of salt water and sells the finished product in their ethnic community. In my previous trips this year, I've sold another 15 dozen to him and various other customers.

So, right now, we've pocketed $210. Not bad, and the ducks aren't done laying. But consider all the expenses I haven't listed (and can't easily compute): heat lamps to brood the ducklings, high protein feed for their first few months of life, all the layer ration they've eaten since, electricity to run the extra fridge, etc. There's also the matter of transportation costs, getting the eggs to the customer. I mostly get around this by finding a professional reason to go to Chicago, and take the eggs with me. Still, this is not a huge financial return by any standard. And there is also the matter of time. Not only gathering the eggs, but also washing them. Packing them. Driving to the place(s) where we can meet the customer.

Now, consider the other rewards. First, we had ten delicious duck dinners; one Cayuga drake is just enough to feed our family (By contrast, Khaki Campbell drakes are so small, we'd need two for a meal). How often have you eaten duck in the last year? In your lifetime? Second, we had a good supply of surplus eggs to eat; we eat mostly chicken eggs, but there were plenty of cracked and otherwise unsalable duck eggs for us to eat.

The remaining rewards are more intangible: First, at least three people who otherwise cannot have eggs in their diet because of allergies...got to eat eggs again. It's difficult to describe the joy on a person's face, when they thank you for even having your product available. As parents of children with lots of food allergies, this is something we understand very well. Second, I've gotten to connect with our Filipino customer again, and experience his happiness at again being able to supply a product. He does these eggs as a side business, and if we don't have eggs...he doesn't have eggs. And his customers usually cannot find them elsewhere.

We've known this person and his wife for many years now, and have come to enjoy seeing them and talking with them. In fact, to be honest, a call from him last winter was what gave me the nudge to again expand our duck flock. I wouldn't be keeping more than a handful of females if (1) I didn't have him as a customer who'll take every egg and (2) he wasn't so appreciative and personally connected to us. If it was a question of cold hard numbers, and loading our eggs on a truck to go to a factory, I'd almost certainly have said "forget it," even if the money was the same.

So I guess at the end of the day, when you're trying to decide if supplying a farm product is "worth it," it's as important to consider the intangible rewards alongside the tangible ones. For $210, given what we've spent and the time it's taken, I'd be hard pressed to say these ducks have been worth the trouble. But for $210, plus the relationships with our customers?

Yes. Absolutely.

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