Big profits with regenerative agriculture
Jeff Siewicki, founder of Vital Mission Farm in South Carolina and of regenerativesuccess.com, had ambitious goals when he began farming nine acres in 2017. He wanted to quit his job and farm full-time with a reasonable income. He also wanted to farm in an ecologically-minded fashion. He eventually figured out how to earn $30,000 profit per acre with a regenerative farm.
Siewicki won the 2021 and 2022 ACRE Grant for Agricultural Entrepreneurship and is a SEWE and Certified SC Featured Farm. He recently spoke on a Food Animal Concerns Trust webinar on succeeding in regenerative agriculture.
According to USDA, half of all U.S. farms gross less than $10,000 and 90% gross less than $350,000. “That means that over half of all your farms in the U.S. have an off-farm income,” Siewicki said. “The farm is not supporting them … That’s troubling to me. I want to see more farms successful.”
Initially, he worked off-farm while trying to farm full-time. He believed that if he could raise vegetables, grain, pork, mushrooms and poultry as a farming one-stop-shop, he’d find success. He quickly discovered he had little time for his family. And he experienced little success.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know how to get customers and how to grow the farm at all,” he said. He began posting on social media and spent a lot of money on a website.
He quickly racked up $80,000 in debt trying to generate more farm income from different business models. “Nothing was really working,” he said. “My finances, time and energy were spread too thinly.”
He decided to focus on pastured poultry and selling to local chefs wholesale. Today, he sells to more than 50 chefs and increased his profits by 700% at farmers markets. He won over his first big chef order for two dozen birds by inviting him to tour the farm, sharing a free sample and following up on his experience.
He makes $200,000 annually on seven acres of pastured poultry. His success began by reducing the cost of his inputs.
“There’s no definition of a regenerative farm,” Siewicki said. “I define it as trying to reduce our inputs, our costs. You’ve got to make it very lean.” He also strives to reduce waste. For example, if a bird dies or an egg cracks, he places these waste items into a container to grow black soldier fly larvae which feed his birds. The larvae are 50% protein and 35% fat. He also uses manure to help fertilize the birds’ pastures.
Integrating and diversifying helps the farm succeed. He grazes multiple species of fowl together and grows fruit and nut trees in their pasture to offer silvopasture. The trees provide birds with protection from predators, shade and drop fruits. They also soak up excess water from the pasture. He hopes to someday harvest fruits and nuts to sell once the trees produce enough.
He likes the efficiency of raising pastured poultry compared with cattle, as one acre can support one cow, produce 800 pounds of salable meat and take 18 months to do it. One acre can support 400 birds, produce 2,000 pounds of salable meat and take only eight weeks to get to harvest weight. “That’s 15,000% more efficient,” Siewicki said.
Instead of a chicken tractor, he uses an electric netting system to keep the poultry in the pasture, which allows him to adjust the size of the paddocks.
To achieve $30,000 profit per acre, “the key is to sell enough product at enough profit,” Siewicki said. “If I get $20 profit per bird I raise, that’s $10,000 profit for 500 birds. That’s one cycle of birds, eight weeks … Some might say ‘No way can you get $20 per bird.’ We actually get $70 profit per bird.”
He accomplishes this by selling birds by the piece and through value-added items. He also wastes no part of each bird.
Siewicki believes that selling is best accomplished in person, not through a screen. “Emails and social media works for some folks,” he said. “It can build loyalty to your brand but for me it didn’t work.”
Meeting face-to-face builds a more personable relationship. “People want to know their farmer,” he said.
Creating a “hook” for his products helped him win more wholesale orders, such as stressing the health of his flock, the local appeal of his birds and the natural, hands-on management of the farm. As a result, Siewicki increased sales 500% in five months by adding direct consumer sales and his restaurant marketing strategies.
The latter begins with finding out who makes a restaurant’s purchasing decisions (typically the head chef). “You need to have your message short and concise,” he said. “Answer the who, what and why and differentiate yourself from the competition. It should take four to five sentences.”
Farmers should be able to provide a sample, answer commonly asked questions, offer a delivery schedule, discuss payment schedule and methods and talk about insurance and processing. Price also matters.
“One of the biggest things we see is price because we charge a lot more than what they could buy at big, commercial factories,” Siewicki said. “I say ‘You can’t buy food of this quality anywhere else. Wouldn’t you agree that the highest quality dishes start with the top-quality ingredients?’”
He also reminds chefs that they can charge a little more by letting customers know they’re eating local, farm-fresh food. They can even list the farm’s name, so they know where the poultry is raised.
He recommended following up within 48 hours, asking the chef’s professional opinion of the meat sample “so I know how I can improve my product. It also shows I respect their expertise,” Siewicki said.
Increasing farm income relies on selling more volume and at a higher profit margin. “If you’re breaking even, you won’t be able to sustain that for very long,” Siewicki said. Selling more volume means obtaining more wholesale clients. To do so, farmers must sell their products quickly and consistently. Setting up a contract can help build stability into the transactions.
Selling directly to customers increases the profit margin and can include farmers markets, farm stands and special events. “Any way you can do person-to-person, eye-to-eye retail sales gives you more money than if you wholesale,” Siewicki said.
At first, he did not sell much at farmers markets. Standing around for four hours to make $200 seemed like a waste of time. For a while, he gave up on the concept. Then the pandemic hit and with restaurants closed, he found his freezer full of unsold birds. He returned to the same market and thrived by adding more specialty items to differentiate his business. Even though he had higher prices than a competitor, he outlasted him.
Selling a small whole duck wholesale nets him $10 profit per bird. But selling it retail with value-added products makes him nearly $70.
“We use some of the parts that would otherwise be waste, like the feet and bones,” he said. “We use these to make products to sell at a higher value. Whatever I make using these parts is just profit.”
by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant