Warnerville, New York
Summary of Operation
■ Diversified, pasture-based livestock operation on 160 owned and 30 rented acres
■ On-farm retail sales, farmers market Problem Addressed
Focus on production instead of marketing. Jim and Adele Hayes have long known grass-based farming can be a practical, environmentally sound and profitable approach to raising animals. However, when Adele added her brand of creative direct marketing, their livestock operation truly took off.
For most of the Hayes' 25 years at Sap Bush Hollow, Jim and Adele worked full time off the farm: Jim as a professor of animal science and Adele as a county director of economic development and planning. Both grew up on farms, and they raised sheep from the start. Money-wise, however, Sap Bush Hollow was a losing proposition until 1996, when Adele reduced her job to part time.
"I felt we could bring our farm to the point where it could support our family," she explains. Her efforts paid off. In 2000, Adele went full time on the farm; in 2001 Jim joined her full time; and their daughter Shannon and son-in-law Bob began working part time. Today, the farm supports families.
Direct marketing drives the operation. Sap Bush sells to about 400 consumers — including individuals, restaurants and stores — in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.
"Marketing is the hardest, most time-consuming activity on this farm," Adele stresses. "It's not physically hard, but it is mentally challenging."
By combining an ecological approach, conscientious animal husbandry and tenacious marketing, Sap Bush Hollow Farm has developed into an operation the family finds increasingly personally fulfilling. It also draws admiration from customers, neighbors and other farmers.
"People stop along the road and just look at our place," Adele Hayes says. "They notice that the grass is so green, that the animals are out grazing. The look of the place is one of beauty — in the eye and in the mind."
Focal Point of Operation — Grass-based livestock production and marketing
Over the years, the Hayeses moved from one commodity — sheep — to a diversified operation that now includes chickens (broilers and layers), turkeys, geese, cattle, pigs and sheep. It's a change they believe has strengthened the operation, adding both biological diversity and marketing options.
The poultry operation is the cornerstone of the marketing program. "They have the lowest return per hour of labor, but when new customers come, they're coming for a high-quality chicken. When they're here, they realize we have all the other meat," Adele says.
Adele and Shannon sell most of the meat from the farm kitchen, eliminating distribution costs. They use a website, email, newsletters, postcards and even phone calls to inform customers of sale days and products available. Shannon and Bob also sell meat at the Pakatakan Farmers Market in nearby Margaretville.
To cover the customers coming to the farm, they began purchasing liability insurance in 1998. They post a sign by the end of the driveway and use a large, flat lawn for customer parking. The farm sits about 100 yards off the road and is not visible from the main thoroughfare, but customers rarely have trouble finding it. "We're not looking for drive-by traffic," Adele says. "Almost all our customers are invited to the farm, so they receive instructions on how to get here."
The Hayeses raise all their animals using management intensive grazing strategies that allow them to keep their farm equipment needs —and their farm debt — low. During the grazing season, they rotate ruminants through a series of paddocks to both provide high-quality forage and to allow the pasture to re-grow before animals return to graze.
Their rotations are planned to emphasize each species' nutritional needs. For example, they graze lambs on their best pasture in the spring, but by summer's end, move fattening cattle ahead of dry ewes.
Careful attention to pasture conditions makes the system work. "We have a 'sacrifice' pasture near the barn that's well fenced so it's easy to maintain the animals there," Adele says. "We allow that to get destroyed if we need to," a better option than damaging prime pasture through overgrazing.
The Hayeses use all of the 160 acres they own solely for rotational grazing. They typically take a cut of hay off the 30 rented acres before grazing it as well. Sap Bush Hollow purchases grain and the bulk of their winter feed. Says Jim: "We've found that we make more money not having any machinery."
The Hayeses breed their Dorset-cross ewe flock to synchronize lambing with pasture growth. The ewes typically produce between 150 and 160 lambs in mid-May. Lambs generally are born outside. The Hayeses do very little supplemental feeding, relying on their well-managed pastures for the bulk of the ewes' and the lambs' nutritional needs.
The Hayeses aim for a moderately sized carcass, both so that they can finish their animals on grass and for marketing purposes. "When a customer wants to purchase a lamb, we've found that between $100 and $125 dollars is the breaking point," Adele says. "If the lamb gets much bigger, they'd rather buy the parts."
Sap Bush Hollow Farm begins slaughtering lambs in late September, with the last group of animals coming off pasture and going to the slaughterhouse around the end of the year. They also raise 16-20 steers and about 60 pigs each year, which they sell both in bulk (a side or split half) and as retail cuts.
They use two federally inspected slaughterhouses, one at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cobleskill, and the other about 40 miles away. For the Hayeses, like many other small meat producers in the Northeast, the decreasing number of slaughterhouses is a problem.
"Our volume of meat is pretty far beyond what one local slaughter house can handle," Adele says. "We have to book ahead."
Sap Bush raises about 2,000 pre-ordered broilers. They allow the birds to feed on fresh pasture and insects, as well as chicken feed. They house the birds in a portable pen, which they move to a new piece of pasture each day. Sap Bush Hollow developed its own feed blend for birds that has a higher vitamin package and lower energy than commercial broiler rations. Jim, Adele, Shannon and Bob slaughter the birds on site, occasionally hiring an extra person to assist.
The Hayeses are scrupulous about animal health: They adhere to a routine vaccination regimen; they de-worm strategically by monitoring parasite infections; and they use a
microscope to check fecal matter for disease and parasites when an animal is sick. If an animal dies, Jim does a necropsy. "We've learned from experience we can solve a problem quickly, using the scope, without having outbreaks that cause a lot of loss," Adele explains. Quick and accurate disease identification also allows them to avoid ineffective and over-use of medications.
Economics and Profitability Direct marketing has made a huge difference in farm income. At auction, for example, a lamb might bring between $70 and $80. "But when I run the animal through my retail sales, I get between $150 and $175 retailing by the cut," Adele says.
The same holds true for the cattle and pigs: retailing brings Sap Bush Hollow far greater income than selling at auction.
The cumulative impact is that the farm operation is solidly in the black. "We went from a paper loss to declaring a profit on our farm," Adele says. "Farmers write everything off. Well, I'm writing everything off, and I'm still not using it up."
Their long-term goal is for the farm to deliver about 50 percent of gross sales as income, after all farm expenses are paid.
"We're finally at the point where we can afford to have our family join us on the farm," says Jim, "and that's a great feeling."
By developing a detailed, realistic annual budget and conscientiously sticking to it, Jim and Adele are meeting their goal of attaining a 30-percent return on gross sales.
To develop that realistic picture, they follow a simple formula that they execute thoroughly. They set aside about 30 percent of the previous year's sales. Then they estimate all variable costs — feed, energy, animal costs, pro cessing costs, vet bills, repairs, fencing, tractor operating costs, processing equipment — and their mortgage. In estimating feed costs, they follow commodity prices and try to nail down as many suppliers as possible. Finally they consider what capital improvements are needed and build that into the budget.
With all of their land in permanent pastures, erosion is nonexistent. The Hayeses use no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, spreading only composts and manures. Increasingly, they feel their property is coming back into balance.
As anecdotal evidence of environmental health, Adele lists indicators her son-in-law, Bob, a wildlife biologist, has identified: "On a summer evening, he can hear five species of owls, indicating a healthy diversity of woodland and edge habitats. We'll have a five-inch downpour, and the creek that runs through the property is running clear by the next morning, while all the others in the area are cloudy for the next two weeks."
Community and Quality of Life Benefits The Hayeses are conscientious about contributing to the economy and quality of life of their community. Adele estimates that Sap Bush Hollow put about $90,000 in just one year into the local economy, considering their inputs, from fencing and piping to garden hoses, to paying a person to help with processing.
They are also committed to educating other farmers and their customers. People are welcome to come to the farm and learn how the animals are raised and experience — both in the quality of the product and the appearance of the farm — the benefits of the pasture-based system.
"It gives them a whole new concept of agriculture," Adele says. "Everything looks mowed and manicured because Jim is moving the animals so often. We feel a large part of our job is to educate."
Beyond the on-farm education, Shannon wrote The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook (Eating Fresh Publications, 2004). The collection of recipes, designed to work well with grass-fed meats, also offers consumers tips on how to evaluate pasture-based enterprises to ensure good quality meat and dairy products, as well as how to work with all the different cuts of meat typically found on beef, lamb, pork, venison, bison, veal and poultry.
Adele warns against the temptation of following an early success in any enterprise with rapid expansion. "I have the same advice for everybody," she says. "It's the same as cooking a piece of meat on a grill — go low and slow."
Shannon and Bob live nearby. Shannon works as a writer, and they make jellies, Adirondack pack baskets, baked goods, lip balm, salves and soaps and sell them at the farm. Bob and Shannon's daughter, Saoirse, was born in 2003; the first member of the third generation to enjoy the farm.
Neither Adele nor Jim enjoys managing hired labor, and they feel their current size is a good match for their management and marketing abilities.
■ Beth Holtzman
Editor's note: This profile, originally published in 2001, was updated in 2004.
Was this article helpful?