Our December newsletter is always a review of our year here on the farm. For us to move into the New Year, it’s important that we take a look back at where we were and where we’ve come. What did we do right and what were our failures? Did we meet our expectations and if not, why didn’t we? We don’t believe that you can make things better and grow if you don’t take an honest, almost brutal look, at the farm and be willing to face the successes as well as the failures head-on. 2023 was a year that presented us a never ending list of challenges that actually had us questioning our ability to navigate these challenges and question whether we even wanted to continue farming. I’m almost certain that if it wasn’t for Jesse and Amy wanting to continue farming and trying to keep the operation going for another generation, Annie and I would have shut it down the day after we made the final payment that paid the land off. What had been several years of building a successful farming operation was being torn apart by rising costs of everything from feed ingredients, labor costs, processing costs, and every other cost that you could imagine. Every time you turned around we were being notified of some sort of cost increase. Even the operating loan that we need to purchase our farm inputs and keep the farms cash flow going went from a reasonable 3% interest rate to about 8%. These cost increases eroded any profits we expected to make and forced us to increase the selling price of our products. The increased cost of our products caused a good number of our customers to switch back to buying lower priced meats at the grocery stores, and the lower sales revenue just increased the need to raise our prices again in order to pay the bills. It was a vicious cycle of rising costs, raising prices, and losing customers. After 2 years of breaking even a few months and losing other months, we questioned if it was even worth trying to work through this economic cycle. Unlike Annie and me, Amy and Jesse have a lot of years ahead of them and a strong desire to keep things going; we had to find a way to move the farm forward, profitably. Back during the summer of 2022, we discussed ways to get control over the costs that, at the time, we had no control over; processing was the first cost that came to mind. Our discussions revolved around what we would need to do to minimize what we had the processor do for us since there was a charge for everything they did. There was a cost to cut a pork chop, another cost to grind our meat, and another cost to make our sausage. Along with the cost of killing the animal there were additional costs for everything that needed to be done. In a good number of situations we found that the cost of processing the animal was over the total cost of us raising it and added 50% or more to the total cost of the item. What tasks could we handle in-house that would minimize what we paid the processor every month and what would we have to do in order to be legally able to handle those tasks? We knew we didn’t want to build a slaughter house and kill our animals here on the farm, but were open to handling more of our meat cutting tasks and packing our own product. In August 2022 we decided to build a DEHC inspected cutting room here on the farm and handle as much of the cutting and packing of our products here on the farm as we could. In the fall of 2022, a good friend of ours said that he was shutting down his processing facility. He had been operating a state inspected facility for 25 or 30 years and was having problems finding labor. He was working 6 and 7 days a week, doing all the killing and cutting the meat up by himself. He did have a woman that worked helping him pack and vacuum seal the finished product but not the initial killing and cutting. It was more than he wanted to handle so he decided to shut it down. His closing provided an opportunity for us. Would he rent the facility to us? We wouldn’t want to kill, and didn’t want to be state inspected, but would rather become DEHC certified and use the facility to cut and pack meat. He agreed to lease the facility to us providing us an opportunity to cut and pack some of the meat raised on our farm, but also provided us the opportunity to search for high quality suppliers that would allow us to expand our Palmetto Provision product line and allow us to cut, pack, and market a higher quality, conventionally raised product, at a price level that could compete with the grocery store. It was an opportunity that could save the farm from closing and provide us the revenue to move the farm forward. Our plan to build an on-farm cutting room quickly grew to building a new on farm market that included a cutting room providing us the opportunity to cut and sell fresh meats while meeting our original goal of having more control over the cost of our processing. A year and a half later and the new market building is up with carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other tradesmen working daily to try and have the rough in work and inspections done by Christmas. At the time of this newsletter, we expect the market to be complete and operational by early February 2024 pending DEHC and other permit approvals. I guess you could say the first success of 2023 was expanding our Palmetto Provision offerings and handling a portion of packing our Keegan-Filion products ourselves. The small on farm market we currently have is filled with our products and is seeing a weekly influx of new and returning customers. We are seeing our home delivery customers ordering more and often ordering a mix of Palmetto and Keegan-Filion products. Often we have 3 or 4 people shopping in our small market at a time and often wonder where everyone will park. The increases in our on farm customers, and the comments they are making regarding the quality of our products, have made us feel secure in our decision to invest in the new market. Unfortunately not all of our challenges had as good an outcome. We suffered major losses in our hog operation throughout the year and didn’t know the reason why until sometime in May. Late in 2022 and into early 2023, we noticed that our sows weren’t getting bred. At first we thought it was a problem with our boars and decided to replace them; though unusual that both would go bad at the same time, they were both older and were around the age that we would normally replace them. We decided to go to using 1 boar and purchased a young Yorkshire boar from the breeder we use and put him in service. After a couple more months we were still seeing a high number of open sows but also noticed some sows that had tested pregnant were no longer, they absorbed their fetuses. In May, the sows that had been successfully bred during the winter began farrowing litters of mummies and dead pigs. We now knew our problem wasn’t a bad boar but a disease, either Leptospirosis or Porcine Parvovirus, and brought several of the mummies and dead piglets to Clemson for necropsy. A week later we got the results and were shocked to see that tests showed our pigs didn’t have the diseases we thought but had a disease we never thought we would experience because we aren’t in a high pork producing area; we had PRRS, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome. PRRS is the most economically destructive disease a hog farm can experience. It’s a disease that shows no outward symptoms in the breeding herd, the first signs of PRRS are bred sows that don’t take and remain open. The next stage is bred sows farrowing dead and mummified piglets followed by a 3 to 4 month period of sows farrowing live, extremely weak pigs that die within days of being born. During this phase of the disease death loss can reach 100% of piglets born. A typical PRRS outbreak will last 10 to 12 months. There is no cure for PRRS, all the farmer can do is hold on and pray. We are nearing the end of this outbreak and are seeing more of our sows giving birth to normal size litters. We are no longer seeing mummies or having a large number of pigs born dead but are still seeing weak pigs and have to treat them for a variety of secondary infections that they are susceptible to. We’ve estimated that the revenue loss from this outbreak has far exceeded $50,000 and, though we’re not out of the woods yet, we are definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. There is no doubt, in some ways this was our biggest failure, while in another way it was one of our biggest successes; we managed to work through and overcome the worst production challenge we have ever faced and a challenge that has led to many other hog farmers closing their operations. Throughout the year we made improvements to our pastures. The time and money we spent over the past few years spraying biologicals and foliar fertilizing our pastures was paying off. Last winter we were able to turn the cows into a field of winter rye and oats for the first time the week before Christmas; it’s always been the first week in January in the past. By mid January we were rotating cows into the other fields that we had seeded in winter rye and never had to feed another bale of hay for the rest of the winter. Come spring and summer we found we had considerably more grass than our herd was able to eat. Once the herd came through the field we would bush hog it, let it rest for 4 or more weeks, run the bush hog through again just to cut the seed heads off, and turn the cows back in. The quality of the grass was good and the cows were slick and healthy. We made plans to split some of the fields into smaller paddocks that would allow us to rotate the herd through the pastures quicker which would be a big benefit in the winter when the winter grazing is slow growing. Work has begun on one field and will begin in another in January. Back in the summer we hired Ms Naomi and Rolando to help with the daily farm chores. They have done an excellent job and have freed us up to handle other tasks; some day’s I’m even able to quit for the day around 3 in the afternoon. The extra down time has provided opportunities to sit and think of better ways to handle certain tasks and has provided much needed time to work on “the business” of the farm. I can’t tell you the amount of time that is required to handle the books and keeping up with all the farms record keeping, both financial records as well as production records. Running the business of the farm is a full time job in itself and one that many farmers unfortunately choose to ignore. If we could do one thing that would be the most beneficial to the farm, it would be to spend a little extra time each week concentrating on the business of the farm and projecting the challenges and solutions that we will face in the future. Jesse has faced a big challenge this year and has done a pretty good job of navigating it. All of the Palmetto Provision items we sell are cut and packed by Jesse. The plant we lease is almost an hour from the farm and Jesse is there 5 to 6 days a week. The amount of meat he is cutting on a weekly basis is impressive; he is cutting and packing around 1,200 lbs of meat weekly. It means long days of cutting, followed by an in-depth cleaning of the facility, loading the van with the meat that was packed that day, driving back to the farm, and unloading everything so that market freezers can be filled and customer orders packed. If you ask Jesse what he’d like for Christmas, he’ll tell you for the new market to be done so he can work here daily and not spend 2 hours on the road. Amy has done a good job managing the market, making restaurant deliveries, and overseeing home deliveries. Tela is doing the home delivery packing and making the actual home deliveries so that Amy can be in the market helping our market customers. Once the new market is complete, the old market will be used as a packing room which will allow more packing time and make things a little easier for everyone while not having to pack orders in our market will allow us to add an additional day that the market can be open. Since we started selling to the public in 2005 our biggest market has been our Low Country restaurants. Charleston has some of the best chefs in the country and we’ve been lucky to have begun selling to them in early 2006. Over the years we’ve began serving chefs in Beaufort, Bluffton, and Hilton Head. Pre-covid we also sold to restaurants in Columbia, a few in Charlotte and made bi-weekly trips to deliver our products to Furman University outside of Greenville. Since Covid, things have drastically changed. Like what is being experienced in all industries, chefs have had to work the kitchen with less staff and have faced pressure from rising food costs. Several of the chefs we know decided it was time to leave the kitchen and took jobs outside of the restaurant industry; burnout is high in the industry due to the long hours and constant pressure. To handle the constantly increasing food costs and keep the restaurant profitable, many had no choice but to stop buying local products and go to buying everything from the large purveyors like Sysco and U.S. Foods. Pre-Covid we sold several whole hogs a week that the chefs and their staff would breakdown themselves, since Covid we have 1 chef that continues to purchase whole hogs from us, the reminder purchase primal cuts. This year we have seen a drastic cut in our sales to restaurants and have seen a few of our restaurants close completely. Conversations we’ve had with chef friends that have moved out of the area have only reinforced our belief that the nationwide trend in “farm to table” is dying and that most all restaurants are doing everything possible just to survive. I’m sure this is something that we will have to discuss in our farm meetings during the next few weeks and try to find ways to compensate for this loss of business. Back in March Annie and I began stepping back and turning more of the operation over to Amy and Jesse. Things aren’t working out as we planned but through no fault of Amy and Jesse. With Jesse away from the farm 5 to 6 days a week he isn’t here to manage things which mean Marc is still overseeing the daily farm operations. With Amy gone to pick up the meat we had processed the previous week and making restaurant deliveries on Tuesdays and running the on-farm market, she isn’t on the farm to help with the books and to begin taking over the accounting function from Annie. We know when the new market is open it will free Jesse up some to watch over the farm; finding time for Amy to work on the accounting functions will take some additional thinking. Overall we did a good job managing the challenges we faced. There were some things that could have been handled better and things that were handled better than expected. The most important thing is that the farm is still here and operating, everyone is healthy and the future is looking brighter than it has the past few years. Annie and I have been blessed to be able to farm for the past 36 years and are still healthy enough to get out and work on the farm daily, though not as productive as I once was and with a lot more aches and pains at the end of the day. But the important thing is that we are still pushing forward and bringing on the next generation, with new ideas, that will keep the farm going for the foreseeable future. During the next few weeks we will be discussing plans for 2024 and will tell you of some of these plans in January’s newsletter. Our plans are always very fluid and subject to change depending on what unexpected challenges we face. I’m sure the new market will present us with a new set of challenges but will also provide us with a ton of opportunities. We’re excited to see what 2024 has in store for us. We thank you for your continued support of the farm and pray that your New Year brings you happiness and good health. As you get older you realize just how precious life is and how fast the years go by. Thankfully on the farm we see new births often and are reminded just how much of a miracle life is. My hope for everyone in 2024 is that they don’t take a day for granted and enjoy every minute of it. Annie, Marc, Amy, & Jesse
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