Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 009 - Maintaining Values While Making a Profit featuring Jeanne Carver and Hilary Corsun

Jeanne Carver: For us, sustainability is a way of life. Everything is encompassed. It's a way of life. It isn’t just about changing just these few policies in the company. It’s a whole way of life.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Today on the show: maintaining values while making a profit.

New Speaker: With changing markets, changing factors, how do you assure profitability for your family economically going forward? And retain animals on the land that are good for the land when supported in a more naturally balanced way?

Mallory Daily: Jeanne Carver runs a ranch in Oregon that raises grass-fed cattle and sheep for wool. In her time on the ranch, she’s seen agricultural industries change, shrink, and even disappear. She’ll be in conversation with Hilary Corsun, a New York farmer with a keen eye for finding niche local markets.

Hilary Corsun: The added challenge for us in what we’re both trying to achieve is finding that sweet spot of scale without compromising your values. And that’s an ongoing challenge because there are so many decision points along the way. And you just constantly just have to be checking back in with your values and your personal goals, and creating the life that you want to have.

Mallory Daily: Hillary is in her fifth year managing 87 acres in the Hudson Valley. Jeanie's family manages 5,000 acres on land that's been in continued operation for almost 150 years. And even with those differences in region and scale, for both of them, creating viable business models is just as essential to sustainable agriculture as building soil quality and keeping waterways clean. Here's Jeannie again.

Jeanne Carver: We took a big move in philosophy and direction in 1999. We had sold everything off the ranch. Everything you harvested was a commodity. And so that was traditional agriculture. And then in 1999 we called our wool buyer up that we had sold to for a hundred years and said, you know, "We're ready to haul wool. What's the price this year? What will you give me?" The traditional price taker. And we were told, "We're sorry folks, but we're not going to buy the wall. We're closing our processing facilities and heading off shore like everybody else." And that piece of news changed our life, really. It was a time when tens of thousands of sheep producers in America were going out of the sheep business in the late-nineties because of a number of factors, one being loss of textile infrastructure. And so my husband looked at me and said, "Either we find our own markets for what the sheep provide or they're gone off this ranch." And that became my new challenge, Besides being a ranch wife and all the things that you do to support the operation in your family. It became the challenge of how do I find a way to sell the wool? And he immediately added to that challenge, a good market for the lamb. And so we went down the road of building a parallel supply chain for both meat and fiber at the same time. And 20 years later we, I guess you could say we made it, right.

Hilary Corsun: It does seem that way!

Jeanne Carver: Not that it's ever easy! We were successful in that change, but it did change our life.

Hilary Corsun: Yeah. In New York, I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to buy 87 acres and cannot even imagine 5,000 acres under management. And, I don't know, what it must feel like to steward that much, that much land.

Jeanne Carver: It's humbling. It's really humbling because, you recognize that your decisions impact so much more than you--the future for your family, the future for our community, our state, really, all of us together. And agriculture, our nation and all of us, that steward land the planet, right? We're the caretakers of soil, water and grasses and clean air. And it's very humbling. And you're reminded of it every day that we're temporary. We're temporarily in charge. It's our time. But the first time you build a fence and a herd of elk, before you even completed it, comes across the landscape and stops in shock. What is this? And you recognize that: man, we insert ourselves into the natural balance of nature, and sometimes we do that without recognizing the results of our actions until maybe decades later. So it's a humbling thing to manage landscape for all of us. 10 acres or 10,000.

Hilary Corsun: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Jeanne Carver: Well, I'm really curious, Hillary, how did you get into farming? How did this happen for you?

Hilary Corsun: I was thinking about that, too, as you were speaking with being on a multigenerational farm and that I was not coming from a farm family. I'd always loved the outdoors and it was in college that--my dad's an entrepreneur and business was always in my blood for sure. I studied small business management and I realized that business could really be a tool for positive change and positive impact in the world. And I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to apply that. And I worked for a microfinance fund in West Africa and thinking business and poverty, you know, maybe poverty was the issue. It was there in a rural remote village that I saw U.S. chicken being sold in this tiny African market. I worked with farmers there assessing their businesses to receive these micro loans. And you know, it was through that, that I realized that agriculture brought together all of my interests in both business and local economies, the environment, social justice, and I was hooked, completely hooked.

Jeanne Carver: So how did you then actually go from buying this farm or saying I'm going to do it myself as opposed to working to help a community in another country or something? I like it that you really focused on the third leg of sustainability, really. We have the economics and the environmental implication. But that social aspect in your work, you know, the broader work you're talking about doing, I think that's really good. But how did you go then from this idea that I'm going to do it to actually operating? How'd you operate? How'd you do that?

Hilary Corsun: Yeah. So I decided that I was committed to agriculture and to food system development and felt really strongly that if I wanted to be helping farmers in that regard, I wanted to be a farmer and I wanted to experience these challenges and losses that so many farms that I was working with and interacting with were telling me about. It's visceral. I felt like I needed to have that experience. And so I made that commitment and it was really, um, I got lucky. I had a family friend that had a hobby heard of beef cows and I went to visit him one day and told him I wanted to get into farming and he told me he was reading this book by this lunatic farmer. And I said, "Is that one of Joel Salatin's books?" And Eddie said, "Yeah, it is." And I said, "Well, I'd really like to get into farming. How about I convert your beef herd to grass-fed beef and let's take this journey together." And so he was on board with that. So for about two-and-a-half years we transitioned his 20-cow herd to one hundred percent grass-fed. And while I was there working for him, I formed our farm, Dog Wood Farm and started raising pastured poultry on the side. And I didn't want to compete with any of the farms that were already going. So I was looking for opportunities. And one of them was in Thanksgiving turkeys. So we started, we raised 20 turkeys our first year and this year we're going to raise about 300. And we started laying hens and I can discuss that a little bit more. They have been incredibly difficult to make profitable, but they have been incredibly important, in terms of developing our different marketing channels because they're really sought after.

Jeanne Carver: What are your marketing channels?

Hilary Corsun: So, they vary by product and in terms of our mushroom business, that's the one business where we do have a local wholesale route and we deliver to natural food stores and restaurants. But for all of our land-based enterprises, that's almost entirely direct marketing. So we're selling off the farm.

Jeanne Carver: People come to you to buy it?

Hilary Corsun: They do. And that's why this year I'm excited that we're opening an official farm store. So, yup. So we have very informally, you know, had a cooler on the front porch and, you know, met people in parking lots to sell beef by the quarter.

Jeanne Carver: Do you have any kind of certifications or inspections?

Hilary Corsun: Our beef goes to a USDA processor and we sell that all frozen. We sell it both by the cut, but also in 50-pound boxes and quarters, halves and wholes sometimes. So that's for the beef.

Jeanne Carver: And that's to individuals?

Hilary Corsun: Yes. And occasionally, yeah, mostly, mostly individuals. And then, the eggs, mostly we sell on the farm to individuals and we also sell through Good Food Farmers Network, so this multi-farm home delivery endeavor. And the eggs have been really important there, because they've been a big draw. They've helped build our membership in that, our customer base in that business because folks are really looking for eggs. So most of the eggs go through that channel. And then the turkeys, we sell entirely off, almost entirely off the farm at Thanksgiving.

Jeanne Carver: Well, what would you say your biggest challenge has been? What is your biggest challenge if you could identify it?

Hilary Corsun: You know, I think it's a little hard to say because in general farming is hard in terms of a challenge. I mean, developing business models and enterprise models that are actually profitable, I think. And being really honest with yourself when they're not, because it's really easy to be idealistic about what we're trying to achieve through our farming. But if you can't pay for what you're doing and you can't pay yourself…

Jeanne Carver: It's not sustainable.

Hilary Corsun: It's not sustainable.

Jeanne Carver: Yeah, the value-added is getting a lot of glory these days, but it is really difficult to make value-added businesses profitable. You know, there's a lot of negative about "big ag", right? But scale, there's a reason people scale because scale can be an asset in terms of working economically. So you have to find that sweet spot between the newer models of delivering food, clothing and shelter to citizens, right? You have to balance these new models with a scale that at least is at a level that can make it sustain economically as well as all the other benefits that come from a different model.

Hilary Corsun: Yeah. And I think this is implied in what you're saying, but the added challenge for us in what we're both, I think, trying to achieve is finding that sweet spot of scale without compromising your values.

Jeanne Carver: Correct.

Hilary Corsun: And that's an ongoing challenge because there are so many decision points along the way and you just constantly have to be checking back in with your values and your personal goals and kind of creating the life that you want to have. If I'm thinking of people just getting into agriculture, I feel like one of the most critical, critical things is to really think through the life you want to have and what farming enterprises you choose to pursue will have radically different impacts on your life. And whether you're a vegetable farmer, you know, from just during the growing season or whether you choose to grow vegetables through the winter or have livestock, which is for some livestock is a year round endeavor. All of those things are decisions you have to make. So I think staying really true to yourself is really important.

Jeanne Carver: Yeah, we have a lot of people that come by appointment on tours of our historic headquarters in our operation, mainly driven by our markets. You know, when you're out, when you have a product in the market, people want to come to the source. So whether it's a chef with a van-load of interns or a company, a brand who's been sourcing fiber or wool or going to build their story around you. They come and people get a really idealistic perception. The one thing that we try to share is that, for people that say, "Oh, I really want to get into agriculture." It isn't a job. Other people that have a job and go home? You don't go home. You're living in it. You're immersed in it. It's your life. 

I developed a tagline years ago that said, you know, every company was trying to green their efforts, right? Change out their compost systems and our light bulbs and this and that. And it used to frustrate me that it was that simple because we're talking about managing big land and waterways. And I said, for us, sustainability is a way of life. Everything is encompassed. It's a way of life. It isn't just about changing these few policies in the company. It's a whole way of life. We know the power, the importance, the responsibility of managing landscape and the interconnected relationships of grazing animals and grasses and, and soil and water and air and drawing down carbon. The managing of the natural resources is our life. This product business came after the fact. And it was the ability to continue to survive in an evolving world with changing markets, changing factors. How do you assure profitability for your family economically going forward? And retain animals on the land that are good for the land when managed, when supported in a more naturally balanced way? 

And so the really greatest lessons we've learned is the importance of providing what we need to survive on a daily basis. Food, clothing, and shelter is really as important to this country as it is to every other. And in America we got so rich that we didn't think we needed to do those things anymore. We just pay somebody else to do it. And I think what we've recognized is that what we've lost as a nation is much greater than we can even define. And by doing this work of bringing the harvest to a retail location, like a restaurant, and meeting with the chef and coming and talking to the customers, bringing your into a yarn store, bringing the fiber and fabric to a company to where there's a real meaning to this fabric and to what they're making. 

We've been bridging, if you will, the urban/rural divide by this value-added direct program in the 20 years we've been doing it in a way that we never knew. We never realized. We used to think we vote differently than those folks. We'd probably think differently than them, different issues are important to us. And what this taught us is, the first day that I delivered to the back door of the kitchen: I need them. We need them. And they need us. And in fact, we have more in common than we have differences. So I guess this has been a really intimate way to bridge the urban/rural divide and to find common ground with each other in a way we hadn't thought before. It also imparted to me the importance of traditional skills, whether it's butchery, right? And processing, spinning of fibers, weaving of cloth, cutting and sewing of garments-- the traditional skills that built this country and every other are really vital to keeping our culture. And when we give those things up, we lose something in this country. So, you know, these are the bigger things that we've been taught and, and they've been really powerful lessons. And in fact, as I began close to home and the textile effort, I reached out as close. I wanted to work as close to home as I could. In the beginning, I hired local women to weave and to knit and to create product to sell with our yarns. And that continued to grow until pretty soon we needed to scale further and there was no infrastructure. In fact, the textile infrastructure in the U.S. is still in a shrinking stage, which is really sad. And so what it did was we are, we're out West. Look where you are in New York. I now have friends in New York. I had never even been to New York, but my infrastructure for textiles is in the Southeast and the Northeast, primarily, as well as some in California, you know, and spotty here and there. But we've also not just bridged urban and rural. We've brought together the East and the West. They need us in our raw material to go through their factories. We need them to make a product from our raw materials. We're in this together and we're friends. We're a community. So these efforts of bringing a raw harvest to our communities across this country strengthens. It weaves a connection for all of us and it's really, really important and it makes us more unified and it makes us stronger. It makes America stronger and we can still reach out and help others, right, other nations with our technology, with our knowledge, with our overage, if you will. But these have been really important lessons and things that we never, were never in our real conscious knowledge until we started value-added work in agriculture.

Hilary Corsun: Yeah. Part of the reason I farm is because I feel like when we can, when sustainable agriculture succeeds, we are solving so many issues in our country. And it's exciting to think about, and you touched on so many of them with culture and jobs and health and the environment and it's exciting to think about and that's why I get up every morning to let those chickens out at sunrise.

Jeanne Carver: Yeah, someone asked me in a documentary, because you know, you do, you work 20 hours a day sometimes, right? It's a big, it's a huge amount of work. It's not for everybody. And someone said, "How do you recharge? How do you possibly recharge? "And I said, "Well, actually it's quite simple. When I open my eyes every morning and sit up and put my feet on the floor, I'm looking at that. I'm looking at this incredibly awesome creation and there is no greater inspiration I can imagine then to be that close everyday of my life, seeing nature at its best. Sometimes harsh. Always honest. Nature is always honest with you and it's sometimes harsh, but it's also inspirational beyond anything I can imagine."

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Jeanne Carver of Imperial Stock Ranch in Oregon. And Hilary Corsun of Dog Wood Farm in New York. We’ll link to more info about their farming enterprises in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at , that’s S-A-R-E dot org. SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening!