By Jennifer Welch
Y’all … what a long, strange trip it’s been. I am a pig farmer, a cook, and the owner of a 1984 65-passenger Bluebird school bus. The amount of stuff I don’t know could fill that school bus ten times over. But there are a few things I have learned along the way that are worth sharing.
The first thing I’ve learned is: Never say never.
When I moved to Buena Vista 13 years ago, I was working in the food service industry. I spent several more years working in this industry learning the ins and outs of food preparation, customer service, and restaurant management. I really and truly loved my work and thought I had found my calling. But what I hadn’t counted on was that, when it became time to start a family, I would start caring more about where my food came from and less about how it was prepared and served. Sadly, it seemed to me that very few people actually shared this concern and so I began to feel pulled in an entirely different direction. It was at this point in my life that I vowed never to work in the foodservice industry ever again. This felt like a disastrous event to me, but eventually I came to realize that the pull I was feeling would become one of the best things to happen to me, both professionally and personally. And I find it worth saying now that the difference between being pulled by something and being driven by something is simply a matter of choice within that moment. I would liken it to the difference between being involved and being committed. The chicken, they say, was involved in making your breakfast, the pig, however, was committed to it. So, not knowing how committed I was becoming to this feeling I had, I persuaded my husband to begin a small homestead farm as we began our lives together. I decided that I was content to do just that as I worked to raise our children and support him in his position at the fire department.
As our family grew, our farm grew with it. Maya, our daughter, was born while we lived on a town lot where we brooded chickens on the living room floor. Walden, our second, was born on what was originally called The Crowded Acre, a single-acre lot just outside of town where I genuinely fell in love with the act of farming. Wyatt, our third and final child, was born to live on the property we currently call home – 15 acres north of BV in the piñon-juniper woodland, nestled between the railroad tracks and the Arkansas River. So, as time went on, we added more and more livestock, trying our hands at anything and everything we could think of. We were green beyond all reason and made many, many mistakes along the way. We really knew only one thing for certain: we never wanted to become pig farmers. Never say never.
This leads me to the second thing I’ve learned: You don’t have to know where you are going, but you do have to be along for the ride.
Even though we had decided that we didn’t want to be pig farmers, we did enjoy raising feeders from spring into fall to help provide pork for ourselves and our friends. And somewhere along the way we added a dairy cow and a small herd of Scottish Highland beef cows and a horse or two and a larger laying flock, and turkeys, and ducks, and more goats. You get the picture … we had a lot of mouths to feed. Some of our animals eat grass only, such as our horses, cows, and dairy goats, but the animals that regularly eat grains were taking a real toll on our bank account. So we started picking up spent grain from behind the Deerhammer Distillery to help supplement the feed. It worked out well, for the most part – what we saved in money we sacrificed in labor, but it was free, which my husband really liked, so we continued doing it. But a few months in and the Deerhammer owners alerted us that they really needed to have just one person picking up all of their grain instead of doling it out to several people here and there. And they were talking about a lot of grain – a lot more than we needed on a regular basis. So I did the one thing that I had said I would never do. I turned to my husband and told him, very matter-of-factly, “We are going to become pig farmers.” And in one fell swoop, I held back two of my feeder-gilts, found a free one-year-old boar that friends of ours no longer needed, and told Deerhammer that we would take all of their spent grain – two truckloads of it, every single week. I think this might have been the point where my husband genuinely began to wonder what he had gotten himself into by marrying me, but the simple fact was that he and I were both along for the ride, and willing to go wherever it might take us.
And, finally, the third lesson and one of the most valuable pieces of business advice I have ever received is this: In order to be successful as a small farm, you either have to market an entirely unique product, or you have to market a common product in a unique way.
So, after taking on all that spent grain, we worked to build up our pig herd and our poultry flocks so that we could begin to provide products directly to local consumers. The problem with that model, though, is that it’s not all that profitable and the price point alone cuts out many of our local consumers. Even with prices that excluded the average consumer, if I were to break down all my costs and time inputs, my hourly wage would surely make a grown man cry. And I still couldn’t even come close to affording my own products. So I looked into wholesaling my products to local restaurants. But when I met with the owner of one restaurant that really prizes local foods, he said one thing that made me realize it was going to be more work than it was worth. He said, “We go through 40 pounds of bacon every single week.” And knowing darn well that he wasn’t going through the rest of the pig at that same rate made me absolutely furious as a farmer, and I began to wonder how much effort I would have to put into selling my hogs piece by piece, and at a lower price to boot. So I turned to my husband after that and, for the second time, made him think I had completely lost my mind. I told him I wanted to go back into food service and that I wanted to do it in a 1984 Bluebird 65-passenger school bus. And, much to my surprise, he agreed.
That was about a year ago. Since then, we have been working to convert our school bus into a working kitchen, a food truck which we will park next to the Deerhammer Distillery on Main Street in Buena Vista this May. Not only will our food truck utilize the whole animals and eggs we produce on our farm, it will also utilize other local farm-fresh ingredients and Colorado products. It is a true-to-heart approach at farm-to-fork dining, offered at prices that allow everyone to take part and to experience the local flavors our area has to offer.
I am able to achieve this by cutting out a few of the middlemen that are so common within our food chain. And by doing so, I am able to help draw a more direct line from farmer to consumer. So as I was writing up our business plan last summer, I thought I might not be able to put our mission into words, as it often feels so much bigger than most words can convey. But after some time I managed to get it into one single sentence:
Our goal is to build community through the act of supporting local agriculture, while offering a uniquely handmade product to consumers. I hope y’all will come visit us this summer and truly enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Jen Welch lives and writes in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and she knows sometimes your cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ‘em down.