2017 brought with it one of the most fun opportunities I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of. After a couple years of selling chickens off the farm and running the brewery mostly off wholesale we were finally able to open our own tasting room.
This was fun for me for a few reasons. There’s the business reasons like being able to finally pour beer and sell at retail prices (until now it was primarily wholesale). But that’s the boring stuff.
If you remember back a few blog posts, I went to school for scenic and lighting design. Here at my home, the place I’ve been toiling over for the past few years, I got to scratch an itch and help design and build a tasting room and farm store.
Farm Operations in 2017
- 600 broilers
- 120 layers
- 7 pigs
- 1 acres of hops
- ¼ acre of vegetables
- On site farm store
- Limited farmers’ market
- Some wholesale
Major projects (and life happenings):
- Building a tasting room
- Improving upon that tasting room
- Finishing a farm store
- Moving my personal home off farm (but not too far)
Building a Tasting Room
Building a tasting room for our brewery was perhaps the biggest change we underwent as a business since we actually bought the property or built the brewery. Finally we are able to pour beer for people to taste at our brewery while enjoying the farm scenery.
It was a big undertaking involving not only myself, but anyone who works with us. The guy who does all our label art, Dan Hamilton, designed a mural and he and Kate painted it. I had friends come by to help me build the bar and hang the walls. I had the brewery guys in there painting, cleaning, doing carpentry, and whatever else was needed. It took all hands on deck to open this thing to the public.
Part of the struggle was learning and implementing all the building and health codes. The contractors we hired weren’t always forthcoming with things that needed to be installed before they did their work. We would find out afterward that there had to be a washable wall behind a sink that was already installed or some kind of minimum or maximum space requirement for this that or the other thing.
I guess that’s where architects, building engineers, and better contractors come in. But who has the money for those? (Quick aside here: I’m just being a little funny, we did have architects involved, we had some great contractors, it’s just that not everything fell into place as it should and there was some scrambling.)
I spent long days and a bunch of long nights in that building getting things ready for opening. That was all time planned for me not being on farm. It was tough and naturally I overestimated my skill and time frame for getting it all done. I had planned ahead and kept the farm light in anticipation, but still, it was a balancing act.
In the end we opened, we’ve been slowly improving upon it, and people seem to love the experience. I still see it as incomplete because there’s always things that could use improving, but that’s the way of everything. Is an entrepreneur ever really done? If we’re not trying to get better than we’re getting stale.
On farm retail, opportunity or burden?
We had originally thought that with the increase of brewery traffic we would see a lot more on-farm sales through our farm store. That was kind of the case, but also not really.
You see, people who are traveling to come to the brewery are coming to taste a beer and then take some home. When they take a beer home all they have to do is pop the top and drink it. For chicken it is a whole different story.
If you’re coming for an easy to consume beer you’re not necessarily interested in a whole chicken, priced at $6 a pound, that you have to thaw, pull the giblets out, season, cook, and pull off the bones. You’re a completely different customer than someone who shops at the farmers’ market and is there to buy ingredients.
So here we were with this “new” fancy farm store and increased on-site traffic and we had to fight tooth and nail to convert beer customers into farm customers. A brewery on a farm is cute, but that’s not necessarily what gets people to show up. As the season went on our sales slumped a little and we ended up pivoting once again.
When we started, either Kate or I manned the farm store Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Saturday was the most lucrative but Thursday and Friday could be a wash. We thought that over time we could start to turn it around. What ended up happening was us wasting time sitting there in the farm store not selling much and not getting much done on farm considering we were the only two running the farm.
By the fall we had realized our mistake. We made the farm store self-serve on Thursday and Friday and one of us manned it on Saturdays. We also picked up our local farmers’ market every other week to service our regular customers and get more of that good farmers’ market traffic.
It was a hit to our productivity. We should have seen it sooner and made moves to change our sales style, but that’s the lesson learned. Track your Return On investment (ROI) and adjust quicker before you’re too far in the hole. Any effort you make for your business should have measurable results.
Going into the winter of 2017 we are self-serve Thursday and Friday. On Saturdays I will man the farm store and run support for the brewery. Kate got work off-farm for the winter so she’ll be between that and watching Mabel while I take care of the farm.
Moving Off Farm
Another big change for us was moving off farm. I’m not going to tell you where because I don’t want anyone to know, haha. It’s nice now to have a business address and a home address that don’t share the same numbers. We’re not far away, but we are far enough away to bring our privacy back.
We lived right at the entrance to the farm for four years. That had the benefit of being close to work to minimize commute and help out when people (truck drivers) showed up at odd hours and no one was around to unload a truck.
We enjoyed the proximity and affordability of our situation. However, as the farm and brewery got busier and more public so did our home. It wasn’t just the public that felt the need to be a part of our personal lives but the people directly involved with the farm in some way had issues with personal space.
We would be eating our dinner behind our house and people would come to ask questions, look for a tour, have a problem that needed fixing, or just sit down without really asking. If we were in our house people would orbit around it watching through our windows seemingly waiting for one of us to look out and acknowledge them.
We’re a very inviting family and we enjoy our potlucks and group dinners, but having things happen on our terms in our space was something we began to dream about. With that we made the decision to take on a little extra financial burden in exchange for a little less personal burden.
We still joke that we are a family of three and we have seating for ten because we have someone over to eat almost every night of the week. But now when we have people over it usually happens on our terms. That, and our Sundays have once again become sacred family days.
2017 has been a big shift for us. It feels like the big capital projects are behind us, and now it is time for the business to iterate and improve on the decisions we have already made.
We have an amazing group of people working in the brewery, all of our booze is well received in the market, our distillery has put up a lot of inventory, and things look good all around.
Our farm products are top-notch. It is now time to further develop my markets, develop the farm and property as a destination, and ensure I making best use of the resources I have available to me.
Do you ever find yourself going down the mental path of “man, if I had only done this my life would have been better,” or “if I could go back in time I would have never done this.” I know I find myself doing it so there’s a good chance you do too.
Looking back and seeing only lost opportunity and foolish choices is a dangerous and toxic path to take. Sure there are failures and bumps in the road, but you need to think of them differently. Instead of of simply thinking “what went wrong” and stopping there, you have to go one step further and ask yourself “what went wrong? And how to I make sure I don’t make that same mistake going forward?”
Learn from your mistakes and then take action. Improve, iterate, reform, revamp, progress, course correct. Make tomorrow better than yesterday while enjoying today.
An expert is just a person who has screwed up more than you. I only know everything there is to know about pastured broiler chickens because I have screwed up everything there is to know about broiler chickens and I refused to accept my own mediocrity. Every year the ratio of chickens I kill on purpose versus the chickens I kill by accident improves.
You alone have the choice as to whether you are going to let your mistakes bring you down or build you up. Once you wrap you head around this idea you'll realize that this concept doesn’t apply just to farming.