Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why I Farm: Reserve Run Farm




What is the name of your farm? Does that have any special significance?
My farm’s name is Reserve Run Family Farm.  The name does carry some significance.  Reserve Run is the name of a small stream to the west of our farm.  I thought it was fitting to connect our farm name with the water that runs near our farm.  Everything we do on our farm is connected with the soil and the water.  I

The family farm portion of the name also carries significance for obvious reasons.  I am the third generation currently working on my family’s farm, along with my sister.  We both spend a good deal of our time at the farm, we always have.  Now we are lucky enough to be raising our children on the farm.  There are plenty of challenges with that, but there are also far more positives.   

I am very happy to have the opportunity to teach my daughter (soon to be daughters) the value of hard work and the accolades of success that only come from within.  In my generation those values have declined significantly, from what I have witnessed in my thirty years.  I believe that if I can get my children to subscribe to those values, their lives will be rewarding and they will have a skill set that will carry them far beyond their peers.  We work exceptionally hard to produce the best tasting meats that people will eat, but our farm’s most valuable products are the people we send out into the world.

Where is your farm?
Our farm is on Stillwell Rd. near the small town of Reily, OH.  

Tell me about your farm.
We are a small family farm that specializes in the production of all natural beef and pasture raised poultry.  Our farm is 164 acres.  It was purchased by my grandparents, Wayne and Eileen Johnson in 1943. We didn’t start raising pastured poultry until three years ago.  

I started to learn about the chicken we were purchasing and feeding ourselves from the grocery store and that was enough for me.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was in college I was a chef at a couple of different restaurants.  There was one place in particular where we would get bags of fresh chicken breasts a couple of times a week.  The chicken came from a large distributor, who in turn got their chicken from a large commercial producer and processor.  I remember every time I would open the bags of chicken breasts we would open the bags, dump them in a strainer quickly and walk away for a little bit.  The bags the breasts were packaged in had some sort of a preservative gas in them that smelled absolutely terrible.  For some reason it would turn a small percentage of the chicken breasts green, which we discard.  It wasn’t until years later, after I learned about how the large producers and processors did their work that I connected how terrible that stuff was that I was cooking and serving to the customers at the restaurants where I worked. 
I decided to put my money where my beliefs were.  I researched heavily, read a lot of books written by Joel Salatin as well as university research and I jumped in.  My father thought I was a fool, probably still does, but we all can’t believe how well it has been received.  I know that all of the research and studying only taught me about half of what I know now.  The learning curve was tremendously steep.  

What do you grow or produce?
The products that we sell are all natural beef and pasture raised poultry.  All of our animals are hormone and antibiotic free.  We raise everything our cattle eat on our farm, and about half of what our chickens eat.  Our cattle eat all the hay they desire, corn silage and about 10% grain. That gives our cattle a 90% forage based diet.   We raise cattle our cattle for flavor and consistency.  It’s an added benefit that they are also very healthy.  Our goal is for our beef to have a memorable effect on your meals. 

Our pasture raised chicken is a product we are very proud of as well.  The current “standards” for free range chicken are a joke.  To be considered free range the chickens need access to the outdoors.  That sounds great.  Unfortunately, what isn’t said is that the most common breed of meat bird, the Cornish Cross, is the laziest chicken ever created.  If there is food and water in front of them, they will never move, even if they have the choice to do so.  That wasn’t good enough for us.  We modeled our program around a program designed by farmer/author Joel Salatin and we tweaked it to fit our farm.  When our chickens are old enough to get their feathers, we take them to mobile outdoor pens that we built which are out in our hay fields.  We keep them in high quality hay fields that have high blends of clover, alfalfa, timothy and orchard grass.  It’s like a hay buffet for the chickens.  We give them a blend of grains and vitamins to meet their growth needs, but not enough to make them complacent.  From there, they will eat the grass/legume blends to round off their meals for the day.  They typically eat about 30% of their diet in fresh grasses and legumes.  That combination along with the grains and vitamins gives them an amazingly healthy diet.  I jokingly tell people that eating our chicken is like eating a multi-vitamin.

I mentioned earlier that we grow all the food for our beef and about half for our chickens.  That requires us to grow approximately 100 acres of corn and roughly 50 acres of hay annually.  That takes a lot of time and certainly a lot of labor.  My newest area of intrigue is in cover crops.  They are blends of crops that are grown in off season times of the year.  Each variety of crop you plant in the blend has a purpose and a specific benefit for the soil and or the following crop planted.  This past fall we planted a blend of oats and tillage radishes in a 20 acre field that we harvested corn silage off of.  The oats were planted so their roots would hold the soil in place to reduce erosion and so the above ground part of the plant would act as ground cover or mulch for the following crop.  The tillage radishes were grown to scavenge any excess fertilizer that wasn’t used with the last crop and hold it in the plant until this spring when it will break down with the dead plant and act as a slow release fertilizer.  The tillage radishes also have a very strong taproot which will create a tunnel for the next crop’s roots to utilize.  They also loosen the soil as well as the tuber decomposes over the winter and the ground expands and contracts with freezing and thawing.  I think cover crops are going to be the next big thing in farming.  I am trying to find ways to utilize this new method in farming on our farm.

Do you produce food year round?
Our beef is produced year round.  Our pasture raised chickens can only be produced approximately 7 months out of the year.

Have you always been a farmer?
I have always been a farmer.  That hasn’t been the only work I’ve done though.  I worked in restaurants throughout high school and college.  When I graduated from Miami University I traveled around the company working in the Indy Racing League on an Indy car racing team. 

I started selling farm equipment in 2010.  That is what I currently do as my full time job.  I hadn’t ever sold anything per se up until then, but I love farming and I love to talk about farming.  It seemed like a logical fit. After some learning bumps and bruises, I would say that at this point in time I’m pretty good at what I do.
When I found out the traveling job in the Indy Racing League was over at the end of 2009, I decided to find a way to bring more value to the products we produced on our family farm.  I created the business Reserve Run Family Farm LLC. and started selling our products at two local farmers markets and local restaurants.  It’s been growing ever since.  My goal is to eventually make farming my full time job.  

What do you wish more folks knew about farming in general?
As a blanket statement, I wish more people knew how hard it is to be a farmer.   Typically the profit margins are exceptionally slim.  There is incredible financial risk by simply planting an acre of crop.  Our inputs for one acre of corn last year was right around $450.  Based on our prior three years of corn harvests, that number was crazy to pay out because the chance of losing money was greater than the chance to make any.  Because farming is essentially gambling, we played the game anyway.  Luckily, our harvest was good and we can keep farming for another year.  

One of my best friends and I were making a spreadsheet on my computer one night to calculate profit margins based on different scenarios.  I wanted my friends input on the spreadsheet because he doesn’t have an agricultural background and I was hoping he would see things that I would overlook or take for granted in our calculations.  By the time we got the project finished, he looked at me and said, “Why the hell do you this?”  The margins were scary.  They rarely penciled out to where it looked attractive. 
I guess to summarize what I wish more people knew about farming, the people who farm, independent business owners, put their personal assets on the line every year to get a crop out and try and turn a profit.  It’s not like showing up to work, punching in, punching out and going home.  Farmer’s are true entrepreneurs.  They assume all risks in order to keep a job that allows them personal freedom and subtle pleasures.

What do you wish more people know about your farm, specifically?
I wish people knew how hard we work.  From April through late November I average about 80 hrs/ week.  Typically I work 50 hrs/week at my full time job.  I’m at the farm before work feeding, after work feeding and then doing everything else required around the farm at all other hours.  Farming and family are what I have built my life around.  When I get really busy my wife and Daughter will ride in the tractor or combine with me.  Other times we just go without spending time with each other until I can catch a break. 
My father is the same.  He works full time in Oxford and comes home to feed the cows and farm as well.  My sister is a special education teacher during the week.  She helps on the weekends and some during the week.  We cram as much work as we can into the weekends so that we can have some sort of “normal” family life during the week. My Aunt Bev was a big help around the farm.  Recently she has fallen ill.  We have had to do things differently since she hasn’t been able to help.

The job I have created requires me to always be sharp physically and mentally.  I am always multi-tasking.  The gears in my head are always turning, even when I’m carrying buckets of feed or water.  I’m always working through ways to make by business better, my farm more profitable while being an outstanding steward to the land and a better father at the same time.  Usually by the time I’m done at the end of the day, I’m whipped.  I never have trouble sleeping.

What are your future plans for your farm?
I plan on being a full time farmer within the next ten years.  My plan is to grow the meat production side of the business enough so that our products can be consistently delivered to customers large and small.  Consistent and reliable income from wholesale customers allows us stability to venture out and try new and untested ways to get our products into individual families houses.  Our business got started because our product was in the houses of individuals. We grew when we partnered with the right restaurants and the right businesses.  My goal is to remain a company that is accessible to wholesale and retail customers.  
We loved the time we spent at the Oxford Farmer’s MarketUptown.  The interaction with people who trusted us to feed their family was unbelievably rewarding.  The problem with the farmers market is the variability from week to week with total sales, mainly because of weather.  If we can get to a place financially to try some different avenues, we certainly will.  Right now we are trying to keep our heads above water.   We are trying to grow at a pace where we keep our current customers happy and where we can take on new customers while not missing a beat. 

Where can people buy your products?
You can find our all natural beef and pasture raised poultry uncooked at the Moon Co-op on Locust St. in Oxford and at Market Street Station on Miami University’s main campus.  If you would like someone else to cook it for you, Quarter Barrel and Konarestaurants uptown Oxford would be happy to do that for you, or if you are on Miami’s main campus, Encounter at Maple Street Station features our hamburger for all of their burgers.

Please check out the reserve run website and like their facebook page

Thank you, Drew!

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