Farm Progress

Farmers working the artisanal economy must sell consumers on their convictions to capture premium prices.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

July 3, 2017

3 Slides

The business I’m about to describe is very different from the farms you usually read about at Farm Futures. But as I have learned in 30-plus years of peeking into the lives of the American farmer, this story is just as exceptional as any mega-farm. Maybe more so.

It’s the story of Heather and Kaelin Vernon, who playfully describe themselves as hippie farmers, selling heirloom produce and pasture-raised meats, wool, dairy and eggs direct to restaurants, farmers’ markets and consumers in a 200-mile radius of Peacefield Farms, their place outside Bowling Green, Ky.

The Vernons have hopes and dreams like any farm couple. But their business, now in its eleventh year, isn’t focused on low-cost commodities. It’s about faith and family values – selling an authentic way of life to people who crave not just taste, but values, in the food they buy.

They are champions for small-scale farming, and the purposeful life that goes with it.

Now the touch point on consumers’ radar is ‘local food’ – which is why you’ll find Peacefield items on the menu at nearby restaurants. The Vernons are in the early stages of developing a business that attracts customers based not on price but on quality and low-tech production practices. Some of their biggest challenges lie not in how they farm, but how they brand the products they sell to their growing customer base. When your label is not in a convenient place like a grocery store, you must find ways to get customers to think about you and seek you out.

And in many cases it is working.

“Consumer sentiment is swinging our way,” says Kaelin. “We believe growing chickens on a pasture is better for them and better for us, and we believe more and more consumers are seeing it that way too. And they are willing to pay.”

Humble life
The Vernons, with three young children and another on the way, have a modest spread and 53-acre farm they purchased with help from a Farm Credit loan. This is not exactly a high-tech operation, and that is by design. Hay bales and portable chicken coops with makeshift covers dot a nearby pasture, offering plenty of adventures for the kids. You won’t find any late model vehicles here. The couple tries to stay out of debt as much as possible.

Heather, a city girl, has a part-time job as a nurse; in 2015 Kaelin gave up his job managing a nearby historic farm to devote his energies to the family business. They have big dreams for the farm, which had been rented to a nearby grain farmer for cash flow reasons. They’re looking for the right way to grow without sacrificing family time.

“We make almost every business decision based on how it impacts the family,” says Kaelin. “One of the reasons we are set up this way is so we can stay home and work together. Sometimes that can be difficult. We’re trying to be efficient and have quality but not work ourselves to death.”

For young farmers it’s tempting to rapidly grow without considering the impact on family life. But for the Vernons, family life is more important than profit. So growth, even something as innocuous as adding a cow, can get tricky.

“We were selling raw milk, so we started out with one cow and everything was great,” Kaelin recalls. “We had little cost. After a few years we thought, if we can make this much money with one cow, maybe we can do it with two or three cows. That’s how farming starts to get complicated, right? What if I break my hand and my pregnant wife has to go out and milk by herself? And we end up buying a $2,100 milking machine, and then a cooling machine – you see where this is going?

“We sold those cows, we sold the machine, we didn’t need all those things,” he says. “We’re moving on.”

Buying in batches
The Vernons have tried many strategies to sell their products. The latest is a page out of the buyers’ club handbook. They take pre-orders via text and then deliver products a half hour later to a business where customers work, sometimes as far away as Nashville.

“We worked with friends who asked other friends to set up groups, and they’re helping because of their passion to see us succeed,” says Kaelin. “They start selling our product by word of mouth and before you know it we have 10 families showing up to pick up products. We depend on that as a paycheck seven days a week.”

One thing small farmers may have in common with large-scale producers is disdain for regulations. For the Vernons to sell to the public, a farmers’ market or restaurant, they must have meat processed at a USDA facility. Unfortunately the closest facility is almost two hours away, which puts stress on the livestock.

The Vernons also face financial risk when a major customer drops their business. Two restaurants that purchased their meats and milk “took a break” last November and the Vernons had to scramble to find new customers. When a USDA facility had a ceiling collapse, they were without processing for three months.

“Processing plants that farmers can take animals to are few and far between around here. We have to drive hours,” says Kaelin. Heather picked up an extra shift and Kaelin did some part-time mechanical work, but “we went three and a half months without farm income,” he adds.

Temporary setback
The Vernons see those problems as temporary setbacks as their brand and customer base grows.

“My goal – and my family’s goal – is to not have to take full time jobs off the farm,” says Kaelin. “I feel like this is my calling, this is what I know how to do really well and I want to do it. I do firmly believe it will provide for my family if other people hold up their end of the bargain.”

Their 53-acre farm has been converted to grass, to keep costs down and to provide another selling point to consumers looking for earth-friendly grass-fed beef. The herd includes 21 cows, two bulls and several calves. In winter they harvest timber and sell to a saw mill to stay diversified.

In many ways the Vernons are trying to prove something – to themselves, to their customers, and to their families who now embrace their pasture-approach to farming.

“We’re not living in the Taj Mahal and we’re not making a lot of money, but we’re able to live here with our children,” notes Kaelin. “Our next hurdle is to get better at marketing.

“More than anything, I want to bust the myth that there’s no money in farming,” he adds. “That’s bull, or nobody would farm. I’m not talking about a get rich scheme, just making a good living.”

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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