SARE NORTHEAST: Jim & Adele Hayes, Sap Bush Hollow Farm
Diversity and a little direct mail magic turn family farm into profitable operation

By Beth Holtzman

Farm At A Glance

Jim and Adele Hayes
Sap Bush Hollow Farm
Warnerville, New York


Summary of Operation
Diversified, pasture-based livestock operation on 160 owned and 40 rented acres
Direct retail marketing using newsletters and direct mail

Problem Addressed
Focus on production instead of marketing.
Jim and Adele Hayes have long known grass-based farming can be a practical, environmentally sound and profitable approach to raising animals. However, when Adele added her brand of creative direct marketing, their livestock operation truly took off.

Excerpted from:

The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation

By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission. Pp. 62 to 64

For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer

To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207

For most of the Hayes’ 20 years at Sap Bush Hollow, both worked full time off the farm: Jim as a professor of animal science and Adele as a director of economic development and planning for a local town. Both grew up on farms, and they raised sheep from the start. Money-wise, however, Sap Bush Hollow was a losing proposition until 1996, when Adele reduced her job to part time.

“I wanted to try to get the farm to where we thought it could be if someone spent more time marketing,” she explains. Her efforts paid off. The livestock operation is now paying for all farm — and most family — expenses. In 2000, Adele went full time on the farm.

Direct marketing drives the operation. Sap Bush markets directly to about 400 consumers — including individuals, restaurants and stores — in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.

“Marketing is the hardest, most time-consuming activity on this farm,” Adele stresses. “It’s not physically hard, but it is mentally challenging.”

By combining an ecological approach, conscientious animal husbandry and tenacious marketing, Sap Bush Hollow Farm has developed into an operation the couple finds increasingly personally fulfilling. It also draws admiration from customers, neighbors and other farmers.

“People stop along the road and just look at our place,” Adele Hayes says. “They notice that the grass is so green, that the animals are out grazing. The look of the place is one of beauty — in the eye and in the mind.”

Focal Point of Operation —
Grass-based livestock production and marketing
Over the years, the Hayeses moved from one commodity — sheep — to a diversified operation that now includes chickens (broilers and layers), turkeys, geese, cattle, pigs and sheep. It’s a change they believe has strengthened the operation, adding both biological diversity and marketing options.

The poultry operation is the cornerstone of the marketing program. “They have the lowest return per hour of labor, but when new customers come, they’re coming for a high-quality chicken. When they’re here, they realize we have all the other meat,” Adele says.

Adele sells all the meat from her back porch, eliminating distribution costs. She uses newsletters, postcards and even phone calls to inform customers of sale days and products available. With help from her daughter, Shannon, who lives nearby, Adele bakes fresh cookies and cakes.

To cover the customers coming to the farm, they began purchasing liability insurance in 1998. They post a sign by the end of the driveway and use a large, flat lawn for customer parking. The farm sits about 100 yards off the road and is not visible from the main thoroughfare, but customers rarely have trouble finding it. “We’re not looking for drive-by traffic,” Adele says. “Almost all our customers are invited to the farm, so they receive instructions how to get here.”

The Hayeses raise all their animals using management intensive grazing strategies that allow them to keep their farm equipment needs —and their farm debt — low. During the grazing season, they rotate ruminants through a series of paddocks to both provide high quality forage and to allow the pasture to re-grow before animals return to graze.

Their rotations are planned to emphasize each species’ nutritional needs. For example, they graze lambs on their best pasture in the spring but by summer’s end, move fattening cattle ahead of dry ewes.

Careful attention to pasture conditions makes the system work. “We have a ‘sacrifice’ pasture near the barn that’s well fenced so it’s easy to maintain the animals there,” Adele says. “We allow that to get destroyed if we need to,” a better option than damaging prime pasture through overgrazing.

The Hayeses use all of the 160 acres they own solely for rotational grazing. They typically take a cut of hay off the 40 rented acres before grazing it as well. Sap Bush Hollow purchases grain and the bulk of their winter feed. Says Jim: “We’ve found that we make more money not having any machinery.”

The Hayeses breed their Dorset-cross ewe flock to synchronize lambing with pasture growth. The ewes typically produce between 150 and 160 lambs in mid-May. Lambs generally are born outside. The Hayeses do very little supplemental feeding, relying on their well-managed pastures for the bulk of the ewes’ and the lambs’ nutritional needs.

The Hayeses aim for a moderately sized carcass, both so that they can finish their animals on grass and for marketing purposes. “When a customer wants to purchase a lamb, we’ve found that between $100 and $125 dollars is the breaking point,” Adele says. “If the lamb gets much bigger, they’d rather buy the parts.”

Sap Bush Hollow Farm begins slaughtering lambs in late September, with the last group of animals going to the slaughterhouse around the end of the year. They also raise about 15 steers and 10 pigs each year, which they sell both in bulk (a side or split half) and as retail cuts.

They use two federally inspected slaughterhouses, one at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill, and the other about 40 miles away. For the Hayeses, like many other small meat producers in the Northeast, the decreasing number of slaughterhouses is a problem.

“Our volume of meat is pretty far beyond what one local slaughter house can handle,” Adele says. “We have to book ahead.”

Sap Bush raises about 3,000 pre-ordered broilers. They allow the birds to feed on fresh pasture and insects, as well as a chicken feed. They house the birds in a portable pen, which they move to a new piece of pasture each day. Sap Bush Hollow developed its own feed blend for birds that has a higher vitamin package and lower energy than commercial broiler rations. They slaughter the birds on site, hiring three other people to help on processing days.

The Hayeses are scrupulous about animal health: They adhere to a routine vaccination regimen; they de-worm strategically by monitoring parasite infections; and they use a microscope to check fecal matter for disease and parasites when an animal is sick. If an animal dies, Jim does a necropsy. “We’ve learned from experience we can solve a problem quickly, using the scope, without having outbreaks that cause a lot of loss,” Adele explains. Quick and accurate disease identification also allows them to avoid ineffective and over-use of medications.

Economics and Profitability
Direct marketing has made a huge difference in farm income. At auction, for example, a lamb might bring between $50 and $70. “But when I run the animal through my retail sales, I get between $150 and $175 retailing by the cut,” Adele says.

The same holds true for the cattle and pigs: retailing brings Sap Bush Hollow far greater income than selling at auction.

The cumulative impact is that the farm operation is solidly in the black. “We went from a paper loss to declaring a profit on our farm,” Adele says. “Farmers write everything off. Well, I’m writing everything off, and I’m still not using it up.”

The Hayeses still rely on off-farm income to meet all their family needs. Their long-term goal is for the farm to deliver about 50 percent of gross sales as income, after all farm expenses are paid.

“We’d like to be able to pull out $30,000,” Jim Hayes says. “That’s what we think we need to live on.”

By developing a detailed, realistic annual budget and conscientiously sticking to it, Jim and Adele are working toward that goal. In recent years, they budgeted for a 30 percent return on gross sales. In 1999, they made 27 percent.

To develop that realistic picture, they follow a simple formula that they execute thoroughly. They set aside about 30 percent of the previous year’s sales. Then they estimate all variable costs — feed, energy, animal costs, processing costs, vet bills, repairs, fencing, tractor operating costs, processing equipment — and their mortgage. In estimating feed costs, they follow commodity prices and try to nail down as many suppliers as possible. Finally they consider what capital improvements are needed and build that into the budget.

Environmental Benefits
With all of their land in permanent pastures, erosion is nonexistent. The Hayeses use no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, spreading only composts and manures. Increasingly, they feel their property is coming back into balance.

As anecdotal evidence of environmental health, Adele lists indicators her son-in-law, a wildlife biologist, has identified: “On a summer evening, he can hear five species of owls, indicating a healthy diversity of woodland and edge habitats. We’ll have a five-inch downpour, and the creek that runs through the property is running clear by the next morning, while all the others in the area are cloudy for the next two weeks.”

Community and Quality of Life Benefits
The Hayeses are conscientious about contributing to the economy and quality of life of their community. Adele estimates that Sap Bush Hollow put about $47,000 in just one year into the local economy, considering their inputs, from fencing and piping to garden hoses to paying a person to help with processing.

They also are committed to educating other farmers and their customers. They are welcome to come to the farm and learn how the animals are raised and experience — both in the quality of the product and the appearance of the farm — the benefits of the pasture-based system.

“It gives them a whole new concept of agriculture,” Adele says. “Everything looks mowed and manicured because Jim is moving the animals so often. We feel a large part of our job is to educate.”

In cooperation with the local conservation district and a local farm and food organization, the Hayeses offer a course on diversified, sustainable farming. People come for two weekends and stay at the farm to learn about marketing, planning, fencing, livestock handling, veterinary care, observation skills and biodiversity.

Transition Advice
Adele warns against the temptation of following an early success in any enterprise with rapid expansion. “I have the same advice for everybody,” she says. “It’s the same as cooking a piece of meat on a grill — go low and slow,” Adele says.

The Future
Daughter Shannon and son-in-law Bob live nearby. They make jellies, baked goods, lip balm, salves and soaps and sell them at the farm and plan to become more deeply involved in the enterprise.

Neither Adele nor Jim enjoys managing hired labor, and they feel their current size is a good match for their management and marketing abilities.