Today, the Madsens’ farm income is derived
- direct marketing of pork & poultry --
- pork to Niman Ranch & open market -- 25
- grain sales -- 20 %
- government payments -- 15 %
- hay sales -- 5 %
- other -- 20 %
of mouth has really helped our business. Once customers
try our foods, they keep buying it. They say they like
the quality and taste of the meat. It’s neat to
hand customers a product you’ve raised, without
the product having to go through three or four middlemen."
a huge error allowing the packer ownership of livestock.
Companies like IBP and Smithfield have far more resources
and legal counsel than USDA’s Packers and Stockyards
Administration. As the meat companies control the market,
we’re losing our infrastructure here, including
stockyards and local livestock buying stations."
Family Farms attracts customers
For more than five years, Cindy and Vic have direct-marketed
their meat in a variety of ways—either directly off
the farm, at area farmers’ markets, or through a community-supported
agriculture (CSA) system near Ames, Iowa. (Called the Magic
Beanstalk, the CSA is run by someone else. The Madsens simply
supply their products to this CSA.)
Cindy also travels to the Des Moines Farmers’ Market
26 weeks of the year to sell food items from Audubon County
Family Farms. Comprised of four farm families from the Audubon
area, the group supplies pork, poultry, vegetables, fruit
and honey. (The Madsens supply pork and poultry only.) Cindy
handles the marketing for Audubon County Family Farms.
She uses a three-panel bulletin board, complete with photos
from the farms, to attract customers. The display highlights
Audubon County Family Farms’ motto of “products
raised by environmentally-friendly methods to protect the
air you breathe, the water you drink and the health of your
“People love to look at those photos of the baby pigs
and chickens. It’s amazing the way those photos get
conversations started. People will say, ‘Oh my grandpa
had nesting boxes like that,’” Cindy said.
Audubon County Family Farms is not a CSA or a cooperative,
but it’s a group of farmers who have found a workable
solution for marketing their products, Cindy added.
“We’ve been somewhat successful, and we keep gaining
new customers all the time. We make about three-fourths of
our profit by selling at farmers markets, and about one-fourth
of our profit by selling direct. We’ve been able to
cooperate well, and we help promote each other’s products
in various markets. We also divide up the cost of farmers
market stall fees.”
Once customers try homegrown products from the Madsens and
Audubon County Family Farms, they are hooked, Cindy said.
“Word of mouth has really helped our business. Once
customers try our foods, they keep buying it. They say they
like the quality and taste of the meat. It’s neat to
hand customers a product you’ve raised, without the
product having to go through three or four middlemen.”
Customers also appreciate the way the Madsens cater to their
needs. “Our system gives us the flexibility to handle
custom orders. If a customer wants bone-in loins, we can have
it cut that way,” Cindy said.
tours prove popular
Marketing farm-grown foods through direction sales requires
a lot of time and dedication.
“You have to be available when the phone rings to take
orders, and you have to travel to bring your products to the
farmers’ markets. You also have to like people and be
able to work well with them. The effort pays off, though,
when you form a relationship with your customers. They’ll
ask ‘What’s going on at the farm this week?’
They want to know the story of our farm,” Cindy said.
This is one reason the Madsens offer tours of their farm to
customers. “City people especially like coming to the
farm. It’s a ‘wow’ experience for them.
When our customers’ kids or grandkids come to the farm,
they visit the pigs, and we give the kids rides on the tractor.
They can help gather eggs, too,” Cindy said.
Sometimes the farm visits are an eye-opening experience for
everyone. “We’ve found out that many city kids
are petrified of farm animals. Some of the little kids are
scared to death of baby chicks and scream when they see them.
As a livestock producer, that surprised me about how out of
touch many people are with agriculture,” Vic said.
The farm tours provide an excellent learning experience, according
to Cindy. “People love the farm experience, and this
gives us a chance to help educate them. The three main questions
people have is: 1) Do you raise your animals yourselves? 2)
Do you use hormones? and 3) Do you use antibiotics? They want
to know how our animals are fed, and we can show them how
we raise our livestock.”
While sustainable agriculture offers both farmers and consumers
many benefits, the system poses challenges, as well. The changing
structure of the livestock industry has made it much more
difficult for independent, family farms to remain competitive,
“It was a huge error allowing the packer ownership of
livestock. Companies like IBP and Smithfield have far more
resources and legal counsel than USDA’s Packers and
Stockyards Administration. As the meat companies control the
market, we’re losing our infrastructure here, including
stockyards and local livestock buying stations. As long as
this situation continues, people in sustainable agriculture
will have to bypass the conventional market system and direct-market
their products,” Vic said.
Direct marketing is not free from complications, though. “There
are a lot of state agencies involved in regulating direct
marketing for food. We understand that the goal is to ensure
safe, health food, but there are so many different interpretations
of the rules. We’re caught in the middle and sometimes
get the runaround. Regulators need to be reading off the same
page. The rising cost of permits to sell our products at farmers’
markets is another area of concern,” Cindy explained.
Making enough money in sustainable agriculture to maintain
the business and support a family can be tough, Vic added.
“What’s promoted as sustainable agriculture can
have very low rates of return. There can be lots of time involved
for the money you make. You have to do the math. Our hens
only make us $3.50 an hour, but we enjoy them and they add
something to the farm. You do have to find farming systems
that are sustainable but still generate profits.”
To help make ends meet, Cindy works a couple of part-time,
off-farm jobs, including delivering newspapers and bookkeeping.
For people who want to try sustainable agriculture, the Madsens
offer some advice. “You don’t want to have too
high of expectations right away. Sustainable farming is like
any business—it can take two or three years to get a
customer base and build the business. It doesn’t happen
overnight,” Vic said.
Don’t count on federal government programs to help farmers
improve their financial situation, either, emphasize the Madsens.
“The government programs encourage selling lots of stuff
for a small margin. Most farmers don’t have time for
sustainable agriculture when they have to keep producing to
sell lots and lots of low-value products. We need government
programs that pay on a per-person basis, not a per-acre basis,”
The Madsens say high-volume production is not a goal they
have for their farm. “You have to adopt the mentality
that you will practice sustainable agriculture and make it
work. We are a micro business out here selling a small amount
of product to a small number of buyers. We don’t want
to expand into a more industrial system, because we want to
be small enough that we always have direct contact with our
customers,” Cindy said.
Previous installments in the Pioneers
of Iowa Sustainable Farming series
11, 2002: Dick and Sharon Thompson have 35
years of hard proof that regenerative agriculture can outperform
25, 2002: Tom & Irene Franztzen manage
for quality in soil, hogs and life