Third in a series of four stories about leaders in the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Ron and Maria Rosmann, DECEMBER 16, 2002

Diversified operation in southwest Iowa emphasizes customer relations & direct marketing
For the Madsens, direct contact with customers is essential -- for profit AND pleasure.

By Darcy Maulsby

Farm At A Glance

Madsen Stock Farm

Location: Western Iowa; approximately 70 miles northeast of Omaha and 70 miles west of Des Moines
Important people: Vic and Cindy Madsen
Years farming: Vic has farmed since 1970, and in 1975 the couple purchased the farm where they currently live
Total acreage: 300
Tillable acres: 260
Soil type: Marshall and Shelby soils, highly variable with slopes from 2 to 15 per cent, composed of loess and glacial till. Organic matter varies from 2 to 4 percent.
Crops: corn, soybeans, barley, oats and hay
Livestock: hogs and chickens
Regenerative farm practices: Longer crop rotations that include small grains and hay; cover crops; composting hoop house hog manure for field crops; using home-raised seed whenever possible
Marketing: Niman Ranch, Audubon County Family Farms, farmers markets and direct marketing from the farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"When the kids were little, they wanted to help on the farm, but we were always telling them, 'Don’t go near the equipment, don’t go near the chemicals.' It dawned on me that the only safe time they could be in the field was when we seeded oats."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources
Practical Farmers of Iowa
515-232-5661
www.pfi.iastate.edu

Niman Ranch
Thompson pork goes to Niman.
www.nimanranch.com

 

 

 

Enterprise Summary

Today, the Madsens’ farm income is derived from:

  • direct marketing of pork & poultry -- 25 %
  • pork to Niman Ranch & open market -- 25 %
  • grain sales -- 20 %
  • government payments -- 15 %
  • hay sales -- 5 %
  • other -- 20 %

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

" 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."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

 

The relationship is foremost: "It’s important that customers know where our farm is and who the farmers are who raised their food," says Cindy Madsen, pictured here with Vic. "Once you form this relationship, the customers identify you as almost part of their family."

If you visit Vic and Cindy Madsen’s farm southwest of Audubon, Iowa, you’ll hear a rare sound for a modern farm—the clucking of chickens.

In an era when most chickens are raised by the thousands in large confinement barns, a flock of poultry in the barnyard is a notable sight. The birds are one component of a farm that has not bought into the “get big or get out” philosophy of agriculture.
The Madsens farm 300 acres, which is a very small operation by today’s conventional agriculture standards. The Madsens have learned, however, that you don’t have to farm thousands of acres to support a family.

The family raises corn, soybeans, barley, oats and hay, along with hogs and chickens. To round out their diversified operation, they would like to add cows or sheep. Currently, the Madsens’ farm income is derived from the direct marketing of poultry and pork (25 percent); pork sold to Niman Ranch and on the open market (25 percent); grain sales (20 percent); government payments (15 percent) and hay sales (5 percent).

Direct sales of meat, and a focus on relationship marketing, are a big part of the Madsens’ business.

“You have to have a relationship with your customer. It’s important that customers know where our farm is and who the farmers are who raised their food. Once you form this relationship, the customers identify you as almost part of their family. We host farm tours so our customers can see where their food is grown. This is a working farm, not a show farm,” Cindy said.

A different way of farming

The Madsens share an agricultural heritage. They both grew up on Iowa farms, and Vic has farmed since 1970.

In 1975, the couple purchased the farm where they currently live and where they raised their three sons. They are the third family to manage the farm, which was established in 1886. The farm is located approximately 70 miles northeast of Omaha and 70 miles west of Des Moines.

The Madsens became interested in sustainable agriculture when their boys were growing up.

“When the kids were little, they wanted to help on the farm, but we were always telling them, ‘Don’t go near the equipment, don’t go near the chemicals.’ It dawned on me that the only safe time they could be in the field was when we seeded oats. It seemed like we were giving them a very negative view of farming. We decided we wanted to find a way that would let the kids become more involved,” Vic said.

Sustainable agriculture provided the answer. “Sustainable agriculture is a whole different mindset. To me, it’s more people-friendly, and it’s safer,” Vic added.

Today, Vic and Cindy provide the majority of the farm labor and management. Their two older sons, Jeff and Mark, are not involved in the operation. Their younger son, Eric, 19, helps with farm work on weekends and during the summer months.

Unlike the corn-soybean rotations that many Iowa farmers use today, the Madsens raise corn, soybeans, barley, oats and hay. They do not plant genetically-modified crops.

The Madsens have 23 acres of organic production, but they use herbicides, when necessary, on the remaining crop land. “This year, we had heavy weed pressure, so I used more herbicide. While we’re not purists, we do prefer to use as little herbicide as possible. You can use one-third less nitrogen if you place it properly and time the application right,” Vic said.

In recent years, the Madsens have raised corn and soybeans on their organic acres. They have sold organic soybeans to Heartland Organic Marketing Co-op in Stuart, Iowa.

Pork and poultry production

The Madsens have 40 sows and use three deep-bedded hoop buildings in their farrow-to-finish pork production system.
Their swine herd includes Berkshire, Yorkshire and Chester White genetics. “The Chester White/York genetics mean hardy, prolific hogs. A study from the National Pork Producers Council shows that Berkshire genetics provide the highest eating quality,” Vic explained.

Some of the Madsens’ pork is sold to Niman Ranch, and the rest is direct marketed. (Editor’s note: Niman Ranch was started more than 25 years ago in California. In the Niman Ranch system, livestock are humanely treated, fed the purest natural feeds, are never given growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and are raised on land that is cared for as a sustainable resource. Many Niman Ranch hogs are raised in Iowa.)

The Madsens have also raised poultry for 16 years. Each year, they have about 100 layers and raise 900 broiler chickens. Most of the poultry is sold locally, within a 30-mile radius of the farm. The Madsens also sell some eggs.

“We don’t feed our livestock hormones, drugs or meat by-products. We use barn lime and good sanitation to keep our animals healthy. For the chickens, we use a poultry feed pre-mix that contains no meat-and-bone meal but has extra vitamins and minerals. This makes a big difference. When we started feeding the chickens this product, they really perked up, and showed brighter, whiter feathers,” Cindy said.

The Madsens’ poultry is processed nearby in a state-inspected facility in the small town of Kimballton, Iowa. Their pork that is direct-marketed is processed in a state-inspected plant in Atlantic, Iowa. Because the meat is not federally inspected, it cannot be sold outside of Iowa.

The Madsens’ products are not organic, due to the customer base in Iowa. “If we went organic, I’d have to add quite a bit to the cost of my chicken. The population around southwest Iowa isn’t like the customer base in Chicago, or even West Des Moines. We don’t have a lot of affluent, dual-income couples like you find in metro areas. We have to sell our products at a price people can afford,” Cindy said.

Audubon 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 family.”

“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.

Farm 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.”

Current challenges

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, Vic said.

“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,” Vic said.

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

  • November 11, 2002: Dick and Sharon Thompson have 35 years of hard proof that regenerative agriculture can outperform conventional
  • October 25, 2002: Tom & Irene Franztzen manage for quality in soil, hogs and life