Heather and Daniel Driscoll began farming in 2007 at Green Valley Farm in Eastford, Connecticut. At that time it was a homestead operation where they raised a few pigs for themselves and family. “It was a lot of work, but we wanted to raise a heritage breed and be able to sell a quality product,” says Heather. “We chose the Berkshire breed because of the great meat quality and how gentle and non-aggressive they are. They’re really great moms.” That commitment to a great product and the desire to make a full-time living from farming is what brought Heather into HMI’s Beginning Women Farmer in 2011.
“I saw an advertisement about the program through Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) in Connecticut,” says Heather. “We have a landscaping and tree removal business and I knew that any business that wants to be viable needs a business plan. The Beginning Women Farmer course would help me create that business plan and be successful.”
“I was frustrated when people would tell me you can’t make a living farming. My grandparents raised 7 kids on the profit they created from their dairy farm. I believe you just need to be a good businessperson if you want to be a successful farmer. That’s why I participated in the program.”
Growing the Business
After working the kinks out of the system, the Driscolls started to sell to the general public in 2008. They started with a handful of customers. By 2010, they had about 30-40 customers which included organic grocery stores, the University of Connecticut, and some restaurants. There primary marketing strategy was by word of mouth. They have about a 50/50 split between retail and wholesale customers.
But to grow the farm, Heather knew she had to push the marketing. “I really like my retail customers. These people come to the farm with their kids and it’s a great experience for everyone,” says Heather. “We had 50 pigs in 2011 and we are planning on doubling that to 100 for 2012. We can increase the production so we are working to get all of the products sold.”
To address this marketing weak link, Heather worked with Beginning Women Farmer Program mentor, Emily Brooks, on her marketing plan. In particular, they focused on gaining clientele from the internet, through their website and social networking.
“The marketing is really paying off. We can begin to pay ourselves the wages we want for our work,” says Heather. “I worked as a paralegal before and was making $30/hour. I need to think about making that same wage as a farmer.”
“The program really helped me to get a handle on the numbers. You’ve got to be clear about the numbers so you know what you can or can’t do. We were originally thinking about getting into breeding and doing feeder pigs. The good news was we would be able to get rid of the product quickly. Taking the pigs all the way to finish was more of commitment, but when we did the numbers we saw how much more profitable that was. Selling them as feeder pigs cut into the profit and just wasn’t worth it.”
“I also used to breed horses, but I stopped that because that enterprise was eating into overall farm profit. Once I separated out the different farm enterprises, I realized I needed to get rid of the horse breeding enterprise. Now I keep a few horses for myself, but I know what it costs me.”
Growing the Farm
Right now the Driscolls are farming on 30 acres. However, a farm across the street may be available for them to double their operating base. If they can acquire it they will invest in fencing. “I tried just the one hot wire for the pigs, but they’re too smart,” says Heather. “They know when the fence is grounded out and when one gets out, they all get out. I’m not going to chase pigs through my neighbors anymore. We use the hog fencing with a hot wire to keep them from rooting underneath.”
The Driscolls do a farrow to finish operation with one boar and 9 sows. Their farrowing set up is a 42 feet by 90 feet building with each farrowing area at 12 feet by 15 feet. They use woodchips and sawdust for the pigs to farrow in.
The pigs are feed organic feed which is a combination of organic grain they purchase at their local co-op and composted fruits and vegetables from The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (a non-profit summer camp founded by Paul Newman for children with cancer and other serious illnesses) which is five-minutes down the road. They use no antibiotics and keep the animals on pasture as a part of their commitment to a quality product.
“We take the pigs for slaughter and processing (packaging) to New York once a month,” says Heather. “It’s a one hour and 45 minute drive one way, but I love the facility. There is no facility that does it all in Connecticut, and they are great to work with.”
Growing the Market
Heather sells her meat retail through her delivery service and on-farm sales. “I charge a delivery fee, and it does require some additional time,” says Heather. “I feel it’s important to meet the customer and provide them multiple opportunities to sample our products. If they want to avoid the delivery fee, they can come to the farm. I let them know this is a Connecticut farm that has produced this product.”
The Driscolls are planning on expanding their on-farm sales but building a farm store with set hours so people can stop and purchase their products more easily. “We currently have six 20 cubic-feet freezers, and we’re in the process of getting a walk-in freezer,” says Heather. “I’d like to have all of my inventory sold as soon as it is processed, and we’re getting there. We’re at half right now. We were invited to an area farmer’s market, but I’ve been able to sell it all through my current channels so I had to decline the offer.”
“ I’m looking at starting a meat CSA to help with getting the rest of my product sold. I’d like to start a co-op with other farmers in the area so we can all supply the different meats to round out the CSA. This type of cooperation is the only way we farmers are going to make it work, by standing together.”
Currently Heather is charging an average of $5.50/lb wholesale for her products. She had been selling at $8/lb retail, but noticed that even the conventionally grown bacon at the grocery store was selling for $7/lb. “I began to wonder if I wasn’t charging enough for my product given that I’m selling this incredibly healthy and tasty product grown locally for only a little more than for a conventionally produced product,” says Heather.
Heather still is doing the marketing work for the family’s landscaping business, but she is working on the business plan for the farm so they can sell that business and devote themselves full-time to the farm. “We’re still in startup mode,” says Heather. “We are investing in infrastructure and doing the return on investment analysis to figure out what we need to do now and what will pay for itself quickly. The next step is to improve our grazing planning and do the analysis on whether we want to grow our own grain on our expanded land base. We now have the increased business to invest in that infrastructure. Because of the program, we have had a $20,000 increase in gross revenue.”
With the Driscolls’ focus on good business planning, Green Valley Farm is moving toward being a steady supplier of premium Berkshire pork products and an integral part of the local food system in Connecticut.
HMI’s Beginning Women Farmer Program was funded by Grant#2009-49400-05967 from the USDA NIFA Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program.