A mid-life career change to grass farming has produced no regrets for former business executive

by Allan Nation

HARTSELLE, Alabama: In 1992 Charles Ritch went to an Stockman Grass Farmer grazing conference in Jackson, Mississippi, strictly on a whim. He came home with a burning desire to chunk a successful career in the precision metal manufacturing business and become a grassland farmer. He bought a remote 70 acre farm of which only 40 acres was open and began to "piddle around" with it.

He hired a consultant to spend two days with him. The consultant told him that his only hope for a profit was with stocker cattle but Charles said it seemed to him to require too much knowledge he didn't have. He decided he would start with cow-calf and learn the basics of rotational grazing first and then switch to stockers later.

He and his wife Laura and their two daughters Abigail and Mary Sidney raised a few pastured chickens and loved the taste of them. He said he and Laura had begun to want a healthier lifestyle and had become interested in the link between healthy foods and human health. The next year he decided to raise 100 broilers on pasture. This turned into far more than his family could eat and so they gave most of them away to their friends. These friends loved them and asked for more and a business - Goose Pond Farm - was born.

In 1993 he sold his metal working business, and became a full-time grass farmer. The fact that he was a city boy born and reared and knew absolutely nothing about grassland farming did not deter him. He figured it would be an "easy" trade to learn.

"Boy was I ever wrong," Charles said. "This has been absolutely the most difficult thing I've ever done."

Like other graziers in the South, he has been plagued by several years in a row of drought and other "weird weather" as Charles describes it. Also, the farm's soil turned out to be very low in organic matter and nutrients and was particularly ill-suited for organic production.

He found that not only did he not have the technical knowledge required but that his background in precision metal working had required a mindset 180 degrees out of phase with that required in grassland farming.

"In my previous business precision produced quality results and I became the ultimate micro-manager. I was totally unprepared for the flexibility required in a natural system where the rains don't always come when they are supposed to." He discovered Joel Salatin's books on pastured chickens and grass fed beef and started an intensive period of reading, buying tapes and attending various conferences and schools. After eight years of intense study and trial and error, he said he felt he had finally reached the sophomore stage where "you know you don't know it." He said this was far better than his initial freshman stage of "not knowing it but not knowing he didn't know it."

He said Don Ball, extension agronomist at Auburn, had been a big help in teaching him the ropes of grassland farming. "My biggest frustration has been in my difficulty to provide a year- long forage flow," Charles said.

"Still I've seen a lot of improvement in my soil structure. There are fewer puddles after a rain and that shows the soil's organic matter is coming up. There's nothing better for building soil than multiple species grazing."

In defense of Charles, Laura said that she thought that his prior business training more than offset his lack of production agriculture knowledge. "There aren't many farmers I know who are making a good profit from just 40 acres," she said.

Charles said he was grazing chickens (broilers and eggs), beeves, lamb and pigs. He said the chickens were the hardest work to raise (slaughtering broilers is particularly high in labor) but the easiest product to sell. This is particularly true of eggs.

"Chickens are what make this farm go," Charles said. "We raise and kill 7000 broilers a year. It is exhausting work, particularly in the heat of summer, but I can get health-conscious people to buy chicken and eggs. Many of them are still reluctant to eat beef." All of his farm's production is direct-marketed to some 350 consumers, the majority of which are in a 50 mile radius of the farm. Most of these customers come from word-of-mouth advertising but he does buy display ads in the area newspapers once a year. He said these ads produce calls for a whole year and definitely pay for themselves.

Their primary consumers are health-conscious people willing to pay a premium price for their food. He said finding these kinds of people is like looking for a needle in a haystack and he has to winnow through 200 people wanting to buy below the supermarket price to find the one who is willing to pay a premium.

He agreed with Joel Salatin that products that were radically different from the commodity product (like pasture-raised chickens and pork) or difficult to find (like lamb) were the easiest products to sell. Selling grass-finished beef by the half and the quarter is the most difficult due to the high initial cost to the consumer and the necessity that the consumer have a large freezer. He said if he had access to a USDA inspected slaughter plant, and could sell it by the cut, beef would be their most popular item.

Laura said their most successful method of finding new customers for their beef has been by giving away mini-hamburgers in area health food stores. "That's what really got the ball rolling for us," she said.

With his basic pasture skills learned, he sold his brood cows and from now on plans to buy in yearlings for grass finishing. This is much more grass efficient than raising them.

Charles said they initially made the classic mistake of pricing their products too close to commodity prices. When they subsequently had to raise their prices to stay in business they lost 90 percent of their initial customers. "You set the value of what you produce by your initial price. No one gets mad if you subsequently lower your price but they sure don't like it if you have to raise it."

He said he was realizing that once you own a set of customers it was not necessary that you produce everything you sell them. A locally made honey has done well and a neighbor is raising pastured turkeys and pigs for them. They also recently entered into a joint marketing agreement with an organic CSA vegetable farm near Birmingham. "Our customers need vegetables. Their customers need meat and eggs. It's a win-win situation," he said.

Down the road, Charles and Laura can see the value in possibly having an on-farm store selling naturally raised food products. So, does he ever regret his decision to change careers?

"Not for a moment," he said. "I am tremendously excited about farming. I love the fact that all of my employees are animals. If they act up, I can sell them or eat them. I couldn't do that in the metal business."

With the exception of chicken processing days, Charles said he can get the farm's work done in two hours or less. This gives him plenty of time to help Laura with the homeschooling of their daughters and to read and think.

He also likes that a pastoral farm can provide quiet, safe work for the whole family. For example, his two daughters earn their own money by raising baby chicks which Charles and Laura buy from them.

The girls also make good money from tips from the farm's customers. They bag their purchases, take them to the car for them and then sing "Happy Trails to You" as they drive away.

"Our daughters are growing up knowing that a business exists, not for yourself, but for your customers. Of all the things Laura and I can teach them, that is probably the most valuable lesson," Charles said.

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