This Farmer is Bringing Home the (Humanely Raised) Bacon

Heather Sandford is pursuing a three-legged strategy to grow her New York pig farm and meat business, The Piggery.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

Heather Sandford has been busy lately working on an online strategy for her business. That wouldn’t be at all surprising, except she’s a pig farmer.

Sandford and her husband Brad Marshall work 100 acres in upstate New York, where they typically have 525 to 600 pasture-raised pigs and “harvest” about 30 each week to produce 175 different meat products. Their business, The Piggery, sells bacon, sausage, pate, liverwurst and more through its own butcher shop, open since 2011, and wholesale through 10 regional distributors. Now, Sandford wants to make online sales a “third leg” for the business.

The Piggery has long enjoyed strong local demand — lines outside its Ithaca store are common — but wider distribution has been a growth challenge. So when Sandford began fielding more calls asking for shipments, she decided to set up a low-cost Shopify site to test the digital waters.

She launched the site in January. “You’ve got to try stuff sometimes,” Sandford says. The U.S. meat industry is dominated by big agri-businesses, and “it’s tough to work on the fringes of that,” she says. But she and her husband are determined. “I don’t know why, but we’re passionate about this crazy business.”

To survive as an independent farmer today — let alone be successful — you have to be a savvy and creative businessperson, not just a good, hard-working farmer. This brains-over-brawn reality is opening up a bigger space for women farmers like Sandford, who leads the business side of The Piggery, while Marshall, a former chef, heads up product development and spends most of his days on the farm.

Brains Over Brawn

Thirty percent of farm operators in the United States were women in 2012 (though only 14 percent of principal farm operators), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) census, conducted every five years. While the number of female farmers dropped 2 percent in 2012 (to 969,672 from 985,192 in 2007), the number of farm operators overall fell 3 percent during this tough economic period for the country. Before the recession, the number of women operators had been surging — there were 847,832 women operators in 2002 — at a pace significantly faster than farm operators overall.

To be sure, women have much ground to make up, and not just in representation. Farms where women are the principal operators tend to be smaller in size and sales, as is the case for women-owned businesses overall. Indeed 76% of these women had 2012 sales under $10,000 (56% of all farmers have sales below this threshold).

Only 4% of American farms bring in revenue of more than $1 million, which means The Piggery sits firmly in the top tier. Sandford expects sales of $2.5 million to $2.75 million this year, up from just under $2 million in 2015, about half of which came from the butcher shop and half from the wholesale business.

Entering wholesaling in 2014 required getting a license to sell nationally from the USDA, the government agency that conducts regular inspections to ensure health standards are met by meat-product producers. To add this second leg of the business, The Piggery raised $1.25 million from regional economic programs and its bank.

The investment has proved wise. It only took a year and a half for wholesaling to bring in as much revenue as the butcher shop. Regional distributors now deliver The Piggery products to restaurants, smaller grocery stores and co-ops, including the popular Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York. But margins are slim in wholesaling, and The Piggery has not yet broken out of the Northeast.

To compete effectively, The Piggery aggressively manages the costs of raising, slaughtering, butchering and packaging its meat products, and minimizes any waste. Although many consumers want quality, organic, humanely raised meat, “trying to give them access and keep the price to a reasonable price point is a challenge,” Sandford says.

Indeed, though she is more than 10 years into pig farming and has 28 full- and part-time employees, Sandford does not yet feel on solid ground. Due to its debt-service payments, The Piggery is not turning a profit currently, although it is on track to do so in 2016.

“We have very little resources,” Sandford says. “If we had too many hiccups, we’d be in a bad place.”

A Three-Legged Farm Stool

So Sandford is focused on executing her three-legged strategy for growing the business. Three months in, the online store is showing good progress, she says, but she has much more work to do to develop a customer base and marketing strategy.

Sandford, who was once a vegetarian and member of an all-girl punk band, is tapping all her pre-farming business experience. She says she learned a lot doing music industry promotion and real estate sales. To work smartly and ethically, she and her husband, who grew up on a ferret farm and studied genetics, schooled themselves in homesteading, farm-to-table eating, local food, natural building materials and growing techniques like permaculture.

She is also looking for opportunities to cut costs. The Piggery was recently named a “business of interest” under an Upstate revitalization program that could bring new economic development funds to her region, known as the Southern Tier. If The Piggery receives money, it might put in its own killfloor. That would save $15,000 a month in transportation costs to take the pigs to offsite USDA-approved killfloors, and help Sandford manage risk better.

Digging deep into the numbers and business realities, and attacking them intelligently, is vital, Sandford says. “For a long time, we had trouble separating the passion from the business,” she explains. “Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you should do something.”

Do your homework, be willing to get creative and trust yourself, she counsels other women business owners. “If people tell you no and that you’re crazy, make sure they’re right before you believe them,” she says. And if they’re wrong, “don’t take no for an answer.”

Posted: April 5, 2016

Riva RichmondThis Farmer is Bringing Home the (Humanely Raised) Bacon