This article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Farming magazine.
The Evolution of Uncas Farm
Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Uncas Farm.
Part II appearing in February will focus on marketing - the Uncas Farm Store, PYO, and CSA programs.
The first 33 years: From living off a milk check to a community investment model
by Judith M. Powell
Over three decades, 180-acre Uncas Farm has supported a family with no outside income and no direct farm subsidies under the premise that the bounty of the land could support a family. Austin Moore started out as a conventional dairy farmer and has thoughtfully transitioned from wholesaling milk to finding ways for local patrons to invest directly in the farm as the sole income source.
Austin Moore had a calling to be a farmer. Though he wasn't reared on an operating farm, Austin was drawn to work on neighboring farms in the 50's and 60's when agriculture was still a major part of the Lebanon, Connecticut area. He seemed to know instinctively that farming was what he wanted to do - how he wanted to spend his life's energies. After graduating college in agricultural studies in 1967, he began a search for land he could afford. He shopped around New Hampshire and western Massachusetts and found a kind of an "underused" place in the Sheepscot Valley of Whitefield, Maine. Thirty-three years later, Austin and family have developed a highly-functional, diverse operation called Uncas Farm which is solidifying the local community in new yet old-fashioned social and communal ways.
From the onset, Austin Moore had a vision. His goal was that this piece of land would support his family with no outside income. The working hypothesis has not changed from the start: a farm should be able to pay for itself from the sale of its products without subsidies, and the marketplace should cover the farm's cost to grow those products. Setting such high standards for success in an ever-changing marketplace that farmers can't control was uncommon. Yet this farmer seemed to know early on that controlling debt load and keeping one's options open were keys to survival. Over three decades, as the farm transitioned from conventional dairying to a market-driven diversified family operation, Moore is demonstrating that this piece of land is supporting a family.
Austin was 22 years old when he moved to Whitefield in 1967. Farming meant milking cows to the young man, so he started out by building a barn to keep 50 Holsteins. He followed a traditional system, pushing production to make FHA payments and pay bills, selling milk to Old Tavern Farm in Yarmouth, Maine and eventually to Agri-Mark. "I liked it," he considers.
Over time, while every other cost went up but the price of milk kept steady, Austin began to question what he saw as the common dairy "solution" to flat milk income. Adding more cows, to produce more milk, to cover rising production expenses wasn't the answer, because this approach required more debt and more labor, and in the end the bottom line did not improve. "It just didn't work," he had come to realize. So Moore decided early-on not to get in the position of jeopardizing future options with a heavy debt load and took an opposite course. He focused on the other side of the equation by concentrating on how to make milk cheaper. "I made a conscious decision not to increase production and reduce my expenses. I was working hard enough already," he says.
One evening after chores in 1980, Austin read notice of a meeting coming up at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine on how New Zealanders use rotational grazing to maximize grass feed, and he decided to go. "We worked hard that day to finish milking early and drive the hour. When we got there, why the room was filled with sheep farmers. We were the only dairy farm there," he recalls. The meeting featured Vaughn Jones who told that confinement feeding was not how they did it in New Zealand. Instead, using portable electric fencing systems, livestock consume nutrients out of grass, and their manure directly rejuvenates the land. The idea was to divide pastures into small plots and force livestock to graze it down before letting them at the next tender fresh section. This made sense to Austin.
That fall, Moore bought a low-impetus charger that would not short out in weeds and grass.
"I ran regular, old electric fence along posts I made, and divided a large pasture into 20 permanent plots that ran parallel to an existing field roadway." He put the cows out the following May. Over the summer he started to experiment with reducing grain and pushed the cows to graze through October. Uncas Farm was the first dairy farm in Maine to convert to rotational grazing. Over several years, he cut feed grain by half while milk production stayed constant.
The pastures improved. "I tweaked the plots here and there based on rainfall," Austin says. With enough land - 120 open acres in all, fields were close enough to the barn to make this work. He was indeed reducing costs. As time passed, milk prices still were not keeping up with rising overall expenses, and he made another cost-saving decision. "I switched to seasonal milking in the late 80's, drying off the cows for two months in winter when there was no grass." He synchronized calving to coincide with the highest grass production in spring so the cows would "make the most milk when there was the most grass." Uncas Farm was the first dairy farm in Maine to convert to seasonal milking.
After several years, another decision. Moore turned in his Holsteins for Jerseys. Austin explains that Jerseys are better grazers and take care of themselves. "They had a desire to graze and feed themselves even when it was hot," so they performed better on grass. The smaller-framed breed brought less on the commodity beef market, "but the differential should have balanced out, if the market would have paid for the more nutritious milk," Austin explains.
"Jersey milk has more total solids than Holstein milk -- more butterfat, protein, lactose, and minerals, but at the time, the market would not pay for higher protein because the bottler bought on volume for the fluid milk market." Unfortunately, the butterfat and protein were worthless.
As he was fine-tuning his grazing management, Austin was experimenting with new crops and value-added products. He grew oats and wheat which he ground into his special formula Uncas Farm Breakfast Cereal sold in old-fashioned-looking bags labelled with the farm logo. He grew dry beans and sold those along with the cereal. For over two decades he had been selling maple syrup, and he designed a new label for improved customer appeal, and he added 5,000 strawberry plants for future pick-your-own customers. In 1990 Austin started an orchard. "I planted 80 apple full-size trees - old and unusual varieties," and he has kept adding a few more every year since. As he diversified more and more, the back room of the farmhouse turned into a stockroom where local customers came and went rather casually to replenish their syrup, cereal, and beans. He watched a customer base building and resented even more the cut he was losing to wholesalers, money the farm needed instead. But believing that a living could be made in selling products directly to the public was risky and tenuous.
Moving cows and milking, packaging beans and cereal, keeping the farm, equipment, and family going demanded a lot of personal energy, as no outside help was hired on the farm except part-time and during haying season. The affects of the aging process were felt too. After all the things he had done, plus the marketplace, Austin came to the realization that he was not going to be able to make a decent living on that number of cows. "I knew it for a long time ... put it off for five years, but I'd still end up at with the same question. It was pretty much an illusion that I was going to keep the farm in a good state of health with the same number of cows."
In 1994 Austin sold the cows. Now it was time for a new image for Uncas Farm to accompany the new plan based on retailing as the source of farm revenue. "I had faith in people and believed that a town this size (2,000 population) should be able to support a farm. So I seriously began to consider how I could give these people enough opportunity to invest in me. I wanted to get people to connect with the farm and create a two-way dynamic with the farm and customers investing in each other." Austin looked for ways to increase retailing within resource limitations. Expanding grain and beans were hampered by market saturation as consumer tastes changed toward convenience, and by scale. He lacked facilities to clean grains, and harvesting beans by hand, then using a stationary thrasher, took a toll, plus "beans are finicky" about the weather. Expanding these was an unlikely solution to replace the milk check. Now that he wasn't feeding cows, he was selling more and more hay out of the field - good hay from integrated grazing management. "I was cutting 10,000 bales more or less depending on the weather," he says. He was resolute in sticking to his guns on not incurring debt, yet he "trusted in his intuition" that on-farm retailing was the way to go.
By 1995 he was ready to move forward. He converted the idle 20' X 20' milk room into a retail store space which would carry Uncas and other local products. The store opened on a self-service basis seven days a week, from early morning on into the evening, and customers could slide open the door at any hour they needed. "The community was wonderful. I could have had no better response," Austin comments. Soon the shelves were supplemented with organic and natural products purchased through Northeast Cooperatives, the Vermont-based consumer and worker-owned wholesaler providing a full line of natural grocery products and organic produce. Uncas coordinated co-op buying orders for a minimal charge, and more and more families ordered. Freezers were added, then more coolers, and then environmentally-friendly non-perishables. New local producers ask to supply Austin's store, and satisfied customers spread the word. The small space became a busy gathering spot especially on Saturdays when fresh local bread was delivered. His belief in the hypothesis was proving correct.
By the end of 1999 it was clear that the store was too small. There was insufficient space to accommodate buyers and items. On some days, customers had to stand in line and wait while those ahead tallied their purchases. The self-serve basis was causing a bottleneck. Community response was strong, and the farm was able to support itself by retailing, so now it was time to consider expanding. Austin began to imagine how the ample space in the big 38' X 140' cow barn could be used to generate income. Changing from self-service would require at least part-time help, and his mind listed options and considerations as he contemplated expansion into a larger scale operation.
About that time, daughter Rebecca was tiring of public relations and advertising in Boston. She decided to come home to the peaceful farm where she grew up, and she with husband Fred Haines picked a high spot near the orchard and sugarbush to build their new solar-powered home. Rebecca joined Austin in believing the store was a great idea and was ready to help make it bigger and better. And that's where this story will begin with Part II in the February issue of Farming Magazine -- with the enthusiasm of the younger generation. Watch for it!
The Evolution of Uncas Farm - Part II
A New Marketing Approach
A feature story on Uncas Farm appeared in the January issue of Farming Magazine. Part I told the history of the farm. Of Austin Moore who established the Farm in 1967, starting out as a conventional dairy farm selling milk wholesale. Over three decades he adapted his methods and goals as times changed, toward keeping the farm viable. Now, Uncas Farm of the new millennium is focusing on supplying the needs of the local community at the retail level. It's offerings are drawing a legion of committed investors who want to see the farm survive into the future. We begin Part II with daughter Rebecca returning home to the farm, leaving her professional career in Boston, to take on the challenge of marketing Uncas Farm in today's marketplace.
"You know," Rebecca Moore Haines considers," I worry about society getting to the point where we have lost our options - as a result of our own actions." Rebecca's motivation to keep Uncas Farm viable is strong, and her vision is clear. Her approach is the opposite of the nation's trend toward "bigness." The huge parking lots at the super Wal-Mart and discount depots, shelves overstocked with mass-produced goods, and lines at the checkout represent the antithesis of what Rebecca's marketing model is for the Uncas Farm Natural Food Store which she is creating and managing at the farm where she grew up. Small and local is her motto.
Rebecca's Store is located in farm country on a road where there still are open pastures and working barns. Her customers make the trip to the farm for a purpose. They don't mosey over after browsing in other establishments, because there are no other shops located near this farm, situated on a side road off a county road, two miles from 'downtown Whitefield.' Whitefield (population 2,100) boasts one general store with two slow-action gas pumps, a Post Office, and a country restaurant opposite the volunteer fire department.
The store occupies about half of the biggest building on the Farm, the once 38' X 140' dairy barn. It is upscale and offers a complex mix of items and is a place of distinction. It's location at rural crossroads is not a deterrent. "I am committed to helping keep this a working farm," Holly Torsey, a customer, gives as her reason for buying at the store. "I came to find a very special gift," Judy Eckholm explains why she came. Another shopper asks how the maple syrup is holding out this year and if there will be enough until spring. Uncas's has developed loyal friends who feel connected, who are making a conscious investment in the farm's future survival via their direct contributions through their patronage. Customers are willing to drive to the farm, and they are willing to pay more for fresh locally-grown and specialty products.
It might be difficult for some to imagine that going shopping at a farm, not aglow with lights nor bustling with elbow-to-elbow action, actually stimulates pleasant anticipation. Which of my neighbors might happen to be shopping this day? What new products has Rebecca discovered since last time? What has been harvested off the farm this week? The farm's patrons have a personal stake in this enterprise, as Rebecca kindles relationships and shows thankfulness and interest in every visitor. In eighteen months, Rebecca has created an entity with personality.
The store's presence extends far beyond the farm into the local community and fills a void for the rural area. Uncas serves the Whitefield - Jefferson - Alna community, a radius of about 22 miles. Besides being a source of fresh nutritious food, organic and natural foods, and foods for special diets and food allergies and sensitivities, it serves as a warm gathering place for meetings and art openings and shows. It's a gallery for local crafters and artists who consign their work, and it's an outlet for local specialty food manufacturers. It's even a grain store. "So many of my customers asked where they could buy organic grain that I decided to give it a try, and it sells like crazy -- simply flies out the door -- the entire line," she comments. Bags of McGruff's Grub for goats, Frisky Lamb feed, and Flock Master from Vermont Organic Grains in Bethel VT are in demand, in this rural setting.
There's something noticeably different about Rebecca's store. Soft light flows in from many windows, and the space is pleasantly bright and exquisitely clean. Heavy pine shelves, beautifully crafted by a local carpenter, are well-stocked. Jars of vinegar and maple syrup catch the light, and canned and packaged foods and dry goods are well-displayed. The necessary 'heavy equipment' line the walls: two free-standing coolers, one freezer, and a twenty foot produce cooler, and they're filled with food. Accent baskets of squash, pumpkins, or what's in season or on sale diminish the presence of the modern stainless refrigerators. Local artists painted an original wall mural on the wall behind the checkout counter which depicts the Farm's many seasons and activities. The colorful backdrop reminds customers what the Store and the Farm are all about and all the work involved. The quietly-restful space is a pleasant place to spend time and shop. This is more than just a food store.
"It's an old cash register," Rebecca says. "It's electric but not computerized and tallies total sales and amounts by categories. Rebecca manages using four sales categories: grocery, produce, Uncas-grown goods, and crafts. Register sales totals are entered into the computer using QuickBooks software, along with expenses. "We have a simple accounting system, and Fred (Rebecca's husband Fred Haines) does the books, is my financial manager, bookkeeper, maintenance man, and occasional shop keeper, nights and weekends." Other than one part-time summer to fall helper working 25 to 30 hours per week, Rebecca does the rest. Even with such little outside help, "my labor costs are my biggest expense - what with workers' compensation insurance, taxes, and I pay a little better than minimum wage," Rebecca sighs.
Rebecca's bright smile and relaxed manner give no hint of her very busy days. "Well, Monday is bill-paying day," she considers, "and then there are orders to collate. The produce truck will arrive in the afternoon to be unloaded, sorted, priced and stocked. The produce sheets will need to be updated and the store cleaned. Plus, customers arrive throughout the day, so waiting on them, and researching their questions about foods for allergies and finding new products they request." Then there's event planning - artist openings, shows, and special events and meetings. "I do the PR (public relations), write press releases and send e-mails. We're trying to keep up our web site, but it seems to stay at the bottom of the list." As sole proprietor, there are many things to be done to maintain high standards for the store. "I love this job. I'm diligent and structured and love being my own boss. Really everything about it. Being around people and chatting; researching new products and keeping up with trade materials. I learn something new every day." Rebecca's enthusiasm and commitment for making the project succeed for the future of the farm is contagious and are valuable assets in the equation.
The store is open seven days a week from strawberries - end of June - to end of December. Monday through Friday 10:30 to 6:30. "I tracked this. I need to be open after school and work." Saturdays 9 -5 and Sundays 12 - 5. During winter, January to June, it's closed Sunday and Monday. With no paid advertising, patrons tell their neighbors and friends to surely stop by, the best kind of advertising.
Most customers live within a 25-mile radius of Whitefield, and 40% of these customers do the bulk of their shopping at the store, Rebecca says. "Some come every week or twice a week, and others come less frequently but spend hundreds of dollars." Then there are those who come for gifts only, or maple syrup only, or for staples - fresh local eggs, organic milk or soy milk products, and fresh local bread. In summer the mix changes when tourists and vacation homeowners return to the lakes and come to shop.
"We have 47 customers now in our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program," Rebecca says, from one share to four shares, and they often stop to shop for additional items to complement our Uncas Farm products. Another client group are the 50 families buying bulk food from Vermont-based Northeast Cooperatives. Rebecca orders twice each month and adds a surcharge for coordinating orders, sorting the food upon arrival, tallying bills, and separating by order for pick-up. "I make it easy for people to buy good organic, natural, or special foods in bulk," she says. The pull of the store draws this pre-order group to stop in to see who's shopping today and probably pick up a few items on the side.
With eighteen months under her belt, Rebecca has learned much. She is stocking good mark-up, high profit craft items to subsidize staples and has a keen ear to buy what her customers say they want. Now that the costly (second-hand) equipment and display shelving are in place, Rebecca plans to take a small profit this year. "It's not all about money," she knows. But the store needs to increase sales volume to make a living, so this winter's goal focuses on strategy. Rebecca plans to survey her customers, develop a marketing plan including advertising beyond word-of-mouth, and improve the web site.
Rebecca's store is the focal point at Uncas Farm today. Yet the farm work still goes on in full force in the fields. Austin (Rebecca's father - the focus of Part I of this feature article) is still hard at work planting, haying, and harvesting the menu of fruits and vegetables, maple syrup and pick-your-own berries and trees. Shirley (Austin's wife) keeps busy beautifying the farm with her green thumb in the display flower gardens and paint brush keeping the farmhouse and buildings spiffy. Her "curio shop" located in the shed Austin once used for his bean room is a self-service antique shop open for back roaders to stop and browse. The family is working together behind the scenes to support Rebecca. Every June the farm hosts a huge pot-luck for the entire community, in celebration of the Summer Solstice and the beginning of the growing season. Guests balance their plates, sitting on stone walls or on boulders and socialize with their neighbors until the stars come out. This neighborly attitude is what this story is all about. Keeping the open pastures, the farmsteads, and this community rural is the driving force that makes everyone's investment pay off. Whitefield's beauty rests on the survival of its working farms. This interdependence is the solution to keeping it going.
The Evolution of Uncas Farm - Part III
The Farm Is Sold
A feature story on Uncas Farm appeared in the January issue of Farming Magazine. Part I told the history of the farm. Of Austin Moore who established the Farm in 1967, starting out as a conventional dairy farm selling milk wholesale. Over three decades he adapted his methods and goals as times changed, toward keeping the farm viable. Now, Uncas Farm of the new millennium is focusing on supplying the needs of the local community at the retail level. It's offerings are drawing a legion of committed investors who want to see the farm survive into the future. We begin Part III with the sale of Uncas Farms to Daniel I. Ridgell of Southern Maryland.
With the changing world Austin and Shirley Moore decided to sell Uncas Farms. The rigors of farming and the changing world had taken their toll. October of 2004 the farm was sold to Daniel I. Ridgell. With the farm sold Rebecca Moore Haines decided to sell the store and embark on another adventure. Mr. Ridgell took over the store January 5, 2005. With his sister and her husband, Josephine (Josie) and Bruce Bates, as the new managers of Uncas Farms, the store was re-opened .
The store is still located in the same place, but Josie has introduced a variety of new products to boost the stores business and to reach out to those customers who wanted to try new products that the old store didn’t have. The store is located in farm country on a road where there still are open pastures and working barns. Her customers make the trip to the farm for a purpose. They don't mosey over after browsing in other establishments, because there are no other shops located near this farm, situated on a side road off a county road, two miles from 'downtown Whitefield.' Whitefield (population 2,100) boasts one general store with two slow-action gas pumps, a Post Office, and a country restaurant opposite the volunteer fire department.
It is too early to tell how this story will end. The saga continues.