A savvy teenager demonstrates that profitable farming is a matter of identifying underserved markets.
Sometimes, when I hear folks talk about how irresponsible and lazy today's younger generation is, it's all I can do not to get up on a soapbox and argue the point. You see, my 15-year-old son Jim has taught me that stereotypes aren't always accurate. In fact, using initiative, forethought, and honest hard work, that lad (a member of the "irresponsible" generation) showed profitable farming is possible with an original investment of only 25¢!
My "continuing education" started about two years ago when Jim (aged 13 then) informed me that he wanted to earn a little extra money and that he needed a small loan to get started. Well, I asked him just what sort of enterprise he had in mind. He figured, he said, that if a fellow raised something nobody else wanted to bother with, maybe that "something" would be kind of rare around harvest time. And a thing that's hard to come by, Jim had concluded, ought to bring a good market price.
I wasn't so sure the price/supply relationship was all that cut and dried, but I let him get a bit more specific about his plans and found that he wanted to try his hand at raising Indian corn. No one near us grew it, it seemed, and Jim thought he might just be able to corner the market. Furthermore, he assured me, all he needed to get started was 25¢ for seeds and the use of any waste land I had to spare.
Well, shoot. I figured I didn't stand to lose more than a quarter, so why not let the boy try his wings if he had a mind to? If he got them clipped a little, at least the experience wouldn't hurt him much. So I said, "Sure, go ahead" and gave Jim the 25¢ plus the "rights" to a patch of ground at the east end of our orchard, where some old peach trees had died.
That young fellow sure wasn't short on enthusiasm: He got busy clearing his corn patch with the tractor the very next morning. And a few days later, a large truck carrying a load of rotten fish pulled into our road. My son directed the driver to "his" field and had all that reeking waste dumped on the newly cultivated soil. Jim explained to me (as I hastily moved to a position upwind of the garden-to-be) that since he didn't have enough money to buy commercial fertilizer, he'd decided to do what the Indians did: feed his corn with fish. He'd called around and found a seafood market that was willing to bring its waste out free of charge just to get rid of it!
At this point I was beginning to feel more than a little proud of my young entrepreneur. But I told myself the real test would be in the crop, so I decided to reserve judgment on the project.
The stink of the fish died down after it was tilled under, and soon the seeds were planted. Jim diligently hoed his patch through the summer, and picked the corn himself come fall. It was flinty and hard, and of no real use that I could see, but it was mighty pretty to look at. No two ears were exactly alike. Some had the varied colors of red maple leaves in autumn, others were indigo blue, and still others looked like crazy quilts with purples and yellows and rusts all jumbled up together in one ear.
Not wanting to see the boy stuck with all of those pretty (and pretty worthless, to my way of thinking) ears, I suggested that maybe Mom could use some. However, Jim didn't seem worried. He just laughed, saying she sure wouldn't need all 150 ears! Then he asked if he could go along to town the next time I did, to try to sell his produce. Well, of course I consented, and we drove in a couple of days later.
When Jim and I got to the city he made his rounds, visiting supermarkets, florist shops, and even department stores, and by I'll be darned if he wasn't sold out by the time I'd finished my own errands! Marketing the corn at three ears for a quarter, he'd made $12.50 — fifty quarters from the original one I'd lent him. Not bad!
I was pretty pleased with the boy and suggested he use his earnings to buy an archery set he'd had his eye on. Jim wasn't ready to cash in his chips just yet though. "Nope," he said. "Now that I've got some working capital, I'm going into the broiler — as in chicken — business!"
Sure enough, on the first day of February he ordered 90 cockerels (the male chicks that people in the egg business don't want to bother with) for a total cost of $9.90. To prepare for his guests, he'd scrubbed out an old brooder, sterilized it, mugged up the foundation with some insulating material he found lying around, and bought $2.50 worth of balancer (a concentrate of minerals and vitamins) to mix with ground grain.
I told him not to get his hopes up too high. After all, I explained, it was the roughest time of the year for raising chickens (which is the main reason most folks don't purchase winter cockerels). But Jim was determined to make his poultry profitable, and he assured me he'd keep a good eye on his chicks night and day to be certain they were warm and well fed. His plan was to have the birds fattened up for the early broiler market when "eating" chickens are scarce.
Well, he set to "fathering" that brood, and lost 14 of his "children" during the first two weeks. Still, he kept a faithful vigil over the remaining 76, and when they were ten weeks old they averaged a healthy 2 1/2 pounds or so apiece. Jim was able to sell them at top price — 38¢ a pound — for a total income of $70.21. (That first quarter sure had come a long way!)
Jim was a man of means now, so I put my arm around his shoulder and asked what his next step was going to be. He told me he'd have to give the matter some thought, but by the next fall — after he'd entered vocational high school — an idea came to him: Hogs.
"Hogs!" I exclaimed. "Why son, farmers in this area are taking a terrible beating on those animals right now. I've seen the best stock in the county turned down at auction without getting a single bid."
Well, Jim's answer was that that sad situation only meant he could buy hogs at bargain prices. So he did. He scouted around and purchased two prize Hampshire sows, both of which were about to furrow, for only $35 each! We loaded the animals up and brought them home, and my young hog farmer worked like crazy fixing up a furrowing house for them.
The first sow gave birth late at night when Jim wasn't around ... and managed to lie down on 7 of her 13 piglets. When we found them, Jim had to swallow hard to stop his tears. He blamed himself for the tragedy and swore his second litter wouldn't suffer the same misfortune.
After that, he could hardly bear to leave the other sow. He made me promise to keep a close watch on the pigs while he was in school, and even set his alarm clock to wake him once an hour at night. Finally, one Saturday noon — with Jim using a long stick to direct her movements — the sow successfully produced 11 (out of 12) healthy offspring.
The little porkers got along just fine, too, but I couldn't help wondering how Jim would keep them supplied with edibles come weaning time. However, he was (as usual) one step ahead: He asked me to OK his credit at the feed store. After considering his business track record I agreed to make the call.
Six months and ten days later, Jim sold his first fat hogs (weighing in at 210 pounds each) and brought home a total of $163.48 ... a figure which just covered the $161-plus-change feed bill and the $1.95 worth of gas he'd used to get the pigs to market.
Then a hog farmer who was on the lookout for "fine breeding stock" paid us a visit (he'd gotten Jim's name from one of the boy's teachers). And after a bit of dickering, that man wrote out a check for $720 (that's 2,880 quarters!) for the 12 remaining hogs.
Jim has pretty much stayed in the pig business since then, keeping his two original sows. Lately, though, he's been doing a lot of talking about Angus cattle ... and since I've always been partial to them myself, I've got half a mind to go into business with my son. Now that I've seen how far initiative, forethought, hard work, and a quarter can go, I think I can find a little more cash to invest in the younger generation!
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