Farming driven by data, demand at Tierra Verde Farms

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couple standing behind counter
Mike and Connie Jones stand in their on-farm store in Deerfield, Ohio. The couple started Tierra Verde Farms in 2013. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

DEERFIELD, Ohio — Mike Jones thinks about farming differently. It might be because his background is in engineering and software sales and marketing.

Before 2010, he had never raised any livestock. He doesn’t have generations of tradition to uphold.

He runs a sustainable farm, raising cattle, pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens on pasture. Sustainable is a buzzword in agriculture, but to Mike the meaning is quite simple.

“The No. 1 attribute of a sustainable farm is that it’s profitable,” he said.

He ensures that in a number of ways: by giving customers what they want, by making data-driven decisions and by raising happy animals.

“If an animal is living the way it’s supposed to live, it’s happier and healthier. And happier animals taste better,” he said.

Coming home

Shortly after his mother passed away in late 2007, Mike began thinking about farming and moving back home. He and his wife, Connie, were living in St. Pete Beach, Florida, but they were both originally from Mahoning County. Connie’s parents still live in the area.

The original goal was to find some land in the country in northeast Ohio and use it to grow and raise their own food. After his mother died from cancer, Mike began thinking more critically about food.

Mike doesn’t have a background in farming. He’s worked in software marketing and management. He has an engineering degree.

“A disease all engineers suffer from is if someone else wrote a book on it, you can do it,” Mike said.

So to learn about farming and raising livestock, Mike read a bunch of books. One of them was Joel Salatin’s book You Can Farm.

Salatin’s book talks a lot about grass-fed beef, something Mike didn’t know much about. He had Connie buy some to try it out.

It took Connie about two hours to find a place in western Florida selling it, and it cost about $12 a pound, Mike said.

“She thought it was a rip-off. I said ‘no, dear, it’s a business opportunity,’” Mike recalled.

Connie was still skeptical. Her father was a conventional farmer. She knew it was a tough business to make money in.

But they gave it a go anyway.

A leap of faith

Mike moved back to Ohio and found some land in 2010. Connie followed in early 2011 after wrapping up their affairs in Florida.

They bought some red Devon cattle and some pigs. The first couple years were spent “just learning how to keep the animals alive” and building.

They had to build fence, build barns and build a market. The farm had been cropland before, so they had to plant pasture.

Mike and Connie were both still working full time off farm, so they did it all as they could.

The check had just been signed to build their store in November 2012 when Mike was laid off from his job.

“We are faithful people. We took that as a sign that the time is now,” he said.

They took the jump and officially started Tierra Verde Farms in 2013.

Connie continues to work off farm, although she caters her working schedule to daylight hours to maximize time spent on the farm. She works part time during Daylight Saving Time and full time during standard time.

They also have two part-time employees.

Letting animals be themselves

There are three parts to the Jones’ business. They try to keep a symbiotic relationship between animal health, environmental health and human health.

They do that by keeping their animals on pasture as much as possible, moving them daily. Everything on the farm is transportable. Barns convert from animal housing to equipment housing as needed.

“We’ve designed all our systems so that you can work any one animal group in an hour or less a day,” Mike said. “We have to keep it pretty efficient.”

They finished 3,500 meat chickens earlier in the year. They’re raising 300 turkeys for Thanksgiving. They have about 30 ewes that lamb twice a year.

Jones used to farrow his own pigs, but he wasn’t good at it. Now, he just buys feeder hogs. They get rotated through a wooded pasture, eating nuts that fell from the trees and rooting for grubs.

“A pig wants to be a pig. A chicken wants to be a chicken. How do you let them do that?” Mike said. “That animal is designed to live a certain way. So me as a farmer, can I create the habitat to allow the animal to live that way?”

Data driven

Data is king at Tierra Verde Farms. There’s a spreadsheet for everything. Mike saw the demand for chicken breasts grow and knew he’d need to raise more chickens, which would require more infrastructure.

The data shows seasonal demand for certain products. It determines how often they need to harvest cattle to keep up their supply.

The data shows animal health. He weighs his cattle once a quarter. If there’s a cow with a low weight gain rate, he tests that one for parasites.

Tierra Verde Farms has just under 500 laying hens. They track and chart daily egg production.

The egg production data tipped him off to a health issue with his laying hens. He saw egg count dropping and the chicken mortality rate increase slightly, “just higher than statistic averages,” Mike said.

He had a couple chickens necropsied and found a big part of the problem was lice. The lice make the chickens itchy, which causes the hens not to sleep as well, Mike said. Hens need sleep to lay well.

In the first 48 hours after he treated the hens, egg count jumped up 25%.

“All they needed was two nights rest,” he said.

Since he’s a new farmer, he didn’t know how to check for lice. Now, he does. There’s a protocol for whoever collects eggs to check 10 hens a day.

Know your customer

“One of the things I learned in business before farming is that nothing happens before you sell something,” Mike said. “I look for a market, then I raise it. I don’t raise it then look for a market.”

Mike did market research about three years ago, after the farm had been in business for several years. He surveyed people on his email list.

He also selected five customers to do in-depth interviews with them. He asked how they found Tierra Verde, why they buy from the farm and why they aren’t buying more.

“I can’t try to force my way of thinking on people. I need to give them what they want,” Mike said.

The people want convenience food. So the Jones’ installed a licensed commercial kitchen in the back of their farm store. This winter, they’re going to start making and selling prepared foods from their meat, eggs and other local ingredients.

A year ago, a customer asked for sugar-free bacon. So Mike talked to his butcher about it, who told him smoked pork without sugar wouldn’t taste good.

He convinced his butcher to give it a try anyway, and he gave away the test batch of sugar-free bacon to see what people thought. They loved it.

“Sugar-free nitrate-free bacon is now my best selling bacon,” Mike said. “If you don’t know what your customer wants, you can’t provide it. If you can’t provide it, you can’t keep them.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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