CASE STUDY: Blue Rooster Farm

Finding Their Time

Julie Hurst and her husband, Roy Brubaker, bought their farm in 1998 and started operating Blue Rooster Farm LLC in 2001, focusing on the sale of direct market, pasture-raised livestock and meats. With some help from their young children, Roy and Julie are the only farm laborers for their operation. Roy has a full-time job off the farm, and Julie also maintains off-farm income. Neither of them currently in 2017 is taking a farm salary. Instead, they’re opting to pay down debt from the farmland infrastructure and equipment purchases. “We’re both fairly risk adverse,” noted Roy, “so thankfully this is the only significant debt we have.”

They started their farming careers with what they say was a “more idealistic” vision, falling in love with the great parts of farm life – working outside, enjoying physical labor, raising wholesome products, feeding happy customers. Over time this vision grew into a mission to operate an ecologically responsible farm with humane treatment of livestock and land stewardship with one very key aspect that they’ve recently bumped right into: keeping a balance in their lives to prevent building a feeling of unhappiness from being overworked on the farm.

If you’re a farmer in your mid twenties or thirties reading this, or you’ve been farming for fewer than 5 years, you might feel like you can’t afford to place much importance on rest or personal time. The truth is, you can’t afford not to. If you continue to farm beyond 10 years, you eventually will arrive at a point where you question how much longer you can withstand the seemingly insurmountable farm labor without making time to not be a workhorse. Simply hiring more staff to shoulder some of the burden is not often financially feasible for small farm businesses. Time and money are the two scarcest resources for farmers, or any entrepreneur for that matter. If you’re reading this as a seasoned farmer, you’re probably nodding right now.


A Closer Look to See the Big Picture

Julie and Roy felt themselves lacking the tools to help make decisions for growing their farm business. They saw a need to get more organized financially and “create better record keeping habits to be able to assess where they were making or losing money.” It was their hope that this financial reorganization would provide a framework for analyzing their farm business’ opportunities for growth and allow them to make future business choices with confidence.

When they hired KTC’s Principal and Co-Founder, Ted LeBow, Julie was already familiar with QuickBooks, but didn’t feel like it was telling her what she needed to know about their business. “Roy really pushed for hiring Ted to give us tools to analyze our business.” With Ted, Julie and Roy segregated their business enterprises and began tracking costs of goods sold in QB. They found ways to streamline their day-to-day operations, implemented inventory tracking, and examined their pricing. For Roy, the result was satisfying, delivering “general decision making tools like decision analysis for questions such as, ‘Is it cheaper for us to buy feeders or raise our own calves?’ Ted put it into a framework – rate your assumptions and then build out the costs to really look at them.” Roy realized that he has organizational instincts that he didn’t have the confidence to claim until Ted affirmed them. “Now I trust my gut, and then put that instinctual choice in a framework that others can understand – financially and in line with the mission.”

It became clear to them that if they wanted to have profitable growth for their farm business, they would need to commit to an increase in their already heavy farm workload. With Roy having a full time job off the farm, they didn’t see how they could devote more time to farming without sacrificing happiness and wellness. “We learned that we’re more serious about taking better care of ourselves than we are about making more money.” When Roy and Julie had a close look at all the parts of their operation, they were able to see the big picture more clearly.


Stepping Off the Path

If you’ve spent some time with cattle, you might have noticed that if they’re left in the same pasture for long enough, they’ll create a distinct walking trail for themselves… and they devoutly stay on it. (There’s about a million metaphors you could assign to this image.) We might be on a path for our business that historically was right and true, but has lost its ability to serve us. It could be worth straying from the routine or original plan in order to find the greenest grass, and maybe even a new pasture. This is precisely the process that Julie and Roy have bravely undergone – yes, bravely. It takes serious guts to look this hard at what you’re doing within a business you are so passionate about, and then choose to redirect your operation.

Julie and Roy set out to identify new enterprises they should pursue, then with Ted’s help realized that their optimum choice was to stabilize their operation through gaining efficiency and regroup so they could take more time to plan for the future of Blue Rooster Farm. Through this process of business inspection, Roy learned that you “have to pick what ideals you can afford to be motivated toward. You can’t make everything as perfect as you want it to be. Choose the right profit margin items and focus your energy at them. Accepting a degree of limit and discipline is essential.” Julie was able to confront her own sense of occasional discontentment that came from feeling “like the limiting voice, always saying we had to cut down on enterprises/ventures. I started to accept the need for analysis after I had pushed back a bit against it. There are simply things that need to be invested in. Sometimes putting money into something can provide an opportunity for more profit.”

While Roy and Julie have become much more comfortable with marketing, they’ve found that neither of them enjoy the desk time that it requires. Roy is now more at ease in his off-farm career, feeling less stress from the notion of not getting it all done at home on the farm, and says, “Ted’s coaching actually helped me be more creative in my off-farm job.” They are committed to continuing operations at Blue Rooster Farm, but as far as changes they are making, Julie says, “I’m looking toward other professional changes and challenges in the next several years.” Overall, they both feel “more resourceful and competent.”


Not Exactly a Sunday School Picnic

There are some things to know before you pick up the phone to call KTC. Julie laughs and says, “Ted will come across as tough, but he’s a softy.” She warns, “get your numbers in order and have them ready as best you can. Be prepared to answer hard questions and get ready for a hard line analysis of your numbers that might challenge what you think you should be doing.” Roy’s caveat is, “if you’re not ready to be open and accepting to how the numbers indicate you should adapt your business, don’t waste KTC’s time.”

They made the most of their time with Ted by “really thinking carefully about the goals we have – not just financial and business, but also lifestyle goals. If you want to make 25K more a year what are the costs personally also?” They caution other farmers to not “get bound up in only the business goals – it will limit your clarity, making it longer and harder to arrive at a solution or path forward.” Roy is fortunate to not have massive debt, but says, “be prepared to own up to having gotten in over your head with huge, high overhead of your business and behemoth costs like mortgage.”

KTC approaches consulting with a coaching style – helping and guiding, not just doing it all. Why? Because this is the way we deliver the most value to a client – coaching the client empowers them with the knowledge and skills to take the reins of the business and learn the organization skills required to keep it operating smoothly. We’d much rather teach you to cast than hand you a fish.


A Bright Blue Rooster

Stabilized and gaining efficiency, Blue Rooster Farm does have a bright future even though there are no current plans for major growth. Julie and Roy are enjoying the control they now have over their operation, taking their time to feel confident about how they might someday change their farm business. Roy now knows, “margins on each enterprise are so slim, that it could come down to what we can accomplish more efficiently or what we like more. We would call on Ted again if there was going to be a strategized large expansion.” They might adapt how they market their products, and right now are facing a multifaceted challenge of managing the pipeline with regard to processing. This is an issue many pastured livestock producers are grappling with, so Roy and Julie are leading the pack to find a solution with Ted’s help.

When asked about major lessons learned for the future, Roy and Julie cautioned, “Don’t let yourself feel so mission driven without understanding the full range of goals for your life.”