Choosing the Family Farm
It's 8 a.m. on a cold March morning in Grand Blanc, Mich., and inside a small red barn, the Klaty family is hard at work. Three-year-old Carmen Klaty is sitting in a small holding area cradling a day-old kid goat under a heat lamp. Eight-year-old Skylar Klaty is helping attach milking machines to eight adult females in the milking area of the barn. Ten-year-old Chase Klaty is herding a new group of eight goats in from a pen behind the barn to move them into the milking area once Skylar finishes milking the current batch.
And, oh yes, the children's 31-year-old mom, Tamra, and 34-year-old dad, Robb, are scrambling to untangle and move milking machines and other equipment to help the children perform their chores.
Welcome to a typical morning at Simple Times Farm, a 17-acre family farm whose main product is the 40 to 50 gallons of milk its 40 goats produce each day. The key word here is "family."
Rock and a Hard Place
When Robb and Tamra acquired the farm nearly two years ago, they used it mainly to board area horses, but late last year they decided to turn it into a working farm by acquiring the goats. They distribute the milk unpasteurized to about 50 leaseholders—individuals and families who pay $8 a week for the right to a gallon of milk.
Demand for their milk is so great that the Klatys have a waiting list of more than 20 families. (Unpasteurized milk of any sort can only be distributed in Michigan and many other states via such leaseholder or shareholder agreements, since direct sales are prohibited by state law.)
As much as Robb and Tamra might like to increase their farm's milk capacity to meet burgeoning demand by expanding the farm, they are severely limited. On one side is a PGA golf course, and on the other a Del Webb 55-and-older housing complex is sprouting from old farmland. This lack of land limits the Klaty family's income as well.
Robb expects the farm to gross about $75,000 this year and figures that some improvements in milk productivity could increase revenues to $125,000 within a year or two. But even at $125,000, net income would likely be in the neighborhood of $50,000—not enough to enable Robb to give up his other income source, a lawn maintenance and snow-plowing service he began while in high school that employs as many as 40 people.
The space and income limitations facing the Klaty farm aren't unusual. Many of the nation's estimated 400,000 to 500,000 family farms face similar constraints, says Katherine Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, which represents farm and rural groups from 30 states.
As a result of such challenges, Ozer says that probably a majority of family farms need one or more family members working outside the farm to generate income and receive health insurance. "Many people are working off the farm and trying to juggle multiple jobs," she says. "They're also being squeezed by development pressures."
For the Klaty family, though, such concerns are secondary to the main benefits of the farm: providing a sense of family togetherness and a wholesome environment for Robb and Tamra's five children. The farm and its two-bedroom home represent the latest step in an ongoing series of changes the family has made over the past five years out of "this conventional paradigm," as Robb puts it, to a simpler life.
The transition has included home schooling of their children and, most recently, shortly after acquiring the farm, a move out of a 3,500-square-foot suburban-style home into the current wood-beamed 900-square-foot house.
The five children share one large bedroom, with triple bunk beds. While the house has running water, the Klatys chose not to install a septic system, relying instead on a flushless toilet requiring users to shovel wood chips in after each use. There is no TV or computer—the children do their schoolwork at the dining room table each morning after the milking is completed (though Robb has a Blackberry to keep tabs on e-mail for both businesses).
Tamra acknowledges that because of the toilet situation, in particular, "for a while, I was embarrassed to have people over. The woman of the house likes to have things nice. It's humbling."
In the process of downsizing, "we threw a huge amount away," she says. The children, in particular, "had to give up a lot. The basement was their toy room. There were shelves of videos." But, she says, the move to the farm "has been the best thing for us. Bob and I have gotten closer and closer."
The children, she adds, "have just blossomed. They surprise me at how capable they are." That point was driven home on a recent snowy evening when three goats decided to give birth simultaneously—all while Robb was out handling snowplowing chores for his other business.
Skylar, their 8-year-old daughter, learned that "sometimes the babies come out wrapped in their placentas and not breathing." She and Mom learned some techniques to untangle things. "I've seen how the children have gone from not knowing much about animals to helping them give birth," says Tamra.
Looking at the Bright Side
Another source of satisfaction has come from serving the leaseholders, a few of whom come by eagerly each day to pick up their share of goat's milk. The milk's attraction to most is that, because it is unpasteurized, it seems to be easier to digest than conventional milk and even to provide special health benefits to individuals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions.
Brad Gill, a Christian missionary worker, travels the hour or so to the farm from the Detroit area once a week to be sure his 25-year-old autistic son has a supply. "His system needs it" to help stem his tendency toward convulsions and inappropriate behavior, says Gill. "We can't afford to have him not drink [this] milk."
As for the future, Robb worries about potential risks in this new venture—specifically possible difficulties from Michigan agriculture authorities, who have shown an unfriendliness toward raw-milk farm ventures (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/19/06, "States Target Raw-Milk Farmers") and have become the first in the country to begin adopting the Agriculture's Dept.'s National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which is opposed by many family farmers (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/19/06, "Farmers Say No to Animal Tags").
But he'd prefer to think about new ways to generate farm income, such as selling breads and cheeses and adding to the egg sales he's already launched. "I would also love to have cows some day," he says.
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