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The proof is in the pork: The Elkhorn Farm and Forge Story

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Matt Alford quit eating meat in 1997 after reading Diet for a New America, which details the plight of animals raised in factory farm conditions.

It was the beginnings of a  journey that eventually led to the founding of Elkhorn Farm and Forge in Gaston, OR. It was not a predetermined journey or one that has been easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The beginnings of a pig farmer

Matt’s vow to not eat meat took a bit of a turn after two years of soul searching.

“ I started hunting and gathering my own food so I could know exactly where my food came from, field to table. It was a  journey that led me to start raising my own goats as pack animals, and eventually I raised a few heritage breed pigs for my own consumption. “

He started with goats as the primary livestock on the farm, but the focus started to go towards pigs. The land and infrastructure requirements are similar for both animals, but pigs are easier to contain than goats, and they don’t need as much land or fence as cattle.  20150909_104307

“ I was able to start raising pigs using the farm assets I already owned (truck, trailer, shelter, waterers, fence, etc.) and that allowed me to get started without spending much additional money.  Along the way, I discovered that I really love being around pigs.”

His approach is based on pre-industrial methods where the pigs live outdoors on the pasture and forestland; free to roam, root, and run – in other words, be happy pigs. But starting a farm is anything but an easy task, and not for the unpassionate. But it’s a life that Matt had glimpses of in his youth.

“ As a kid I picked pole beans, strawberries, and raspberries for money.  In high school, I worked four years on a local farm growing and harvesting row crops, grass seed, and tending a small herd of cattle. However, I started my farm from scratch.”

Matt’s home and farm is situated on 1.8 acres and he leases and manages several properties nearby, which brings the total acreage up to 40.  In his perfect world, all the farmland would be contiguous, but as a startup, he is working with what is available.

“ It’s less efficient having multiple parcels of land, but I’ve been able to pick up under-utilized plots of ground and that has helped keep the costs down.”

But as with any startup, the costs to get going can add up quickly.

“ My biggest challenge was and continues to be time vs. money.  I scaled up the herd and grew the business by doing everything myself, working long hours 7 days a week to conserve cash.  I’m past the point where I can continue to grow the business simply by applying more of my time, so I need to invest in people and more infrastructure in order to keep up with the growth.”

1-20140531_165506Being out by yourself on 40 acres with nobody to talk to but the pigs can be refreshing, but Matt has also had the benefit of connecting to a community of resources as Elkhorn has grown.

“My friend, Will Woolley, is a co-founder of Templeton Hills Beef in California, where they raise grass-fed beef exclusively.  There’s a lot of overlap between our operations, and his willingness to share his experience has repeatedly helped me think through road blocks.  Locally, the non-profit Friends of Family Farmers has been a tremendous resource in terms of networking. The one thing that really gave me the confidence to buy a few pigs initially was the fact that my friend Brandon was already raising a few pigs each year for his own family.  We call each other when we have goat problems, and knowing that I could do the same with pigs was really important to me.”

With the farm and support network more established, Matt set out to source the pigs for Elkhorn. He searched and found a professional local hog breeder whom he could trust, one that could sell him top-quality stock and be another source of advice.

“I already had a great relationship with a local large animal veterinarian so I felt like I had a good support system in place.”

Bringing quality pork to the market

The taste of Elkhorn Farm and Forge’s pork is amazing, and it didn’t take long before the demand expanded beyond his family and friends. One of the most important aspects of being able to deliver quality pork on a consistent basis rest in the skilled hands of the butcher, so Matt set out to locate one by reaching out to the community for references.

“ I started calling and visiting slaughter facilities and butchers, while talking to everyone I knew who raised their own livestock.  As a livestock producer, your business is only as good as your last delivery from the butcher.  They can make or break your business, so I choose them carefully and make sure I’m a great customer to do business with on an ongoing basis.”1-LO4M0993

Elkhorn’s marketing started out as word of mouth and continues to be the best sales channel.  Matt sells directly to consumers and a few chefs over the phone and on his website. He’s purposely avoided selling to wholesalers and retail stores, primarily because he hasn’t needed to up to this point, and it doesn’t make sense from a margins standpoint. The farm is looking to potentially sell via farmer’s markets in the future.  

Matt’s foray into the farming business has opened his eyes to both the needs and opportunities in agriculture.

“ Farmers need technology that reduces labor and increases efficiency without abusing animals or the genetic integrity of plants.  In some places, technology is overused, while in others, technology and automation are sorely lacking.  As one example, a critical indicator of animal health is their internal body temperature, yet the market has yet to produce an affordable, reliable body temperature monitor for swine.  I should be able to get a proactive text message telling me when a pig’s body temperature is out of range or their daily exercise level is below normal.”

As it turns out, the local food culture really wants to know their farmer, and buy humanely-raised great tasting meat, which has resulted in the explosive demand for organic food in the United States. In Matt’s mind this creates great opportunities.

“ Forward-looking investors are forming real estate investment trusts (REITs), with the express purpose of buying conventional farmland and converting it to organic.  They hire consultants to manage the transition and lease the land back to farmers.  It’s a smart solution that solves critical financial hurdles for farmers while meeting a market need. Longer term, a big opportunity lies in urban agriculture.  There’s so much more that can be done to grow food within urban boundaries rather than trucking food in and trucking waste out.  People who live in cities yearn for the connection to the land and the taste of real food.  Urban planners, architects, and real estate developers who integrate the ability to grow food into their buildings and living spaces will capitalize on the deep seated emotional need of people to return to the land.”

Returning to the land is what he has done and it’s been a challenging, but hugely rewarding journey. It’s one that has taught him both entrepreneurial lessons and insights.

“ When things aren’t going as planned, be more flexible and take a step back rather than pushing forward.  I’ve made some bad situations worse by not wanting to deviate from my plan, when things would have turned out better if I’d just decided to give it some space and find another way.  You can get a long way applying steady pressure, but there are limits too.”

These are words that anyone who has started a business can relate to. But there are more intrinsic feelings and beliefs that truly sum up what Matt is doing at Elkhorn Farm and Forge. “ I really love being around pigs.  Being able to give them a great life on the farm and provide premium quality pork to local families is a win for everyone. “1-DSC02760

For more information visit, www.elkhornfarmandforge.com. You can also support them by liking them on facebook and following them on twitter.