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How one couple can feed over 1,000 people | Ride Along with Bow Creek Farm

Neil: Neil from Messick's here, today with Rob from Bow Creek Farm. Rob, tell me a little bit about your farm. What do you guys do?
Rob: My wife Amy and I, farm about 350 acres. We raise registered Red Angus Cattle, and we direct market the beef from those cattle to several local hotels, restaurants, and we have an on-farm retail store.
Neil: We're going to jump in the cab with Rob and Amy today. We're going to do a little bit of riding around the field, talking about a little bit of life, a little bit of equipment, but also some of the unique, and what I think are really interesting ways that you guys run your business. Join us here today. Maybe we'll learn a little something together.
Rob: When we first started, we were only really baling hay, and the cattle were more of a hobby than anything.
Neil: Sure.
Rob: In 2008, we started increasing our number of cows, and then by 2010 I got the idea that I wanted to try to direct market the beef to capitalize more on the end product. We reached out to The Hotel Hershey and we started, the first year we sold them 15 animals in 2011, and then by 2012 we were providing them with around 40 animals a year. We just did that more as a part-time thing up until 2018. Then in 2018, we put the store, we built a store on the farm and we began selling retail to customers.
I think it was really fortunate that we did, because in 2020, with COVID, we may have gone out of business if we hadn't done that. Because at that point, 75% of our business was to food service. It was to Tröegs--
Neil: Oh, food to the restaurants, and then nobody's there.
Rob: Yes. We were processing six or seven animals a month at that time, and all of a sudden everybody shut down. We thought we were going to have a disaster, but then as it turned out, we were able to redirect every single one of those animals to retail. Prior to that, like I said, 75% of our sales was to food service. Then in one year, it shifted to nearly 100% direct to consumer.
Prior to COVID, we had 300 customers, and at this point we're nearly at a 1,000. In one year, we went from 300 to 700 customers. We were very fortunate in the sense that we were able to redirect the same product to a whole different group of people.
Neil: When you say you have a 1,000 customers, are you predominantly selling prepackaged stuff at the farm store, or are you selling a half a beef to somebody's family?
Rob: No. For the most part it's by the cut. It's almost all by the cut. Because it's all USDA inspected, because it had to be because the majority of the product was going to restaurants and country clubs. We were having it all USDA inspected, so we're able to break it up into cuts versus selling shares of an animal like quarters and halves. The majority of our business is that.
Neil: The farm store then is at the end of the lane of your barn?
Rob: Yes. It's right in the barn driveway.
Neil: Do you maintain business hours there, and have somebody staffing most times or?
Rob: We're open for walk-in business, Thursdays from 1:00 to 6:00 PM and Saturdays from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. In addition to that, on our website, on bowcreekbeef.com, you can place pickup orders where you can pick up beef six days a week. We use Square for point of sale. We can text or email a customer an invoice and we can put their product in a cooler for the time that they want to pick it up.
Neil: That's really interesting. You can limit the hours that you have to staff that to keep that open by allowing people to sell online, or buy online?
Rob: Yes. It enables us to get out in the field and do things, take care of cattle, feed cattle, bale hay. Where we can't be at that store for six days a week
Amy: Doing this business, and being a small farmer, and I say small by the amount of sales that we bring in every year, we have to get a dollar from everywhere we can, to actually survive. Our time is included in that. We have to be able to be producing all day long. The two of us running a farm that's almost 350 acres and on three different farms with over a 100 head of cattle at one time. It's a lot of hours that have to be spent doing other things. It really does help to have that online system happening behind the scenes that I don't even have to think about.
Neil: We're out here making hay in a field, that's going to your beef cattle. That's going to feed a 1,000 local families. That's all done by effectively two people
Rob: Basically. It is an awful lot of hours. Definitely, on our to-do list is definitely hiring an additional full-time person in the next year. We're actually working on a project right now with Tröegs Brewing Company, where we're going to be making a beef steak with troegenator beer in it. It's going to enable us to add value to an awful lot of the cuts that we're selling for the cheapest price.
As you can imagine it, despite the fact that our prices I know are higher than a grocery store, it's very expensive to try to be competitive in the beef business. We've been long time providers of beef to Tröegs, but I think it's really going to help both of us. It's going to get exposure to their product, and it's going to allow us to increase, add value to product we're reproducing, but probably ultimately really grow our herd size and enable us to process more animals.
We're very optimistic that that's going to give us a little bit more financial flexibility to add somebody to do more of the things that Amy and I are currently doing.
Neil: Is that a product that they'll sell through the beer garden restaurant?
Rob: Yes. They're going to sell them at Tröegs, and we're going to sell them at our farm store and online. I was thinking though, one thing that's different about our geographic location, we're so lucky to be-- I can be to the hotel Hershey in five minutes. I can be to Tröegs in five minutes, the country club in five minutes. We're we're really fortunate to be where we're at geographically. It enables us to do what we're doing. I think if you were in a different location, you might have to take a different approach than what we are.
Neil: You have the benefit of Tröegs. How do you prioritize what you're looking for in a machine?
Rob: Honestly, my number one priority is service, and knowing that if that piece of equipment breaks, that somebody's going to keep me going. Honestly, you can ask Amy, that's why I buy almost everything from Messick's. Because when something breaks, I know it's going to be fixed. If something happened today, more than likely there'd be somebody here today. My number one priority is service after the sale. Beyond that, I think it is probably more dependability, maybe than features to me.
For instance, right now, I know you can go get a new big baler that's higher density and higher performance. That being said, I honestly don't think for feed quality hay, you can bale hay much tighter than this baler does, or it's not going to keep. If I was baling mulch or I was bailing corn fodder or wrapped hay, I might be in the market for a baler with additional features.
Neil: Sure.
Rob: At this point, this thing gets the job done for me. It's extremely dependable and if something does happen to it, I know it's going to be taken care of.
Amy: We can't afford something to break. We do have used equipment, but we've had a mentality that used equipment really isn't the best idea, because of those down times that can happen. They're really just unproductive.
Neil: That calculus is different for every person.
Amy: Sure. Yes and for every piece of equipment, I mean, we've delayed getting new equipment because of the costs. Obviously that's everybody's concern. Especially with me getting this tractor, I debated for a while. It's a lot of money. It's a payment every month that we didn't have before. Now that I've had it and realize obviously it saves, I can go faster. I can make meter rows for Rob to pick up. Not only that, it's safer for me.
My previous tractor only had a canopy, which was great. I was thankful for that, but to not be breathing in the dust and the dirt. That makes me less tired. It was exhausting doing that. Now I feel like I can sit in this tractor all day and rake hays. It's really changed my attitude about raking hay. I don't dread it anymore. I have to think about, "How much was that work?" I don't want to be in that wind all day.
Neil: Like you were saying earlier, I mean, the value, if you look at something as a cab is a luxury, but at the end of the day it enables you to jump out of the tractor and go back to the office without red eyes and a runny nose.
Amy: Yes, exactly. I can move on to something else without requiring a shower to wash the hay out of my hair. Maybe I'm just trying to justify it, but I like to think that's important.
Neil: No, it is. It's part of that bigger picture of how you guys make all of this work.
Amy: I'm always the one to point that out is the quality of life. It's important to think about. Being a farmer, it's hard work. It's long hours, you've got to fit in that quality of life anywhere you can.
Neil: In the scope of your day is Bow Creek Farm what is most of your time spent?
Amy: Actually, people would probably be surprised by that. Obviously, I help out around the farm. I'm baling, I'm helping to ray hay today. I'll help somewhat feeding every morning especially if Rob is away or something like that. Most of my day is actually spent filling beef orders and working in the office doing paperwork and computer work. People might be surprised that, with farming, how much paperwork and work on the computer there is to do.
Much of it is just work selling our beef, sending e-mails to customers, paying bills, invoicing. We keep a lot of records for our cattle, records like how much they ate, what we're feeding them. Any medications we've given or treatments.
Neil: A huge scope of stuff that has to be done. Do you have any trick that you use to plan your day?
Amy: No.
Neil: Are you a notepad person?
Amy: Oh, I'm a notepad, I'm a sticky person. I have stickies all over the place for everything and an alarm person. I set alarms on my phone to remember to do things. It's difficult, working with your husband can get tricky. Working with anyone closely for a long time can get tricky.
Neil: Yes, purely.
Amy: Sometimes it's difficult when I have a list of things that I know I need to do that day and then Rob has a separate list. It's sometimes hard to coordinate those things because especially with cattle, things pop up that you're not planning, cattle gets sick, things like that. They often put a wrench in the day. I think the favorite thing is those opportunities that I get to actually work with cattle reminds me why I love all of this to begin with. It's just fun to get to interact with them. It's probably one of the most stressful things I do.
You don't realize that as you're working cattle. You think even if everything's going great, when you're finished, you're exhausted and it's because you're mentally thinking about everything that probably could go wrong, especially since you can't control their behavior. That's probably the most rewarding because I don't always-- like if Rob says, Hey, this animal's limping, we got to go try to get them in. It's not necessarily the most fun message to receive. I guess it wouldn't be the most fun at the moment, but when you're finished and after you've done it, it's pretty rewarding.
Neil: How long do you guys usually have animals for?
Amy: Well, cows we'll have generally until they're anywhere from about 10 to up to 16 years old. They'll be with us for quite a long time. Their calves, they'll either be put back in our herd as breeding animals or they'll be put in our finishing barn to be finished for beef or we'll sell them to other people that are looking for genetics to improve their herd.
Neil: You had the animals for more than long enough to learn their personalities?
Amy: Yes, definitely. Oh, we certainly have a lot of cows with some personality. Not all of them. Some of them don't really like interacting with us so much, but there are a few that do.
Neil: You and I have something in common.
Amy: What's that?
Neil: We wear Crocs when we run equipment.
Amy: I have decided that I like to be comfortable.
Neil: I do say I go out and I'm going to go out and eat dinner, and usually after dinner it becomes my tractor time. It's easy just to slip something on your feet and if you're just driving around, you don't need fancy boots.
Amy: Maybe if I were handling the equipment outside or going to fix something but I'm not. I'm sitting in this seat and that's it.
Neil: That's right. We just spent all kinds of time talking about how busy you guys are, but there's golf balls in your field.
Rob: Yes.
Neil: I can see the real story happening here.
Rob: Yes, that's what we do in all our free time.
Neil: Thank you for having us out today.
Rob: Yes, you're welcome.
Neil: What brings the most value to me out of this industry is the relationships that we have with people. You guys are one of my favorites. Personally, it's always a pleasure to be out talking with you and seeing what you're up to. I think you are an inspiration to so many other farmers in the ways that you guys have utilized so many different smart technologies and teams and thought processes into your business. It's awesome to see. Thank you for sharing.
Rob: You're welcome.
Neil: If you're shopping for a piece of equipment and we can help, or if you have parts or service needs for a machine you've already got, give us a call at Messicks. We're available at 800-222-3373 or online at messicks.com

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