Ask Farmer Joe: The Big Picture
Each month, we interview the King brothers to learn about what it takes to run a sustainable vegetable, produce, and pastured grazing operation. This month, we sat down with Joe King, the oldest of the King siblings and CEO of Freedom Farms, to discuss the big picture of the business of sustainable family farming.
What is your role at Freedom Farms?
Joe King: I am the CEO of Freedom Farms. I try to focus on building the brand and improving operations for the four branches of the business. We’re very diversified. Growing produce in Western Pennsylvania is an extremely seasonal business. My biggest challenge is that our business model is complicated. We don’t sell a few products steadily year round. It’s very difficult to have high and low times. We’re trying to balance out the business model so that we are as consistently profitable as possible.
What does your job look like on a daily basis?
JK: I try to see the big picture as much as possible. I have a large family and great employees who are talented at the day to day tasks of running Freedom Farms. That frees me up to think about the big picture and focus on marketing the brand as a whole. I set operating procedures and oversee our financial situation. I look at it as a valuable thing to spend time in the trenches fixing coolers, frying donuts, or picking produce. I want to walk in everybody’s shoes so that when I set procedures I know where everybody is coming from. When I am at the locations I try not to micromanage. My job is to be empowering; find out what needs the employees have so that I can help make their job better. I try to take care of the overhead items so that each of my managers can focus on creating a quality product and a great shopping experience for our customers.
I want to make Freedom Farms a place people want to work and a place people want to shop.
What do you want people to think of when they see the Freedom Farms brand?
JK: At Freedom Farms we are very passionate about food and family. It’s important for us to be profitable so we can stay alive as a business and be sustainable, but we always want to do things with integrity. We’re not a company that takes shortcuts. We’d like to be leaders in the industry and I think that’s where we’re heading. We’re a startup company on a path to becoming more lucrative. We’ve got the best farmers in Western Pennsylvania, the best cooks in Western Pennsylvania. Everybody who works here is very passionate about what they do. We’re professionals at growing, sourcing, and producing high quality, ethically raised products with excellent service.
Shopping at our locations means you know who is growing and selling your food, and you know the ethics of the people doing so? People connect to our brand because our intent is genuine and they are looking for more of that in their life. We’re providing a service that is really important.
What are the four branches of your business?
JK: We have a year round retail Farmers Market and seasonal traveling farmers markets. We have a Sandwich Shop. We have a Donut Shop. We offer Events and Subscriptions. This year we’re working on adding a wholesale operation, which will be a fifth branch.
What made you decide to add the wholesale operation to Freedom Farms?
JK: If you only have one, seasonal product to offer at wholesale prices, which are lower, you are vulnerable to competition from larger producers. Your competition can come in and flood the market and drive you out. We are now able to offer a year round product list at wholesale. When honey or maple syrup sales are slow, we have something else to offer. This year was a tough year for corn, which is usually our biggest seller, so we shifted our attention towards fruit. It was a great year for apples, peaches, and strawberries.
We strive to transition into each season profitably. Monocropping can be profitable in the short term but it makes you vulnerable. Diversification will protect you in the long term. For example, if you are a fruit farmer your biggest challenge is that you are running a year round business but your revenue stream is only in season for a small piece of the year. Freedom Farms is made up of a bunch of people with seasonal strengths working together. My brother Tim focuses on the produce operation with the fruits and vegetables. My brother Pete runs the pastured livestock operation. Our brand is more valuable as a whole because we work together and shift our focus from season to season.
Without our pasture raised intensively grazed meat, our sandwiches wouldn’t taste so good. Without the sandwich shop, we would lack a big piece of a viable revenue stream in the winter months.
You grew up in a farming community. Did you see a lot of farmers quit farming?
JK: Absolutely. So many farmers can’t keep employees, and they can’t keep their kids interested because the farm is not profitable anymore. If there is no way for a farm that is paid off to stay in business, then how can you expect young people to start farming? There are not enough profits coming off traditional farms to make it an attractive option for young people.
Farmers in America have been backed into a corner. They can’t afford to keep farming, and they can’t afford to change. All they can do is keep working hard. Farmers are a dying breed, and the reason is that the old ways don’t work. You can’t just produce one product anymore. Look at the dairy industry. Dairy farmers have no control over their cost of supplies. They have no control over the prices they get for their product. Their model requires them to buy more and more feeders, fertilizers, and fuel. Those prices keep going up, while profits go down. They’re stuck. We’ve experienced the same thing selling produce. If you’re selling onto the open market and the market drops, you’re stuck selling produce for less than it cost you to produce it. That’s a really tough place to be.
You started Freedom Farms in the spring of 2009. What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned?
JK: It’s very difficult to just be a producer now. You have to be a salesman. You have to create a brand, you have to market your brand, and you have to go straight to the customer to sell your product. Wholesaling can still be a great business model, but whatever you do you want to have some command over setting the price. Often that means selling directly to a customer.
My biggest suggestion is that if you produce a product, whether it is a fruit or vegetable or jar of honey, you need to start by putting at least half your energy into finding a customer base. Sales are key. We struggled the most when we have raised something because we were hoping there was a market out there. Now, we’re starting to identify what the market wants and to make sure we put the time into selling our product.
Fortunately for us, the concept of farm to fork and knowing the source of your food is trending right now. People are open and receptive to the idea that there is a reason to buy from a local, trusted source, and that quality can be more important than getting the rock bottom price. That has been helping us a lot.
What is your current goal for Freedom Farms?
JK: I want to build a sustainably profitable and ethical business. Right now, we’re looking for young, hungry people that want to work with us and be a part of building our brand. Hopefully we can build our profits so that we can keep them. We’re looking for smart, passionate people who want to learn. We have a lot to offer to those people.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Freedom Farms Magazine.