Today I spent most of the day traveling to, and then from, a critical place in the grand scheme of things. In our scheme of things anyway. Where on earth did I go? To deliver a truckload of product to a customer.
Most folks don't get into farming with their customers in mind. We get into farming for all sorts of other reasons - we love plants, we love animals, we love the outdoors, our family has farmed for however many generations, or some combination. We spend our days figuring out how to grow our crops better, how to raise healthier animals, how to preserve and protect the landscapes we work in. How to preserve and protect the buildings we work in. How to respond to, and anticipate, the various elements that will affect our operation - the weather, the politics, the economy, the social changes in which we exist.
But you'll notice that the word "customer" isn't in that description. Yet customers are the fuel that drive this engine called a farm. Without customers, we very quickly lose the ability, and sometimes the motivation, to move forward.
Customers are an odd bird. To quote a favorite TV show, "don't brand the cattle. Brand the customer. They're the ones most likely to wander away." Customers are often regarded as this unknown creature that occassionally stares at us from the periphery of the farm. Sometimes they dare to set foot on the farm and make demands. Sometimes they call, or email, with questions which can range from profound to inane. Sometimes they'll show up at the farm gate at 7am on a Sunday morning and wonder why we aren't open for business. Sometimes they'll call at 10:50pm the night before a delivery, and ask if we can tack on another six items to their order, "just this once". I have occassionally heard it said that farming would be a lot more fun without customers.
Then there are the customers that send you a Happy Birthday card and you have no idea how they found out it was your birthday. They show up the day after a flood and ask if they can help you clean up. They mail you a check to buy replacement stock when fire takes your barn and most of your animals. At market, they bring their moms, their kids, their best friends and introduce you as THE farmer they buy their food from, as if we were royalty. And they buy that last tomato, the one that everyone else passed up, because they wanted to make sure they got your tomatoes instead of going home without.
This particular customer has been fantastic to work with, and to be honest we gave them a lot of opportunity to wander away. They wanted to buy meat animals from us, but it was crucial to them that the animals not only were raised well, but also dispatched well. It was important to them that we were local, sustainable, humane, and amenable to new ideas and new products. I can't count how many times we gave them a good reason to abandon us, when I was slow to return their calls, or when I was sold out and couldn't sell them as much as they'd wanted, or when our production hiccups meant I didn't have anything to sell at all. They kept trying. And we kept trying. And somehow, somewhere along the line, we became partners in this attempt to make the world a better place. Every time I work with them, I think "my goodness, I don't know why they stayed with us but thank God they did."
I think there are a lot of things to keep track of when running a farm. But perhaps one of the most critical is to ensure we tend to our customers as carefully as we tend to any of our plantings or animals. Without our customers, we can't survive. And there's other places our customers can buy what they need. They should be treated like gold because that's exactly what they're worth. Thank God for good customers, because they allow me to keep doing what I love doing.