Yesterday in Midwest Entrepreneurs we returned to the ag-related theme of the first several weeks of the semester. But I knew going in that this entrepreneurial story—that of Joni Bucher and the Bucher Cattle Company (based in Good Hope, IL)—would be different in important ways from the stories of our other ag-related guest speakers. In particular, I knew that tending to animals on the farm would make this entrepreneurial venture far different than that of Paul Rickey; our “traditional row-crop farmer-as-entrepreneur” from earlier in the semester. Simply put: Animals require far more and more frequent attention than do crops.
But, as we learned from Joni Bucher, there were far more striking differences than this.
One assumption I made in error was that cattle farming—as an industry and business activity—is relatively homogeneous. We learned from Joni that cattle farming, like most other industries, has a variety of niches within it that can be pursued as business opportunities by entrepreneurs. We also learned that doing whatever it takes to successfully pursue one’s passion—“burning the candle at both ends” as Joni put it—can have both highly positive and highly negative consequences for the entrepreneur.
This and more is discussed in today’s student-authored blog story below. The class blogger is James McGrew; nephew of Joni Bucher and proud birthday boy (which led to cookies for the class from the guest speaker).
Tuesday April 4 was my birthday and the class and I were grateful to learn the “ins and outs” of running a small, highly specialized cattle farm located in central Illinois from my aunt Joni Bucher. Joni always had a great interest in farming growing up. But she was instructed by her father to “get an education before returning to the farm.” Because of this Joni spent about 20 years first in the nursing industry and then the pharmaceutical industry. After being the top sales rep for the pharmaceutical firm for 12 years in a row her employer decided to downsize her division and she lost her job. While this event can be said to be sort of epiphany that led her back to her love of farming, in 2004 she had decided to take up cattle farming as a hobby while still employed. In fact, it was the money earned from her work as a sales rep. that allowed her to buy the farm (and supplement the losses sustained by running it for its first several years of operation). Things began to progress past the point of being a hobby when she bought 10 cows to start her own herd. She admits that one of her biggest mistakes early on was ignoring how expensive it was to raise and tend to the cattle. She simply spent what needed to be spent because she had the money to pay for it without realizing how much she was in fact spending.
In 2007 the farm became a more serious business venture Joni when purchased 80 acres and built a barn. Around this same time she agreed to raise 12 completely organic grass-fed calves for a consumer group. Because they were organic, they could not be vaccinated or receive hormone implants. These calves could also only eat grass; no grain. This greatly increases the time it takes for the animals to reach harvesting weight. These three factors contribute to a longer growing time, which also increases the amount of time it takes to see a return on investment (ROI). This was another of Joni’s biggest mistakes; she didn’t realize it took so long to raise these animals and see the ROI. Once she raised them she also chose to act as the distributor, the intermediary, and the salesperson; doing all distribution-related activities herself. All of these “lessons learned” added up to her consistently losing money in the early years of the business.
After these mistakes, Joni realized that raising grass-fed cattle was not her plan. She then started to win very large and important cattle shows all across the country. Using her success at these shows, she decided to shift her focus to a niche market. This market was creating breeding stock to sell to other cattle farmers in order for them to improve the desirable traits found in their herds. Once she shifted her market focus her hobby started to take the form of a profession; and a profitable entrepreneurial business.
In 2011 Joni volunteered for a position on the Illinois Beef Association; the leading trade association for beef producers in the state. In this position she acted as a promoter to help increase consumer confidence and boost sales of beef products. Since then she was elected to Vice President of the organization. She now spends a lot of time reviewing legislative acts that have to do with the beef industry. In the last year she has traveled to Japan and Cuba in order to promote the sales and exportation of US beef to these countries.
She slowly grew her herd until 2012. When she was laid off her sales job in 2012 she decided that she should be able to sustain herself on the cash flow from the farm and she began farming full time. Ever since then, she has slowly been growing her herd and selling cows all across the country; while at the same time perfecting her brand image of being a high quality cattle producer.
In an effort to improve the quality of her product and the environment in which she works Joni practices intensive rotational grazing. This means that a group of cows never stay in a pasture for more than a few days. This allows for a higher number of cows to be raised on fewer acres than a conventional farm. Joni has been using this practice since she started her operation and it is beginning to catch on with more and more farmers all across the country.
Joni talked a lot about how focusing on your business can be detrimental to family life but she also told about the great benefits of being able to do what you love every day. She told the class to make a plan and follow it; but to always have a “plan B” which takes into account worst case scenarios. She emphasized importance of being able to adjust to ever changing markets. She also told the class to network with smart and successful people in order to facilitate the sharing of valuable knowledge between different types of farm operations and industries.
Listening to Joni’s presentation about how she built her farm from the ground up was extremely interesting and eye opening. I enjoyed how she was upfront about some things and did not try to sugar-coat the perils and hardships of being an entrepreneur. She provided knowledge about an industry that no other entrepreneur has this year in an interesting and engaging way. She is the embodiment of being your own boss and waking up and having the privilege to do what she loves every single day.