Eliza Walton sits down with us this week to tell her story of growing up on a farm to eventually operating her own business in Centre County, Pennsylvania. She reflects on the challenges of finding farmland for young and beginning farmers while offering her advice for those looking to get started with their own businesses.
From 4-H to Full-Time
This week's Field Notes is another feature from the AgBiz Cast podcast, which shares inspiring stories of young, beginning, and small farmers. Today's episode is an interview with Eliza Walton, a beef farmer and feed mill owner and operator in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Be sure to look for and subscribe to AgBiz Cast on your favorite podcast platform to hear more stories from young and beginning farmers like Eliza. Click here for the full podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/960592/9871088
Can you tell us about your operation including some history and how you got started with it?
I grew up on a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I started 4H when I was nine with two dairy heifers. The next year, my uncle Frank got me into showing Angus cattle and I started with four show heifers that year and a steer. I always say that my cattle operation is actually a 4H project gone bad because those four heifers have turned into a cow calf herd of about 40 brood cows now. I went to Penn State for animal science with a minor in Ag Business. After college, I started working for my dad when he bought this feed mill in Centre County.
I worked for him at the mill for six years before I bought it in 2013. Now I live in Spring Mills, Centre County, Pennsylvania with my boyfriend, Chris and we farm together. He actually had the farm, and I had the cows and that worked out well. The farm is 148 acres and about 100 acres of it is now fenced for pasture. We also rent two neighboring pastures and we rotationally graze the cow herd for about eight months out of the year. We also started Sinking Creek Meats together. It's an LLC, formed in 2019 to market our beef directly to consumers. We currently sell our meat by appointment, at the farm, in the store here at the feed mill, and through an online farmer's market in State College.
Can you tell our listeners why you enjoy farming and what inspires you to stay in the business?
I really enjoy working with cattle. I love calving season when all the babies are running around the farm and they bounce around out in the field. I like watching them grow and mature into the kind of functional cow that I want to have on the farm. I love selling beef to people and hearing them rave about how delicious it is. As with most beef producers, we eat our own beef all the time and we never buy it in the store. While we know it's good stuff, we don't realize how different it can be from commercially available beef that most consumers are used to. I guess that's the stuff that keeps me going every day and keeps me getting up early and staying out in the barn until dark.
What was the biggest challenge in starting your farm?
Starting our particular farm worked out well because Chris had the farm and I had the cows. Prior to that I rented a farm and the feed mill actually rented it for the crop land. Then it happened to have barns and pastures, so I was able to use the mill as a way funding. They were getting the crop land out of that deal. I think for a lot of young and beginning farmers, if you don't already have a family farm, then finding a property that you can rent or buy would be the biggest challenge getting started.
Can you share with our listeners one of your favorite memories from over the years of your farm and the business?
This one was actually really tough for me and I’m not sure why I was so stumped by this question. There are a lot of good memories, but a recent one that sticks out to me would be from this spring. We had our first Baldy calf born here on the farm. I've always been a Black Angus breeder, and registered Angus over the years. We started working with a profit team from Penn State. Through that we worked on our heifer development program and we worked on becoming more of a commercial operation. Those Baldy calves that were born this spring were the result of two years’ worth of work with the profit team. Seeing that all come together was a sign of progress. I think that was probably the most recent one for me that sticks out.
What do you envision for the future of your farm?
We'd like to expand the meat shop to include an on-farm retail store. Ideally, we would put most of our calf crop through the store as beef instead of selling feeder calves. That would really entail expanding the meat side of our business and trying to increase our direct-to-consumer sales rather than just the commodity of feeder calves or commercial beef to a sale barn. We worked with NRCS to finally get all that pasture grant together. That's how we fenced the additional 70 acres this past year, and it’s all been working towards being able to expand the cow herd as well as have more room to finish animals in the barn. I think that our goal going forward is to market all of our beef ourselves.
Do you mind telling our listeners in your own words what AgBiz Masters teaches young and beginning farmers like yourself?
I think the AgBiz Masters program is a practical introduction to finance and farm financial management. In college I had a few accounting classes and I absolutely hated them. As it turns out, I should have paid a lot more attention because that's a huge part of what I do every day for the mill and at home. I had to learn QuickBooks and basic accounting functions to do our bookkeeping and the bookkeeping for the farm. I had to prepare our financials to talk with the bank. The class really introduces students to the balance sheet, the P&L, statement of cash flows, budgets, and other critical financial tools. I think it's a great place for young farmers to start and I always recommend this class.
How did AgBiz Masters help you improve your operation and what changes did you see in it after completing the program?
I took the class in 2014, so it was right after I purchased the mill in 2013. I had already worked with the Small Business Development Center on a business plan and preparing the financials. Then I could convince the bank to give me all that money, but it also showed me how much more I needed to learn if I was actually going to stay in business. This class helped me to understand the financial documents better and to start to evaluate the health of my business on a regular basis to feel more comfortable. After taking the course, I felt more comfortable talking with lenders. I was also able to take a critical look at my financials and see them the way that the lender might be viewing them as well. I think that it really did help me prepare more for that role in the business.
What piece of advice do you have for young and beginning farmers that are looking to start their own business like yours?
I recommend that they should take a class like AgBiz Masters. I also recommend that they take advantage of all the low cost and free learning opportunities out there. AgBiz Masters is an option, or the Small Business Development Center is an option, which is free. I think they have 16 centers around the state. The one that I work with up here is part of Penn State, but they have them at other universities around the state as well. The Small Business Development Center helped me to evaluate the opportunity and access the feasibility of the plan that I was writing for Martin's Feed. These are great resources to utilize. By taking the time to think through the plan, I felt more confident in purchasing the mill. It's also a great way to develop a relationship with a lending partner or a business contact who can help with future networking opportunities.
My small business development advisor nominated me for another program a few years later. It never hurts to get to know your lenders and advisors because they can help you in a lot of ways. Also, Penn State Extension offers some great resources. We applied for a grant from the Center for Beef Excellence that encouraged us to form the profit team. We asked Dr. Tara Felix and Dustin Heeter from Penn State Extension to be on our profit team. They helped us improve our heifer development program on the farm. Dr. Felix made the fantastic suggestion to buy a scale with the grant money. That's been the one piece of cattle equipment that I didn't think that I needed and now I couldn't imagine not having. I didn't know what I didn't know, so I would never have thought to get one. Overall, there are tons of great free resources out there. My advice would be to look for the learning opportunities and take advantage of all of them.