“Should” Is a Dangerous Word That Almost Destroyed My Farm Business

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My wife and I used to raise organic pastured poultry. We believed that humanely-raised, premium chicken should be accessible to everyone, so we kept our prices far below market value. The net result was thousands of dollars in losses before we woke up to the damage our “should” was inflicting.

Why on earth would I keep our prices lower than we could afford? Am I just stupid? Well, possibly, but you can still learn from my stupidity. I am convinced that the word “should” is responsible for fuzzy thinking in everyone’s life, and I want to save you some of the pain it caused me.

“Should” can rob us of our efforts, warp our perception, and make us angry at the world for not conforming to our values. We absolutely should not abandon our values, but we need to think clearly in order to champion them properly.

When we say that something “should” be a certain way, we moralize the problem and tend to dismiss the real-world costs of our values as a necessary sacrifice.

That sounds virtuous on paper, but the results are often destructive. Producing our premium chicken turned out to require premium inputs and a ton of our own labor.

The farmer who grows our organic chicken feed needs to charge higher prices in order to make a living.

The farmers who run the hatchery have to cover their costs, or we don’t have a product.

None of these people could reasonably be expected to cover the costs of our “should.” That wouldn’t be fair to them. To live up to our “should” we needed to be ok with losing money.

When you are thinking in terms of “should” you don’t actually think, “I’ll just be ok with losing money.” Instead you think, “My margins are wide enough that I don’t really need to net .50 cents per pound. I can net 0.25 cents and just sell double the chicken.”

The fuzzy thinking is that each additional chicken takes more of my time. I’ve just halved my already pitiful hourly returns from something like $15 per hour to $7.50. My so-called “values” were requiring us to run ourselves into the ground at a rate-of-return that would made me into someone who couldn’t afford my own product!

Doing something unsustainable to help people is not virtuous. It is foolishness.

If we continued to sell our product without prioritizing profit, we would have gone out of business. Eventually the workload would be too high, or some expensive mistake would cost more than we could afford, and we would have to call it quits.

Then how many people have access to our premium, humanely-raised chicken? Zero.

On the other hand, what would happen if we raised our prices as high as the market would support?

First of all, we would be able to afford our own product.

We could produce even more chicken and provide it to more people.

We could eventually hire employees, and pay them wages that mean they can afford high-quality food.

And if we finally found ourselves producing as much chicken as the market could support, we could use our economy-of-scale and comfortable margins to start donating extra product to food banks. Or better yet, codify our business model and spend time educating aspiring farmers who could replicate our results.

Then you’re planting the seeds for even more people to have access to your values, and to afford them!

Would you rather have a values-based, profitable small business employing people, keeping money in the local economy, and educating future entrepreneurs? Or a barely-profitable business that fails in 5 years or less?

The positive impact of a profitable business is orders of magnitude greater than a short-lived idealistic one.

We eventually woke up to reality, and hiked our prices from $3.50 per pound to $5 per pound. The difference to our lives was immeasurable. Before, we needed to pinch every penny to stay afloat. Every chicken needed to sell, or we wouldn’t cover costs. I couldn’t miss an hour of work at my day-job or we would fall behind on grain payments.

Everything changed when we widened our profit margin.

My stress level was cut in half. We could suddenly prioritize the chicken business over my day job without suffering financially. That lead to my other values getting the attention they deserved, like maximizing the welfare of our animals and the quality of our product.

Before, we had to be careful not to give away too many chickens to our friends and neighbors. When we started to turn a regular profit, we could hand them out with no second-thoughts.

Treating our business like a business is what finally enabled us to behave generously.

“Should” is a shortcut word that gets us into trouble. Whenever possible, I’m trying to replace “should” with “why.”

Instead of: “Everyone should be able to access premium, humanely-raised chicken,” we needed to ask ask, “Why is premium, humanely-raised chicken difficult for people to access?”

A few possible explanations:

A) Truly humane, high-quality chicken is hard to find in most places in the U.S.

B) Because the inputs are expensive, and many people don’t earn enough to pay for those inputs.

C) Some people can afford premium chicken, but don’t understand the difference in quality.

Asking “why” leads us to the causes of the problem we are trying to solve, instead of disregarding them with should.

The first step to providing access the high-quality chicken is obviously creating that chicken in the first place. Without a producer, you can’t have a consumer. We have to prioritize staying in business. Then we can talk about cost.

If the inputs are expensive, can we cut costs without sacrificing quality? No. But we can invest in infrastructure that cuts costs in the future. To do that we need more capital. We get more capital with profitable sales.

Part of our misguided “should” was based on the notion that humane, premium chicken is inherently worth the costs. If I want to make more sales, I need to educate the people who can afford the costs on how they benefit by shelling out the extra money.

None of this practical thinking requires that I discard my values. I still want as many people as possible to have access to my ideals, but now I’m thinking realistically about how to accomplish that mission. Instead abusing myself or my quality standards in an attempt doomed to failure, I can create a sustainable business that attacks problems at their roots.

“Should” could have destroyed our business if we allowed it to. Learn from our mistakes, and replace your “shoulds” with “whys.”

For more insights from a chicken-farmer-turned-internet-writer, consider joining my email list. There are dozens of us.

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John Joseph

John Joseph

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Poultry farmer and part-time handyman. Now I write on the internet.