Last month John described what successful ranching might look like in the future, and what steps young ranchers might consider. This article is another look at that subject, sharing the example of a young entrepreneur finding success with a diverse, forward-thinking business model.
My young friend Cody Wood is a nut; anyone can see that. His business has him running all over the map, stirring all sorts of pots. Cody’s story is a twisting, turning path with plenty of ups and downs, and winds up looking like a possible playbook for farmers and ranchers of the future.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
Cody grew up in a very rural area in western Oregon, a place with lots of grass and livestock and an extremely diverse farming community. And so, even though Cody’s family wasn’t involved in agriculture, it was natural for him to begin taking summer jobs on local farms. Eventually, he began working Saturdays at the local livestock auction yard, receiving, sorting and loading out all manner of livestock. It was almost inevitable that Cody would begin to accumulate a random assortment of oddball animals: a miniature Hereford bull, a few goats, single sheep, then a few little groups of sheep. And because he had no land on which to place those animals, he sought out friends and relatives with small un-used corners, orchards, or backyard pastures. Anywhere there was a piece of grass, he would find an animal to put there.
This went on for a couple of years, but things began to get difficult. Cody had started college, and that was serious business. As an engineering major, he needed to focus more and more on his studies. By his third year, he was running a couple hundred ewes on the side and trying to prepare for a professional career. Late in his junior year fate stepped into Cody’s life, and it showed up in the form of two Pit Bulls. On his way to an important study session, Cody got a call: dogs were in his sheep. He was faced with a weighty choice – tend the flock, or go study for final exams. In that very short moment of decision-making, Cody became a full time rancher.
“My dad wasn’t all that excited about my career choice at that point,” reports Cody. Undeterred, Cody struck out to build a full-time grazing business.
The Building Blocks of the Business
Cody would need animals and grass, and he was stepping into what one of his competitors once described to me as the world of the “Sheep Grazing Mafia” of western Oregon. Turns out, while our part of the world includes tens of thousands of acres of winter grazing and lambs, most of the land is tightly controlled by a small number of operators, folks who don’t look too kindly on upstart graziers like Cody. Unphased, Cody began making cold calls on landowners, especially smaller farms, and eventually found enough pasture to begin a grazing program. About the same time, he came across a deal on 1,000 ewe lambs that he turned out on grass with rams. Six months later, Cody was overwhelmed with a flock that doubled, then nearly tripled overnight as the lambs were born. Coincidently, the sheep market experienced a tremendous price spike. And then comes the first unusual part of the story: Cody sold out, nearly every animal, and put the money in the bank.
Twists and Turns Lead to Progress
For his next act, Cody chose an even more unconventional route: he offered his leases and his remaining sheep to friends and departed for a one-year paid apprenticeship in New Zealand.
“I knew I needed to have a better understanding of both grass management and animal management, and the New Zealanders seemed like they had some things figured out. I chose a place on the South Island, a place with weather conditions similar to Oregon. I learned a ton during that year. It was just a tremendous investment.”
On his return, Cody picked up where he had left off: leasing pastures and finding ways to graze sheep. A couple years later, thinking that his future actually lay in producing meat for restaurants and specialty markets, Cody once again made a big unconventional choice: he signed up for an intense apprenticeship in butchering at Fleischer’s, a prestigious butchery in New York City. On his return from that adventure, Cody began assembling the pieces of his diverse business: people to help with ranch operations, building relationships with people in the meat world, long-term pasture rents, seasonal grazing lands. He continued to reach out, involving himself in both cattle and sheep partnerships, working across a large landscape.
Currently, Cody’s enterprises include a fencing and management project for several hundred yearling cattle grazing in California, two hundred ewes grazing on the southern Oregon coast, a grass-finishing lamb operation that supplies meat to 18 Whole Foods markets as well as several up-scale restaurants. Oh, and there are occasional dabblings in local cattle and sheep grazing projects, utilizing both custom-managed and owned stock. He has only one employee, but typically works with several apprentice workers. Some of these young stockmen stay for a month or two, some for an entire year.
And we should also mention his most audacious effort to date: Cody has taken on a project to grow fodder beets on the high desert of Oregon, some 250 miles from home. He has rented irrigated land, hired out the farming, and contracted yearling cattle for the grazing. He got to spend the past few months on site, strip grazing the beet crop, moving cattle each day, all while managing his other enterprises remotely. The jury is still out on whether this beet project is “successful”, but Cody is hoping to continue it on in 2019.
How Did All this Happen?
At this point, I think it’s important to think a bit about the things Cody has done, but also the things he hasn’t done.
He’s aggressively pursued opportunities to increase his education and expertise in critical areas tied to his business. He’s founded intense, close relationships with a wide range of people in related businesses. He uses technology to a huge degree, in communications, marketing, logistics, planning. He uses temporary infrastructure on rented and leased pastures. He sells high value products to a number of different markets. In addition to products, he sells his management services and expertise in grazing and property management.
Oh, and Cody owns no land, none at all. He has a very limited investment on equipment – just his “fleet” consisting of a few small pick- up trucks and ATVs, and some Border Collie dogs. He hires all of his trucking and farming activities out to local contractors, and he has a very modest labor component. All of his projects depend on cooperation with other people.
Is Cody’s business model “repeatable”? Maybe, maybe not. But clearly, his model depends on grasping local opportunities and using unique ideas to make things work. He is constantly looking around for possibilities.
Finally, if you’d like to explore what it might be like to do something like this, here are some quotes from Cody that can give you some insight into how he thinks:
“Opportunity for growth is everywhere.”
“Always do the math to decide which opportunity to choose. Learn Excel.”
“Match your business to the resources at hand.”
“The whole world is grazeable.”
And a final question: Cody, are you happy?: “Yes, most days, very happy.”
Happy grazing, happy futures.