Modern Farmer: When did you guys start farming?
Joel Slezak: We started the farm in 2010, with 600 chickens and a handful of cows. From there we have grown every year. Erica worked at Polyface Farm under Joel Salatin, so that gave her a good base of knowledge. I grew up homesteading and milking Jersey cows. When we graduated college, we traveled around for a bit and realized that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in other fields. We really wanted to give farming a go, because of the local food movement. It has been growing ever since. We are up to about 5,000 Freedom Ranger chickens this year, 1,200 Peking ducks, 20 cows and we will probably do about 20 hogs this year as well. We also have 365 laying hens right now.
MF: Why did you guys decide to join Instagram as a farm?
Erica Hellen: I was the first to join Instagram. I did it just from a personal perspective. Then I got Joel on board about a year later. I like to say I taught him everything he knows, although he currently has twice as many followers than I do. It just seemed like a great way to connect with other farmers and showcase our life, which happens to be pretty interesting because of what we do. We found a huge following of small farmers doing weird and wacky things and this is a very personal and direct way to engage with them. It is also a fun way for us to capture our story and keep track of where things are and what things looked like at a certain period in time. It has been a great way of record keeping for us in an artistic way.
JS: I think it has also taken our advertising to a whole new level. Before we just used Facebook, but they are able to hide our posts through the new filtering devices they use. We have never paid a dime for advertising in newspapers or online, but just posting beautiful pictures and showing what we are doing has created a buzz about the farm.
EH: What I think we have learned is that a better way of advertising yourself isn’t telling people what you have and what it will cost, but simply showing them who you are. It makes them want to pay attention to you on a personal level and engage with you. We have grown our business more that way than by our products, which I think is an interesting twist.
‘Before you take someones ideas from Instagram or from other farmers, you need to know if what they are doing is actually working. It is hard to do that just over pictures.’
MF: Have you learned things from some of the farmers you have connected with over the app?
JS: You have to be careful. When people are posting on Instagram, ourselves included, you are putting the best face of the farm forward. I am cautious of taking advice from anyone, mainly because we have learned the hard way. You see farmers doing certain styles of farming that look amazing and looks like the perfect way to farm. Then when you go to a closer analysis you realize the numbers aren’t adding up or the function of what they are doing is actually not functioning. It is hard to explain, but there are a lot of small farms, which is a great thing, and it takes about five years to step back and see if you are making any money. Before you take someone’s ideas from Instagram or from other farmers, you need to know if what they are doing is actually working. It’s hard to do that just over pictures.
MF: What are you looking forward to sharing the most this week with our followers?
EH: We are really excited about it. We love being able to connect with people both large and small. To be able to take the helm and speak for Modern Farmer, even just through photos, is really awesome for us. Also the ability to connect with other people and showcase ourselves.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
(Photo Credit: Top image by Brianna LaRocco. All others courtesy Free Union Grass Farm.)