How one Raleigh dad celebrates small farmers, teaches kids value of hard work
Posted June 18
Editor's note: Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday. But, in June, in honor of Father's Day, we're featuring local dads. Today, meet Dan Moore of Ninja Cow Farm.
For more than two decades, Dan Moore had worked at his family business, RW Moore Equipment Co., rising to president back in 2003.
At the same time, he and his wife started a family and operated a farm, launching tours in 2012 to those interested in learning more about farming. In 2015, he sold the family business - and ramped up his work on the farm, excited about the opportunity to be home more often with his family and teach his kids the value of hard work.
Today, the Moore family's farm, Ninja Cow Farm, is growing. Just 15 minutes from Raleigh, the farm raises grass fed, grass finished cows and heritage and rare breed hogs. A farm store features and celebrates products from small farms across the region.
I checked in with Dan to learn more about the farm, which is open for tours by appointment, and his work to support other small farms and help kids in the community. Here's a Q&A:
Go Ask Mom: What brought you back to full-time farming in 2015?
Dan Moore: Part of the decision to sell the family business in 2015 was an effort to be more involved in my kids' lives. While running our family business, I was working the normal crazy amount of hours, but I was also on the board and eventually president of the dealer association. I was away from home a lot and missed a lot of time with my children and my wife. So the decision to find a career that allowed the maximum amount of time at home was made.
As for the farm business, we homeschool our children. While the Mrs. was figuring out the best curriculum, I was interested in them learning the values of work and finance. I also wanted them to learn an entrepreneurial spirit and to develop the sense of self worth that comes with making your own living. And then there is the always present stigma of "unsocialized" homeschoolers. It's not true by and large, but it is something we hear about. I thought that by expanding the farm and making it more of a real business with real customers coming in the door, I could tackle all of these concerns while giving myself and others the opportunity to work and earn.
My kids are 8, 10 and 13. The 8- and 10-year-old run the store on Saturdays and the 13-year-old gives tours. We see thousands of people per year. Usually, they are greeted, led and helped by the kids working here.
I find that they are learning a good work ethic, something that will take them farther than pretty much anything else we could teach them. If you can read and you have a drive and work ethic, is there really anything you cannot accomplish in today's world?
GAM: What's your average day like? Is there an average day?
DM: I don't think there is an average day, especially in my operation. Sometimes I am a day laborer, sometimes a mechanic or welder, sometimes a retailer, an accountant, a teacher. Some days, I even get to be a farmer. It really never is the same thing twice. I guess the only consistent elements of my days are that I am perennially behind on my to-do list and that my day starts very early. Sometimes as early as 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., but the latest would be about 5:30 a.m.
While days vary day to day, they do run together. We tend to operate seven days per week, 365 days per year. So unless I'm able to schedule time out of town, I'm never really off. My wife has mentioned many times that I work more hours now than I did in my "real" business.
GAM: What's the story behind the name ... Ninja Cow Farm?
DM: This one is easy. (It's quite a story!).
GAM: You raise grass fed, grass finished cows and heritage and rare breed hogs. What are they? Why are they important?
DM: Many customers are surprised to learn that grass fed cows are often grain finished. And the larger the operation you are purchasing from (grocery store chain, Costco, etc), the more likely it is the cows are grain finished.
Grain finishing is a "best practice" promoted in the cattle industry as it removes objectionable flavors and adds fat to the carcass. Unfortunately grain finishing also removes preferable flavors as well. What is left is a much reduced quality of taste. Grain finishing is also much easier than grass finishing. Grass finishing means that the animal was on forage until the day it was processed. The taste is 100 percent a reflection on the animal's life, with no masking from grain.
I have a series about this topic running right now, which includes a link to a great article in the Wall Street Journal. I break down the article and talk about how it applies to our farm and farming in general.
For our hogs, we raise breeds that are traditionally not used anymore in conventional farming. Our breeds were selected over generations for quality of flavor and performance, but fell out of favor as pigs moved indoors and onto concrete. As we transitioned to factory farmed animals, the animals themselves have been bred for different qualities - flavor often not being a primary trait. When we take our heritage breed hog and feed them a vegetable and forage-based diet, we see the flavor, texture and color simply explode from what we are used too.
GAM: You also have a small farm store where you feature products from other local farms. What's your hope for that part of your operation?
DM: One of the toughest aspects of starting a farm is actually sales. Many people, once able to produce sellable product on a farm, have no idea where to take it to market. The problem is you are too small to supply any real business, too large to piecemeal the product out. Also, you are the producer, so you can't work a farmers' market and run your farm at the same time. But you aren't big enough to hire someone to run the farm or the market. It's a catch-22.
One of the things that we look for in our store is the chance to give other small farmers an outlet for their product. We often go and pick up the product directly from the farm or meet half way. We pay cash at the time of delivery (no minor issue to a struggling farmer). We then promote and celebrate to our customers the farm that provided the product.
If we get wholesale leads, we pass them along to the farmer to do business directly. We don't take a cut. There is a large amount of rebranding that goes on in our industry where the consumer doesn't realize that their farm fresh product is actually from another farm they've never heard of. We always try to prop up our farmers because we are farmers too and a rising tide floats all boats. The restaurant I help find lamb today may circle back and buy beef or pork from me tomorrow.
For our farm, our store is where the rubber meets the road. While we do some business with a few restaurants, more than 90 percent of our revenue comes from in-store sales. We keep this ratio on purpose, as the intent of our farming operation is to optimize the opportunities for our kids.
While this focus keeps us artificially small, we do feel that we are well positioned to be a major source of quality farm fresh products for our customers. We are only 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh. We provide some unique products that are well received by our customers and only available here. We continue to grow within our footprint adding new customers, new products and new opportunities. Our plan is to double our operation again by next year, one customer at a time.
GAM: Your kids and family all work on the farm. And you employ other kids on the farm too. As a dad ... and a member of the community ... why is that kind of experience so important for kids?
DM: The number one job of a parent is to work yourself out of a job. Period. Everything else is ancillary. If we do our jobs correctly, soon our kids will no longer need us. I think we have done a major disservice to our kids by outlawing children working in this country. We struggle with why kids play video games, have no initiative, get into trouble, fail to launch, etc. Yet we make it illegal for them to develop a career, earn their own money, learn a trade or develop a sense of worth and accomplishment.
One of the perks of farming is that child labor laws do not apply to a farm or farm workers. That means that unlike nearly everywhere else, kids can come here and work and learn. We take into account that they are children and we work them accordingly, but what we don't do is baby them.
They are expected to take care of the customer, run a register, lift boxes, take care of the customer, whatever it is they are capable of. Oh, and take care of the customer. I find that focusing on the customer is what makes it real to the kids. They understand that customer first is a mantra and that focus usually solves all other problems. I can tell you that after a busy day, after counting the register, tipping out, and collecting their pay, they leave here standing a little taller with money they truly earned in their pocket.
I see first hand the difference it makes in a child's life having responsibility. We have kids constantly wanting to work here, more than we can employ. We make it fun, we pay well, but, most importantly kids, respond well to challenges and responsibility. They also know the difference between a real job and just pretending.
Go Ask Mom features local parents every Monday.