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Ken Lenox: Don’t overreach!

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Lenox Farms is a ranch of about 1,800 acres located in the Missouri Ozarks. It’s been in my family for five generations.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a typical stock farm, with cattle and hogs — and it made very little money. To boost our income, my father built six charcoal kilns in 1957. Since a majority of the farm was covered in scrub timber, some of our raw materials were free. We sold the raw charcoal to Kingsford Charcoal and the price for the raw material was good enough to help make the farm viable.

In 1961, I graduated from high school and entered the Marine Corps.

I returned home to the farm in 1965 after completing my last tour in Vietnam and began working with my dad on the farm.

In 1967, I took a charcoal consulting job in South America and my wife, Joyce and I spent a year there.

But, by 1969, with our first baby on the way and my dad’s health worsening, we moved back and made plans to purchase the farm.

In those early years, we had to borrow from the FHA, the state of Missouri, three different banks and four individuals to get enough money to begin to purchase the farm, build a house, and make a few improvements. It was during this time that I learned many very important financial lessons while managing the kiln and hog operations.

Each kiln burned 45 cords of wood, and had to be refilled twice per month. I had two men on the payroll who helped me fill the kilns and 40 to 60 men cutting and hauling wood for payment by the cord.

I had another man on the payroll who worked with the pigs. The hog market was strong, and we were clearing $8 per pig after all expenses. I decided to build a farrowing house to raise more pigs. The house could handle about 100 sows comfortably in groups of 25 at a time. Each sow had about nine pigs per litter.

Everything was going well so I decided to expand again. I increased the number of sows by 25. After six months, I added another 25 sows. Six months later another 25, and in about two years, I had 200 sows farrowing continuously.

But things were not going smoothly any longer! In one month, the farm hand quit and one of the kiln workers also quit. Taking care of the pigs myself required much of my time, and I was doing more of the physical labor at the kilns. I was also trucking feed in from St. Louis or Springfield once or twice a week. I was a very busy man who was all of a sudden feeling in over his head.

The financial outlook had changed, too. The $8 profit per pig had shrunk to $4.50 because of health issues with the pigs and difficulties in handling the increased numbers. Our litters had dropped from a nine pig-per-sow average to a seven-pig average. The charcoal kilns were hurting too, as we were trying to produce 200 tons of raw charcoal per month, but the average had dropped to 170 tons.

This was not good! I realized I was doing twice as much work for much less money. Obvious to me now is the fact that I had increased the production numbers by too much, too quickly. The most important financial lesson I ever learned was learned the hard way. Don’t overreach!

On Lenox Farms today, I run about 300 mother cows and I haven’t had a pig around in more than 30 years. The kilns were phased out shortly after the pigs, the cattle operation has thrived on our lush Missouri Ozark grassland as has the Lenox Family for several generations.

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