Wildlife treat idea simmers in the summer sun

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series following one year in the life of Bruce Tiffany, an entrepreneurial farmer who developed wildlife treats from local commodities. Tiffany is now bagging samples for retailers and prioritizing his time among his new venture, diversified farm and repair business.

In less than a year, Bruce Tiffany invented a new ag product, formulated it, tested it, labeled it, bagged it and turned a backyard granary into a production plant equipped with machines of his own design.

Then came spring and mud and calving and planting — and Tiffany put his commercial wildlife treat project on the back burner. It’s time, he says, to “let things simmer so the flavors come out.” As a diversified farmer and farm machinery repairman, “I do one project as hard as I can, then I slack off and do something else hard … It gives you time to reflect and gather your thoughts on how you want to assault (the first project) again.”

Something’s got to give

While he drives the tractor and thinks, Tiffany has concluded that to keep his wildlife treats venture going, something has to give. “I’m probably over-employed doing too many things, so to find the time to do this properly, I have to make the decision on what’s going to be eliminated.”

In two years, his oldest son graduates from college and will likely return to the farm — another reason to make some decisions.

Either the livestock or the repair business must go, Tiffany says, but he’ll continue farming 1500 acres of corn, wheat, alfalfa, soybeans, sweet corn and peas. “The repair business is fairly risk-free money, but livestock is a nice complement to the farm. It’s more likely the repair business will go.”

A difficult farewell, since Quality Repair by Tiffany was built on word-of-mouth advertising by loyal, satisfied customers. But the repair business is changing and Tiffany says he doesn’t know that he wants to change with it. “People farming today aren’t necessarily the same ones I started with; many have retired or moved on. There aren’t as many farmers and the machines they’re operating are different.”

New challenges ahead

Tiffany would rather shift focus to his new business, making Trophy TreatsTM to attract deer and wild turkey for hunting or Nature’s TreatsTM to attract animals for backyard feeding. A typical entrepreneur, he finds energy in risk and challenge.

“One of the reasons for doing (wildlife treats) is things were going pretty well around here, and we needed to mess it up a little bit,” he laughs. “It’s easy to go with the flow and not take risk. … I never want to get too comfortable.”

He contends that everyone is attracted to challenges — even people who just watch from their own comfort zone. “Look at all the interest in extreme sports … and why is “Survivor” a hit? People want to watch other people in danger.”

On the other hand, Tiffany doesn’t want “to lose everything I’ve already gained.” So he’s paying careful attention to the market and getting to know the retailers and customers before leaping into full-blown production and piled-up inventory.

This winter, he attended the Minnesota Deer Hunters state banquet in order to get a feel for the customers in his future market. By understanding the hunters he will sell to, Tiffany says he can sharpen his sales and promotion strategy.

The six-state strategy

With the help of retired 3M marketing specialist Russ Bremner, funded by Minnesota Technology and the Southwest Minnesota Foundation, Tiffany has put together a database of all 1600 sporting goods stores in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Tiffany is preparing a direct mail campaign to select stores, which he will follow up with phone calls, product samples and personal visits. “Running around the countryside could be expensive and time consuming. We’ll start with the independents, those more interested in giving us feedback.

“Russ says, ‘Realistically, if you could get 10 percent to purchase your product, that would be good,’ so we’ll see. … He also said, ‘Put a mirror by your phone and put a smile on your face when you pick it up.’ ”

Bagging at a bargain

Tiffany is confident in the product he is selling; it’s been tested and proven with the help of AURI’s Al Doering in Waseca. Recently, Doering significantly improved the product’s shelf-stable qualities by finding a dry version of a wet ingredient they were trying to pelletize. “Al goes above and beyond the call of duty … he pays close attention to detail,” Tiffany says.

When the orders start coming in, Tiffany will be ready for full-scale production. Last winter he removed partitions and bins from a 500 square-foot granary, wired it for electricity and assembled production equipment.

Tiffany likes to invest time and ingenuity but is tight with money. He proudly points out the $1 lights gleaned from salvage yards and the bagger designed from parts of used equipment. “Everything works and nothing has caught on fire,” he laughs. “This scale (which can measure to a thousandth of a pound) I’m told is worth about $5,000.” He doesn’t divulge what he paid, but smiles and says, “Well, it wasn’t that much.”

Corn in an exterior bin is augured inside to a blender where it is mixed with sweet-smelling apple pellets. The blend enters a bagging machine that can fill a 10-pound bag every two seconds. Next, the bag is secured with a heat sealer, checked for weight and stacked on carts, ready to be boxed for truck transport.

“I did splurge a little on those carts,” which look like oversized child’s pull wagons. “I payed $70 each, but I priced it out and it would have cost more to make them myself,” Tiffany says.

Lingering over a logo

Doing it alone has drawbacks, Tiffany admits. He and his wife Ann stalled on getting out promotional materials and printing labels because even though the labels were designed by a graphic artist, they wanted to add a Tiffany Family Farms logo that they created and couldn’t agree on a final design.

“We want it to be right; we don’t want to be changing it,” Tiffany says, adding it should be a quality mark not only for the wildlife treats but other products they develop. The Tiffanys finally decided to have their logo professionally designed.

Within the next several months, Tiffany would like to see his treats on store shelves. But he realizes that getting from idea to retail may be more risky and nebulous than farming. “There is no definite beginning and, unlike a harvest, there is no definite end.”