Moldly Closets, Lost Dogs, and Broken Limbs: A Memorable Day at HPP

Moldly Closets, Lost Dogs, and Broken Limbs: A Memorable Day at HPP

I’m often asked, having an uncommon occupation, what my day to day is like. I usually answer with a quip about putting out fires, or I say, “they vary.” In describing a particularly memorable day below, I hope to offer some wisdom, or at the very least some commiseration for farmers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs. Its taken me awhile to get around to writing this, but I’ve pieced the day back together from notes on my phone, text messages, and memory. It’s accurate and not embellished- scout's honor!

Friday Oct 22nd, 2021.

4:30 am

I met an employee at the plant to load out meat headed to a co-packer in Missouri, where we have specialty products like spiral sliced hams and hotdogs made from our pork. It’s an 8-hour trip and we had to get the product there by 2pm, hence the early hour departure.

5:00 am to 8am

I didn’t have an office manager back then, so I was handling all the bills, HR, and accounts receivable work in little pockets like this when I could squeeze it in, usually early before any staff arrived.


I held an all staff meeting to discuss some company updates and address some new policies surrounding attendance and food safety.

8:30am to around 11am

I helped a farm staff member sort off some cattle (the farm manager was making the Missouri meat haul for me). We pulled off a few head to harvest the next week and set up an electric fence paddock for the rest.


I get a phone call from the new farm apprentice. He had just moved across the country with his wife and kids to live and work on the farm for 6 months before starting a new career. I was apprehensive about hosting a whole family, but he visited ahead of time to meet us and vet the guest cottage. He loved the place and was a really nice, smart guy, so I said “why not.”

On the phone he explained that his wife had noticed some things about the farm cottage that he had missed. There was mold/ mildew in some of the closets and around some windows from condensation (a common problem in old houses in the south retrofitted with air conditioning).  

She was very upset. I ran over to check it out and didn’t see what the fuss was about, but I held my tongue and reminded myself that this was not my call.  

As luck would have it, they couldn’t find a hotel room nearby because of a little league baseball tournament. This couple had 3 kids and some goats in tow, and I was pacing around the yard in front of them on the phone calling hotels in a 40 mile radius. I remembered reading other farms’ internship descriptions and noticing the “no children or families” disclaimer. I thought to myself, “smart...” I promised to have the house professionally remediated immediately, but that wouldn’t do. She said they simply couldn’t stay there, no matter the remediation strategy. I said I understood, but that this was the only place I had available, and that I couldn’t afford to put them up in a hotel for more than 3 or 4 days.

I finally found them a room further north in Desoto county, about 10 miles south of Memphis. The apprentice, bless him, agreed to stay and work with us for the rest of the day and sent his wife and kids in their mini-van to the hotel. I agreed to drop him off that evening on my way home to Memphis. The goats remained in the backyard, deemed safe from the mold inside.


A couple chefs called with some order issues I tried to sort out, and a group of campers (we rent out campsite on the farm through the app Hipcamp) arrived who I had to get some information and firewood together for.


While dealing with the campers at the farm store, I noticed the lunch line growing.  I helped behind the counter for the lunch rush.


Dangerously close to taking a bite of a sandwich, I got a call from some contractors who had arrived to give me a bid on a job. At the same time a load of hogs arrived from a producer.


I helped Sam organize inventory and freeze down products in our new container freezer as we were having a freezer sale that weekend at the farm store.


I retreated to the office to finish my sandwich, knock out some emails, and research/ order some lights for the new freezer container. I had a call with our New Orleans distributor, and I had to renew my beer permit for the store, which meant navigating MS TAP portal (not a user friendly experience).


I gathered some materials (tin and lumber) for the aforementioned contractor job, cleared some old fencing out of their way, and ran an employee out to the pasture to show him where he needed to bushhog the next day.


I was heading to grab the farm apprentice for our trip north, when I realized my dog was missing. I had let him out earlier in the day and forgot about him while fielding a phone call. I finally located him, covered head to foot in cow manure and pond water, happy as a clam.

The stench of this dog, the fact the AC didn’t work, and the strange dynamic with this farm apprentice vis a vis moldpocalypse set the tone for what would be a memorable drive to Memphis.

About 15 miles up the road, our somewhat forced conversation surrounding the challenges of regenerative agriculture was interrupted by a call from my 79-year-old father. I didn’t answer at first; I was sure it was to lecture me about leaving something unlocked or open, or to ask, “where the hell is my [insert tool] I let you borrow last week!?” Then I got a call from his employee at the cotton gin. With some alarm, I answered.

Me: “hello”

Dad, elevated voice, energetic: “Marsh, MARSH, can you hear me?? I’m on Gary’s phone!”

Me: “yeah yeah I got you, whats up?”

Dad: “Where you?”

Me: “Headin up 55 to the house- whats going on??”

Dad: “I broke my f**king arm!”

Me: “Dad what the hell!? In the gin?? Does it hurt?”

Dad: “Got it caught in the press. I wouldn’t say it feels good!”

Me: “Jesus! Are you bleeding!?”

Dad: “Hell yeah I’m bleeding like a stuck hog! Got it wrapped in some shop rags. Gary is driving me to the ER at Baptist Desoto.”

After some more back and forth, we figured out that I was just a few miles behind them on the interstate, and that the apprentice’s hotel was off the same exit as the ER. One can imagine that this development sort of sucked the air out of the car conversation. The rest of the drive was mostly silent, as I pondered how bad my dog smelled and how likely my dad’s arm was to get infected wrapped in those dirty shop rags. Finally, I dropped off the apprentice, awkwardly waved and apologized again to his wife (who was in the parking lot to greet us with the kids) and sped off to the hospital.

After dad got admitted to Baptist Desoto, I had a chance to run to my house in Memphis, drop off the dog, kiss my wife, shower, and head back to the hospital. My mother had flown out of town that very morning to visit one of my siblings, so I was the only immediate family around.

That evening in the Regional One trauma ward, where Dad had to be transferred (the broken bones were exposed to the outside, which greatly increases risk of infection), I was sitting in a little plastic chair at the foot of his hospital bed, replaying the day in my head. Dad was laying there with his arm mangled and bloody propped up on some towels, dozing off. I realized it was almost 3am and I had been awake since 4am- I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I passed out in a vacant bed next to dad’s. The docs woke me up after a few minutes because they needed the bed for the bleeding gunshot victim they were escorting. He told me visitors had to leave anyway and I could come back in the morning. I drove home and was surprised to find myself in tears in my parked car for a few minutes before going inside and passing out.

Take Aways

In writing this, I realize my workflow at HPP can require a frenzied energy output and rapid gear shifting that precludes planning and deliberate thinking. Each problem is attacked by sheer determination like a whack a mole as it surfaces, and the goal is to smack it down and keep moving to not lose time. What I’ve learned (slowly) is that this doesn’t really get me anywhere. In this mindset, the way I solve problems seldom prevents them from reoccurring. I am limited by what I can personally deal with in a day, which I will say is a hell of lot sometimes. But, indulging in this self pride, instead of planning better, puts me in the "hamster wheel" instead of the "flywheel" (business analogies- the hamster wheel just spins ad infinitum, attached to nothing, while the fly wheel gathers momentum and drives progress)

On the other hand, setting up systems and staff to effectively delegate things like Hip campers, negotiating with contractors, dealing with mold in the farm cottage, etc seems totally impossible when running a cash strapped small business in real time. How can I afford to delegate these sorts of random and interspersed, subjective tasks, and to whom? I can’t heap them on existing staff members, and I can’t hire someone to just focus on these areas. So what the hell am I supposed to do, other than just handle it? I also feel a responsibility to jump in and assist staff members to be supportive. A wise person would probably answer, “if these things are eating your time and not creating a return or adding to your long-term goals, then you shouldn’t be doing them.” Admittedly, I tackle operational, hands on tasks as a way of coping with stress, which probably doesn't serve me long term. I often make my work commute in silence, contemplating all this with the well-meaning advice of others ringing in my ears: “work on your business, not for your business.” Yeah. Got it. Thanks. Of course, they are right, but, as the adage goes, “easier said than done.”

My dad had two surgeries and returned home after a few days. He’s recovered most of his mobility, or at least enough to keep him working at the cotton gin, despite his entire family’s protests.

The apprentice and his family made it back out west after a week of unsuccessful attempts to find them proper lodging. We parted on good terms, and I think his wife was relieved to see Mississippi in the rear view. We now have a “no families” policy for our internship program. 

I’ve hired an office manager and taken the rental tents offline. We took care of the mold at the guest cottage and haven’t had any issues there since. I’ve designed and completed a nice lairage/ holding area to receive and/ or stage livestock prior to slaughter to make unloading and storing livestock much easier to delegate. I’ve made investments to slowly position myself to work “on the business, not for the business”, and I’ve developed an acute understanding of opportunity costs. I try to only commit to providing a product or service if it is achievable with our existing staff and systems, or if its worth the investment to hire more staff and develop new systems. Always a work in progress, but the key is that progress is being made.

Back to the Med trauma ward: it had been a long day. Seeing my dad, a fearless individualist and risk taker, a man filled with creativity and competence, who seemed undaunted by any challenge and unhindered by the perceptions the others, laying there maimed by his chosen profession- it was a jolt of harsh reality for a lifestyle and person I tend to romanticize. Eating at me simultaneously- he had never seemed more mortal and fragile. A painful realization stirred that this would probably not be the last time I would see him in a hospital bed as he aged.

I found myself wondering what he could have done if he had never decided to move home and farm at around same age I made the same decision (24). Maybe we both could have applied our skills and energies to something less arduous, more financially rewarding, and less likely to result in a trip to the regional trauma center.

I take a lot of pride in my dad’s life and legacy, and in what I do, so it’s hard to admit I succumbed to this line of thinking.  Times of deep self-doubt can cause us to discredit the decisions that cumulatively lead to our current circumstances. In these doubtful moments, I think about the relentless march of time I can't get back. The ever-burning question surfaces: “did I choose this path because I truly love it, or was the farm just a crutch I could fall back on?”

I’m sure this kind of self-doubt exists in most people in varying degrees- I will admit here that I struggle with it regularly.  

Fortunately, as soon as I dive back into my business, I’m able to focus. The legacy of agriculture on the Home Place, my pride in how my father supported our family, the opportunity to reshape the farm for future generations, and the potential to have an impact on the agricultural landscape of the US; these things motivate me. I love telling our story, selling our products, hosting events, running a meat plant, moving cattle, hogs, and chickens on pasture, and finding the time to write about it. I love putting together business plans and pro formas to figure out how to keep growing our mission. I love meeting and helping other farmers and helping create a viable market for regeneratively raised livestock. As much as I hate to admit it, I think I enjoy the risk too- most likely an inherited quality. 

Over the last nine years, I’ve learned that to accomplish anything one must pair passion for an idea with a disciplined ability to plan and focus, think big picture and long term, make practical decisions, and put in a ton a work. You must own the journey, blame only yourself, and have the confidence to keep moving forward after making a lot of mistakes. I have learned to recognize myopic decisions (also work in progress) made as a reaction to financial stress. Recognizing mistakes and factors that lead to poor judgement is important, but the ability to act accordingly is all that matters in the end. Our current circumstances are a lagging indicator of the cumulative milieu of decisions we’ve made in our past. The key is to stack enough good decisions up over time to see gradual progress in an intended direction. 

I think its worth noting here that making decisions for the long term is only possible if one has access to capital- a point that is conveniently left out of some business coaching. I assert that a lot of good businesses and talented people quit because they run out of money, can’t see a path forward, and they give up assuming they are a failure or the business is flawed. One has to be excited enough about an idea to keep trudging, relentlessly, in the face of a ton of indicators pointing to failure (ie losing money). Optimism, risk tolerance, and resilience are key, but so is having the runway to hang on while you figure it out.

I’m thinking about this not just because I just became a father myself (so my risks are no longer just my risks), but I’m also months from executing a large expansion plan for the meat plant. While the project is my brainchild, one I’ve toiled with for years, and have received two separate and very competitive grants for, it comes with substantial added debt and risk.

The imagined advisors pipe up on my silent commutes: “nothing ventured, nothing gained Marshall” while another says, “son, you can’t borrow yourself out of debt.”

With this project, HPP can become something much larger and more impactful, and I can support more regional regenerative farmers, create more jobs, and supply wholesome, nourishing, soil building protein to more families, all the while taking tiny bites of market share from the industry. That, after all, is the resounding sum goal of all my decisions, right?

Rest assured, I’m going for it: no sense (or choice really) in stopping now. This will mean some exciting developments for our customers and what I hope is a long happy relationship between you and HPP meats! The other voice in my head comes from a close friend and fellow business owner: “the only common denominator amongst all entrepreneurs is an immutable sense of optimism.” And that, as I pull into the farm for another hectic, busy day, is reassuring!


 More updates soon!

- Marshall

Published March 11th, 2023


Older post Newer post