Business lessons to be learned from a pile of cow manure

May 27, 2011
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I have a small fruit farm near Cheboygan. Along the driveway to the house, there is a large pile of cow manure. To my brothers, Don and Phil, it is a big stinking pile of manure. To me, it is the essence of potential beauty and bounty.

My pile of cow manure is 24 feet long, 5 feet high and 8 feet wide. I have to roll it over on a weekly basis to allow oxygen and water to mix in with the straw and manure so that it will break down into compost. In six months, bacteria will have broken it down into rich, black dirt. I'm going to leave it on my brother Don's property as long as it is a stinking pile of manure. After it has broken down and no longer stinks and attracts flies, I’ll move it to my property.

In its current form, this pile of cow manure has no value, but over the course of a year, what was an unpleasant collection of matter will become many things. I will use it to grow grapes, apples, gooseberries, currants, cherries, plums and a variety of ornamental plants around the property. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and beautiful flowers will be the product of that stinking pile of cow manure.

My point is that, what to one person is an ugly pile of matter, to another person is future gold. How many people look around them and see piles of manure where another person sees an opportunity to make something with it?

I happen to love growing things. There's nothing like walking through a vineyard in late September and seeing and tasting what nature has so beautifully provided us. It takes a lot of work to get from a pile of manure to a really good bottle of wine. But in reality that is what happens.

So what's your passion? And where's your pile of manure?

When I look at an empty room with white walls, all I see is an empty room with white walls. When I look at a blank canvas, that's all I see. But an empty room is viewed very differently by interior decorators. They see a room full of furniture with wall decorations and colors that coordinate to make a beautiful room. An artist looks at a blank canvas and imagines any number of marvelous depictions.

What is amazing to someone lacking design or artistic talent is the capability to make something so beautiful out of nothing, but to the artist or designer, it is as natural as breathing.

Sometimes, you may be well served to have someone who possesses a different set of creative skills than yours look at your business. Much like the manure pile, there is often treasure to be found in the chaos of a small business. In the buying and selling and management of small business, one person will see a pile of manure and another will see a pile of gold.

Like the pile of manure that is untended, small businesses left untended may remain a pile of manure, while a small business well tended may become rich, black dirt. In case you missed the metaphor, black dirt refers to profits.

Patience is an essential trait of an entrepreneur. To act too soon or too late could have critical negative impact on a small enterprise. If you use cow manure before it is well composted, it can cause damage to the roots of sensitive plants. Along with the fresh manure, you also deliver to your plants seeds of weeds that will choke out the very plant you intended to benefit. If you wait too long to mulch your plants, they will suffer from lack of moisture in the summer and a deep freeze in winter.

Timing is everything. Too soon causes one kind of damage and too late causes another. This could be applied to advertising, technical improvements, training, inventory issues and personnel. Too many people too soon affects profitability. Not enough people too late causes poor service to clients or customers. Too early advertising for Christmas may not be effective; too late and the customer may have already purchased their gifts for the holidays.

There is a right time to do everything. The reality is that sometimes acting too soon or too late may be worse than doing nothing at all.

Sometime in the next six months, I will take my front-end loader and fill it with well-rotted compost. I have probably used 10,000 pounds of compost over the last 15 years. Adding layers from previous years around the base of trees and bushes has created a healthy environment for the roots of hundreds of plants. Those years of adding new compost every year has a cumulative effect on the well-being of the plants in which compost was used.

When you're building a business, remember to continuously improve the root structure by adding good things to help the business grow and prosper. It is not one year’s compost that makes the plant hardy and healthy. Years of moisture control and nutrients create a healthy root system that support an abundant crop of whatever you are growing.

The next time I see my pile of cow manure, I will walk around it several times looking for the signs of biological degradation that creates rich, black compost of manure and straw. When it is properly aged, I will have the pleasure of adding it to previous years’ layers. In July, August, September and October, I will pick apples, grapes, currants, gooseberries, vegetables and flowers — all because of a stinking pile of cow manure. Don’t you wish you had one?

Paul A. Hense is president of Paul Hense CPA PC, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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