Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Raising grass-fed livestock paying off for more N.C. farmers

Photos by Mike Belleme

Tails lazily swish flies from their black coats as docile, 1,200-pound Angus cattle graze in grass up to their bellies. Carolyn Bradley is fencing this afternoon, repairing barbed-wire strands that stand between them and the steep, forested Madison County mountains. 

A footpath meanders down a hillside to a deep vale and the front porch of a white, 1910 farm house. Fit and trim in her 60s, Bradley says it seems that from surrounding mountaintops she can see forever — 28 peaks, including fabled Grandfather Mountain.

“This farm has been in my family as far back as records go. I grew up here, and went off to college and became a school teacher.” Her parents farmed until poor health drove them off the land 20-odd years ago. Bradley and her husband Mike, an engineer, moved back to the 130-acre farm seven years ago. 

Agriculture is a $92 billion annual slice of North Carolina’s economy, employing one in five workers. One of the state’s biggest meat producing employers is 300 miles east of Bradley’s farm in Bladen County, where 4,000 employees process 35,000 hogs daily at a Smithfield Foods plant. 

The Bradleys’ Farm House Beef sells grass-fed beef directly to consumers who are increasingly bypassing industrial behemoths like Smithfield and the supermarkets they supply. Such pasture-to-plate farms range from beef to pork, bison, lamb, goat, poultry and other meats, but all promise more-nutritious meats and humanely raised animals, like those of the Bradleys.

Agricultural economists say the movement, also known as regenerative farming, is helping families preserve hundreds of North Carolina’s 46,000 farms once destined to be parceled into lots for houses and shopping malls, swallowed by urban sprawl.

The pasture-raised movement has boomed since the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that its success threatens to overwhelm its infrastructure. Several slaughterhouses, for example, are begging for skilled butchers and other workers to meet surging demand. 

The number of Tar Heel farms certified to handle their own meat has soared in the last two decades, now totaling 1,600. Sales are believed to exceed $200 million, though it’s tough to track with farms running the gamut of size and offerings.

Homesteaders and pace-setters

Farm House Beef, one of the state’s largest pasture-raised operations, is about 35 miles from Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Buncombe County’s Fairview community, another mountainous terrain.

Jamie and Amy Ager

There, on a recent sunny afternoon, Jamie and Amy Ager wait for their sons Cyrus, Nolin and Levi to come home from school. The couple met at nearby Warren Wilson College 20-odd years ago. The boys help on the farm, giving Jamie Ager hope that they will someday take over.

The farm has been in the Ager family since 1916. Jamie’s father, John, is stepping down this year from the N.C. House of Representatives after serving since 2015. Jamie’s brother, Eric, is running to succeed their father.

Hickory Nut Gap had overall revenue of $11 million last year. It produces its own grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pigs, turkeys and other animals, selling about  $1.5 million through its on-farm store last year. With 18 employees, it also wholesales meat to food-service distributors such as Sysco, US Foods and Performance Food Group, a channel that has grown at a double-digit pace for eight straight years. As an aggregator, the farm also collects and markets meats from other like-thinking area farmers.

Across the state in Durham County, Valarie Jarvis, a nurse, and her family make up Jireh Family Farm. Like many smaller pasture-to-plate farms with revenue from a few thousand dollars to $100,000 or so annually, her farm supplements sales of grass-fed beef, a dozen or so goats, pork and other meats with herbs and produce. The 4-acre farm also offers summer children’s camps and tutoring for “homesteaders,” whom Jarvis defines as folks bent on starting similar farms.

Interns Trinity Gilliam, left, and Greg Hunter are learning the trade at the Ager family’s business.

“I’ve become a full-time farmer and part-time nurse,” laughs the 2000 graduate from the University of Virginia School of Nursing. She grew up on a Virginia farm. 

In Eastern North Carolina’s Kenansville, Master Blend Family Farms has about a dozen employees, including owners Ron Simmons and wife Laurita. Its pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free pigs run free in grassy fields. “Consumers are becoming more and more interested in where their food comes from,” says Simmons, who recently bought two more farms for expansion. 

Master Blend has a food truck, sells to restaurants and has a retail store, in addition to selling on social-media platforms. Last year’s sales topped $250,000. It’s among a dwindling 1,600 African American-owned farms left in North Carolina.

Master Blend is 20 acres, once too small to be self-sustaining. But online marketing and other trends have made such plots viable. Another factor are aggregators including Durham-based Firsthand Foods, now in its 12th year.  

Its network of 35 farms in a dozen central North Carolina counties includes some with only a few acres and handful of animals, to other operations that market 70 or more animals a year. “We do only red meat such as beef, pork and lamb, raised with no hormones or antibiotics,” says co-founder Jennifer Curtis. “We work with USDA-inspected processing plants where the farmers drop their animals off. It frees up the farmers to be farmers.”

Firsthand Foods counts Duke University and independent restaurants as anchor customers, but also supplies about 25 independent grocery stores, including sites in Fayetteville, Greenville, S.C., Greensboro and Wilmington.

About half of its projected $2.5 million in sales this year will come from independent restaurants, caterers and institutional customers. “Chefs, local grocery stores and caterers might want local meats but don’t have the time to work with all the different farmers,” she says. 

Passionate people

If pasture-to-plate farming evokes images of bib-overalled rustics eking idyllic livings from the land, the reality is far different.

Rather, it’s becoming a key force in feeding U.S. consumers, according to researchers at N.C. State University and N.C. Agricultural & Technical University in Greensboro.

A&T’s Chyi Lyi Liang is director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and chair of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences’ sustainable community-based
food systems.

“We’ve got a new generation of young people – the so-called XYZ generation – that really appreciates the roots of agriculture, and have a sense of the gap between what they see in the supermarket and what agriculture is all about,” Liang says. “They’re passionate about coming back to sustainable farming practices.”

Master Blend’s Ron Simmons is 40. Jamie Ager is 44. The average age of North Carolina farmers is 58.

Propelling the movement, too, is the enormous cost of industrial-scale farming and that most pasture-to-plate farms are already owned by families, often for generations. Many owners also hold off-farm jobs. 

In 2019, a typical Tar Heel farm was 168 acres, and average farm land sold for $4,180 an acre — an initial land cost of nearly $700,000, not including buildings for housing animals. Large farm tractors, some now autonomously guided, top $200,000. Farms producing animal protein would then need livestock, including brood animals, easily pushing costs for a conventional startup to more than $2 million.

Hickory Nut Gap says its hogs don’t receive antibiotics or added hormones to supplement their grain diet.

“Land access is an issue for anyone wanting to get into farming, but in regenerative farming, you don’t need 200 acres or half-million-dollar tractors to get started,” says Liang. “On our research farm in Goldsboro, we have tractors I can operate. I’m a woman about five feet tall, and we have small, compact tractors suitable for women and aging farmers and those with disabilities.”

N.C. State University, A&T and the N.C. Department of Agriculture maintain a 2,245-acre farm in Wayne County that concentrates on small, sustainable livestock and produce operations. Liang trains about 350 small farmers a year, and her workshops and lectures attract another 1,000. 

Regenerative farms and grass-fed animals also preserve land that more-intensive crop farming destroys. “Grazing builds more organic matter,” Ager says. “Organic matter is carbon, and products of the industrial meat market are power-processed. Grass-fed is not only healthier for you but sequesters carbon.” At Farm House Meats, Bradley says cattle rotate among 14 paddocks, preventing overgrazing.

Marketing experts say consumer tastes, though notoriously fickle, are clearly revving the push for pasture-to-plate products. Most consumers perceive pasture-raised animals as healthier, and are willing to pay a premium over supermarket prices, says Carrie Balkcom, president of the Colorado-based U.S. Grassfed Beef Association. It has several thousand members nationwide, including North Carolina.

Studies also show grass-fed animals contain higher levels of omega-3 fats, believed to lower heart risks. 

Local favorites

Whole Foods Market Inc., the Amazon-owned, 500-store chain that advertises healthy food, focuses on smaller, local suppliers, says William Betts, vice president of local merchandising. The Austin, Texas-based company has 10 Tar Heel stores.

It recently began a Local and Emerging Accelerator program, aimed at boosting such sales.  “We’re looking to facilitate a higher level of partnership between suppliers and Whole Foods,” he says.  

The grassfed trend, he adds, received another shot in the arm when pandemic-related supply-chain issues began to surface two years ago and consumers encountered empty supermarket meat coolers. 

In Fairview, Hickory Nut Farm’s Ager praises Whole Foods and Black Mountain-based Ingles Markets for efforts to sell local meats. 

But a number of pasture-to-plate farmers and state agriculture officials say other chains have mostly rebuffed farmers, citing their inability to satisfy volume and uniformity requirements. Officials at Matthews-based Harris-Teeter Supermarkets, Greensboro-based The Fresh Market and Salisbury-based Food Lion declined to discuss sales of local products. 

Many pasture-to-plate farms also carry endorsements from animal-welfare organizations. Industrial-scale farming captured headlines earlier this year when billionaire investor Carl Icahn criticized McDonald’s for buying pork from companies whose contract farmers use crate gestation. The practice confines pregnant pigs to small crates, which the pork industry says is necessary to rein in costs. Icahn’s effort to add corporate directors who share his view failed, though the restaurant giant says its suppliers are phasing out the use of crates.

The NC Choice program has promoted the small-farm concept for about 20 years, says Sarah Blacklin, director of the program that is linked to N.C. State. She works with hundreds of niche meat producers, meat processors and others.

“We try to grease the supply chain for local, pasture-raised meats,” she says.  “It’s not an integrated, top-down industry. It’s a very lateral supply chain and it takes a lot of businesses to make it work. We’re fortunate we have a tracking system, more or less, because the N.C. Department of Agriculture registers meat handlers.” Most states don’t.

The state has 1,615 such certifications, most of them small farms, adds Jack Nales, the agriculture department’s senior marketing specialist. That’s up from 1,200 as recently as two years ago.

Blacklin and others say pasture-to-plate farmers often feel ignored, particularly by federal agriculture officials, and can find financing startups and expansions hard because lenders shy away from small operators. 

“The field has evolved so much over the last 20 years as farmers make a business out of pasturing meat and direct marketing it, but it’s pretty wild,” Blacklin says. “There’re still a lot of growing pains.” 

Mutton baloney and more

One outcome is clear here in a low-slung, windowless red-brick building in Asheboro owned by Piedmont Custom Meats. In cool, spotless stainless-steel rooms, employees carve beef, pork, lamb, mutton and goat that was slaughtered at another site in Gibsonville for farmers who raised it and delivered it there.  

It’s one of the Southeast’s largest processing houses, and among about 190 licensed by federal and state agencies. Only about 15 make up the core of the pasture-to-plate industry, Blacklin says. Demand is so great that some of the processors have two-year waiting lists of farmers seeking help.

About 180,000 pounds of meat processed here each month emerges as packaged steaks, sausage, bacon, lamb chops and other products such as  bison brisket, lamb hot dogs and mutton baloney. It then returns to the farm where it originated, for sale to the public. Waste is minimized. Excess fat becomes lard, for example, expanding on an old adage that savvy farmers used “everything but the squeal.”

Some consumers buy in bulk, for example, a quarter of a cow – typically about 100 pounds and $900 – to be parceled out for home freezers. It’s part of the necessary customer re-education that’s taking place, says N.C. A&T’s Liang.

Until 2014, owner Donna Moore was a customer at Piedmont.  “I grew up around cattle” on a beef farm in Stanly County, she says. When the previous owner retired, she bought Piedmont and began expanding and modernizing. She laughs easily at the suggestion that it resembles a hospital, with its white-coated, hooded and heavily masked butchers.

“People want to be assured their food comes from a clean place,” she says, adding that Piedmont Custom uses vacuum-sealing and other techniques. The 35,000-square-foot business, she adds, is one of the largest processors with USDA inspectors in the Southeast. 

“We started with about 200 customers, and now have over 600 from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia,” she says. “We noticed an extreme surge, about March of two years ago, related to the pandemic, because people suddenly couldn’t find meat in the grocery stores. They’d say, ‘Hey, I have a neighbor down the road who grows animals,’ and started reaching out. We’d usually been booked three or four weeks ahead, and the next thing we knew, we were booked for the remainder of 2022 and beyond.”

While she has a training program for butchers, hiring is hard because skilled meat cutters are scarce. “I could increase capacity another 30% if I had another seven or eight more people.”

Master Blend’s Simmons, who says he learned much of his work ethic at his grandfather’s knee, says pasture-to-plate farming is a welcome return to old-fashioned farming. 

In the lengthening late-day shadows of the Madison County mountains, Carolyn Bradley gets philosophical.

“Land in this area is at a premium, and sure, it would be a lot easier to just sell it,” she says. “But this is a way to save it for our children, our children’s children, and our grand-children’s generation.”

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