By: Natalie Furniss
20/20 vision: The ability to see clearly, with perfect eyesight, toward something in the distance. The implication is astounding as we quickly approach the new year. For most of 2019, the leadership team at Hickory Nut Gap combed through all of the intricacies of the business to develop what we feel is the path forward. We decided on a mission statement, a set of core values, and a vision for the future. This was no easy feat considering that we have a legacy of 100+ years to uphold, but we did it.
Our Mission: To Build Community Through Agriculture
Although simple in concept, this mission now infiltrates every decision we make moving forward. Does this build community? Are we improving the land? Are we helping the economy? Does this benefit the consumer? All of these questions have to be asked, and we have to check the box before moving forward. But this is a good thing. It keeps us transparent, authentic, and accountable.
Our Core Values: Adaptable, Work Excellence, Reliable, Connection Building, Helpful/Positive
The exercise was to picture current employees who we felt exemplified qualities that spoke to the brand we want to build and be proud of. Although everyone brings something special and unique to the table, there were two individuals that stood out; Hallie and Jenn. What set them apart was their can-do attitude and commitment to doing their best every time. They care no matter how menial the task may seem to be, and they put their all into it with a positive attitude aimed at doing better and being better. When you view our core values list above, know that these values came from actual people who embody these traits, and not just a list of ideals. Now our task is to spread that message to everyone and encourage others to live up to their standard.
Our 10 Year Vision: To be the brand that scaled pasture-based agriculture right.
A key word to focus on is the word “right.” Scaling a business, creating a brand, growing and meeting objectives is all part of the plan. Doing those things ‘right’ is the challenge. Making the tough decision to turn down opportunities because they don’t align with our values, that’s what starts to set us apart from the pack. Does this mean we don’t make mistakes? Heck, no. It means that when we fail, we fix. We are venturing down a road less traveled, so mistakes are bound to occur. We are actively trying to innovate and scale in an industry that prides itself on taking short-cuts to be more competitive in the marketplace. When you truly care about the environment, the animals, the people, and the economy, you can’t take short-cuts.
Our 2020 Vision
Now we are approaching the year 2020 with a road map of where we want to go. It is certainly no easy task to get there, but we are in the midst of the planning stages to outline the next 12 months. What our followers will begin to notice is that we are going to focus on the bigger picture. Education, environment, innovation, and health will rise to the surface as we use each month as an opportunity to fully dive into a big and important topic. Follow our social platforms and encourage others to get involved as we take our community on a journey through agriculture.
We’ll introduce you to farmers who have been working the land for generations and those who have just started their careers. You will be able to learn about topics that directly affect human health and the land we live on. We will be introducing new community events and partnerships that aim to perpetuate our mission with a meaningful experience.
We hope you get involved and develop a passion for the full circle of our food system the way that we have. After all, everything we do starts and ends with you. It’s time to feel good about the meat you eat.
The Load Out
By: Amy Ager
Jean-Paul the newest member of the leadership team who is running our operations and finance departments joined me on a long, fun day to Dobson Farm to meet farmers and help load out the cattle for that weeks harvest just outside of Statesville, NC.
Sam Dobson, our livestock coordinator at HNG and his wife Sherry invited us into their warm, beautifully renovated farmhouse complete with wood floors, beadboard walls, and high ceilings. All good meetings happen at the kitchen table and the four of us had the pleasure of sitting around for a bit that late morning catching up on how the kids were doing in their many endeavors and cutting up and laughing on the recent inevitable foibles of life.
Our plan was to visit a handful of producers whose farms are in close proximity to Dobson Farm but as all good days go, our agenda was too ambitious to accomplish. We hopped in Sam’s farm truck, bundled up for the cold day in fleece lined coats and headed to lunch at the Amish Store in Union Grove. To Sam’s and my delight, eggnog season had arrived, so we aptly toasted to our love of the drink and the holidays ahead while enjoying a custom sandwich made at the store for lunch.
We ate on the porch at a high top table and got up to speed about farming, processing and logistics, all the things that come with a scaling farm and meat business. It is an exciting time to be part of HNG as we are planning and strategizing for how our farm in Fairview, the butchery, store, events and deli are going to fit beautifully into our ever growing wholesale and distribution business of 100% grass-fed and pasture raised meats.
Being in the meat business at our scale is a tough go, in and of itself, but when you add the layer of our idealism and the mission to build community through agriculture it takes creativity, innovation and a more than healthy dose of optimism to plan for the future. We covered a lot of ground and got our new hire up to speed.
Jean-Paul has a steady presence and insightful knowledge and we dove into all the important topics to bring him into a grand understanding of the state of things in the industry.
As it turns out our conversation wrapped up just in time because as we pulled into Sam’s farm our first trailer load of cattle were arriving from John Sherrill. For these guys a Thursday load out goes smoothly just about every week but for new eyes the coordination is a testament to Sam’s management. He had three more trailers from HNG farmers, Charles Johnson, Mike Christopher and Ritchie Herman, coming in fifteen minute increments, unloading a mixture of cull cows and finished steers in a range of weights destined for specific customers. The new loading facility Sam invested in at his farm is top notch. Sawdust floors, gates that open and swing effortlessly, and a workflow that requires very little in the way of words. Cattle and people moved about in a dance to organize the cattle backwards so that as we loaded the tractor trailer for the processing plant they would go on and come off in proper order.
Shane, Myron Leath’s son, and the driver that day arrived just at the end after the bull, who was stout and just right for grass finishing genetics, was loaded out to another farmer. The light was waning and the social hour over as the final paperwork was completed and Shane headed out for an overnight haul to get our animals to their final destination.
Sam has this way about him that attracts good people and that day Jean-Paul and I got to hear about their lives in a way that really connects your food to the farmers as people and entrepreneurs. Land based professions take a resolve that is hard to sign up for if you really knew what you were getting yourself into to make managing those resources a profitable reality.
Things like a rescued raccoon, pulling carts with a team of ponies, and a curiosity for what is happening in the marketplace with our customers weave deeply into the fabric of our organization and our connections to these folks. This weekly ritual of checking in with our farming and hauling partners, and the sushi dinner we gathered to eat afterwards over three pots of green tea, demonstrates the open-minded nature and energy dedicated to making this business work.
We are truly a family of farmers and entrepreneurs carving a path into a food system that is transparent, understood and connected. It is an amazing thing to see this in action. The amount of work that goes into that beautifully marbled ribeye you may eat at a restaurant in Asheville or Atlanta should be duly honored with a hearty thanks to the farmer.
At Hickory Nut Gap, we celebrate a rich history dating back to 1916 as well as a futuristic outlook where we are building a new model of progressive agriculture. Many, we hope, would find this unique convergence of past, present, and future to be compelling and interesting. After listening to our loyal customer base and responding to the requests of new visitors, our team has developed several tour models for customers to enjoy on a re-occurring basis.
Option #1: Join a Bi-Monthly, Guided Walking Tour
Offered two Saturdays per month, individuals can sign up to join a 1.5 hour group walking tour. There are two tour models offered; high impact and low impact. The morning jaunt features the low impact tour and is designed for limited mobility, guests with young children, or anyone wanting to stay centrally focused around the farm store and hear a more in-depth depiction of the farm history. The afternoon tour is considered high-impact as guests cross over streams, explore fields and picturesque photo ops, and go beyond the main grounds. This tour will touch on the farm’s past, but provide great insight into farming practices, animal welfare, environmental regeneration, and future goals.
Both tours invite guests to arrive early or stay late and enjoy a farm-to-fork lunch by ordering off of our seasonal menu.
Option #2: Reserve a Private Top Tier Tour
For those looking to receive a private, up-scale experience, our tour team has partnered with our culinary team to create a Top Tier Tour. Only offered 1 Saturday per month, this 2.5 hour tour begins with either a high-impact walking tour or a trail ride on horseback soaking up the late afternoon sun. Limited to 12 total guests (but requiring a minimum of 4), this is an intimate opportunity to receive a truly personal guided tour. Immediately following the tour, guests will be ushered into the History Barn where decorated tables await the group while our chef prepares a plated dinner to enjoy. Filled with compelling conversation, delicious chef prepared food, and adult beverages, this tour provides an unforgettable evening with a sensational view.
Our mission at Hickory Nut Gap is to “Build Community through Agriculture” and we feel the best method of achieving that goal is through education and awareness. Our team is dedicated to fostering a deep curiosity about the food we eat, the environment, and how it all works together from the farm to the table. We hope you join us for a tour and look forward to sharing our story with the community we serve.
When school groups come to the farm for field trips, I’ve noticed that, among the parents and teachers, there exists one of two ideologies about the kids’ farm education. When we take the youngsters up to see the baby chicks or the calves and piglets, the question of longevity inevitably comes up. “What happens to them when they grow up?”, “Where are all the mommy pigs?”, “Why do you keep them inside pens?”… When these sorts of investigations arise, I always take a glance at the parents to see how graphic I need to be. Can I use the word slaughter? That is only for the most extreme (often those alternative outdoor experimental schools). Can I talk about hamburgers and bacon? Sometimes the parents react more strongly to this than the kids.
On other occasions, the teachers are gung-ho about delving into the steak-ness of a cow. The other day I was leading a group of third graders through the farm tour and their teacher wouldn’t let up. During our visit to each of the animal pens he pressed the kids about what meat that creature was good for. By the end of the field trip I was surprised that the kids weren’t looking at each other and trying to figure out what the most tender cut of human would be.
Truth is, I don’t really appreciate either of these mentalities in the chaperones. I think that an over exuberance about the end product misses the point just as completely as an inability to talk about the difference between a beef cow and a dairy cow. I think the parents can learn just as much as their kids from a trip to the farm. What I know about small scale farming is that all the details have to be intimately connected in order to sustain a healthy system. Whenever Jamie leads a farm tour, he talks a lot about biodiversity. We are trying to mimic a kind of natural biodiversity in which plants, animals, fungi, lichen, bacteria… all work together. If we focus too much on one part of the system then we blind ourselves to the beauty and intricacy of the whole.
We don’t raise animals just for meat. That is a part of what we do. But we also manage our cows on pasture in such a way as to increase the nutrient density in the soils, prevent erosion, protect from drought, and encourage other pasture critters to thrive. We put our hogs on land overgrown with multiflora rose and scrubby trees that we hope to turn into pasture after a time. We keep our goats out on poison ivy and privet control. A local bee-keeper has several hives around the farm to help pollinate our fruit trees and pasture flowers. While it’s important to acknowledge that the animals do die and that they provide us with delicious, fresh meat, it’s equally important to understand that the animals are an imperative part of the farm ecosystem. Not just in their death, but in the way that they live and interact with all the other forces that are in the constant flux of birth, growth, and death.
I know that’s a lot to take in for a third grader. It’s a lot to take in for an adult! That is what agri-tourism is all about, though. I hope that at least some of that will make it through to the folks who come visit this place, or any farm for that matter.
Education is a big part of what we do here at Hickory Nut Gap. This spring we’re initiating spring field trips for pre-k through middle school students. Field trips are only $5 per student and we accept groups of all sizes. Set up a group by calling the farmstore at 828-628-1027.
It’s especially hard for kids to sit still when the weather is this beautiful. Here on the farm we’ll take them out to see our berry bushes, talk about soils and the needs of growing plants, and see some of the animals that live here at Hickory Nut Gap. They’ll also participate in activities to reinforce the lesson and help them get out all those warm weather wiggles. We accept groups of all sizes so please call if you have a group that may be interested and we can arrange the rest of the details.