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.

 

 

So there is a city, far far away, where a man named Hobson Dobson lives. Hobson Dobson has super human abilities. He can save people when they are in danger, he can fight the bad guys and do pretty much anything a four year old can imagine whose daily mode of operation was keep up with his big brothers abilities. Hobson Dobson came in to our lives via the vivid imagination of our youngest and his best friend and cousin Hythe.

Hythe’s mother comes from Elizabeth City and I am from Louisville. His mother and I often go back home to visit our families, at least four times a year in fact, so one day when the little boys were talking about their upcoming travel plans it made sense to Levi that he should have a city too, just like Hythe’s Elizabeth City.

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Well Levi’s city, as it became known in our family, was a magical place where all things can be done. If Jamie and I were having a conversation about a challenge on the farm Levi would always be able to solve our problem with a story from his city. When we pursued a line of questioning to learn more about his city (at the time I was pretty interested in relocating there) we found out there was a man named Hobson Dobson who lived there too. Hobson Dobson had a dog named the sound “kheec” and together they were all a spectacular bunch working with superhuman powers to accomplish all things a lively four year old wishes he could do in a day without the handicap of size, strength or age holding him back.

Conversations in the morning while we are feeding the kids breakfast and working out logistics on efficiently driving to and from town each day, often involve discussions about how other farmers are making their cattle business work, when we are taking a load to a different farm to custom graze or how many animals are coming back from the processor that day. As many of you know anytime the adults are talking the little ones are always listening.

One of our long time farmer friends and collaborators is Sam Dobson. We met Sam at a Young Farmer and Rancher Event hosted by Farm Bureau back in 2005. He is the most outgoing dairy farmer I’ve ever met. That day he had on a suit complete with a Holstein tie but the other 364 days of the year you will find Sam in jeans and an old t-shirt milking his organic cows in Iredell County twice a day. In between milkings he feeds, works the fields planting and harvesting alfalfa, and cover cropping clover and triticale for his dairy cows. Sam also manages a beef herd which he cares for daily, moving their break fences as well as fences for our calves which he custom grazes. Sam’s land was deeded to his family by the queen, and they have been a thriving farm ever since. Four generations still have a presence at the farm including his grandmother, his parents and his wife Sherry and son Chase.

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Sam has always grazed his dairy cows because it was the best way to keep up the health of his animals and their milk production balanced with cost and efficiencies. Lucky for us Sam Dobson figured this out just about the same time our business was growing so fast that we could no longer supply our wholesale customers with meat from animals grown on our own leased 290 acres. Sam had a know how, the equipment, and the land base available to finish steers consistently on 100% grass. Over the last ten year he has become a key partner in Hickory Nut Gap Meats production and forage chain supply. He is also plays the role of Livestock Coordinator and Consultant for the dozen other farmers who grow beef for our program.

He is passing along his farming and business acumen to his eight year old son as well. When we stopped by yesterday on our way back from a farming panel discussion in Virginia we found Chase out back taking care of his organic laying hens. He came to his dad last week announcing that he was looking for about four $10 investors to help pay the grain costs until his chickens started laying. The return on investment once they started laying is 2 dozen eggs. After admiring Chase’s operation and set up Jamie pulled a ten dollar bill from his wallet and gave it to Chase. He glowed and so did his mom and dad while we did some calculations about how much revenue he was looking at once he opened the farm stand to sell the eggs.

As far as I’m concerned I think Levi hit the nail on the head. Hobson Dobson is alive and well in the big city of 2000 acres called Dobson Farm. The only thing he missed was the dog’s name which is Freckles not Kheec.

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Our house is nestled on a slope about 8 feet below a split rail fence. Right now all the lady cows are in Rutherford County finishing up the stockpiled grass from the farm we lease down there and the two bulls are grazing in the Chamomile Field which borders our yard. The bulls seem to get along with each other just fine since there aren’t any cute cows to show off for. The trees along the fence line help to keep their spirits up as it shields them from the rainy weather we’ve had recently.

It’s been a wet couple of weeks mostly marked by mud on our boots, red clay paths throughout the farm store, and the gnawing need to pour the concrete pad for the kitchen we are building at the farm. We try to wait patiently for the rain to stop, long enough to make mopping a worthwhile endeavor and to check for a forecast that suggests we might get something done in the near future. We overcame the urge to be productive one day last week and instead cuddled on the couch watching basketball and those hilarious Capital One and VW Passat commercials while discussing that the next feasible day to pour the pad would be in a week. So we would just have to wait regardless of what the google calendar plan I put together last week indicated. I am from Louisville, KY and Jamie’s from NC so basketball is something that both he, the kids and I do together during the month of March. It wasn’t SO bad to have to wait out the weather I guess. (Note: UL plays NC State on Friday night. Go CARDS!)

But while my mind was being swept away in basketball and how my bracket was performing, I kept having this unsettled sense that I was being watched. As I turned my head, slowly mind you, to see what could be out there, the bull- all 1500 lbs of him- was intently leaning over the split rail watching us through the bay window as if he wanted to come in to get warm and dry by the woodstove too! I looked at Nolin and said, ” Look, I think the bull wants to come inside.” He walked over to the door and said, “ok,” gauging my reaction and teasing me by turning the sticky handle of the door threatening to call the bull “co-um, cuu-uum”.  Levi got on board with the idea and we considered where the bull might sit that Sunday afternoon and which team he would be pulling for. Par for the course with a discussion between two boys, ages 8 and 5, the question was also entertained, “what if he poops and pees in the house mom?” “That would be a disaster boys! [consider mopping that up I think] “lets just let him stay where he is, how about that?”

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He’s there at the top of the pasture nearly every morning while we are getting ready for school. Maybe he appreciates the general chaos our household embodies ranging from indoor Nerf wars to celebratory win wrestling matches. (see below) I hope our family of five provides those two bulls with ample entertainment and peaks their curiosity about humans in general. I remember a time when it was final exam week at Warren Wilson and I was splitting my time between studying, two jobs, my friends and a functional amount of sleep, I would often drive back onto campus and pass the cows in the field wishing that I had a cows life of leisure. Some of those lady cows were nearing 10 years old at that point seeing them hanging out on Dogwood all day grazing and socializing spawned a jealously within.  Free time was such a luxury in college and at times still is, but in that moment when my husband was home, my kids were all together and the game was on, I was happy to be on inside the looking out and even happier that the bull was on his side of the fence and not in my living room!

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The place was impossible to miss. With painted plaster cows lining the street, colorful lights twinkling from miniature grain silos, and old tractor tires recycled into sign holders and seats, Andres Carne de Res is a fixture of the Bogotano culinary and party scene. The restaurant/ bar/dance venue/ weekend escape destination is a novelty in that it attracts tourists and locals alike, all swarming to the party-style atmosphere and world renowned steak dinners.

I was in Colombia for a two week trip to visit my girlfriend, who has been living in the city for the past four months. She’d been living mostly on the abundantly available fresh fruits and vegetables that are ubiquitous in the city. Every street corner has a guy with a cart selling avocado and sliced mango in wax paper cups. We decided that a night of decadence and red meat was in order, though.

As the waitress led us through the maze of wooden tables overhung by low, smokey lamps, we were amazed at how large the place was. When I finally had a chance to ask her the capacity of the restaurant she replied that, in the course of any given night, they fed 2000 hungry carnivores!I thought about the incredible quantity of meat that one restaurant must plow through every night to feed that many people. The menu, which was just as flashy and crowded as the restaurant, was 30 pages long with its own index and glossary and most of the items in it were meat based dishes. One whole page was entirely devoted to steaks, some so large they were recommended to feed eight people!

Meat, especially beef, is a staple of traditional Colombian food. Most restaurants serving Colombian cuisine offer large platters of meats and fried corn patties called arepas. It made me think about the quantity and quality of all this food. In Colombia, when I told people that I work on a farm that raises grassfed beef, they looked confused. What other kind of beef is there? Feeding cows grass in South America is a no-brainer. In Argentina and Brazil there are millions of acres of pampas with climates perfect for growing lush grazing fodder.

For many South Americans, the amount of meat they consume is a function of availability and cost, not necessarily quality. The same is true everywhere but for now, they are getting delicious grassfed beef at the same cost that people in the US pay for their corn-and-soy-stuffed cows. Eventually, those resource rich places will begin to deplete from overuse. How many times have we heard the mantra ‘you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone’? While it’s fun to have a decadent 600 gram ribeye steak smothered in buttery garlic sauce now and again, it should be just that, a treat, not the norm.

I know this post doesn’t have much to do with the farm, but it has a direct connection in my mind. Our way of farming touts sustainability and environmental consciousness, but it must be paired with moderation or it renders itself impossible. Eating meat seems a healthy and natural part of life to me, but, like anything good, If you get too much, its bad.

 

It’s a party every night at Andres Carne de Res

 

The 1000 gram beef tenderloin with bacon is a recommended meal for eight!

Traditional Colombian platters consist of grilled corn, arepas (fried corn), potatoes, and lots and lots of meat!

 

So here’s to moderation, and to quality. And here’s to a little party once in a while!

Sweetbread

That’s a bad pun and one that’s not entirely appropriate as we haven’t grown or cut hay at Hickory Nut Gap for several years now. For some reason I can’t seem to begin these blog posts without some sort of joke or catchphrase, even if they’re terrible.

When most cattle farmers find out that we don’t cut hay, they are incredulous. “What, how do you feed the cows during the winter? You must spend a lot of money buying bales”, is a pretty common response when someone finds out we don’t raise our own hay or make corn silage. The fact is though, we don’t need to. What’s the secret?

Strip grazing.

Though you may begin to fantasize of shirtless young farm hands moving cows through languid green pastures, this is not an ag. version of strip poker . Strip grazing and related terms like mob or intensive grazing are gaining ground among agricultural as well as foodie communities around the country. If it’s new to you, strip grazing is a simple idea with extraordinary consequences in the pasture. Basically, our cows are not permitted to graze on an entire pasture all at once. If they were, they would eat only the choicest morsels of grass, leaving or trampling everything that is less desirable. This is not only an inefficient system in terms of food availability, it also depletes pastures of vital nutrients and encourages the growth of those plants and grasses that the animals don’t find particularly pleasant.

The cows run out of food faster, and when things grow back, there is less good stuff to eat.

Instead, we divide our fields into narrow strips with plastic posts and wire reels. The cows are permitted to graze on one strip of pasture for an allotted amount of time depending on the time of year, number of cows, and size of the pasture. When they have consumed all the grass in one strip, we remove the reel and posts separating them from the next strip, and then put up a back fence to keep them off the part of the pasture that has already been grazed.

This method forces the cows to do several things. First, it gives the animals less choice of grasses to eat, thereby forcing them to consume all of the existing forage rather than just the best parts. The hungry animals also eat more of the available grass before needing to move to a new strip. Finally, the manure, which is a vital part of the cow-pasture relationship, is evenly distributed throughout the pasture instead of being concentrated around the richest parts of the pasture with the best grass: fertility distribution made easy.

Strip grazing allows us to utilize pasture space more effectively and draw out our forage through the winter. We stockpile grass instead of cutting it all down and stockpiling hay.  Strip grazing also helps to maintain healthy pastures and keeps us from needing to feed hay, even in the winter when the grass is no longer growing.

This is a long post, but I hope that the material is at least interesting, if not revelatory. Explaining the things I learn on the farm helps me to better understand the concepts myself and see the gaps in my own understanding.

best,

Sweetbread

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.

Sweetbread

Last summer we had a fellow working with us from northern Germany named Thies Winkelmann. Thies was a great worker and unfailingly cheerful. He loved to work hard and he loved to drink beer. He also loved to grill. Not just any kind of grilling, though, he loved Churasco. Churasco is a Brazilian style barbeque for which the meat must be brined at least a day in a tub filled with salt, onion, garlic, lemon, rosemary, bay leaves and assorted ground spices. Thies made Churasco for the farm crew several times during his summer here and would get excited just thinking about the succulent grilled meat. He gave us the recipe, but all the measurements were for 20lbs of meat, enough to feed 40 people! Of course, on our first attempt, we decided to double it.

The Fairview Feast is an event that we hold every summer here on the farm. Originally it was conceived because we’d joked about how much fun it would be to attend a medieval feast. Drinking from goblets, ripping into crusty loaves of bread and tender drumsticks, cheering loudly and making enthusiastic toasts and huzzahs, what more could you want from a meal? Our first year, we held the feast in August on a hill overlooking the farm. We slaughtered a goat the day before and spent all day roasting the meat, baking bread, and apple pies, and setting up tables and benches in our spot. After that The Feast became a tradition, each successive event more boisterous than the last. Each Feast also has a theme: medieval, roman, barbarian… This year we went with pirates. The Buccaneer Banquet.

Because it was such a busy summer for the crew, we decided to make The Feast a more low key event. It went down this past weekend without too much fanfare, but plenty of rousing cheers.  We stocked up meat from the employee boxes for several months and, on Thursday night, made enough Churasco brine for 40 lbs of meat. It sat in a big cooler in the fridge for two days and when we took it out to put on the grill, the aroma of rosemary and garlic were wonderfully strong.

I’m not an expert at the grill. I always seem to run the thing too hot and burn the meat, or else I keep too few coals and it takes forever. On Saturday though, it all came out perfectly. The meat had soaked for so long that it was tender and bursting with flavor. I’ve never been good at planning far enough ahead to marinate meat that I’m cooking for myself, but after tasting that Churasco, I know I’ll start. Even though it rained all day Saturday, we had a good crowd come out in their swashbuckling garb and we devoured all but a few pieces of the meat we prepared plus a variety of vegetable dishes that people brought and some good home brews. Folks from Fairview certainly know how to have a good time, even in the rain.

Here’s the recipe, though you may have to scale it down based on how many people you’re trying to feed. Truth is, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble getting rid of any leftovers!

Shiver me timbers!

Sweetbread