Hilltop Beef Satisfies Niche Market
"Now what do you hear?” says Dale Thompson, as he turns off the motor of the shiny green four-wheeler that’s just pulled up in the pasture near a herd of cows.
“Cows eating grass,” replies his 4-year-old granddaughter, Ella Rose, as she looks up at him.
“That’s a sound I wanted her to hear; it’s important that she knows,” he says. “It’s all about the younger generation understanding where food comes from and hopefully, being able to farm here if they want to ’cause we’d never sell this place,” he adds as he looks toward the pasture. “It is home.”
Home for Thompson and his wife, Sharon, is Hilltop Angus Farm near Mount Gilead. It is one of an increasing number of small family farms in the United States that are using sustainable farming practices to breed, raise and finish grass-fed beef and supply it to niche markets.
“We’re raising cows the way nature intended,” Dale says. “We keep it simple. We grow the grass and they eat it. They do all the work while foraging and grazing peacefully in our open pastures.”
Farming comes naturally to him. His father came to the rolling hills of Pee Dee in 1956 and established a family farm that has been a dairy farm, breeding farm and then a cow-calf operation that sold feeder calves to the conventional market.
In 2009, Dale and his sons, Justin and Cory, began looking for new opportunities for the farm. Justin attended a conference on direct marketing, and they later attended a conference on grass-fed beef, meeting other farmers who had established successful operations.
One of those farmers was Jamie Ager, of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Asheville, a supplier of grass-fed beef to Earth Fare, one of the largest natural food retailers in the nation, with 19 stores in the Southeast.
With encouragement from Ager, the Thompsons organized the new business and established feeding protocols and production plans for the herd as designated by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which certifies and audits their farm.
Proper Diet Is Key
The Thompsons’ herd is never given grain, unlike some store brands of grass-fed beef that are fed grain in the last weeks of their life to boost their weight. And conventional beef cattle are fed grain and other food byproducts a few months after birth and spend at least the last 90 to 120 days in a feedlot without access to grass.
Thompson says that having the proper dietary protocols for the animals is key to maintaining healthy animals and getting the beef that makes Hilltop Angus beef flavorful and tender — so much so that 90 percent of its beef is now supplied to Ager for sale to Earth Fare stores.
The Thompsons rotate the herd of nearly 100 Angus to 10 different sections of grazing pasture, where they forage on diverse grasses. In addition, and in accordance with the AGA’s recommendation, the cattle also are fed soybean hulls in quantities based upon the animal’s weight.
“This helps them gain some weight and makes the meat more tender, but it also makes them friendly,” says Dale, with a laugh. “They like me. I can walk among them and put my hands on them. If we didn’t do something like that they’d be wild animals.”
Local Markets Are Busy
As many farmers have found, their products tend to find their best niches in local markets, often selling directly to consumers. But creating and serving new markets remains one of the key challenges for sustainable agriculture. This is one of the reasons the Thompsons pull their shiny white trailer, outfitted with multiple freezers, to Moore County each week.
In addition to the meat supplied to Earth Fare, the Thompsons sell beef through their website, www.hilltopangusgrassfed.com, and at the Saturday farmers market in Southern Pines and the Thursday market in the village of Pinehurst. Local restaurants, including Ashten’s in Southern Pines, also purchase their beef.
“This is the first time we’ve worked at a farmers market and it’s been wonderful,” says Sharon Thompson, who manages the farm’s marketing efforts, pre-sales and website. “We’ve been very blessed with our product’s acceptance in Moore County, and we’re building a good base of consumers. It’s really helped move this operation along.”
Grass-fed Health Benefits
Another reason the American consumer is seeking more grass-fed products are for the numerous health benefits. Grass-fed products contain higher levels of beneficial vitamins and nutrients; and have less total fat, saturated fat and calories. It is also richer in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, a proven anti-carcinogen. The Thompsons’ cattle are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
“One of the things we see at the market, and in particular at the Southern Pines market, is that consumers are very educated — they know what they want,” Sharon says. “We have folks who come because they want to know what they are feeding their families. They actually thank us for raising grass-fed beef and bringing it to the market so they have access to it. It’s really very gratifying.”
Kate Black, of Southern Pines, visits the Thompsons’ booth every Saturday.
“If folks want to come to dinner at my house, I tell them to wait until Saturday so I can get the best beef in town,” she says with a laugh, while picking up her weekly order.
Black, who has two small children, had never tried grass-fed beef until she moved here earlier this year.
“I’m pretty fussy over the kids’ food and make a lot of it myself, so I am interested in knowing what is in our food and how it is handled,” she says.
Of great importance to the Thompsons is how their animals are treated. They are one of only a few family farms in the region that are Animal Welfare Approved. These standards are the most rigorous and progressive animal care requirements in the nation, as recognized by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
A USDA-approved processor located in Siler City cuts the meat in popular store cuts, vacuum seals the beef, then labels and flash freezes the product. The Thompsons pick up the meat and store it at their farm until it goes to market.
“It’s always an open-door policy here,” says Dale. “Anyone can come and see how we operate. If you’re doing it the way we are, you have to have it so people can see whatever they want to see. When you go to the grocery store and see the beef, you really don’t know where it comes from. Here you see the cows in the pasture, happy and grazing on good grasses.”
The Thompsons’ tidy farm is a place of which they are mightily proud. Their home is surrounded by the cooling shade of ancient water oaks, where a smaller herd of cows, waiting to give birth, also take shelter.
“We put them up here near the house so they can be close to us for their first time, so they are comfortable and to ensure that any mothers that need assistance are tended to,” says Dale. “Every day is like Christmas here this time of year; you just never know what you will find under those trees when you wake up.”
This fall they hope to take time from the regular farm chores to offer a special invitation–only customer appreciation day.
“We’d like to have them come out to our home and bring a picnic lunch, fish in the pond, see the animals and take a ride in the gator [four-wheeler],” says Sharon. “It’s just amazing that so many kids don’t have any clue what it is like on a farm or where their food comes from.”
As the Thompsons gaze out at the nearby pasture, they say they hope that the children come, particularly so they can hear the sound of the cows eating grass.
For more information, visit www.hilltopangusgrassfed.com or call (910) 439-5261.
Claudia Watson is a regular contributor to The Pilot and PineStraw magazine and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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