Innovative Farm Product New Model of Sustainability
Thou shall not waste. This is one of the marching orders at Hilltop Angus Farm.
"Wasting no part of the animals we raise is good for sustainable agriculture and for the protecting our environment," says Dale Thompson, owner of the Mount Gilead farm. "It's also just the right thing to do."
Thompson, whose 200-acre farm sits at the edge of the Uwharrie National Forest, began selling his popular grass-fed beef at the Moore County Farmers Market in 2010 and also provides it to many local restaurants
Though his meat business is very successful, he started thinking about all the underused parts of his cows and investigating how he could add value to those parts.
Customers at the farmers market were asking for his grass-fed dog bones, leftovers from the cows' processing.
"I couldn't keep up with the requests," he says. "Dog owners love their dogs, and the demand for the dog bones shows there is a market for alternative healthy treats."
He knew that organ meats such as liver, kidneys and heart, which do not sell well to the consumer market, represented an opportunity.
"An average cow provides about 18 pounds of liver. I package and freeze it for human consumption, but the market is just not what it used to be for liver, like it was when I was growing up," Thompson laughs.
With an excessive amount of liver in his freezers he recognized the great potential it had as nutritious supplemental treat in a 21st century dog diet.
Outfitted with a small-scale dehydrator, he started drying beef liver in his red metal "meat barn" and produced a jerky-type pet treat for friends to test with their animal companions.
Within weeks of preparing his first batch of liver treats, he was receiving enthusiastic reviews from consumers, dog breeders and show dog trainers. "One of them was even packaging it in little bags with red bows and giving them to friends for Christmas," Thompson recalls.
Those types of reviews served as the impetus to move ahead with commercial production of the product. Last fall, he applied for a Rural Advance-ment Foundation International (RAFI) grant, which is funded by the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund to farmers around the state.
In the spring, he was contacted by Joe Schroeder, the program director for the fund, and awarded a $10,000 grant. The grant allowed him to begin commercial production and marketing of the USDA-inspected, grass-fed beef liver jerky product, called Champs.
Schroeder says that RAFI grants are targeted for the most innovative and creative farmers from around the state. They look for those who can demonstrate profitable ways to make a living from small-scale agriculture, and to share their lessons with their neighbors and community members.
"Hilltop Angus Farm embodies that innovative spirit, without losing the lessons learned from generations of farming knowledge and heritage. We are lucky to have them as a resource," he says.
With grant funds Thompson purchased the necessary commercial-grade dehydrator, packaging equipment and materials. He also used the funding to develop the marketing program for Champs.
The marketing plan included the development of the product name, logo, packaging, marketing materials and a new shopping cart website. The website, www.hilltopangusgrassfed.com, makes it convenient to market Champs and the farm's other products, including grass-fed beef, heritage pork, pastured lamb and artisanal sausages, to a much larger audience.
Thompson currently sells Champs at the Moore County Farmers Market on Thursdays and Saturdays in Southern Pines, and at his Wilmington market once a month. Orders may be placed for it through his website for pickup at one of the markets.
He hopes to begin shipping the product nationwide later next year. In addition, he is marketing the product through local retail shops, dog breeders, trainers and veterinarians, and is considering other distribution channels.
Carrie Larsen, owner of Cared For Cat and Canine, in Southern Pines, sampled the product and recently accepted her first shipment of the product.
"I like to know where the meat comes from, that it is a USA product and not from across the ocean," she says. "Champs is locally owned and produced. It's pure meat protein without any additives or by products. When you get down to it, meat is what dogs want. They are carnivores."
Larsen, who opened her shop 12 years ago, has seen the growth trend in the natural pet food market. She offers an array of supplemental dog treats, but she cautions, "Just as with human food, there are no regulations governing the word 'natural' on pet food labels."
She says many pet products labeled "natural" or "organic" are full of things that do not supply nourishment to pets. These may include increased carbohydrates from grains and processed flour, soy and sugary coatings, as well as undesirable additives, preservatives and mold inhibitors, and things to keep products looking "meaty."
"Champs is a human-grade product without any additives of any type, and it is humanely raised and processed," stresses Thompson as he holds a product sample. "Our product label states the product is USDA-inspected, 100 percent Angus beef, grass-fed on our farm in North Carolina. It is very difficult to find that type of quality in most pet treats."
Key to the development of Champs is Thompson's "waste not want not" philosophy.
"It really is out of my deep respect for these animals, who provide us with sustenance, that we treat them humanely and respect their lives by not wasting any portion of them," he says. "If we feed our animal companions humanely raised meat products - what they naturally need for a healthy life - then we have succeeded in shifting livestock management to a humane and sustainable model.
"We are already considered very sustainable here, but we want to show that there is always another level of resourcefulness and sustainability. The very success of this project would challenge other growers to become more creative and find ways to use the whole animal.
"This is the first step in the transition that will need to take place for this farm to progress and for it to be viable for future generations, thus helping save the small family farm - a way of life in this country."
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer and may be contacted at cwatson87 @nc.rr.com.
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