The Way Nature Intended
“Now what do you hear?” says Dale Thompson, as he turns off the motor of the shiny green four-wheeler that has just pulled up in the pasture near a herd of cows. “Cows eating grass,” replies his four-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 explains. “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 says as looks to 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 U.S. that employs sustainable farming practices to breed, raise and finish grassfed beef and supply it to niche markets.
“We’re raising cows the way nature intended. 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,” Dale says.
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 grassfed beef, meeting other farmers who had established successful operations.
The Thompsons decided to organize the new grassfed beef business at their farm. They established feeding protocols and production plans for the herd as designated by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which certifies and audits their farm.
Family Farm – The entire Thompson family is involved with the family’s farm in Mt. Gilead. From left to right: Dale and Sharon Thompson and their sons, Justin Thompson and Cory Thompson.
Proper diet is key
The Thompsons’ herd is never given grain unlike some store brands of grassfed 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 by-products a few months after birth and spend at least the last 90-120 days in a feedlot without access to grass.
Dale Thompson says that having the proper dietary protocols for the animals is key to maintaining healthy animals and getting the tender beef that makes Hilltop Angus beef very flavorful and tender.
The Thompsons rotate the herd of over 200 Angus to ten 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,” laughs Dale. “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. However, 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.
The Thompsons sell beef through their website and at the Saturday farmers market in downtown Southern Pines and the Thursday market Armory Park on Morganton Road. Local restaurants, including Elliott’s on Linden, in Pinehurst, 195 American Fusion, The Sly Fox, Rue 32 and Ashten’s in Southern Pines, also purchase their beef.
“The interest from customers at the farmers market and it’s been wonderful,” says Sharon, 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 in the Wilmington area and we’re building a good base of consumers. It’s really helped move this operation along.”
“It’s always an open-door policy here. Anyone can come and see how we operate,” says Dale. “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 they are mightily proud of. 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], explains 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 Thompson’s 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.