I'm a Drover: Raised local, sold local

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click image to zoom Albion, Iowa, is not unlike hundreds of small communities struggling to find a footing in uncertain economic times.

There’s a scattered collection of old storefront buildings, many of them boarded up and standing as monuments to days gone by. The Casey’s General Store, with its gas pumps and hot coffee, invites locals to gather and catch up on the gossip of the day. And an antique shop on the north end of town catches the eyes of passers-through, enticing them to make illegal U-turns on Main to seek out long-forgotten treasures.

For the people who live here, however, one of the most exciting pieces of news was when Jeff and Christy Hibbs, who farm and ranch just west of town, purchased the bank building a couple of years ago and converted it into a store for selling locally raised food.

“I kid you not,” laughs Christy, “people around here were more excited that we were going to turn the bank sign back on — with its time and temperature — than they were about the opening of the store.”

The store, located a block east of Main Street, is appropriately called “The Market off Main.” Its colorful sign and logo — and the contemporary look of the store’s 1,100-square-foot interior — are in contrast to the building’s otherwise bureaucratic-looking exterior.

The Hibbs initially purchased the building because they needed an office for Jeff’s farming operations and storage for Christy’s “farmers’ market stuff,” Christy says.

Then it hit them: Why not convert the building into a store where they could sell their locally raised beef and also help other markets in the area sell their products as well?

Today, the store features not only Hibbs Farm Beef but products from about 20 vendors, as well — everything from locally produced honey and wine to cheese, milk, pork and chicken.

“All of our meats are locally born and raised and processed at licensed and inspected facilities,” Jeff says. “All of our dairy products are from licensed dairies as well.”

The success of the enterprise — and the quality of Hibbs Farm Beef — is attracting the attention of some heavy-hitter businesses across the state.

Starting last fall, Hibbs began delivering one beef carcass every two weeks to the Isle of Capri Casino in Waterloo, Iowa, where it’s prepared by a chef and enjoyed by customers seeking a great-tasting meal.

All told, the Hibbs will process about 50 head of cattle for the program in 2013 — a far cry from the days when Christy sold a few frozen cuts, halves or quarters at local farmers’ markets.

Few can doubt the impact of the locally grown food movement. Fostered primarily in large cities by the affluent, urbane and educated, the locally raised food movement, propelled in part by concerns over modern food production, has grown from local farmers’ markets to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise worldwide.

The Hibbs’ daughter Hannah earned a champion ribbon at the Central Iowa Fair, showing cattle from her family’s ranch in Albion. The Hibbs, too, have based their business on solid, conservative principles — and they use the store as a way to educate consumers about farm and ranch practices, not to criticize them. In other words, this is a business based on pinstripes, not ponytails.

“I talk to customers a lot about things we do on our farm and ranch,” Christy says. “When they ask about GMOs, I ask them: ‘Do you realize GMO-corn allows us to use less herbicides and less pesticides?’

“When they ask me, ‘Do you give your cattle antibiotics?’ I say, ‘Yes, we use things like antibiotics on sick animals. Don’t you use antibiotics when your pets or kids get sick?’ Absolutely. When you point that out, they get it.”

At the heart of these conversations is a deeply engrained belief that not only should farmers and ranchers find a way to add value to their products by producing what consumers want, but that they should also do so as efficiently as possible.

In other words, the success of the store begins with a productive cow herd.

For Jeff, this is something that you can see about as well as he can articulate, and a quick tour of his snowy pastures shows exactly what he means.

As his cows drift out of the shelter of trees onto the frozen feeding ground, Jeff minces few words: “Every one of them — deep-gutted, easy-doing, big-hipped.”

His description is spot on, and one is struck by the uniformity and consistency of his cows, which are Angus crossed with Simmental and South Devon Composites.

The Hibbs began using bulls from Nichols Farms in the early 1980s, shortly after Jeff’s brother Rusty had spent a summer with the Nichols family as an intern.

The use of Nichols genetics — year after year, generation after generation — has resulted in a cow herd that is reliable and predictable, balancing the production traits the Hibbs need for efficiency with the quality traits they need for their store.

“We select our bulls carefully to reduce calving problems and to yield strong, healthy offspring,” Jeff says. “Our relationship with Nichols Farms has always been a great one. They’ve always provided us with what we need, and they give us a lot of help in making our breeding decisions.”

Jeff selects for genetics that will grow quickly as young animals — 4 to 4.5 pounds per day as steers in the feedyard and their heifer-mates that are efficient and don’t get too big as mature cows.

Last summer, the Hibbs weaned their calves at 300 to 350 pounds. This allowed the family to reduce grazing pressure on their pastures and to get their cows in better body condition going into the winter. Jeff also shifted some of his cow herd to a fall-calving program to accommodate the year-round demand of the beef business.

All of his calves — whether they are replacement heifers or steers — are fed at a small feedyard on the farm. About 90 percent of the steer calves are shipped to Creekstone Farms, a branded-beef company based in Arkansas City, Kan. Jeff says his cattle typically grade 80 percent Choice or higher — well above industry standards.

“Our cattle have produced meat that has consistently placed in the top five of the Beef of Merit Show at the Iowa State Fair,” Jeff says. “The meat is tested for marbling and tenderness. We received champion honors twice and have been named reserve champion once in recent years. In 2008 alone, three of the top-10-placing carcasses in the Beef of Merit Show were from Hibbs Farm cattle.”

Ultimately, having award-winning quality in their cow herd was what laid the foundation for the new market — and new and unexpected opportunities — in Albion.

“As far as this store goes, this wasn’t something that we sat down and wrote a business plan for,” Christy says. “But actually, we’ve had an extraordinary response. We’ve been absolutely stunned by the amount of support from the community. Our goal has always been to capture the increasing demand for locally raised foods, and we hope this will help our farm and our community weather the ups and downs as we look down the road.”


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