Capitalizing on grass-fed beef and land stewardship
John and Carolyn Wheeler | Wheel-View Farm | Shelburne, Massachusetts
John and Carolyn Wheeler, owners of Wheel-View Farm, Shelburne, Mass.
Beef cattle grazing in pasture created through the Grassland Reserve Program.
A beef cow and calf romp in pasture at Wheel-View Farm.
John and Carolyn Wheeler, owners of Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, Massachusetts, are riding the grass-fed beef wave and the keys to their success are strong consumer demand and good land stewardship.
"The farm operation has really grown the past couple of years, faster than we expected it to because of the demand for local grass-fed beef. There seems to be a demand for local food and people are looking for that." says John, sitting with Carolyn before a scenic backdrop of the rolling hills of Franklin County stretching toward the Vermont border.
"People want to know where their food comes from and that the animals have a happy healthy life. They have a great life here, just hanging out and eating grass," adds Carolyn. "All they eat is the grass in the pasture and the hay that we bale for them...and alfalfa cubes as treats so we can catch them when we want them."
The Wheelers started raising three Highland cows in spring of 2002 and as soon as they had any beef ready, people wanted it. So they bought more cows, the cows had calves and today the operation is up to 108 animals.
But that's not where the Wheelers story begins. John and Carolyn have been farming Wheel-View farm for nearly thirty years. They bought the original dairy farm from Carolyn's parents in 1979 and continued the dairy operation for a while. The farm had been in Carolyn's family since 1896. In 1988, they sold the dairy cattle and took jobs off the farm. For a few years they did commercial cut flowers, selling in the Boston and New York flower markets. But the tender bulbs had to be dug every year and that got to be too much work. They continued haying their fields and letting other farmers use their pastures.
"Then about six years ago we couldn't find any other dairy farmers interested in using our pastures and they were getting pretty grown up to brush," says John. "We decided to get a few beef cattle and started to look into some programs to get help getting our pastures cleared and make better use of the land we had."
"What really got us started was talking with another farmer. I think by hearing from someone who had actually done it got us motivated to look into it ourselves," recalls Carolyn about how they found out about the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and other assistance available through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Wheelers worked with Rita Thibodeau, NRCS District Conservationist overseeing the Greenfield, Massachusetts, field office, to develop a conservation plan for their farm. "We really enjoy working with Rita," says Carolyn. "She knows what she's doing. She can remember all these plants that we can't remember."
Rita also informed the Wheelers about federal conservation programs that would provide technical and financial assistance to help them accomplish their conservation goals.
"It's a pleasure working with John and Carolyn Wheeler," says Thibodeau. "They're enthusiastic and passionate about agriculture. They're willing to try new ideas to make their operation more efficient and effective. They're a great example of a successful farm family."
"We got a grant to clear a lot of the pastures. [A contractor] came with his Brontosaurus machine and it could just grind up the junipers and scrubby pines. It's now coming back to grass and provides a lot more area for the cows to graze," says Carolyn.
"We own about 250 acres and we've put it a lot of it into pasture," explains John. "We also got money to help with fencing so we could divide up our large permanent pastures into smaller pastures that we could rotate."
Carolyn points out that fencing also helps to keep the cows out of the pond and streams, protecting water quality. "The Shelburne Falls water supply borders our back pasture, so we need to think about water related issues."
"A lot of our land is pretty hilly and rough and ledgy, and parts of it are somewhat wet," says John. "It grows very good grass for pasture but it's not suited for mechanical harvesting. It's land that's not suitable for fruits or vegetables. We think pasture land is the best option for it."
"The programs have really made it so John and I can do the work that needs to be done on the farm. We have about 108 animals now, some Scottish Highlands, some Belted Galloway, and mixtures, and we're able to sell the beef. There's a great market for the beef," says Carolyn.
"We started out raising some beef thinking we'd just sell freezer beef to individuals but almost immediately there was one natural food store in Shelburne Falls that called us and asked if we'd like to sell some beef there, then another natural food store in Greenfield called and said their customers were asking for local beef, then a few local restaurants called and that expanded our sales more," recalls John.
"I think our timing was right in terms of local grass-fed beef. If we had to start that in 1988 I'm not sure that people were ready for that," says Carolyn. "People are thinking about open space and all the farms that have gone out of business and they want to support the local farmers now. That's why we've been able to do so well with the beef now."
The Wheelers host open houses at the farm and on one Memorial Day weekend they had 300 to 400 visitors. "The people who are buying in these stores and restaurants are reading our brochures and they want to come to the farm to see how the beef is being produced. We like to explain how we're raising the cattle and how you can do something like this locally and make it sustainable," says John.
"We have a little store here at the farm now. Over half of our beef is sold right here, so we have that face to face connection with the customer," says Carolyn. "As we show them around, we try to point out what we've been able to do with the help of NRCS. It really has made a difference."
John adds that they have some before and after pictures to show all the conservation work they've done. "We also see a lot of people in the local community who aren't farmers and don't really know anything about farming but they like to see open land. We've been able to explain how the things we're doing here with the help of NRCS are allowing us to keep the land open."
"We're hoping to make the farm viable so we can pass it on to our children and grandchildren," says John. "We're the fourth generation here on this farm. We're hoping to keep it viable in some type of agriculture and be able to keep the land open."
"I think any farmer is really concerned with their land, wants to conserve it and do the best that they can with it. It is sort of a passion," says Carolyn. "It's something you really feel strongly about: good stewardship of the land and keeping it open, keeping it productive. That's something that's really important to people who have worked the land for so many years."