Around two years ago, Bradley and Nicole Mills starting looking at their livestock – and their livelihood – in a different way.
Cattle-raising had been the staple of the 75-year-old Mills Family Farm, established in 1935 by Bradley’s grandparents and uncles in Mooresville.
But in recent years, the Millses sensed an oncoming trend, a movement among restaurants and consumers toward buying and eating local meat. They made the switch to becoming meat-handlers, meaning they not only raise grass-fed cattle, but they also distribute and sell their own meat.
For the Millses, it’s paying off. Business has quadrupled in the last two years, Nicole says.
Mills Family Farm is one of many farms to alter their business model to adjust to the downturn and shifting consumer concerns. The local meat industry, in particular, has seen incredible growth. The Millses’ veal, beef and pork from the farm are served in 17 restaurants in the Carolinas and sold in regional farmers markets. Customers come to the farm from as far as Virginia and South Carolina to peruse more than 70 frozen cuts – from Cajun beef burgers to the finest of filets, scaloppini to cuts some people haven’t even heard of (chuckeye, anyone?).
In a warehouse by the farmhouse, a whiteboard of classroom proportions hangs beside the nine freezers that store the dry-packed meat. The board lists every cut they offer, with the single and bulk prices. “It was another way to diversify our business,” Nicole says. “You almost have to do that to be able to survive.”
A surge in handlers
In 2007, there were only 128 registered meat handlers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Division.
As of November 2012, there are more than 555 meat handlers in the state.
The nearly five-fold increase is due to the local food movement, said Casey McKissick, coordinator for the NC Choices program, which works to advance local, niche and pasture-based meat supply chains.
McKissick says many consumers now want transparency and local ties when it comes to their food, especially when it comes to meat. “Animal food plays on people’s emotions more than apples and tomatoes do,” McKissick says. “Lots of people eat meat and feel bad about it (if they) find out animals are being mistreated.”
“(Our) goal is to raise healthy, happy animals,” says Bradley Mills, also a veterinarian. Offering that reassurance and transparency requires a significant investment of money and face time: long hours at the farmers market, dozens of cold calls to restaurants and chefs, community involvement.
The 200-acre farm near Lake Norman has been in the family since 1935. The Millses always raised beef cattle for other meat handlers, but most of the money used to come from selling dairy. In the 1970s, however, when Bradley’s grandparents couldn’t milk the cows anymore, they focused on a cow-calf operation, where they raised baby cows to harvest size. But handling newborn calves was labor-intensive, and when Bradley’s brother moved away, the Millses reevaluated. They decided to focus on raising already-weaned cattle.
Now, the Millses buy their cows at about 500 pounds. The young ones are kept in a separate pasture to become acclimated to the new environment. Then they join the other cows and are raised to harvest weight, about 1,100 to 1,300 pounds.
The Millses then work with Mays Meat in Taylorsville – another small business – to have their meat cut and aged for two weeks, a strategy to enhance the flavor.
A trade-show meeting
While in veterinary school at N. C. State University, Bradley came home every weekend. He’d leave Raleigh Friday, spend Saturday in the fields, stay up late Sunday paying bills, and then leave Monday morning for class. Bradley eventually became a consultant for Pfizer’s animal pharmaceuticals, which is how he met Nicole, who also worked for Pfizer and had a master’s in agriculture.
They were introduced at a trade show and had a cow and horse-themed wedding a year and a half later. A set of chairs in the warehouse have seat covers fashioned from the cow-patterned tablecloths used at the reception.
Nicole handles marketing and sales. She works with the restaurants, such as Harvest Moon Grille uptown, Pewter Rose Bistro in Southend, Flat Iron Kitchen and Taphouse in Davidson and Passion 8 Bistro in Fort Mill. She loves telling chefs their story. And chefs love telling customers.
The Millses’ latest venture is a Community Supported Agriculture program with Calahaln Farms in Mocksville, about an hour north of Charlotte. Through the CSA, customers can get 18 weeks of fresh produce from Calahaln and meat from Mills for one lump sum. And one day, the couple would like to turn the old dairy barn into a farm store.
That kind of innovation is what’s going to keep local farms thriving, says McKissick of NC Choices: “People realize that when they spend money on things that align with their values; that makes them feel like they’re a part of something.”