New Year, still farming: cattle farmer shares 2020 learnings + what comes next
Now that 2020 is behind us, like many of you, we’re looking forward to a New Year and the opportunities it’ll bring. But we also see the importance of reflecting over the last 12 months. As we talk about what 2020 looked like for us, and where our farm is headed in 2021, let me share a little about our family’s history.
Seven generations ago, my family made the journey from Ireland and settled in Sumner Township in Warren County, about as far west as you can go in Illinois. Since then, all seven generations have raised cattle right here – making it a long-held tradition of providing our families and our communities with nutritious, sustainably grown beef. We also grow corn and soybeans on our farm. My family and my brother Scott, his wife Lisa, their three little boys, as well as my father Greg, are all involved with the family farm.
In 2018, our cattle roots took a slightly different direction. Our cattle business has always been a cow-calf operation, meaning we’ve sold cattle to other cattle farmers, as well as to youth cattlemen to start their own herds and use as a 4-H project. Ultimately, the cattle we didn’t sell to other farmers or we didn’t intend to keep would enter the food supply through our local sale barn. But people were constantly telling us that the quality of our beef was really good, and then they’d ask if we’d sell it. So, we launched Sumner Point Beef, which provided the opportunity to not only make more from our beef than we would at the sale barn, but also to answer questions about what we do on the farm. For instance, what our cows get fed, and why and how we use antibiotics
Fast-forward to spring 2020, and we all know what happened. As I reflect on it now, Sumner Point Beef was a blessing in disguise. As a business owner, you worry about the decisions you’ve made, how you can sustain the business long-term. These aren’t necessarily new concerns for a farmer; we face these every day. But selling our beef directly certainly felt like new terrain.
But by the time the pandemic hit, we already had the infrastructure in place to get our product in the hands of people who were looking for ways to get quality protein delivered to their doorstep. Suddenly people were asking about bulk beef who never had beef custom-processed before (this is a very different experience than deciding between a one-pound or two-pound package of ground beef at the meat counter). From March to May, our orders went crazy. We spent most of the summer sold out until the next beef was processed. On a side note, if you’re interested in buying beef directly, here’s a great resource for understanding how much beef you typically get and different cut options.
I will say, the shortages experienced in-store last spring were not due to a supply problem. The cattle in my pasture are evidence of that. Instead, what we saw was a distribution challenge; we were just fortunate to have a business model established in which we could quickly deliver meat to customers. It was a win for our type of business, but at the same time heartbreaking for other farmers who couldn’t find a buyer for animals that were market ready.
New year, same farm
Even as the world changes drastically, you’ll find that the farm tends to stay siloed (pun intended). We still fed cows every day. We still had an essential business to run. And we still packed and shipped boxes wherever they needed to go – just at a faster pace than usual.
For all of us, 2020 was a year we’ll never forget. As for 2021, our business plan isn’t changing, and our goals are still the same. Sumner Point Beef is a farm-to-plate business that allows us to share our quality product with others, as well as contribute to our bottom line.
Just know that when you buy beef – whether it’s directly from our farm or at the meat counter – it’s very likely that a family helped raise it. A family that is like yours, which in normal times means dropping our kids off at school, going to extra-curricular activities and volunteering in our community. We are a family, a farm and a small business, all in one.
And if you’ll be enjoying beef this winter, here is one of my favorite recipes:
- 1 lb. Sumner Point Beef ground beef
- 1 egg
- 3/4 c milk
- 1 c shredded cheddar cheese
- 1/2 c quick-cooking oats
- 1 tsp salt
- 2/3 c ketchup
- 1/2 c brown sugar
In a bowl, beat the egg and milk. Stir in cheese, oats, and salt. Add Sumner Point Beef and mix well. Shape into balls; place into a 9×13 inch baking dish. Combine ketchup and brown sugar; spoon over meat balls. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until the meat is no longer pink.