Farmers find markets for meat both inside and outside Kentucky
TWO BEEF CATTLE OPERATIONS in the western part of Kentucky exemplify the creativity, strength and professionalism of the state’s agriculture, one through specialization and the other through the local food movement.
Hill View Farms near Owensboro is a fifth-generation corn, tobacco and beef cattle operation owned by the Gilles family, but its direct-to-consumer retail business, Hill View Farms Meats, LLC, started about eight years ago when the family took notice of a community need for locally raised beef.
The Gilleses are part of a growing trend not only in Kentucky but nationally, says Dave Maples, executive director of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association.
Consumers, he says, want to “get closer to their food’s origin, to know or know of the farm and the source where their food came from.”
The Gilles family’s on-farm retail center, Hill View Farms Market, features countless Kentucky Proud products from across the state, including meats and produce. “Working with our customers and getting to know them, putting a name and face behind agriculture is really what motivates us to continue to grow,” says Jim Gilles. He calls it “providing a product that is uniquely a local Kentucky experience.”
One unique aspect of their black Angus beef operation is the genetic selection aimed at producing the highest quality beef possible. That ranges from sire genetics to artificial insemination in their 250-head cow/calf operation. They select first for herd improvement, but also look at meat qualities to give customers the best eating experience possible. All of the beef raised for Hill View Farms Meats is antibiotic free and pasture raised with no added growth hormones.
The business also carries broiler chickens, pasture raised and free-range on their farm, along with its layer hens. The pork products it carries are raised by a neighboring farmer who follows the same practices as the Gilles farm.
Besides that, Jim Gilles’ father, Jimmy Gilles, and his business partner also sell sides of beef. Every Monday, they pick up orders from their beef processor and sit at a picnic table in their farm’s maintenance shop waiting for customers to come pick up freezer beef— just another way of meeting local needs.
Finding a flavorful niche
For Black Hawk Farms near Princeton, founded by Milton Cook IV, marbling is a key word. Marbling is the fat that gives high-quality beef its flavor—the more marbling, the tastier the meat. Cook bought his first full-blood wagyu bulls from Texas in 2014 to breed with his herd of Angus and others, producing American wagyu calves to raise on his Caldwell County farm. Wagyu beef stands out because it is marbled more than meat from any other breed of beef cattle, producing high-grade cuts.
The tasty American wagyu beef, marketed under the Black Hawk Farms name, is sold nationwide through distributors to restaurants, some of them Michelin-starred, as far away as California.
Black Hawk is also unique for its practice of “finishing” its cattle on its farm, rather than the more common practice of shipping them west to other states to put on their ultimate weight.
When Cook got the idea for finishing cattle on his farm, he consulted with with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. That led to building eco-friendly, open-air compost finishing barns for their cattle to protect them against disease and Kentucky weather conditions as they complete their lives. Black Hawk calls the entire process “vertical integration,” in which the farm controls everything from seed to harvest—growing the grass and grains to feed and finish the beef and then humanely processing it nearby. The waste the cattle produces is used as compost fertilizer for the next season of crops. The animals are humanely raised, free of antibiotics and hormones.
“It has been a learning process for everyone involved,” says Cook, who holds a plant soil degree from University of Kentucky. “The carcasses are larger, the fat content higher, and the demand is growing.”
Cook’s expertise is coupled with his cousin Brandon Oliver’s knowledge of cattle. Oliver, who holds a beef science degree and is a partner in the operation, is also its cattle manager. “Brandon has a passion for cattle; he’s very strategic and a valuable member of our crew,” Cook says.
The third-generation farm has come a long way from when Cook’s father, the late Firmon Milton Cook, started it. Black Hawk plans to double its operation from 600 head to 1,200 head this fall.
The American wagyu beef cattle requires a longer finishing time—500-plus days compared with the 180-day industry average—but as Cook says, “They’re well worth the wait.”
JONATHAN SHELL is a policy advisor for various statewide organizations. He grows flowers, corn and pumpkins and raises cattle on his Garrard County farm, Shell Farms and Greenhouses.