Sunday, May 27, 2007

Talking Sustainable Farming with the Royers

Nikki and Scott Royer with the next generation of farmers-in-training, Knic and Cale.
Yesterday was the opening of our local farmer’s market, and the boys and I met our friend Carla and her daughter for some foraging, tasting, stocking up, and reconnecting with the farmers we hadn’t seen for nine months. One of my favorite vendors, Royer Farm Fresh, was there with locally and humanely produced beef, pork, lamb, and eggs.

Recently, Nikki Royer, who with her husband Scott runs Royer Farm Fresh, took the time to answer a few questions about local meat: the economics, environmental impact, and advantages. (She also provided some candid shots from the farm.) We’ve been a Royer customer for a year or so now, and it was great to learn a little more about what goes on behind the scenes to make a fantastic and sustainable leg of lamb…

The farm has been in your family for several generations. Did you always know you’d be involved in farming?

Raising livestock was and is something Scott and I really enjoy. We wanted farming to be part of our lives but 19 years ago when we started dating we did not have a specific plan laid out. We both grew up showing animals in 4-H and farming providing my family’s livelihood. While attending Purdue University, Scott and I bought our first sheep together. After getting married in 1994, Scott worked with my Dad for about a year on the farm while I started a job in pharmaceutical sales. Scott eventually took a research scientist position, where he stayed until my Dad’s unexpected death in 2000. Scott then reduced his off-farm job to half-time while taking over the major farm production and management responsibilities. In 2001 Scott returned to the farm full-time and we entered into a long-term farm lease with my Mom.

After about a year we begin analyzing how we could make the farm a success for future generations just like my family had done for us. With our knowledge of beef and lamb production, taking into account our moderate farm size—300 acres—and our willingness to move beyond basic commodity agriculture production, we decided to sell beef and lamb direct to the consumer. Ten years ago I did not know this is what Scott and I would be doing, but we both feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to carve this path for ourselves and would not want to be doing anything else. We are very committed to raising natural, wholesome beef, lamb, and pork and look forward to continuing to serve even more customers.

What distinguishes the meat from your farm from the meat someone might buy from a large chain grocery store?

First, the direct one-on-one contact we have with our customers helps ensure people can know exactly how their meat was raised: what the animals ate, where they lived and if we gave the animals any hormones or antibiotics, which we don’t. In fact, people are welcome to visit the farm and check things out for themselves.

Second, the lamb is dry-aged a minimum of one week and the beef a minimum of two weeks. Most grocery store meat is not dry-aged. Dry-aging helps to create a better eating experience because the meat becomes tenderer over time and with some water evaporative loss the flavor is better. Also the butcher shop we use is a small, family-owned facility. The animals are treated humanely and all the meat is cut and wrapped by hand.

Finally, our meat just simply tastes better. The dry-aging plays a part in the improved quality but that is just part of the package. Our breeding stock is not just any type cow or sheep; we have selected animals over the past seven years with a goal of producing healthy, meaty beef and lamb. We feed the animals simple, balanced, high-quality feeds. Our cattle and sheep are raised on pasture and the pigs are raised outdoors. All three species have access to shelter, plenty of room to roam and clean, fresh water to drink.

Who is your typical customer?

We probably do not have just one typical customer, but our meat mainly is purchased by consumers needing a variety of qualities in their meat.

  1. The meat connoisseurs love the taste, tenderness, flavor, and variety.
  2. Families on a budget appreciate the discount volume packages of beef, lamb, and pork.
  3. People whose cooking experience is limited to making something from a box or take-out bag value the good, easy recipes that we share and our assistance as they transition to a healthy, simpler, balanced diet.

We also supply a few restaurants with beef, lamb, and pork.

What was behind your decision to offer 100% grass-fed beef?
We have two main reasons for the addition of 100% grass-fed beef. When we first started selling at farmer’s markets in 2003, we had maybe a dozen inquiries about grass-fed beef the entire year. Last year (2006) multiple customers were asking weekly. So we have seen a definite increase in interest. Also, a grass-fed program is more sustainable for our farm in the long-term. We will buy less inputs and the animals and pastures will have a more symbiotic relationship: The pastures feed the cattle and sheep and the animals fertilize the grasses.

All of our beef and lamb is grass-fed—the sheep and cattle are out on pasture all year long. They are never confined to just dirt lots. By using a variety of grasses and other plants (like turnips, rye, and sorghum-sudan grass) the animals are grazing green plants March through December. In January, February, and early March, the animals have access to hay bales along with stockpiled pastures consisting of non-growing plants. Depending on their age, these cattle and sheep also can eat grain (primarily corn) out of self-serve feeders. To add the 100% grass-fed beef, we have kept on doing what we had always done, but just eliminated the grain.

How does the future of small family-owned farms look from your vantage point?

About like any small business in America—challenging, yet with unlimited opportunities. Some of the main difficulties facing farms of all sizes across the country are land costs, taxes, and the lack of a new approach to farming on a professional level. It is rare to find land that is priced based on its agricultural production value as opposed to the worth for some other activity.

However, there are still opportunities, if you are a good steward of the land, absentee owners are more likely to work with you on leases and rental agreements. Second, taxes are ever increasing and are based more on the value of land for uses other than agricultural. Finally, there are plenty of professional farmers who are responsible land owners, but many of them are large-scale commodity producers who make their living producing large volumes of one or two undifferentiated products. There are a few people farming like us (taking food from pasture to plate), but not very many. We approach raising beef, lamb, and pork not as a hobby, but as a business where people are depending on us to raise their food right.

Are there any good resources for people who want to buy local meat?

If you are in the Indianapolis area, visit us at one of the farmers markets we attend. You are also welcome to visit the farm and pick up your meat when you come.

If these options are not right for you, try your local farmers’ market, visit www.localharvest.org, or call a local meat packing plant to find about farmers that are butchering meat.

I really appreciate Nikki taking the time from what is for her an incredibly busy season to shed a little light on local, sustainable farming. In the next post, she'll share a couple favorite recipes and answer a burning question from M, age 5, who is one of the farm's biggest fans.

If you're in the Indianapolis area, you can stock up on Royer Farm Fresh meat at these locations throughout the summer and fall:

  • Broad Ripple Farmers Market: Broad Ripple High School; Saturdays, May 26 through October 27; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • Zionsville Farmers Market: Corner of Main and Hawthorne; Saturdays, June 2 through September 29; 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
  • Fishers Farmers Market: The Municipal Complex off 116 Street; Saturdays, June 2 through October 6; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • Terre Haute Farmers Market: 9th and Cherry Streets; Saturdays, June 2 through October; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • White Violet Center for Eco-Justice: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods; Wednesdays, May 30 through October; 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Royer Farm Fresh: Tuesdays, starting June 12; 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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