By Matt Reese
Visitors to Carroll Creek Farms are first greeted by a just-rustic-enough farm sign at the end of the long, tree-lined gravel drive bordered by green, flowing springtime pastures. Cattle and sheep chew contentedly on their forage as vehicles turn in the drive.
Visitors are typically welcomed by a couple of friendly dogs, and maybe a free-roaming sheep, as their cars pull to a stop. Atop the gentle rise from the road sits a most pleasant farmhouse and charming shop coined the “Meat Retreat” where customers can peruse the farm’s offerings that include a full array of cuts from their homegrown livestock raised in the surrounding fields. The production methods, scale and farm story at Adam and Jess Campbell’s Warren County farm check all the buzzwords off the wish lists of urban customers looking for a connection to a farm and their food.
“The production methods we use allow us quench our customers thirst for full transparency around the meat they consume,” Jess Campbell said. “We want consumers to be able to drive up our driveway to visit our on-farm store and feel comfortable because they can view the livestock before choosing the proteins to eat.”
With limited acreage and a plentiful urban/suburban local population, the
Campbells knew their site was not suited for large-scale livestock production. They started with 55 acres in 2013 and added the adjoining 35 this year to allow for growth.
“When we started the farm we joked that we were living on hogs and hope but in all reality we did need a lot of faith to stay the course through our start as we learned the hard lessons of any other beginning farmer during a startup phase,” Jess said. “At our first farmers market, the butcher was late getting our meat cut so we just showed up with wildflowers we picked from our backyard, eggs, excitement, and stories.”
Since then, though, the Campbells have created an authentic brand to cultivate customers and grow the farm. In 2017 Adam took a leap of faith and quit his full time job to concentrate on the farm and the next generation on the farm at home with 5-year-old Lane and 2-year-old Rhett Campbell. This year they set an ambitious goal of marketing 200 mostly Berkshire woodlot hogs, 40 head of grass fed Hereford/Angus/Jersey beef cattle, 1,250 meat chickens, and 50 grass fed Katahdin/Dorper lambs. They also sell the eggs from around 250 hens — all with no added hormones and antibiotics on the old school small farm that offers modern convenience customers demand.
“The biggest challenge is the commodity of time. I travel a lot in my role for my job with Farm Credit Mid-America as an agribusiness swine specialist. Meanwhile my husband is juggling managing the farm, working the farmers markets, and is the primary caretaker to our small children,” Jess said. “The work life balance is all intertwined here on the farm and we try to find opportunities to turn business into bonding and chores into character building.”
Along with selling directly from the farm, the Campbells sell at some local markets and through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program where customers can purchase shares of the farm’s production.
“We wanted to have a farm where we are intimately connected with the fabric of our community. We live in a county with over 220,000 people. Rather than look at that as a threat from urban sprawl we see it as an opportunity to cultivate more customers and turn it into a way for our farm to thrive not only for our generation but future generations as the land use continues to change here,” Jess said. “When we first started out we thought we could just put out a website, start a CSA program and there would be droves of people coming to our door. That is not how it went at all. We quickly found out if we put an emphasis on telling our story and sharing our life with others on the farm, we were able to gain traction. Now a few years in we have a really thriving CSA program where people can get a 10 or 20 pound mix of all the proteins we raise on the farm.”
Technology, and the convenience it delivers, is important for the farm as well. Customers can buy farm products online with Paypal. And, while convenience is important, some people also want an experience, so the farm is open daily for people to come to the on-farm store to buy by the cut, similar to a butcher shop.
“To increase our brand awareness we also go to farmers markets and sell to restaurants,” Jess said. “We have various ways we try to touch the community through buying patterns of today’s consumers. One of most enriching parts about the way we sell that you don’t get by selling at the local sale barn is that some of the ‘regulars’ who have been with us for years have turned into friends.”
The Campbells go to great lengths to provide what their customers want, but they also take great care to point out that larger scale agricultural production has merits as well. Adam used to be a manager for large sow farms and Jess currently lends to large swine operations so both have respect for all types of producers and have seen firsthand some of the upsides to larger commercial operations.
“We explain our background in ag and an experience here has more purpose than just petting an animal on the head. We want the customers to be attached with their heart by touching and seeing with their own eyes the working farm but also understand that this is about meat production,” Jess said. “We are kind of the gateway drug. We’ve had a lot of customers who were vegetarians in the past because they are scared of what is happening on a farm. Maybe we can get them comfortable with Kroger again and help the whole industry by allowing them to visit and gain more of an understanding.”
The single biggest part of their marketing is through the bustling 2nd Street Market in Dayton where they get another opportunity for developing relationships. Adam gets to interact first-hand with the customers.
“I used to work in the commercial pork world and now I can hear people instantly start bashing what they call factory farms or why they use antibiotics or hormones. We try to build trust through relationships and present facts from our experiences on both ends of the agricultural spectrum,” Adam said. “We feel like all livestock farmers are in the same boat and we are a relatively small club worth protecting. We believe in the benefits of animal protein in the human diet whether the customers buy from us because of our niche and story or if they buy from a larger producer like Tyson based on price. We sell our story without bashing the production practices of other operations.”
The personal touch and the farm story allow them to command strong prices for their high quality products, which makes their smaller scale sustainable.
“We may be four times over the futures board on the hogs. The beef is about three times,” Adam said. “I think we are pushing the ceiling on what people are willing to pay, but if no one is telling me I’m too expensive I’m probably not expensive enough to keep the lights on at home because what we do is simply not as efficient as modern production practices.”
That being said, Adam is always looking for new ways to reduce input costs and get products to market faster, while still staying in line with the core values demanded by their customers. The pastures are in an eight-way mix including alfalfa, red clover, bluegrass, and timothy, which has really helped with weight gain. The sheep and cattle get free choice mineral and some supplemental hay but no other feed.
“We graze 40 cattle in the summer and back down to 20 in the winter. I don’t start grazing until about Mother’s Day and graze up until Thanksgiving. We have 35 Katahdin and Barbados Blackbelly ewes here year round and a Dorper buck,” Adam said. “By having different types of ruminants on the pasture and managing rotational grazing practices we can fully utilize the pasture and make sure all types of grasses and legumes are eaten down. The different manure types deposited continue to revitalize the fields.”
The laying hens are typically closer to the barn but do get rotated through the pastures as well in rolling “chicken tractors.”
“Raising something with as many predators as chickens has proved to be challenging,” Adam said. “We have three great horned owls and six red tail hawk nests on the farm. There is a reason people call them chicken hawks.”
The pigs are farrowed in the barn but then are free to roam in the woods. The hogs are the most expensive to feed on the farm as they are supplemented with a corn and bean mix.
“In the woods we have pawpaw trees, black walnuts trees and they will forage seasonally. We also get overripe produce and feed it to them. The pigs love peach season,” Adam said. “We also take whey from a cheese shop in Lebanon to feed to the sows.”
For processing, all of the cattle, hogs and sheep go to Copey’s Butcher Shop near Dayton. All the meat cuts are vacuum-sealed and the ground products are in plastic tubes for re-sale, with each package featuring the farm logo.
From the chic, rustic market downtown to the menus of high end restaurants, the story of Carroll Creek Farms appeals to customers and a visit to the farm is all it takes to see the Campbell’s really live out that story on what they refer to as their “funny farm.”
“Big brands have discovered today’s consumer is craving authenticity and since our scale still is quite small we can deliver it. We are just one family out here that followed a passion we had for ag, started from scratch as first generation farmers, and continue to work hard to make it work,” Jess said. “Our customers crave a good story and value relationships. We are attempting to turn that into opportunity for our farm to survive in an industry where usually the low cost producer is the one that survives. “