Laura Hamons recalls the gut-fluttering sensation of standing for the first time with her husband, Jeff, on the same side of the fence as 20 head of cattle.
“That’s when it hit: This is real. We’re farmers now, we’re not just living in the country,” she says, twirling a flower chain made from clover.
It was late November 2011 and the Hamonses, 36 at the time, had taken a giant leap of faith, selling their Overland Park home, plucking their 2- and 5-year-old daughters out of the suburbs and creating a new life on a 40-acre farmstead an hour south of the metro.
The house, bought in foreclosure, had good bones and trash on the floors. But the land was a kindergartener’s drawing of a farm: pastures, a pond, woods and a creek tucked in behind a sleepy gravel road.
Their plan was simple: to raise happy heritage chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle on real grass and in the sunshine, with organic feed and no unnecessary antibiotics. They would call their farm Synergistic Acres, because the land, animals and owners would all work together to benefit one another.
The only problem was, neither Laura nor Jeff had a farming background.
Four years later the couple have built a passionate base of city customers willing to pay a premium for their pastured meats. And yet, even though they don’t pay themselves, the farm barely breaks even.
Bills pile up from paying double for organic feed, driving four times as far to a humane processing plant, laying underground pipe to get water to animals in multiple pastures, constantly keeping pace with sales income.
The original plan was for Jeff to quit his full-time teaching job, but he still commutes an hour each way to Oak Park-Carpenter Elementary in Overland Park during the school year, waking extra early for morning chores.
He loves teaching and kids, but Jeff knows that for the farm to be viable, it needs to sustain itself financially. The Hamonses can’t put any more of their own money into Synergistic Acres.
“The next couple of years will be make or break for us,” Jeff Hamons says as he scatters handfuls of spent grains from a local brewery to a group of Large Black heritage pigs trotting behind him through calf-high grass in a wildflower-dappled paddock.
But he’s cautiously optimistic that he can succeed where so many have failed by harnessing the power of a game-changing tool: the internet.
Selling their story
From the outside, Synergistic Acres looks like a back-to-the-past operation. Colorful hens and roosters cavort under spreading shade trees in the front yard. The kids, Elise, 10, and Alaina, 7, feet “tanned” by dust and long hair tussled by the breeze, climb through a fence to pet pigs as shaggy cattle look on from an adjacent pasture.
But the Hamonses couldn’t have done this 20 years ago, Jeff explains. “Our customers aren’t buying a pork chop. They are buying our story. And without the internet, I couldn’t tell our story.”
Jeff writes and Laura edits the blog posts with a commitment to transparency, sharing the disheartening failures along with the small triumphs. A recent post explained how the loss of a guard dog emboldened daytime predators, who killed 80 free-roaming layers — half the flock — so eggs will be in short supply for six months.
One early video showed Jeff with a dying cow.
“I knew she was going to be dead by the next morning, so I was sitting with her, giving her water and making her as comfortable as possible. People need to realize that bad things happen,” he says.
The stories as well as photos of vibrant animals in lush pastures create an emotional bond with customers and often kindle a desire to take the relationship to the next level and meet the family on the farm. Last year, 150 people visited on scheduled tour days or random drop-in visits.
“We encourage certification by farm visit,” Laura says. “A lot of producers use words like ‘free-range’ and ‘pastured’ to mean animals are outdoors, but when you go look, sometimes they are confined in pens instead of being out on grass. Whoever you buy your meat from, you should go out and see how the animals live.”
Regular blog posts sent out as emails reinforce the Synergistic Acres brand and customers’ willingness to pay more for humanely raised, heritage breed meat.
A pound of Synergistic Acres bacon costs $18; pork chops cost $9.75 a pound; ground beef costs $7.50 a pound; heritage beef strip or rib-eye steaks are $19.75 per pound, and free-range, organic eggs cost $6 a dozen.
The markup on pastured chickens is steepest: Ranging from $4.75 to $5.45 per pound, depending on the breed, a 5-pound chicken costs around $25, some four times the cost of factory-raised supermarket chickens.
Pattie Brewer of Merriam can’t get enough of them, buying 26 each spring and each fall to fill a large freezer in the basement.
Brewer says she’s happy to pay the steep price for one reason: taste. Her family has gotten so used to the richer taste of the French heritage breed Prairie Ranger chickens that if she ever cooks with a supermarket chicken without telling anyone, her family notices and complains.
Besides, she reasons that it isn’t that expensive when you consider she uses the full bird, and the flavor makes them “stretch” further. One $33, 6-pound chicken makes three meals each week for the three adults and three kids around her table: a roast, then a salad or tacos with larger leftover pieces, and finally a soup or casserole with the smaller bits and stock from the carcass.
Struggle with size
Brewer is the type of customer the Hamonses need to survive. Small producers need to be able to sell the whole animal, not just the bacon or the steak. “I can’t grow a steer that has 20 steaks,” Jeff says.
As market master for City Market in Kansas City, Deb Connors has 13 years of experience visiting small farms like Synergistic Acres within a 500-mile radius of Kansas City. Only growers and producers who meet her standards for cleanliness and humane conditions, as well as complying with a host of ordinances, receive a vendors permit.
“It’s just so hard to make it as a small farm, especially doing meat,” Connors says. Freezing, the only way of storing meat long-term, is expensive, and producers who raise animals on pastures risk crippling unbudgeted expenses if they lose their grass to drought and have to purchase hay, she says.
The Hamonses’ struggle with needing to scale up to increase sales and (hopefully) achieve profit is a common one.
“There’s a lot involved in increasing scale, we hear that a lot,” Connors says. In the Hamonses case, increasing their meat chicken herd would force them to use an outside processor, since they are already at the legal limit in Kansas for butchering at home.
Increasing the pork or beef herd requires leasing more pasture space and waiting for the animals to breed and reproduce themselves, because bringing in additional animals is expensive and risks introducing disease. Plus, raising pigs on grass requires enormous labor: The pigs (and their paddock fencing) have to be moved every two days or they will eat a pasture bare. Most of the pig operations Connors visits are raising pigs on dirt, not grass.
“They are small herds in large pens attached to a barn for shade, so they have plenty of room, but they are on dirt,” Connors says. She recalls visiting only one farmer, in Iowa, who had pigs on grass.
Connors says she sees a lot of younger farmers like the Hamonses who rely on other income sources. “A lot of times somebody in the family works a full-time job, and sometimes they both do.” She has seen cases where farmers have given up retail sales because they are able to make more money selling animals live on the hoof rather than trying to recoup processing and distribution costs.
The Hamonses are trying to make retail work by concentrating on large sales of mixed-cut packages of beef and pork and a CSA subscription service, where customers prepay $110 per month for a mixed bag of 10 to 13 pounds of premium, in-season cuts of meat. The year-round service is capped at a dozen customers and has a waiting list.
Customers can also pre-order and pick up meat at weekly drop-offs at Bulk It, a bulk-goods retailer in old town Lenexa.
Jeff Hamons realizes he has to convince customers to choose the inconvenience and expense of buying from him. “We ask people to do really weird things like not buy protein at grocery stores, and plan ahead, and buy in bulk,” he says.
He’s also willing to help.
To aid customers who don’t know how to cut up his whole chickens, he has set up in-home demonstrations he jokingly calls “Silpada with meat.” He tells customers if they will get five families to show up, he will bring a chicken, cut it up, saute it and provide samples.
An eco jigsaw puzzle
The Hamonses don’t raise heritage breeds because wooly cattle and brightly plumed French meat chickens look pretty in their blog photos. They raise them because those older breeds flourish better on pastures.
That explains the perception that grass-fed beef is dry. It can be, if you raise a modern steer on pasture, Jeff explains.
“The best steak in the world and the worst steak you’ll ever have are grass-fed. If it’s not done right, it can be really tough and chewy. It can’t be a 1,200-pound cow; it needs to be a 900-pound steer,” he says.
The Hamonses raise Galloways, a Scottish breed. Their smaller frames fatten up more easily. Timing matters, too. The quality of the grass the animal ate in the past 30 days affects the flavor. The Hamonses process in June and November because the grass is at its peak in May and October.
Heritage breeds are more expensive to raise because they take longer to mature. Large Black pigs, an older breed, take 14 months on pasture to reach full size, compared to 6 months typically for grain-fed pigs.
Jeff often compares the ecosytem of the farm to a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is connected to several others.
For example, the main function of the laying hens is pest control. They roost at night in a raised, wheeled wooden caravan that is pulled around to pastures where cattle have recently grazed. Cow patties are full of insect eggs that, once they hatch, are a tasty smorgasbord for chickens.
In addition, chicken manure, a problem in confined chicken operations, fertilizes pastures when spread over a wide area, and the hens’ instinctive scratching cultivates the soil. The eggs are just a fringe benefit.
Pigs, too, before they become a delicious, nutrient-dense winter roast, improve pastures by “mowing” down brush.
The Hamonses hope beef will ultimately be their main product, but a direct-to-consumer cattle herd takes the longest to build up. It takes time for the starter bulls and cows to produce offspring, and money to lease additional pastures, because good pasture management requires rotating cattle to give the grass time to recover.
Jeff’s dad, Gary Hamons, has been a boon to the family farm. He was retired, living in a cabin in Mountain View, Ark., when Jeff and Laura told him of their plan. He admits thinking it was “stupid” to buy the property they did because the house was in such bad shape. But their vision of a working farm intrigued him, so he sold the cabin and bought a 10-acre property down the road.
In addition to rotating Jeff’s cattle onto his pasture land, Gary has thrown himself full time into mowing, helping with chores and the endless odd jobs that arise.
Eating better isn’t the only advantage. “I enjoy being around Jeff and Laura and the grandkids. It’s a good life. If more people were like them, it would be better. They keep people healthy by growing meat like they do.”
Return to pasture
The first thing you notice when the Hamonses’ daughters invite you to go into the paddock and play with the pigs is that there is no pig smell. When pigs live on grass, not dirt, there is no stench.
There is also no smell inside the airy chicken wire and shade-cloth-protected “chicken tractors” where the meat chickens live.
The Hamonses don’t let the birds free-range because they lack the self-protective instincts of layers to keep an eye on the sky and the timberline for predators. But they still live on grass; the wheeled shelters, the size of large garden sheds, are moved twice a day so the chickens constantly have fresh greens and bugs to eat.
The Hamonses’ commitment to giving their animals a good life includes giving them a good death.
They harvest 1,000 meat chickens per year, the limit in Kansas for harvesting at home, using a metal cone and knife technique considered to be more humane than chopping the heads off.
For the pork and beef, the Hamonses drive their animals 100 miles to Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Mo., the only humane-certified processor in the area.
The Hamonses visited “tons” of processors before deciding Paradise had the most expertise dealing with heritage breeds, which can require different cuts, and the most humane handling of animals.
All this matters to Stephen Locke, who found Synergistic Farms through Facebook. Locke, a storm chaser profiled by The Star in 2014, says with his unpredictable schedule, it is a hassle to get to the drop-off site.
“I’ve disciplined myself to do my grocery shopping at that time because of my personal ethics about food,” Locke says. “I believe that livestock should be raised on pasture and not in confined animal feeding operations.”
Locke says it sickens him, on storm chases in the Midwest, when he drives past vast, stinking feed lots where animals are standing in their own feces.
“I buy from Synergistic Acres because they enable a pig to experience the pigginess of being a pig,” Locke says with a chuckle. “They are supposed to be able to root in the ground for tubers and such. Pigs raised in factories on concrete don’t get to do the most basic thing pigs are supposed to do.”
Locke, who used to be a vegetarian for moral reasons before coming to believe that carnivores are a necessary part of the ecosystem, says Synergistic Acres presents an interesting ethical situation. “These are people who love their animals. A lot of people don’t understand you can love an animal you are ultimately going to eat. But I think we have a moral duty to love the animals we are destined to eat, rather than treating them as an economic commodity.”
Locke says every dollar he spends with Synergistic Acres is a vote for saving the Kansas landscape he loves.
“Kansas used to be almost entirely grassland. I hope Kansas returns to pasture, that is my goal. Kansas could be the free range capital of the world,” he says.
Creating a new model for success for pasture-raised livestock producers and organic farmers is important to the Hamonses. They go out of their way to buy chemical-free local produce and grains to feed their animals, even if the products aren’t certified organic.
“Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ I feel like that’s what we are doing,” Jeff says.
Recently a local farmer who grows genetically modified corn and soybeans approached the Hamonses and asked what it would look like if he were to start growing feed crops for Synergistic Acres.
“So maybe he sets aside 80 acres and plants non-GMO oats or milo and doesn’t use chemicals on it,” Jeff says, shrugging his shoulders.
Eighty acres isn’t the world. But it’s how the world changes.