Pastured Past Meets Sustainable Future
06 Aug 2020
Life with an Angus herd on a 3rd-generation farm in Mt. Gilead
By Christine Hall
If you are a meat-eater, there is not much more satisfying than a juicy burger off the grill. There are a million ways to season them, top them, and present them, but at the end of the day, it is all about the quality under the bun. And if you have NOT grilled with grassfed beef, you are in for a treat.
Tucked into the Uwharrie hills is Dale and Sharon Thompson’s Hilltop Angus Farm in Mt. Gilead, a regional source for grassfed beef. Not only is raising grassfed beef a more sustainable choice, it offers a myriad of upgrades in taste and nutrition compared to conventional beef. Grassfed beef is also said to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, beta carotene, and vitamin C — all while boasting no additives or use of hormones
Many farmers like Dale Thompson at Hilltop Angus Farm practice regenerative pasture-based cattle farming, which is helping to preserve open landscapes and reverse environmental effects of climate change. Thompson is the third generation to farm his family’s land. His ancestor John Thompson migrated to Pee Dee from Inverness County, Scotland in 1750, and he is buried on the banks of Lick Creek near the farm. “I feel a close tie to this land,” Thompson says. “My father brought dairy cows to the farm in 1956. I started milking cows at age six. I have a collection of arrowheads from the Native Americans that once inhabited these grasses.”
It is no surprise that ‘herd life’ runs in Thompson’s blood. “Not a minute goes by that I am not thinking about the needs of the herd. And when I am away from the farm, my thoughts always take me back to the pastures,” Thompson says with a wistful look as he throttles his John Deere.
Thompson is joined by helper Kristian Kime Lynthacum, a student from North Carolina State University. “Lynthacum is a quick learner, great task master, and has almost mastered how to think like me,” Thompson laughs. Lynthacum and Thompson pack a one-two pasture-punch, cruising around on their four-wheelers, offering big “woo-ing” calls to the cattle, who respond with resounding and guttural moos.
“Kristian is our eyes and ears on the farm,” says Thompson. “Well, she and Holly, our five-year-old German Shepherd.” Lynthacum, atop her mud-bogging four-wheeler, loads up with Holly each morning to ride the pastures, look for laboring cows, new calves, missing heifers, or unruly bulls. “We typically don’t name the cows, but our five bulls have names,” Lynthacum chuckles.
Dale slows the four-wheeler, hops off, and stoops into the grass to examine his ‘science experiment’ for the planned summer and fall grasses. “This is the hay that will be cut in August and September,” he notes. As we ride through the fields of native grasses, the master gardener in me is perplexed. Fescue, sudangrass, crabgrass, cow pea, clover, Johnson grass, and Bermuda—all growing amongst one another. “All intentional,” Dale winks. “Look here where the Johnson grass is really taking off.”
The seemingly unruly mix of grasses and perennials is essentially the best tapas meal a herd of growing cattle could ask for. Thompson says he is raising cattle the way his grandfather did, off the land foraging in the thick — the way nature intended.
When Thompson and Lynthacum are not cruising around the 10-12 diverse pastures of the 150-acre farm, residents of Southern Pines, Pinehurst, and Wilmington can catch the farmers driving Hilltop’s white trailers to their markets. The trailers, which boast five tied-down deep freezers organized by product, carry items such as ground beef, stir-fry strips, shoulder roast, chuck roast, sirloin tip roast, eye of round roast, and soup bones. These trucks are destined for local Moore County Farmers Markets and Wilmington to meet networks of buyers. Hilltop Angus Farm also supplies local fine dining establishments including Ashten’s, Elliott’s on Linden and The Sly Fox.
For those who are interested in trying the beef directly from the farm, the Thompsons take orders through their website. Their products are also offered seasonally through local multi-farm CSAs, such as Sandhills Farm to Table. “This is where my wife Sharon’s expertise comes in,” says Thompson. Sharon manages the farm’s marketing efforts, works the pre-sales, and maintains the website. “She makes sure customer needs are tended to and orders effectively managed,” says Thompson. “I couldn’t do this without her.”
The Grassfed Difference
All grassfed labels are not created equal. Many brands actually feed their cows grain in the last few weeks of life to boost their weight. But the Thompson’s herd is never given grain, and the quality directly translates to the richer flavor and nutrition. Additionally, the Thompsons rotate their herds of more than 200 Angus cattle to nearly a dozen different sections and variations of grazing pastures where they forage on diverse foliage.
“Comparing the sustainability of grass finishing versus grain finishing cannot be achieved based solely on examining what the cow ate — be it grain or grass,” says Lauren Stine, an Arkansas adjunct law professor who raises cattle. “A more important question to ask is how those animals were managed throughout their lifetimes.”
This is where the Thompson’s reliance on both knowledge from industry-recognized organizations and relationships within their local communities play a pivotal role. The Thompsons achieved “Animal Welfare Approved” certification for their herd of cattle in 2010 by A Greener World, which audits and promotes practical and sustainable farming systems. Hilltop proudly displays the commemorative sign on their fencepost to acknowledge the decade of certification and ongoing commitment to high-welfare, sustainable farming. “We are proud to be recognized for our stewardship and transparency.”
According to A Greener World, small farms like Hilltop are at the forefront of the growing market for verified sustainable products. “As this market continues to expand, farmers have power within their reach to offer trusted and verified products to a public that is hungry for honestly labeled meat,” the organization states.
Thou Shall Not Waste
‘Thou shall not waste’ is an important mantra at Hilltop Angus Farm. “Wasting no part of the animals we raise is good for sustainable agriculture and for protecting our environment. It’s also the right thing to do,” says Thomson. “Treating every animal with respect demands that we do everything we can to use every part–and waste nothing!” By employing this method of turning what was once wasted into a useful product, Hilltop recently diversified its offerings. They now offer 100% liver jerky treats for dogs. German Shepherd, Holly, must be a fan.
Hilltop Angus Farm is carrying the torch for whole animal farming. “We are working towards establishing best practices that can become a model for other farms,” says Thompson. “Our world is changing. Today’s consumers want safe, healthy products grown in tandem with the needs of our environment and respect for the animals that furnish our nutrition.”
For more information about Hilltop Angus Farm, visit hilltopangusgrassfed.com, stay connected with the farm’s Facebook page (@HilltopAngusFarm) and contact Dale and Sharon Thompson at email@example.com and 910-439-5261.