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Farming for the Health Buyer

After decades of farming the traditional way, Randall Hastings changed methods to grow for a different customer — a clientele fueling a three-fold increase in sales in the U.S. in the last decade.

Randall Hastings runs the 300-acre Hastings Farm, one of the state’s largest organic farms, a fifth- generation family farm in Bay Minette.

Randall Hastings runs the 300-acre Hastings Farm, one of the state’s largest organic farms, a fifth- generation family farm in Bay Minette.

Randall Hastings, age 60, heads Hastings Farm, one of the largest organic farms in Alabama, located in Bay Minette, the county seat of Baldwin County.

Hastings Farm’s grass-fed beef is sold in health food stores in Mobile, Fairhope, Andalusia, Pensacola, Fla., and now as far north as Manna Grocery in Tuscaloosa. Organic produce is a more recent venture. His farm is one of several that the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service will show off to county agricultural agents from across the country next month, when the ACES hosts the national convention of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents in Mobile, July 20-24.

It’s one of the largest organic farms in this part of the country, about 300 acres certified organic. It takes three years for land to become certified organic. We’ve been an organic farm for about six years now. We started with beef, then added lamb, pork and a few chickens. And we’re now starting to grow organic corn and soybeans, and we have a blueberry orchard that’s certified.

What interested me in organic farming was that I started raising organic food for my own family, and we have a bit of a family — seven children and now their children. As we produced for them, more and more people started asking for the product. I’d always been in the commercial [traditional/nonorganic] end of it, for about 20 years. As I got older, I decided to slow down and grow quality product for a certain kind of client who may want it, who will be willing to pay more. I started selling to some of the retail stores, mostly health food stores. And as we continued to diversify, it made our smaller operation more sustainable.

There are some astronomical growth numbers. From the year 2000 to 2013, organic sales in the United States went from about $10 billion to $32 billion. I see this part of the country as trying to catch up.

I have customers who come to the farm and buy out of our freezer, and we also have stores that buy our product, mostly health food stores or some other type specialty store. More and more people are asking for it. Even in Walmart, they have organic produce and organic milk. There’s a clientele willing to pay extra. They’ve always been around. It’s what they used to call tree huggers and hippies. But there are more of them now. What’s happened is that modern technology has people asking where their food comes from and what’s being put into food.

I do believe 110 percent it’s healthier to eat it. And my grandchildren eat it — I have to believe in it. But it is not easy. It would be so much easier to go back to the old way of doing it, put out the chemicals, use the modern technology.

You can’t feed the world without the modern technology of commercial farming, no doubt about it. I’m just trying to produce a product for a clientele of people who want a different food source. You have to have all methods of farming to make it work. I’m just trying to capitalize on this niche market.

As far as certified grass-fed beef is concerned, there are some small farms, but you can count them on one hand. A good climate for growing grass is one of the advantages we have in Alabama. We are trying to use as many native varieties as we can, trying to get the soil back to its healthiest.

I have grass-fed certification from independent auditors at the American Grassfed Association. It’s the same with certification of my organic vegetables. An inspector comes out and inspects the soil and looks at the records. But there is not a place in the state of Alabama that can process organic beef, so I can’t put an organic seal on it. Our produce is certified CCOF, California Certified Organic Farming. There are some other certifiers, but I got hooked up through the CCOF years ago, and they have an inspector who comes by once or twice a year and they do all the testing.

Right now the main problem with growth of organic cattle farming is the processing. All of our infrastructure is geared for mass production. The processing facilities are located where the largest number of animals are. There are only two processing facilities in Alabama that I can take my product to and put my label on. One is in Dothan, and the other is in Cullman. You have the cost of hauling them there and another trip to get it and bring it back. Most of these smaller places can do only about 10 head a week, whereas the mass processors in the U.S. slaughtered about 655,000 head last week.

As more and more people get into it, you can have the processing facilities that make it work. Every town used to have two or three processing plants that would allow you to raise up a few little pigs or beeves and trade them with your neighbors or friends. They had a whole infrastructure going, and until it comes back, it’s not going to be as feasible as it once was.

I used to think raising grass-fed beef was a fad, but it’s the real deal now. There are really people who do their homework and understand how to get back to producing top quality grass. It’s not easy. But, hopefully, if my grandsons and granddaughters ever want to do this, we’ll have the infrastructure ready for them to do it.

I have two sons, one on the farm full time and one that helps part time. They’re the fifth generation on the farm, my grandpa’s old place. It’s the same property I was born and raised on, Hastings Farm. We basically don’t own a lot of what we farm. We rent a good bit of land, and we’re finding that there are landowners who like to see that the land is coming back to being farmed organically.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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