October 27, 2011
By Allan Nation
INDEPENDENCE, Virginia: Philip Hanes said his father, a leading North Carolina textile manufacturer, hated the very idea of farming.
"He always said he would personally shoot anyone who gave him a farm."
Hanes, who followed his father into textile manufacturing, said he grew up sharing his father's distaste for farming but developed a deep love for the green mountainous landscapes of northern North Carolina and southern Virginia and the scenic New River that wound between them.
He and his wife Charlotte had both spent their childhood summers there and had a great emotional attachment to the region.
"In the early 1980s, I had an epiphany," Philip said.
"I suddenly realized that this pastoral landscape I so loved was created and maintained by farmers and their livestock.
"And, if the farmers weren't there, it would all go away and be converted into vacation home sites."
In 1983, he started buying pastoral farm land in southern Virginia and leasing it out to local farmers to graze free of charge.
"I just wanted to preserve open landscape and the sense of community.
"Unfortunately, the local people had no knowledge of rotational grazing and quickly destroyed the pasture with un-managed continuous grazing.
"Charlotte and I realized then that we were going to have to get into farming ourselves to preserve our land."
NEW ZEALAND STUDY TRIP
In 1986, Phillip and Charlotte spent three weeks living with grassland farmers in New Zealand and studying their profitable methods of managing grassland.
"We realized that you can't push people," Charlotte said.
"You have to show them."
In 1988, they bought another farm that came with a registered Angus herd.
They found the registered business to be an unprofitable distraction and decided to go strictly commercial.
In 1992, they hired a manager to reorient the 1200 acre ranch in a commercial direction and make it financially self-supporting.
The ranch was reorganized as River Ridge Land and Cattle Company.
"We wanted to show our neighbors that grassland farming can be profitable when it is done right," Charlotte said.
Mountainous Grayson County, Virginia, is one of the largest beef cattle counties in Virginia and has the second highest mountain in Appalachia.
The highest mountain is just across the state line in North Carolina.
The region has long been noted for its cool summers with daytime highs in the 70s and lush cool-season pastures. It was this cool weather and excellent pasture that made South Western Virginia and North West North Carolina the last major grass-fed beef production region in the Eastern United States.
Grassfed Angus cattle were consumed locally and heavy 1000 pound feeder cattle were railed out of the region to Southeastern Pennsylvania where they were short-fed to "Philadelphia Prime." There were small local abattoirs everywhere.
The ranch currently has around 670 Brangus and Hereford cross cattle.
The steep pastures are subdivided into relatively large paddocks but with multiple piped water sources in each paddock.
They found they could move cattle within the paddock by shutting and opening water sources and by moving the minerals.
All stock water is gravity-fed in pipes from upland springs and ponds and the stock tanks are made from used heavy equipment tires.
Cattle are frequently driven overland and down public roads for short distances in their pasture rotation.
The ranch's elevation varies from 2200 to 2800 feet but one adjacent mountain rises to 4900 feet.
"With mountain ranching you have to learn to figure the pasture's aspect into your grazing plan.
"For example, we use north facing slopes for summer grazing and south facing slopes for winter grazing," the manager said.
The only equipment the ranch owns is one tractor and a rotary mower.
In grass surplus years, a neighbor cuts and bales hay for them on a custom basis to keep the pastures vegetative.
"Despite our cold and snowy winters, we get by almost exclusively on stockpiled pastures.
"We now feed hay primarily as a way to fertilize steep slopes on new land."
They do this by rolling round bales down the sides of steep pastures. The bales unroll as they go down the slope leaving behind a windrow of hay.
LAND COMES TO GOOD MANAGEMENT
The ranch has had four field days to showcase their management and over 200 people attended the last one.
A cattle marketing co-op has been formed in which graded feeder cattle are sold in graded and sexed lots.
In 2006, some 800 head were marketed in this sale at a premium price.
Without any advertising more and more absentee and retired landowners have called River Ridge to take over the management of their land.
Four Grayson County farms have been leased and several others outside the county are currently under negotiation.
River Ridge also has an active fee-based consulting business for landowners who prefer to manage their own land.
Following an Australian prototype, the Hanes and New River Land Trust have helped form a land care program in Virginia and North Carolina mountain region called Appalachian LandCare (AL). Virginia Tech as a Land Grant University is the Landcare Center for the region. They offer their knowledge and expertise to landowners seeking to make their property and livestock a sustainable source of income.
The AL group has supported a two country cattleman's association with 200 members by educating landowners on various easements and land protection laws that are available.
A certified sustainable forestry program has also been introduced through AL.
BACK TO GRASSFED
The latest initiative of the Hanes is to lead the region back to its roots as a major grass-fed beef production area.
"Our neighbors know we have been gearing our genetics towards direct marketing of grass-fed beef, " Charlotte said.
"By stockpiling, we have been feeding less hay every year. Our decision now is to either cut back on our herd numbers or find more pastureland to graze the animals we retain. Hopefully we are a good model for grass-fed animals that other producers can follow."
The ranch has been harvesting three to six grass-finished beeves a year for personal consumption and know they can produce well-marbled beef on their pastures.
With a harvesting facility they could start out with a minimum of 800 to 1000 head in their first year with a year's notice.
A southeastern foods chain has offered to buy the local naturally raised cattle and has indicated a need for thousands more.
The big hiccup, as in most places, is the absence of a sizable USDA-inspected abattoir in the region.
Currently, AL is talking with two reputable abattoir companies about the possibility of locating a new plant in their region.
There are also a couple of moribund plants from the old grass-fed era that might be retrofitted for modern use and consultants are looking into this as well.
The farm is located halfway between Atlanta and Washington and hundreds of empty refrigerated produce trucks pass nearby every day going back to Florida.
Charlotte said their primary goal is preserving the landscape that active farmers maintain on cost effective farm land.
"We just think grassfed beef is the best way to do that."
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