Leaving Asheville to drive out to Hickory Nut Gap Farm, you pass strip malls and office complexes that diminish in size as you near the community of Fairview. Just when you think there’s no room for a farm out here, you crest a hill to face a wide, rolling green valley dotted with cattle. You’ve left the city behind, and after turning onto Sugar Hollow Road, you soon see the Hickory Nut Gap Farm logo swinging on a pole at the side of the road. A weathered board barn serves as the farm store, with a broad “Welcome” sign across the door.
Hickory Nut Gap Farm raises cattle to sell under their brand, Hickory Nut Gap Meats. A small herd of one-year-old steers grazes across the road, while older cattle are currently at the family’s land just south in Rutherford County. The farm also partners with about ten other growers who raise grass-fed cattle according to specifications and share the brand name. This model helps the small farmers function; in particular, different farms are able to harvest their cattle at different times of year. (The farmer in cold Boone, for example, harvests in the summertime, while in warmer climes the farms have the grass to finish the cattle in winter.) Working together, the farmers of Hickory Nut Gap Meats maintain a year-round supply.
The force behind the grass-fed beef is Jamie and Amy Ager. Jamie grew up on the farm, which has been in his family since 1916. He attended Warren Wilson College, where he and Amy met. While there, he visited Joel Salatin’s farm and became interested in his grazing concepts, thinking, “This is something we can do at home.” At the time, none of the family was making a full-time living from the farm. “I was lucky to be able to come back to a piece of land,” Jamie recalls. “I jumped right in. I graduated from college, and then started to... build fence that afternoon. I came home and built a fence.”
The land of Hickory Nut Gap Farm is jointly owned by several family members, and is in a conservation easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The farm is beginning to diversify with pick-your-own berries, a newly-planted apple orchard, and pigs. They also host birthday parties and field trips. Jamie’s mom runs a farm camp down the road, and rides up leading a line of young people on horseback. Other siblings and cousins work on the farm or on their own farms around the state.
The farm’s mission is “to connect sustainable agriculture practices, our family history, and our customers by sharing the family farm experience and serving as an example of healthy land stewardship while providing high quality ethically raised meats.” Or, as Jamie explains it, “We can utilize the production farm that we have here to educate people about agriculture.” As we walk past the blueberry bushes and up a hill to view the cattle, we cross paths with Amy leading a tour group of young parents and small children. Jamie gives them “the cow talk,” describing how they rotate the cattle around the farm, keeping them on small pastures for short periods to prevent overgrazing and concentrated manure, which also protects the nearby springs and creeks.
Calves receive their mother’s milk for months, followed by forages for the rest of their lives; the healthy diet eliminates the need for antibiotics. (A sick animal would be treated and removed from the meat supply.) They don’t use growth hormones, and they practice low stress handling methods and use the nearest processors, who are Animal Welfare Approved. Jamie also tells the crowd about the health benefits of grass-fed beef over conventional beef: lower fat and higher beta-carotene, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and omega-3s, to name a few. “We think Weaver Street definitely shares the mission,” he tells me. “It’s nice to be able to work with people that are like-minded, and understand, and care about animal welfare, that care about the environmental ideas of sustainable agriculture, and the ultimate goal, which is health. And that’s what we try to grow on our farm, is healthy food for people to eat.”
Watch a video of our visit on our Youtube channel, or watch some videos of farm life at Hickory Nut Gap’s Youtube channel. Visit the farm online at www.hickorynutgapfarm.com.