Isbells keen on pasture-raised meat, direct sales
ROCKVILLE, Va. — For three generations, the Isbell family has defined a strong relationship with the land they farm in Hanover County.
Creating relationships with the public through direct marketing its meat, eggs and grains is helping their operation’s viability.
“Our family has chosen to focus on direct farm to consumer (or wholesaler) to get out of the commodities market and have more reliable/stable income,” C.J. Isbell, part of the farm’s third generation, said. “It is more work, but it comes with peace of mind that we know how much we will make on a given animal/crop.
“The reality is that most farms in the U.S. are family owned, but the future of farming is being shaped everyday.”
Joe Isbell served in the Navy before he managed the Richmond City Farm.
It closed in 1950; but Joe still wanted to farm. Joe and his wife Kathleen purchased the land that was to become Keenbell Farm in 1951.
Joe and Kathleen started with laying hens and Joe sold the eggs on a route that he ran three times a week along with selling eggs to Virginia Dairy.
Egg production reached 100,000 dozen annually.
In the 1970s, the family started raising pigs and cattle.
The hogs left in 1980s when the market plummeted and the family focused on beef and commodity row crops — which induded barley, wheat and soybeans.
Joe technically retired in 1998; however he said he still enjoys helping out on the farm whenever he can.
Now much of the farm’s operation is handled by Joe’s son Eddie and grandson C.J.
Following many practices in line with USDA Certified Organic production, the Isbells put much focus on soil and water conservation.
They utilize intense cover cropping systems, multi-species planting, and several no-till techniques to keep soil and nutrients on the farm.
In 2012 they won the Virginia Farm Bureau Environmental Stewardship Award, which recognizes farmers working to protect the environment and water systems.
Then next year, they won the District of Conservation Resources and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service award.
In 2015, the farm was awared the Carl Luebben Soil Health & Water Quality Award and the following year, Keenbell Farm was named Virginia Forage and Grasslands Council’s Forage Producer of the Year.
For several years, the family kept a small hay operation going while leasing much of the land to another farmer.
In 2005, they took back the leased land and slowly converted acres into pasture and in 2012 they diversified into non-GMO and food grade grain production.
Livestock and grain production now span 350 acres on Keenbell Farm.
Pigs returned to the farm and are rotated on pasture and fed a grain ration.
Chickens are also pastured using mobile pens called “chicken tractors” that get moved every day.
The farm operates a farm store with regular hours on Fridays and Saturdays and also sells at the Ashland Farmers Market and manages wholesale orders at the farm.
C.J. said with the distance between farmers and consumer widening, building relationship through direct sales has become a core principle of his family’s farm.
“This relationship keeps us grounded in the decisions we make in raising our livestock and growing our crops,” he said. “We are intimately connected and what we do directly impacts the families whom we know and patron our farm.
“This relationship also allows clear communication and trust between farmer and consumer.”
They also give guided tours of the farm, which has ranged from small school groups to international delegations with the U.S. State Department.
C.J. said in the past 11 years of selling direct to consumers, they have seen a shift in their customer base from the “affluent foodie” to more of the general public looking to connect to where food comes from.
“I feel that the only sustainable future of farming lays in the direct to consumer or regional food networks,” he said. “We are seeing large grocers now buying meat packing facilities and farms to further integrate in their supply and distribution in order to own the product from birth to the consumer’s plate.
“The farms of tomorrow need to listen to the public and produce what the consumer wants, because the consumer votes with their dollar, and every day is election day.”
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