Jumpstart Grant spotlight: This episode features Rachel Wagoner who is the owner of Tall Pines Farms in western Pennsylvania. Rachel and her husband raise grass-fed pasture-raised beef and lamb along with breeding stock, and hay. Listen in to hear more about what it takes to raise and finish beef and lamb on grass and some of the management practices they utilize on their farm.
What’s the “Beef” on Grass-Fed Pasture-Raised Livestock
We recently interviewed Rachel Wagoner. Rachel and her husband Chris are the next generation on the Wagoner's family farm, Tall Pines Farms, in Western Pennsylvania. They launched their business in 2020 and sell grass fed pasture raised beef and lamb, as well as breeding stock and hay. Rachel is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. For the full podcast, click here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/960592/10685722
Could you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and your operation there in Western PA?
I married into a farming family. I didn't grow up on a farm. I tell people that I grew up sort of farm adjacent, living in a rural community, knowing people who had farms. I married into the Wagoner family. My husband is the fourth generation on this land, although his family's been farmers much longer than that.
His great-grandfather bought this farm. His grandfather ran it for a long time up until his 80s, and he just passed away, my husband's grandfather, in January of last year. That's when he finally transitioned because he had to at that point. That's when we took over. We'd been sort of helping Pappap, along the way because as he was getting older, he needed strong hands and strong backs, so that's what we did for him.
We just took over in the past basically year, two years. It used to be just a hobby farm with some beef cattle and some hair sheep and just raising some animals for our freezer and for some other people's. We decided, once we could take over, that we wanted to make it into a business, make it not only pay for itself, but also do a little bit more than that so that we could be able to keep the farm in the family for another four generations. To make it financially viable, as well as environmentally sustainable.
I should mention, it's not just my husband and me. We run the farm with my in-laws, Glenn and Janice, and the four of us run everything together pretty much. We try to make decisions together as much as we can. Sometimes I run the sheep flock. My husband and father-in-law do a lot of the land and equipment and those sorts of decisions, and my mother-in-law does everything else and keeps all of us going and keeps us organized and watches my kids.
Rotational grazing is a big part of your operation. What have you seen are the benefits of rotational grazing and how do you manage it there on your farm?
We started rotational grazing with our sheep flock, mostly from a parasite control standpoint. We were having some issues with barber pole worm, which is pretty common in sheep in this area. We started doing it just basically to get our parasites under control. We also noticed a ton of other benefits after that.
The one pasture that I started rotating was recovering better from grazing throughout the entire grazing season, unlike other pastures, which had been continuously grazed for decades. Our animals were gaining weight better. Everything was looking better. There were no downsides to it except all the labor in putting up the fence and moving the animals and then taking down the fence. Which is where this grant comes in because we're using it to put up some semi-permanent fence that I won't have to take down every few days.
This is a huge game changer for us from a management standpoint because rotational grazing is really beneficial, I just can't say enough about it. It's done so much for our operation, and we started it just because we had some worm problems and we thought, "Well, we should probably move them a little more," and all these other things started happening. A lot of these best management practices are that way for a reason.
We're doing all the work ourselves right now, actually. It's my father-in-law and I doing a lot of putting in fence posts and a lot of banter that we have between the two of us. I think my husband and my mother-in-law are glad that they can just send us out in the field and get rid of us for a little while on a lot of evenings and weekends.
Let's talk a little bit more about the products that you produce. How are your beef and your lamb sold, and how do you market them and that type of thing?
We actually just started something new last year, which was selling retail cuts of lamb. Before that we've sold everything, halves and wholes, so basically freezer beef and freezer lamb. If you wanted a whole lamb, if you wanted a half or a whole cow.
But I wanted to start doing retail cuts last year because I thought we were missing an opportunity with people who just didn't have the freezer space. They didn't want to commit to a whole animal's worth of meat, so we launched retail sales last year. We found a USDA butcher to get our lambs done at, which is pretty challenging.
I'm sure a lot of people know how hard that is, but it's been worth it because of all the people we've reached that either have not eaten lamb before, or just weren't able to get it for whatever reason. They didn't want to get a whole lamb. They didn't know what to do with all the cuts, but they maybe wanted some lamb chops or a leg roast or something. That's what I started last year. We're continuing that this year. I'm hoping to also do that with our cattle now.
I mean, we also sell breeding stock a little bit on the sheep side. I just got a registered Katahdin hair sheep ram, so we're hoping to do that just to have lots of opportunities to market. On the meat side of things, if we have challenges there, we could do breeding stock. We just got a little bit more rented ground to do some hay in to expand our animal numbers and then also to eventually be able to start selling more of it.
We got our animal numbers up. We needed to make more of it for ourselves, but, we want to have lots of avenues to get money, and we were trying to build all of those up now instead of just relying on either people to buy wholes and halves at whatever price you can get at auction, we want to be able to command a price in a bunch of different ways.
I think sometimes we're diversifying a little bit too much, but I think in this growth period where we're just starting off and we can experiment a little bit, it's fun to see what works and what doesn't, and then what doesn't, we won't do that again and we'll know that we at least tried it and we can say, "Well, that's not for us."
What would you say has been some of the biggest challenges that you and your husband have seen about coming back to the family farm and along with that, what resources have been helpful to you?
The biggest challenge is just knowing, I guess, what you don't know. A lot of the business and the financial stuff, the bookkeeping, just the regulatory things that you didn't really think about or worry about too much as a hobby farm. You could go under the radar.
But as you become a business and you want to do things the right way, and you're really being customer facing, just figuring out all of those things that you need to get lined up. Because we've been doing the animal and land management part for a very long time, so we feel like we have a pretty good handle on that.
Now, it's just all the business stuff, which I know that's anyone who runs their farm as a business thinks like, "Yeah, that's the hard part." The animal stuff is the easy part. The land stuff is the easy part and the fun part. It's just all the business things. What kind of accountant do I use? Do I need a lawyer? What lawyer do I need? Can I get someone who's familiar with agricultural things?
Just knowing the resources like this grant, or other state or federal programs that you could get financial aid from. Just knowing where all of these things are and how to get them, and it's just, it takes a lot of phone calls and emails and searching around and just talking to people to figure that out.
What do you envision for the future of Tall Pines Farms?
We want to just get bigger in every way, which I know sounds a little maybe crazy and lofty, but I'd like to expand our sheep numbers, that we have a pretty big land base that I think we could handle it if we manage things better. Which, again, comes in with the new fencing project that we're doing because of the grant.
That will free up a lot of time for us to start working on other parts of the farm to get them up to snuff too. Put our animals there at different parts of the year. Doing some different grazing type things, and we have a lot of wooded areas. I'd like to do more silvopasture.
In addition to just expanding everything on the animal side and doing better infrastructure stuff, I'd love to start doing more things in the community just to get them involved in the farm doing some events and agrotourism things, I guess. I'm not going to start a hayride and a pumpkin patch thing, but to be able to invite people onto the farm to show them what we're doing and so that they could have that experience.
Because I know, we are truly privileged to be out there every day just being in the outdoors, being on the farm, doing all of that stuff. I'd love to be able to share it with people in some way that is safe and educational and interesting and fun for them.
Could you share one piece of advice you have for someone interested in starting a farm?
Just don't be afraid to ask questions. There really is no such thing as a stupid question because everyone had to learn something at some point. They all started somewhere. You don't start off in a business knowing what sort of accounting stuff you need to have, or what sort of regulations there are about manure management?
I mean, if you don't know, just find someone and just ask the question, even if you feel like, "Ah, I'm going to sound like such a newb. I should know this." Just find someone. Find a good mentor. I mean, that's how you get mentors is you find people who do know who can help you in any area that you're weak in or that you're lacking.
Just do not be afraid to ask questions. That's the only way you find out, and really it's better to just talk to a person and talk it out about different things you're wondering and have that conversation instead of just trying to go it alone.
Finally, could you tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn more about your farm and to connect?
Our website TallPinesFarms.Pa.com. That has all of our really nice business stuff and where you can shop online for our products, our meat and everything, and how you can do wholes and halves and deposits.
But where I like to have more fun, I guess, and be more interactive is with my three-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter, so my three year old is helping us on the farm with some stuff and he loves to be involved, especially when it's nice out. I just made a video of him wandering around doing farm chores with me and people loved it.
Anyway, on our social media, I like to have fun there, and I am Tall Pine's Farms on Instagram and Tall Pine's Farms on Facebook. Follow us there if you just want to see me ramble on like I am now and cute pictures of lambs and calves and my son.