Life on the Proffitt Family Cattle Company farm, with its roaming Scottish Aberdeen Angus cattle, is as natural as it gets, if you don’t count the benefits of electricity and some farming equipment.
“We’re raising cattle the ‘old-fashioned’ way—before chemicals and pesticides and feedlots,” says Shelley Eagan, second generation farmer and co-owner of the family enterprise located just off of Interstate 85 in Kings Mountain, N.C.
“We raise 100 percent grassfed, grass-finished beef on certified organic pastures,” says Shelley, with obvious pride. That’s a mouthful. The process and routines necessary to produce grassfed beef and the standards that must be met to achieve a certified United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic label are rigorous and require constant diligence, according to Shelley. Proffitt Family Cattle Company is the only organic beef operation in North Carolina.
Although in business just three years now, Proffitt Family Cattle Company has been well received by an eager clientele.
“The first time we went to the farmer’s market, we went with one cooler of beef and sold out in an hour. The next weekend, we returned with two coolers—same thing,” says Shelley. “The reaction has been overwhelming. These are people who have heard the news clips and seen the movies about inhumane animal processing. This was a customer base waiting for us. Our only issue has been supply.”
Proffitt Family Cattle Company sells its beef at the Charlotte Regional Market off Tyvola and the Atherton Mills Market off South Boulevard. Their beef is also available at the company’s farm store in Kings Mountain and can be found in a few select restaurants and stores in the area.
Down on the Farm
Approximately 750 acres are devoted to pasture between the four Proffitt Family Cattle Company farm properties. The calving takes place on 360 acres half-owned half-leased in Blacksburg, S.C., and when the calves are weaned, they are moved to 200 acres of pastureland in Shelby, N.C., or the 50-acre Creek Ranch just down the road from the family home in Kings Mountain. For their last few months of life, cattle are moved to the Kings Mountain 60-acre pasture behind the family home.
There are currently 230 head of cattle: a mix of cows, which are the mommas and the calves at their sides; heifers, or female animals that have never calved; steers, which are the castrated males; and the males chosen to be breeder bulls.
The breed, Scottish Aberdeen Angus, which is naturally polled (does not have horns), was developed from cattle indigenous to the counties of Aberdeenshire and Angus in Scotland. Black Angus is the most popular beef breed of cattle in the United States.
Life is stress-free for Proffitt cattle. They live out their days in the open with an abundance of food, water and sunshine. Their diet is the one created for them by nature—an assortment of organic grasses including vetch, heavy clover, fescue, plantain, wild clover, crabgrass and Bermuda. Surrounded by woods, shade is available on hot summer days. Briars and thistles are removed from their paths—chopped not sprayed to protect their food source and the land.
Their biggest disturbance comes in the form of a Kelpie, or Australian cattle dog, named Sadie who helps to direct their focus when its time to change pastures. The only additives to their grass diet are organic salt with a high trace mineral content, and kelp which keeps them safe from pink eye, a common infection in cattle. Cows and bulls have the longest lives. Mommas can live up to 30 years and can bear calves for 15 of those. Cattle intended for beef will generally be raised for 14 to 18 months.
“Most cows start out on a farm walking in a pasture but they don’t get to live out their lives there,” says Shelley. “Most farmers in the cow industry raise cow and calf and sell them at the auction house when calves get to be six months to a year old. Or they buy calves from the auction house, bring them up in weight over the course of the year and sell them for more money the following year.”
Once sold, the cattle are taken to join many thousands of other cattle in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) or feedlot where upwards of a thousand or more cows are placed together in paddocks equipped with huge troughs. There they are fattened up on feed most commonly made from corn and soy. A large number of animals are slaughtered at one time and the beef goes out to groceries and other distributors all over the country.
“Most people would consider feedlots inhumane,” says Shelley. “Cows can’t live more than six months in a feedlot because the feeding system is so detrimental to their health.”
“We are the antithesis of that,” claims Shelley who says that it is not her intention to villianize the conventional beef industry. “Some feedlots have taken steps to make the kill facility and the way they transport the animals more humane.”
Further, Shelley recognizes that the nation’s insatiable demand for cheap beef cannot currently be met through organic and grassfed methods. “The reason more people can’t do this is that they don’t have enough grass to support two or three generations of cattle. Even if acreage is available, it has to have specific characteristics—proper fencing, clean water, certain vegetation, and quality soil,” says Shelley.
Farming a Family
Shelley and her siblings were raised in Charlotte and attended Charlotte Latin School. Shelley graduated from University of Georgia in 1996 and then moved to Park City, Utah. There she met Brian, a graduate of University of Utah, got married and had two children, and settled in a suburb of Denver, Colo. Shelley was teaching fifth grade and Brian was furthering his sales career.
Patriarch Steve Proffitt, a Charlotte businessman, had retired and moved with his wife Diane to a second home in Florida. “They fished and golfed and got that out of their system,” says Shelley with a smile. Returning to Charlotte, the couple opened an organic bread store.
“My sister’s move to Kings Mountain was what got them looking in this area,” says Shelley. “They bought the farm, which was just the home farm and the Blacksburg properties in 1999. They built this modern version of a farmhouse and Dad became interested in cows.”
By 2000, Steve was selling cows the conventional way through the auction barn but was increasingly disturbed by the feedlots. His research and self-education led him to pursue grassfed beef. Instead of weaning the calves and selling them at auction, he obtained more pastureland and kept them for the entirety of their lives. He also pursued organic certification.
Shelley and Brian and their two children Dewi and Zoe would vacation on the farm for a few weeks each summer. Shelley enjoyed being outside and helping with the cows. Husband Brian, having grown up spending his summers on a sheep farm in Idaho, also loved to be outside, riding horses. So the family decided to move to the farm in December of 2008.
“We all live and work here together,” says Shelley. “We traded suburbia for multi-generational farm life. We get to be outdoors, don’t mind getting sweaty and dirty, and we have a lot of empathy for animals. It’s hard work but a good life.”
Amazingly, Proffitt Family Cattle Company has only four part-time employees. Two work with the cattle and two help sell the beef at the markets.
Shelley and her father are the two main ranchers. Diane helps to get the beef to market and is a master gardener. Brian has a fulltime sales job outside the farm but helps to run the business and spends about two and one-half days on the farm each week.
“There’s no such thing as weekends off but with two families here, everybody can have a break,” says Shelley. Even the kids have chores: Dewi is in charge of the chickens—there are also ducks, guineas, a rooster and hens—and helps to load hay; Zoe takes care of the pony in the mornings and afternoons. Eight cats and five dogs also call the farm their home.
In 2009, the Proffitt Family Cattle Company received its organic certification through the Clemson University Department of Plant and Industry, which means that the Proffitts’ land and beef now carry the certified USDA organic label extended to those who have met rigorous requirements.
They are just reaching the point that they have cattle of harvestable age that have been raised under the organic label. (The certification reflects a prior three-year period of time during which no chemicals were employed on the land or in the care and feed of the animals.)
“Grassfed and organic are actually two different things; we just happen to be both of those things,” explains Shelley. The family is also proud of other certifications they have earned from the American Grassfed Association and Animal Welfare Approved. “These certifications provide extra assurance for our customers who are concerned over the issues of sustainability, clean food and the well-being of animals,” says Shelley.
The quality of life for a cow, particularly the food it eats, dictates the quality of the beef for humans. Consumption of grassfed beef, according to a 2009 study conducted by the USDA and Clemson University, carries with it some major health benefits.
Loaded with higher levels of vitamin E, B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, potassium, beta-carotene, vaccenic acid and omega-3, grassfed beef is lower in total fat and calories and lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease.
It is also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is important as CLA is one of the most powerful defenses against cancer. CLA, which is stored in fat cells, actually makes eating a well-marbled steak or the fatty trimmings a healthy choice.
Grassfed and certified USDA organic beef cost more in the marketplace, but that doesn’t bother Shelley: “My customers don’t shop at Wal-Mart. They are looking for organic, local food produced using sustainable methods and they understand that it will cost them more.”
“It’s important to us to be transparent to our customers,” says Shelley. “We want people to come out and see the animals; see the grass.” Tours are regularly scheduled that often include wine tastings and cooking classes, both very popular.
“Most people of my generation don’t know what to do with a roast. If they don’t make hamburger or put a steak on the grill, they may feel overwhelmed.” Proffitt Family Cattle Company also offers recipes in its newsletter and on its website.
The cycles of life—and death—are never so apparent as on a farm that raises animals for meat. On the Proffitt farm, cows calve every year; some every 10 months. Four animals are slaughtered every other week.
But for the entirety of their lives, they are peacefully sustained by the sunny pastures of natural grasses. They sleep under the stars and dream about the fresh swath of clover they will be presented with on the morrow. They provide healthy food for people.
As Shelley is oft heard saying after a successful roundup, “That’ll do, Sadie.”