An Interview with Tom Beard
By: Kristin Evenrud, Co-op Grocery Manager & Meat Buyer
Since I began my role as Meat Buyer at the Oneota Community Co-op I have been purchasing lamb fromTom Beard. His dedication to raising well-treated and sustainable sheep has always been evident. Tom has recently stepped into the role of marketer for the beef steers his parents, Bonnie and Dan Beard, and their farming partner, Rick Groux, raise for the Co-op and other outlets. They are working on a branded name for their beef operation, so look for a different name on their label at some point in the near future.
Currently, the Co-op buys a whole cow from the Beards about once a month and they deliver it a half at a time. There may be times when all the stew meat is sold out, but we still have ground beef or steaks. Generally we get caught up within a week and customers can find the cuts they want. Personally, I have really enjoyed the steaks I have purchased from the Beards at the Co-op. The last ribeye that I ate was pan fried on a hot stove with a little salt and pepper and it just melted in my mouth. I am really looking forward to grilling season when I can grill steaks and burgers over natural hardwood charcoal or even better yet over an open fire during a backpacking trip. Now, a little more About Tom & the herd.
Q. Tell us about the history of the Beard family farm?
My Dad’s ancestors were early settlers in Winneshiek County. The family still farms some land that has been in the family for over 150 years. Neither of my parents were raised on a farm. My Dad started farming in college, and my parents started farming together when they got married. My Mom mactually grew up in the Chicago area. I have been farming full time since I graduated from college. Now I do some farming on my own and also work with my parents and brothers.
Q. What kind of animals are on the farm?
My parents farm about 1,000 acres. Much of the land is in pasture and hay, but they also farm some crops. Their crop rotation usually consists of several years of hay, corn, wheat or oats and then back to hay. We have grown sunflowers, field peas, soybeans and crops like sorghum sudan grass and turnips for grazing. The 140 cow seasonal organic dairy is my parents’ main enterprise, but they also have Red Devon beef cattle with a partner. They also have a few pigs and laying hens for family use. An added benefit to having chickens around is that they help to control the fly population by eating fly larvae.
Q. How many acres does Tom have on his own?
Maren and I have 133 acres along Canoe Creek bordering my parents’ farm. We raise sheep, organic crops and grow a large garden. We also have some additional pasture for our sheep around our neighborhood.
Q. Organic certification and how important is it for the family?
Starting in May, all of our land and livestock will be certified organic. Most has been since 2003. We minitially certified so that we could sell organic milk. Since we’re certified organic, we are members of Organic Valley and they do a really good job of providing us with a stable market for our milk. We didn’t have to make a lot of changes to be organic so it was kind of a natural progression for our operation. We’re grateful for the good prices that organic markets provide.
Q. Breed of beef steers and do you breed your own?
My parents have had mixed breeds of beef over the years but more recently they’ve started a Red Devon cow/calf herd with a partner, Rick Groux. Red Devons are supposed to have very high quality beef and do very well on pasture. Some of our cows have their calves in the spring and others have calves in the fall. We save a few of the steers to raise for beef. Some of the heifers are retained to grow the herd and some calves go to the livestock auction.
Q. Breed of lamb?
We have 150 crossbred ewes. We started out with a flock of Ramboullet but have since crossed with Dorper and Katahdin which are breeds of hair sheep. There are a few benefits to having hair sheep. FIrst, they don’t need to be shorn. Secondly, they are lower maintenance breeds. They are more resistant to internal parasites which is important for organic management. Finally, they have milder tasting meat than wool breeds. We haven’t really figured out what the ideal breed is, but the hair sheep are working pretty well for us. The ewes lamb on pasture in May and are usually moved daily to fresh pasture through the growing season into winter. This is a strategy to keep them healthy and limit their exposure to internal parasites. This winter the ewes are on a hillside by our house. Every couple weeks I place round bales at the top of the hill with the tractor and then they can be unrolled down the hill as needed. Usually gravity does most of the work.
Q. What do you feed the animals?
North of Decorah our landscape is more suited to pasture and hay production, so those are the main things that we feed our livestock. Ruminant livestock are very important to our farming operation because they can thrive on forage. Our dairy cows and beef steers also receive some organic grain, such as ground corn or ground wheat and corn silage. Our lambs are fed some oats in the late fall and winter. The beef calves are born on pasture and get hay and pasture for the first year. As they get bigger, the steers to be raised for beef get put with the dairy cows where they get the best quality feed. Pasture and hay are a main source of nutrition for the steers, but they do have access to the same feed that the cows get twice a day when they come home for milking.
Q. What type of meat do you eat most often?
Well, we don’t tend to eat much chicken because that’s one type of meat that we don’t raise. We tend to eat a variety of different meat, mostly depending on what’s most abundant in the freezer at the time.
Q. What are your favorite winter beef and lamb recipes?
Maren, the lifelong vegetarian, has found that she really enjoys shepherds’ pie…and so does everyone else. It’s a great way to use lots of different ingredients that we raise on our farm – potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, cream, butter and lamb. I really enjoy trying new recipes and Maren is a little shocked by how many meat cookbooks I have. I may have about as many meat cookbooks as she has vegetarian cookbooks. I enjoy using all of them.
Q. Importance of the Co-op to your family?
I can remember going into the Co-op across from Vesterheim with my Mom when I was really young, so I guess we’ve been shopping at the Co-op for a long time. We rely on the
Co-op as a source for wholesome food that we don’t grow ourselves. It also provides us with a market for lamb, beef and Organic Valley dairy products. We enjoy the diverse group of people that it serves. Maren likes the fact that there’s no such thing as a quick run to the Co-op. It’s inevitable that whenever we walk through the Co-op door we see someone who we know and find a few minutes to catch up on life
Q. Direction of the family farm for the future?
My younger brothers are both interested in farming. It seems like there’s plenty of opportunity on the family farm if they want to make farming their career.