That question, surely asked since the dawn of man, and woman, prompted Michael Pollan to write “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” six years ago. Exposure to that book prompted Russ and Elizabeth Bates to take a hard look at what they were eating.
“What he found was a little disheartening to him, and in reading that book, we kind of felt the same way and it set us on this path to look for cleaner food,” Russ Bates said.
It was a path that led the couple from Michigan to the suburbs of Cave Spring, where they, with help from Russ’ brother Scott Bates and his niece Deniece Barrett, developed B&B Family Farm, 650 Padlock Mountain Road, Cave Spring.
Bates, a semi-retired government consultant who still does a lot of work for General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Science Applications International Corporation, all key government contractors, and his wife Elizabeth, who is retired from general Motors, bought a farm across the road from his parents just south of Cave Spring.
The farm encompasses some 214 acres on both the east and west side of Padlock Mountain Road.
“Scott’s my farm manager because I still have to travel a little bit,” Russ Rates said. “He makes sure everything is fed and taken care of.”
Actually, the farm almost takes take of itself by design.
Today, B&B Family Farm raises Pineywoods cattle, Large Black hogs and Dominique chickens, all considered to be heritage breeds.
“We selected animals based on whether they’re heritage breeds and how well they do on forage because we are trying to get away from bringing outside inputs into the farm,” Bates said. “We practice something called intensive mob grazing, where we put the animals in a very small paddock but we move them every day so everyday they get fresh grass and they move away from yesterday’s waste.”
Spaniards brought the Pineywoods cattle to the U.S., but as the beef industry was being developed they were crossbred with species that have larger carcasses.
“A lot of the commercial beef (producers), they think bigger is better, and ours are not that big. The biggest we’ll have is 1,100 pounds, and market weight will be about 800 pounds, which is pretty small,” Bates said.
Herbivores like cattle instinctively like to migrate, so he’s mimicking that migratory behavior by moving them every day.
“They just love it. They’ll be standing at the gate waiting for us, saying its time to go to the next pasture,” Bates said.
Without going into too-specific detail, the flock of approximately 60 chickens is used as a form of pasture sanitation.
“I want them to come in behind the cows, follow the cows and scratch through the patties, eat the bugs and keep the pasture clean and fertilized,” Bates said. “They’ll scratch through a cow patty and it’ll soak right into the ground instead of it becoming a Frisbee.”
Not only does B&B rotate their paddocks daily, but also the bulls are rotated amongst the years on an annual basis. This year, Master was the primary breeding bull. Next year, it will be Ezra’s turn.
Scott Bates said he gets a lot of satisfaction out of supplying people with good meat.
“I didn’t understand a lot of it when I started but I know now that it’s the right ting to do,” Scott Bates said. “I’ve brought these pastures to almost looking like a golf course. I’ve learned a lot.”
Conditions need to be as close to ideal as possible because of Russ Bate’s overriding farm philosophy.
“What’s sold from the farm will be born on the farm. That’s the only way I’ll know exactly how that animal was raised from the time it was born to the present,” he said.
For his Pineywoods cattle, that means the turnaround time to market is nearly 24 months, almost twice as long as the more traditional cattle producer. Market time for his Large Black hogs is not quite as challenging, as they are ready for sale about a year after they are born.
“We’ve got four cows for sale that are market-ready now, plus we’ve got meat in the freezer,” Bates said. “Next year we’ll have 15 hogs. This year we’ve got eight.”
The hogs were the source of some controversy as bates was setting up his farm back in the fall of 2010. Some citizens in Cave Spring were upset about the prospect of a “hog farm” and the possibility of hogs escaping into the wild and creating a problem for surrounding property owners.
Escaping is low on the list of priorities for the Bates bacon brigade — they’re just looking for someone to scratch their back.
“We have a 450-pound Large Black boar, his name is Albert, and Scott will go up to him and ask, you want to scratch?”
The Large Blacks’ meat has a red tint to it, and according to the Bates, an excellent flavor that they attribute to the natural feedstock of grass roots and acorns.
The market for the B&B Family Farm cattle, hogs and chickens is varied. The Bates are attempting to create a virtual farmers market, patterned after Athens Locally Grown in Northeast Georgia.
“It’s going to be called Rome Locally Grown, a participatory cooperative between local farmers who could bring in any product that they have,” Russ Bates said. “They would be able to post that online and customers buy up what’s on line.”
The cheapest way for consumers to purchase his products is to buy a whole or half animal. The farmers are also planning to further cultivate on-farm sales.
“There area lot of licensing and (regulatory) obligations that you have to comply with to be able to do that, so we’re going to have to grow into it,” Russ Bates said. “All my stuff is USDA processed.”
The Bates have also developed a relationship with Jeff and K.C. Myers at the new Water Club restaurant in Cave Spring.
“We provide them with grass-fed beef and roasting hogs,” Bates said. “Scott just ran into K.C. Myers downtown, and K.C. was looking to supply her restaurant with produce and meat from local farmers.”
In addition to the meat, Scott Bates pointed out that the Myers buy about ten dozen eggs a week from B&B Family Farm. Both Russ and Elizabeth are certified egg graders.
“I have never met such passionate, devoted and proud farmers,” K.C. Myers said. “I actually chose the cow that I wanted.”
They will be serving the beef at the Water Club as well as two restaurants they own in Atlanta.
The Bates hope to expand their operation to include upward of 40 head of cattle and a maximum of 80 hogs.
“We hope to add sheep here next,” Russ Bates said. “We’re looking at the Gulf Coast (variety), they’re a hairless sheep, primarily for meat, because we don’t want to get into cutting wool and all that. Sheep will do great on all this shrub and stuff, undergrowth around here.”
Goats are also a possibility.
“That’s far out, although my brother wants to goats right now, but I’m the boss,” Russ Bates said.
The Bates hope to open up the farm to the public during the Cave Spring Pig Out barbecue competition the weekend of Sept. 22.
“The farm here was the largest contributor, sponsor of that, and what we’re going to do is have the farm open at the same time so if people come out to enjoy the Pig Out they can come up here and have a tour,” Russ Bates said.