Pandemic brought unexpected demand for N.C. beef producers

by | May 6, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly presented challenges for people in all walks of life, and those in agriculture are no exception. However, it also brought an increased demand for many local agricultural producers across the state – producers like Honeycutt Farms in the Coats area of Harnett County.

Curt & Ashley Honeycutt with their son

When stay-home orders and supply chain issues just began affecting people last spring, Curt and Ashley Honeycutt had just begun some direct-to-consumer selling of beef from their cattle. Demand for their beef immediately skyrocketed. They got so many orders, that in March of 2020, they were backlogged to January and February of 2021. They relied on in-state meat processors, which were also seeing a huge increase in demand. So it took until this April to fully catch up and deliver beef that was ordered during the backlog.

The boost in business was a pleasant surprise for Curt who grew up with uncles on both sides of the family farming. He started helping the uncle on his mother’s side around age 14, when his “granddaddy” hung up his farming hat.

“My job was to get up and feed the cows before school,” Curt said. “It wasn’t so much work to me then, and it’s not so much work for me now.”

Curt Honeycutt on the farm

That goes to show how much he enjoys farming, which he’s been doing himself for about ten years now. The farm is about 800 acres, including pastureland, hay fields (of alfalfa and hybrid Bermuda grass) and row crops (of corn, wheat, soybeans and occasionally cotton).

“These animals are looked after better than I look after myself,” Curt said. “They’re my first stop in the morning and last stop of the day. They’re well cared for and looked after, and it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing, if something comes up with the cows, our plans change to take care of whatever comes up.”

Ashley expected it would take at least a little marketing to get the word out about their new effort to sell some beef directly to customers. Marketing was a bit more in her wheelhouse than farming, at least when she first married Curt and joined him on the farm. She moved to North Carolina after earning a fashion merchandising degree in New York, and she was working in that industry. She now shares some of the farm life on social media, and she was ready to share posts to get some attention for the farm. Instead, the pandemic created demand without any marketing. So there wasn’t much need to promote that the cows are pastured-raised, grass-fed and grain-finished, with no antibiotics or hormones added.

What the Honeycutts do with their cows is pretty typical of cattle farming in North Carolina. Like many cattle farmers in the state, they follow guidelines in the Beef Quality Assurance program, which is a national certification supported in the state by the N.C. Beef Council and the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association. N.C. Cooperative Extension handles most of the training to help cattle farmers learn more about best practices such as safe low-stress handling of cattle, proper vaccination and even recordkeeping.

Over the years, about 1,600 farmers have gone through the BQA training, and about 2,400 students have taken the training through their schools. Many of the measures have become commonplace among most farmers, even those who have not yet been officially trained, said Bryan Blinson, the Cattlemen’s Association’s executive director.

“It’s a mindset and a roadmap,” Blinson said. “BQA allows cattle farmers to start simple and cover the basics of good animal care, and it can get more complex from there – kind of like a puzzle. It can be a building process.”

Ashley Honeycutt has actually taken a BQA certification course twice. She helps Curt stay on top of some of the things that have always been somewhat second nature to him – things like rotating the herd from one area of the pasture to another or soil testing.

“We’re technically in the grass growing business. If we don’t have a healthy pasture, we don’t have healthy cows,” Curt said. “We do soil tests occasionally to test to be sure we know what the nutrients are and know what soil amendments may need to be added to get it to a healthy level.”

Their 100-acre pasture is broken up into separate paddocks so that the herd grazes on one area at a time.

“So each part of the pasture has a chance to regenerate,” explained Ashley Herring, the director of consumer information for the N.C. Beef Council. “It’s good for the soil and good for the forage that they’re trying to grow there.

“It’s one of the things we love to share – that our members want to be certified to take the best care of our animals. It also helps with sustainability in raising beef,” Herring continued. “Our farmers take the initiative to be certified, and they want to take the best care of their cattle. That includes taking the best care of their land.”

While many of the calves born and raised in North Carolina are sent to feed lots in the Midwest to “beef up” on corn grain, Blinson said most of their life is still spent growing up in a North Carolina pasture. Ashley Honeycutt said one of the misconceptions about cattle farming is that cows spend most of their time in crowded feed lots, but she and Curt say that’s simply not the case.

“No matter where they are, you’re going to see cows grouped together because they’re herding animals,” Curt said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in the corner of a feed lot or the corner of a pasture, they group together because they want to. Part of that is their instincts for safety.”

The Honeycutts believe in investing and caring for their cows in order to maintain a profitable operation. Cutting corners doesn’t make sense to them because healthy cows create better beef and a better product for consumers. They recently shared some of their practices in a video produced with funds from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association.

“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” Ashley Honeycutt said. “Your whole life revolves around the farm and the crops and taking care of the cattle.”