Family farm builds Brasstown Beef brand

It’s a slogan even the slickest New York ad firm couldn’t top if it tried: “Real Beef. Raised Right. Around Here.”

It would be equally hard to find a cattle ranch better suited to the motto than Brasstown Beef, a family farm on 1,000 acres between Hayesville and Murphy.

Steve Whitmire, owner of Ridgefield Farm, recently launched a new line of high-end Brasstown Beef products marketed to local restaurants and butchers. The new venture compliments his long-standing commercial cattle operation, but may replace it one day as Whitmire looks for new ways to keep farming viable in the mountains.

Whitmire raises a line of Braunvieh cattle, an ancient breed originating in the high mountains of Switzerland and known for exceptional flavor. Whitmire has embraced new technology with his cattle operations, like radio frequency ID tags and genetic analysis to select for the most desirable characteristics when breeding his herd.

“The ranch has to make a profit to survive,” said Whitmire. “But you have to have a product that people can afford. To do that I have completely changed the way we raise our cattle.”

Brasstown Beef even has its own ultrasound technician, Cathy Richburg. As a cow approaches harvest time, Richburg uses an ultrasound device to figure out how big the ribeye area is, how much marbling it has and the amount of back fat. After plugging the data into a special computer program, Richburg predicts the ideal day for harvest.

Last month, Whitmire invited executive chefs and restaurateurs, along with butchers from across the region, to tour the savvy operations and get up close and personal with the living versions of the steaks and chops and hamburgers they prepare for their customers every day. Several of the restaurant owners and chefs in attendance were so impressed they said they would switch exclusively to Brasstown Beef products.

“My customers love the taste,” said Paul Crisp, owner of The Hometown Diner in Murphy. “They tell me it’s the best hamburger they’ve ever had. Now even my wife won’t cook anything else at home.”

As added customer service, Whitmire brought in a university researcher and grad student to school the butchers in the crowd on techniques to maximize their cuts of meat.

High-tech methods aren’t the only appealing aspects about the Brasstown Beef operation. Whitmire’s love for his cattle are apparent: freedom to range over the 1,100-acre ranch and shelter from the elements. He’s even installed “spa rocks,” giant boulders that the cattle love to use as back scratchers.

Whitmire doesn’t use growth hormones and antibiotics common to the industry, placing him in the coveted category of all-natural, free range, hormone and antibiotic free.

When Whitmire recently began raising pigs, he bought his start-up load from a Missouri farmer with hormone and antibiotic free stock. The Missouri farmer had previously made the switch, letting every animal in his herd die that could not make it without antibiotics, then rebuilding a much hardier stock from the survivors. The pigs have their babies in custom designed shelters that allow the females to come and go as they please, and other than a six-week weaning period, all of the pigs remain free to roam in pastures.

Ultimately, however, it’s taste that makes the difference, Whitmire said.

“Being local, humane and producing all natural meat is important. However, in actuality, if it doesn’t taste better to the consumer, you will never sell enough meat to stay in business,” said Whitmire.

To that end, Whitmire employs a final step that most beef producers skip, saying it’s too costly and time-consuming. It takes four-weeks to dry-age beef in coolers, requiring more labor, expensive overhead and a longer turnaround time between slaughter and sale. But the method is far superior than traditional aging.

”Dry aging has the dual benefit of vastly improving flavor and making the meat more tender,” said Whitmire. “It reduces the moisture content in the meat, which concentrates the flavor. That means that not only do your hamburgers and steaks taste better, but they won’t shrink nearly as much on the grill. This makes a huge difference to restaurants, retailers and the consumer.”

This article was contributed by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.  Originally written and published online by Smoky Mountain News