Southwest Wisconsin has attracted dozens of new sustainable farmers and over the past 20 years, driven by a deep appreciation for the rich agricultural resources they’re motivated to preserve, a growing number of natives in the area have thoughtfully re-adapted their farm operations. Dick Cates grew up farming with his parents and siblings on the same Spring Green farm that he now shares with his wife Kim. In 1986, Dick and Kim made a commitment to farming and began the process of purchasing the family farm and land from Dick’s father. At the time, Dick admits that, despite a lifetime of work in farming and graduate work in soil science, they had little idea about how it would go or what would be productive for them to grow.
While raising three children on their farm, Dick and Kim first followed a common agenda for farming—getting bigger, going deeper into debt and finding little reward for their efforts. Of this phenomenon, Dick says, “We did what all farmers do and we decided to get bigger and it was a nightmare. I was borrowing more money, growing faster and faster and the market was taking advantage of me because commodity agriculture is, in my mind, a losing proposition for most of us.”
Give the people what they want
At the height of their former operation—grazing and raising dairy cattle for other farmers—Dick was managing close to 1,000 acres with 700 acres in grazing land, 27 miles of fence, up to 800 cattle and 2,500 feet of water line. “Meanwhile at the same time we were pulling some of the calves off (Angus and Jerseys) that we liked and we were selling them directly to friends and family,” Dick explains of the start of their conversion. “We weren’t very good at it. People said, ‘You got to make it more tender,’ so we did a survey in the early ‘90s to learn what people wanted. They didn’t want any growth hormones or antibiotics and they wanted it leaner. We started to target that market and we actually ended up with a small herd that we kept separate from all of the other cattle and raised them as our ‘lean natural beef.’”
In 1998, the Cates were awarded the Wisconsin Conservation Achievement Award and the 1999 Iowa County Water Quality Leadership Award for the care they’d taken in their operation to preserve and protect the Lowery Creek that runs through their farm. Dick says, “We had implemented a managed grazing system so that the animals are never along one part of the stream for more than a day, two days at the most. Cattle like to cross where they can see the bottom and where it’s nice and hard, so we used circumstances like that to facilitate them for easier movement. We’ve created natural stream crossings from rock. There are crossings where they wanted to cross, not where we wanted to drive our equipment. When the rock settles into the soil, the grass grows through it and so now, it requires very little maintenance.”
With the growing popularity of their lean and natural beef, Dick admits it was Kim who initiated the final push to improve the health of their personal and financial outlook. He says, “My wife Kim was the wise one. She said, ‘Our Cates Farm label, lean/natural beef—people seem to want that. Why don’t we do more of that?’ By the late ‘90s we had moved that to the front burner and that was becoming more and more significant in our business...and it started to become crystal clear in the late ‘90s and early 2000 that this was what we were meant to do. It felt right; it was fun; and the relationships we were building with our clientele were meaningful. So, the longer we went, the more fun it was because we continued to listen to our customers and we went away from being just lean and natural to identifying with our customers through a story of how the cattle are treated and how they’re raised and why and how we take care of our environment.”
Food Alliance certification
In 2001, the Cates Family Farm became the first farm in Wisconsin to be certified by Food Alliance Midwest and that was meaningful to Dick and Kim because it was beyond organic methodology. Focusing on how the farmer treats the environment, natural resources, the animals and those who work with them; the farm’s role in the community; and how the farm is engaged in sustainable agricultural research as a cooperator were all taken into consideration.
Not long after, Dick and Kim realized that they could finish their animals 100 percent on grass and forego the grain-finishing traditionally used by cattle farmers. Dick remembers the first round of beef finished on 100 percent grass, “We tried the meat,” he said. “It was excellent, and more and more customers were asking for it. So about three or four years ago we went 100% to grass-finished and we’ve never turned back. It’s so satisfying.” The Cates’ only finish cattle during grazing season and rely on their on-farm freezer to hold them (and their customers) over during the non-grazing months of winter and mid-summer
The benefits of grass-finished beef are numerous. For instance, factory farm animals are fed grain in order to boost productivity. They are fed mostly genetically-modified grain and soy and “by-product feedstuffs” which can include garbage, candy, feathers and more. Cows, being ruminants, are designed to eat grasses, plants and shrubs, not grain. In addition, the ingestion of so much grain can cause numerous physical problems. Grain-fed cows are often constantly given low-level antibiotics to thwart the threat of serious reactions to the grain. Also, beef (and dairy, for that matter) from cows fed on grains has a lower nutritional value than those fed on grass. It contains more total fat, fewer vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, less beta-carotene among other nutritional considerations.
Paying it forward
Acting as mentor and teacher over the last 12 years for many new dairy farmers, Dick has set up a cooperative and beneficial relationship with his protégés by offering them an effective way to sell off male offspring from their breeding operations, which are often not worth much to dairy farmers. Dick explains, “I buy calves from those kids who are nearby. [The steers are] weaned in the fall at six months, then stay by the mother, and we take them in the spring. [The steers are fed] hay next to the replacement heifers and we pay the farmers a living wage, and I’ve never had one turn me down. In other words, I’m turning my money back to help the younger community, and I think that’s a model that we should all be looking at.”
Right relations, continued
As stewards of their land, the Cates are committed to working with researchers to improve their operation and teach others about the benefits of managed grazing and eco-agricultural responsibility. For three years, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin’s Agronomy and Wildlife Ecology departments studied the impact of the Cates’ grazing system on the denizens of the Lowery Creek running through their acreage. At the conclusion of those studies on amphibians, small animals, turbidity, biological oxygen demand and the propensity of trout, it was found that their system was very productive and effective and in some ways more helpful and beneficial than just grass sod or cropland.
At the urging of some of their farming friends, the Cates were encouraged to meet with representatives from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). After visiting the farm, AWI honored the Cates by awarding them the first such certification in the country for a beef operation without any changes to their already humane system. “Why we did it is partly because it gives us an endorsement from the bigger outside world, but it also gives us a sense of dignity to know that your animal husbandry skills are consistent with treating the animals well,” Dick says proudly.
Marlene and Diane Halverson of AWI certified the Cates Farm in 2006 and had this to say about their association with Dick and Kim: “Animal Welfare Institute is delighted that Cates Family Farm is the first beef farm to join our husbandry standards program and become Animal Welfare Approved. We sincerely appreciate the strong commitment Dick and his wife Kim have shown to raising, on sustainably managed pastures, dairy calves who otherwise might be destined for auction houses or confinement veal operations. Cates Family Farm provides its animals a rich and healthy environment that promotes their health and well-being. We also appreciate the fairness with which they deal with the family farmers from whom they purchase calves to raise on their farm. And we very much enjoy watching Dick interact patiently and affectionately with his beef calves and cattle. They are so obviously comfortable around him.”
Starting more than 20 years ago, Dick began accepting requests from hunters who would knock on the door and ask to hunt on the land. For the privilege of doing so, he would ask in return from the hunters for six hours of their time working on the farm. Dick says he’s never had a hunter leave. In fact, he reports he usually gets about 20 workdays a year out of this arrangement in the form of finish carpenters, mechanics, masons, roofers, welders or general labor to pull fences or pick rocks. “Because they’ve enjoyed the farm so much, they bring their friends who don’t even hunt,” Dick says. “It’s absolutely amazing. We’ve stained the house, put up gutters, you name it and they’ve done it. They’ve been here in a pinch when I have had an emergency, so we don’t have employees per se, but we have really committed friends.”
Available at the Co-op
In addition to the their ground beef, which we’ve been offering in our freezer case, Cates will be Willy Street Co-op’s custom supplier of 100 percent grass-finished, roast beef cuts. Josh Perkins, the Co-op’s Kitchen Manager, is working directly with them to have them cut the roast to our specifications, which we will prepare and sell sliced from our Deli’s cold case. This unique partnership will result in an outstanding and exclusive product.
Where they are now
Of the place he and his wife have arrived, Dick says, “Once we realized how the public was crying for a relationship with a farm, a farm family, to be able to believe in how the food was raised, this is why we’re here. This is what we’re meant to do. It was so exciting. Thank God for my wife Kim who could see that before me, and she was very important in making me come around to be in the place that I’m at right now.”