Running a small beef farm requires cultivating good relationships with cows and humans — like local chefs, butchers and individual customers, all of whom help small farmers remain competitive.
But success stories, like that of Ken Drinnon and KLD Farm, are still relatively rare.
Drinnon can often be found in his utility vehicle, checking on the 80 or so cows that live on KLD Farm, his family-run business in Ashland City.
He stops in front of one field: “These are with their mamas, of course, and when they’re weaned, they go in this field here.”
Drinnon never feeds his cows steroids, growth hormones or antibiotics. And while they won’t make it past adolescence — the younger the cow, the better the beef — the animals spend their lives outdoors, grazing on more than 80 acres of shaded, rolling hills. They’re so chill, they rarely even moo.
“They’ll go to sleep out there and you’d swear they’re dead, all but the tongue hanging out,” Drinnon laughs. “They lay flat on the ground. They’re not too stressed, I guess.”
James Peisker, co-founder of the Porter Road Butcher shop in East Nashville, agrees: “Yeah, they look pretty happy and relaxed right now.”
The butchers started selling Drinnon’s grass-fed beef about six years ago, and today KLD Farm is their second-largest supplier. Unlike restaurants or individual customers, Porter Road buys entire animals from Drinnon.
“Farmers aren’t raising rib eyes, they’re raising beef, which contain rib eyes,” says Peisker’s partner, Chris Carter. “So you have to have an outlet for all of those things, and that’s why it takes all of us to push this forward.”
Finding Customers Willing To Pay
By “this,” Carter means an alternative to the large-scale meat industry, which he says keeps cows in pens and fattens them up with growth hormones, among other things, to produce marbling.
But farmers can still produce marbled, tasty and tender beef from pasture-raised animals, says Pesiker. They just need to make sure that cows “are as happy and carefree as possible and that they live a much more natural life than they would in a different system.”
This costs more — for farmers and for customers. But Drinnon’s business has been driven by more and more customers who care about how he treats the animals that end up on their plates.
These days, he says, they want to see and talk to farmers, “and you have to be transparent.”
That transparency has earned him respect and loyalty, according to Kristen Beringson, the Nashville chef best known for winning the TV show Chopped. She says Drinnon isn’t just her longest farming relationship. He’s also come to her baby showers, and she takes her kids to ride around on his farm and look at the cows.
Beringson has served Drinnon’s beef in four Nashville kitchens so far, starting with Holland House about seven years ago, when her former beef supplier retired and she got Drinnon’s number.
“He didn’t sell to any restaurants when I called him,” she says. In fact, Drinnon had only recently started selling meat, at the Farmers Market and from home.
But he caught on quick to the restaurant world, Beringson says: “He was like, ‘Oh, this is excellent! You just take one delivery, drop it off, collect a check and repeat, repeat, repeat!’”
Today, nearly a dozen Nashville area restaurants sell KLD beef, including The Green Pheasant and Henrietta Red. Drinnon says building up that base took a lot of cold calling chefs and bringing them free samples.
“Most of the time you strike out,” he says. “You just have to hustle and be persistent, and treat people well and fairly, and they remember that.”
Controlling The Whole Process
Still, Drinnon says, the hustling was better than his old business model. He started KLD Farm in 1995, upon retiring from firefighting. For nearly two decades, he sold his calves at auctions to others who processed and sold the meat.
This isn’t very profitable, he says. Farmers have no control over the price they get for their animals, and he wanted to make “a little bit of money” at what he was doing. So around eight years ago, Drinnon found a slaughterhouse to work with and became USDA certified to sell the meat himself.
In other words, in the farm-to-table process, the only thing he doesn’t do now is cook the meat.
Controlling most or all of the process is called value-added agriculture. Small farmers have increasingly had to do it to remain competitive, says Ronnie Barron. As an agricultural extension agent with the University of Tennessee, he delivers a range of financial, educational and logistic support to small farms, including Drinnon’s.
Barron says value-added agriculture means more work and more risk — but potentially more profits.
“Whatever you grow, whatever you can raise, when you own it from the time you produce it on your farm until it lands on someone’s plate, you’ve taken out all the middle people that you could, who potentially could own that,” Barron says.
In less than a decade, Drinnon has reached capacity, meaning he sells all the meat he processes. Barron calls that a success story.
But small farming is still a grueling business, especially for newcomers. According to USDA data from 2017, revenues for small farms have declined in recent years, even as the number of them has grown.
Drinnon says he sees the new vendors at the Farmers Market and knows they probably didn’t inherit land or have a lot of startup capital for equipment.
“A lot of them are operating on hope, he says. “I don’t want to take that away from them, but if it’s your only source of income, it’s not something I would recommend.”
Drinnon says he’s particularly lucky to have an thriving independent butcher shop in his backyard. Porter Road alone now makes up nearly half of his revenue.
And the butchers have also become friends. Their quality control visits to KLD Farm often turn into lunch, and a chance to spend some quality time with the Drinnons, swapping stories about their families over lemon squares and, of course, homemade burgers.