02 Sep Where’s the beef?
By Donna Lampkin Stephens
Many families from the 501 and beyond are taking advantage — one way or another — of locally produced beef. It’s all part of the farm–to–table movement, and two Faulkner County families are at the local forefront.
Tom and Judy Riley of El Paso sell to individual clients.
Kenny and Rebecca Simon of Saltillo cater primarily to restaurants.
“It’s just the awareness of where your food comes from,” Rebecca Simon said.
“People like to know their food was locally sourced.”
The Rileys are retired from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. Tom grew up in El Paso (White County), and the couple bought roughly 350 acres on U S. Highway 64 for a beef operation. About 25 years ago, on an extension service trip to Japan, he saw a beef product in a supermarket that was different than the typical American beef.
“What we typically grow in this country has thick back fat, and the Wagyu breed does not have thick back fat,” said Judy Riley, who grew up in Farmington. “The fat marbles throughout the meat. It’s marketed as Kobe beef.”
Tom wanted to bring that variety to the Riley farm, so he used artificial insemination to introduce the breed into their herd, which now features a mix of Simmental, Brangus, and Wagyu. They have about 60 mother cows.
Over the years, they’ve gone from selling calves at a sale barn for feed–lotting in the Midwest, to keeping back one or two to provide beef for their family, to supplying restaurants, to ultimately focusing on sales to individual clients.
“Our customer base is typically couples that may or may not have children, who don’t have big freezer space, who want 25 or 50 or 75 pounds of actual weight,” Judy said. “Twenty–five pounds will fit in the freezer portion of a refrigerator. We sell boxed beef that amounts to about 40 percent burgers, 30 percent steaks, 30 percent roasts and brisket, or a pack of ribs.
“They get a variety, and sometimes several families share a box.”
The Rileys deliver their beef year–round in the Central Arkansas area.
“We’re not a big operation at all,” Judy said.
What’s the attraction for consumers?
“It’s probably beefier–tasting than what you can get in the grocery store,” she said. “It has a different flavor, I think, but then again, we haven’t bought grocery store beef in a long time. These animals are never feed–lotted; they’re always on grass or hay. They’re never confined. We don’t ever give them antibiotics; they don’t have growth hormones.
“We supplement with a small amount of all–natural feed in the winter. It’s like free–range chickens — they’re just handled differently than what you get in the grocery store.”
She said over the years they’ve gotten acquainted with their customers, who number about 40 families.
“I code them into my phone with the last name ‘Beef,’” she said. “Then, when we know we’re going to get a couple of steers, I send them the information. It’s a very low–tech way of keeping up. Our business all started through Craigslist, and it’s now taken on a life of its own.”
Several years ago, Jack Sundell, who owns The Root Cafe in Little Rock, approached Tom about supplying beef to his restaurant. According to therootcafe.com, “we source absolutely as much as we can from small farms and producers here in Arkansas. This includes 100 percent of the meat, eggs, and bread we serve, as well as the majority of our vegetables, fruits, nuts, and cheeses.”
Tom and Judy sold beef to the popular restaurant until they became so busy that they had to make a choice.
“His [Tom’s] business grew exponentially as we developed our customer base, and we couldn’t do both,” Judy said.
So, they handed off the restaurant business to their friends, the Simons, who worked with them at UA Cooperative Extension Service.
The Simons — Kenny, 43, and Rebecca, 39 — farm about 140 acres of their 160–acre property in Saltillo. Rebecca said the farm was purchased in 1936 by Kenny’s great–grandfather, but the family didn’t live there.
Two generations later, in the late 1970s, Kenny’s father, Rick, moved his family to the farm, so Kenny grew up there. Rebecca grew up on Catholic Point in Center Ridge (Conway County).
“They farmed out here, but they didn’t really clear everything and make improvements on the land — so they could run more cattle — until about 2002,” Rebecca said. “Kenny said, ‘If I’m going to work for Extension, I need to practice what I preach.’”
They were married in 2007.
Today, the family runs 75 to 80 head of Hereford–Brangus mix.
“The biggest thing Kenny and I have done since we’ve been married is to improve or increase our beef cattle production in regards to farm–to–fork,” Rebecca said. “Kenny had done it occasionally — he’d have a steer he’d raise and process. Twice a year we’d sell one and keep one for ourselves.
“So when Tom Riley came to Kenny and said, ‘I have an opportunity for you,’ to supply beef to The Root Cafe, we met with Jack Sundell and transitioned to become sole providers for them. Then we picked up The Press Room in Bentonville in January.”
They also sell to individual clients, but Rebecca said their main focus is the restaurants.
“People like to know that they have bought product that was locally grown and locally sourced,” she said.
Their three children have grown up working alongside them. Nicholas, 19, now works off the farm, but Kendra, 13, and Addyson, 11, are responsible for feeding.
“We have a group that we feed out and get a grain ration [for] every day, and there’s moving of electric fence for temporary fences for rotational grazing,” Rebecca said. “Kendra wants to continue and get a job in agriculture. She is really into the record–keeping, the data.
“Of the three, she’s that fifth–generation farmer.”
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