Hilltop Pastures Family Farm

14 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

We waited at the top of the hill as Tom Austin trudged his way through the knee-high grasses illuminated orange by the setting sun. He was off to round up the Austin’s 20 prized grass fed cows that were currently grazing in a forested area behind their sloped fields. In the meantime, we edged closer and closer to the large turkey pen, as the twitchy, nervous birds scrambled back and forth in a tight pack, interested and terrified by us at the same time. Tom’s wife, Sara, kept an eye on their four kids as they lingered nearby, giggling at the site of the family’s flock of chickens and searching for new eggs.

Hilltop Pastures - by Meredith Hart

The young family didn’t always raise animals on this hilly 40-acre piece of land. They got the idea to start the farm in 2002 after reading a book by Joel Salatin about the struggle of the small grower against the big bad American food system. From then on Tom could hardly go to a grocery store without feeling duped.

“I’m never going to buy anything from industrial agriculture again,” Tom said, chuckling. “I don’t trust it.”

It was that sentiment that led to the founding of Hilltop Pastures family farm in Fillmore County, MN, just 15 minutes from The Pig Cometh - by Meredith HartLanesboro. The farm, which started with chickens and slowly acquired a slew of pigs, turkeys, and cows, has remained uncertified organic from the start but considers itself “going beyond organic.” Every animal on the Austin’s gorgeous property lives its life in the open air eating the very basic of foods straight from the ground: grass. Ever since the start, they knew that pasture-raised animal meat was the smarter option for not only the animal but the consumer and the land too. The income can’t hurt either.

“We realized we could benefit the environment, benefit our own health, the health of those around us, and maybe we could make a buck,” said Tom. The Austin’s relationship with Angie and Scott Taylor at Pedal Pushers Café in Lanesboro, provides the buck in exchange for meat and eggs, as well a strong friendship that extends from the two sets of parents to their similarly aged kids.

Although the two couples are business partners, they seem more like old friends, which is exactly how Tom and Sara intend to run their enterprise.

“We are extending a real arm from our family,” Sara said, about their relationships with customers. “We want them to trust us.”

Hilltop Egg - by Meredith HartSo far, the response has been great, especially to their exceptional 25 pound turkeys that have been known to fully cook in just four hours as opposed to the five or six hours of typical birds. Angie’s favorite is the Hilltop chicken eggs that she discovered at the Lanesboro farmers’ market and quickly incorporated into the Pedal Pushers menu. When she first tasted them and realized they tasted the way eggs should, Angie exclaimed, “I gotta meet these people!” She eventually also made the Austin’s grass fed beef a staple for their burgers.

In addition to Pedal Pushers and the local farmers’ market, the Austins sell their products at three Lanesboro bed and breakfasts and the Midtown Farmers’ Market in Minneapolis.

The lessons they have learned running their farm and business have also extended to their children. Their daughter, Sami, a sweet, strawberry-blond little farm girl, manages 25 chickens on her own and has never been afraid to get muddy in the pigpen. Their son, Caleb, a two-year-old flirt, was a little too young to take care of animals on his own but it was clear to see that he was comfortable around creatures that had significant height and pounds on him.

Finally after twenty minutes of waiting, those strong, heavy animals slowly emerged from the woods, following Tom out to where we stood. The cows first arrived in a small group, just five or so of the most curious, but eventually increased to about Big Gulp - by Meredith Harttwelve, as a few more moseyed over lethargically. They ranged in color from the traditional black and white to a striking copper and stared at us as if they were channeling our thoughts. Most likely, it was because they were expecting a treat.

As Tom spoke about his animals it was evident that he was passionate about the work he and his wife were doing. He spoke frankly about what he felt was wrong in the food industry and how the simplest technique of letting animals graze in the open air was clearly the only way to practice respectable farming while nurturing a superiorly healthy product.

As their kids ran around them, smacking into things, shrieking in joy over a toy car, Tom and Sara maintained their composure, knowing that what is natural should stay natural, kids or animals. Each Caleb Austin - by Meredith Hartday on the farm animals are treated humanely and the land is slowly healed. The products that leave the farm head to places like Pedal Pushers that truly appreciate not only the quality but also the ecological, nutritional, and community-centered thought that comes with it.

“People want to connect to a real farmer with a real farm with real food,” said Tom. And with every sale, that is what the Austins are doing.

To view more photos of Hilltop Pastures, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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