The mission of Seven Sons Family Farms is unlike the majority of meat producers in the current food industry. It calls for transparency, accountability for consumer health and a trusting relationship between the farm and the community it feeds. “People are really glad we’re here,” says Lee Hitzfield, founder of Seven Sons Family Farms in Roanoke.
Lee and his family have made it their company’s mission, as well as a personal ministry, to create food naturally, providing consumers with nutrient-rich beef, pork, poultry, lamb and bison on a seasonal basis, all while preserving the earth’s fertility.
Lee and his wife Beth started Seven Sons—and, yes, they do have seven sons who all work with them—in 2000, gradually attracting a growing client base in search of grass-fed meats free of hormones and confinement. (Grass-fed animals have a more nutritious diet than those that are grain-fed, particularly cattle which are ruminant animals meant to digest grass and not grain.)
However, a growing clientele and thriving farm wasn’t always the situation for Lee and his family. He originally started with 1,000 acres as a conventional, confinement hog and row crop farmer in the early 80s selling to IBP Inc. (now Tyson Fresh Meats). In the late 90s, Lee suddenly stopped production, sold all of his hogs and began experimenting with natural forms of farming after Beth suffered a health crisis that made him realize the severity of damage conventional farming can cause.
“When you’re producing large quantities, you lose some of that quality and the animals aren’t raised the way they should be raised,” says Lee.
Conventional farming for a corporate market where hogs are fed antibiotics daily was all Lee knew as a farmer. Lee made a choice to change his business, eventually entering financial debt, so he could transition into a perennial pasture farm with grass-fed animals. This transition took major audacity, a steep learning curve and, mostly, a genuine belief in his newfound mission. A belief that what you eat affects your mental and physical wellbeing and should be taken into more consideration than it is with our current food system.
“We knew we needed to do something better for our own farm and produce a product that we actually believed in. Eventually, we found out there are like-minded consumers that want to support this,” says Blaine Hitzfield, Lee’s second son and the head of marketing and distribution for Seven Sons.
Lee founded Seven Sons on a rotational grazing operation model that mimics natural migration patterns of the animals. Blaine explains, “We constantly move the cattle around the field on about a 30-day basis to give the grass time to grow again and keep the grass pumping carbon into the soil. Therefore, our soil can hold more water. Through rotational grazing practices, we can probably graze three times the amount of cattle versus conventional continuous grazing. And the soil biology is alive.” Seven Sons also uses a portable “hoop coop” that moves around the farm so chickens can graze on fresh pasture and contribute to the fertilizing patterns of the farm’s rotational grazing model.
It’s a natural system one would think is commonsensical in agriculture, yet has become immensely uncommon. “This was typical farming for our grandparents. Confinement farming didn’t exist until after WWII,” says Lee. And since the introduction of confinement farming, the food industry has undergone the largest change in how we produce and buy our food in all of human history.
Blaine states that the food industry has become highly-efficient, but highly-ineffective pointing out the lack of nutrients, vitamins and minerals in today’s food as “worrisome.”
Lee remembers the time when his own soils used to yield a much lower nutrient level. “Regular corn is suppose to have seven percent protein. When I had my row crops, my corn was getting down to around 5.2 percent and some guys were getting four percent. Our soil was so depleted in minerals and propped up by synthetic fertilizers, which work to give you quantity, but it had lost that quality. Once we started remineralizing the soil, my corn protein jumped to 10.1 percent.”
“Now, we have a consumer base that appreciates the quality and it’s a better economic opportunity and value proposition,” says Blaine.
Another way Seven Sons is meeting the needs of its customers is through its unique distribution model that relies on website commerce and online marketing. It strives to meet customer convenience without sacrificing fresh, quality product.
“Once we started online ordering, we had people driving from Chicago and Indianapolis loading up their coolers for the month. Those original customers started asking if we could deliver to central pickup locations to make the trip a little easier. So, we started our Buying Club. There are about 50 pickup locations from Chicago to Indy and into Ohio. Now, all the orders are taken online and there are about 4,000 customers in the Buying Club,” says Blaine.
Seven Sons is a leader in the movement for food education and small family farm promotion. It’s website features recipes for healthy meals with local products; it has a YouTube channel with videos about its farming operation; it shares articles from food writers, farmers and nutritionists on its social media platforms. Seven Sons has even created its own e-commerce system to accommodate its unique Buying Club model. Seven Sons has licensed the system called GrazeCart and sells it to farms all over the country looking to replicate the Buying Club model.
“Whether we can help farms with their marketing and technology or help farms in our regional network, we want to see them succeed,” says Blaine.
Which is why Sevens Sons has started a fellowship of 24 like-minded farmers and artisans to provide support and mentorship. “Each one of them has to adhere to our strict protocol. Sometimes it takes two years before we take on a beef producer. We probably have some of the toughest standards in the U.S. At least based on what we’ve come across,” says Lee.
The fellowship collaborates to provide its community of consumers with a bounty of products. Seven Sons sells dairy products, bakery items, seafood and a variety of other foods on its website from members of its fellowship. “People always ask why we would want to help a competitor, but they’re not a competitor,” says Lee, channeling the pastoral spirit while noting the importance of sticking together when up against large corporate food companies.
Seven Sons matches dollar donations from customers to support Farmer-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund® and also supports Forgotten Children Worldwide™ by helping orphan homes in poor countries establish self-sustaining, small farms projects to generate income as well as feed the orphans.
When asked if he had plans to expand, Lee chuckles at the ironic ease of his sales model. “We’ve been growing so fast. We don’t make time to sit down and say what are our sales goals are—they just happen!”
According to the Wallace Center of the Winrock Foundation, retail sales of domestically produced grass-fed beef topped $400 million in 2013, compared to less than $5 million in 1998 when only about 100 beef producers were seriously involved in grass-fed beef production. In the past 10 years, the demand for grass-fed beef has grown at an annual rate of 25-30 percent.
This movement toward natural, local food providers is driven by a growing distrust of the corporate food industry. “Trust and integrity can’t be purchased with a billboard. True trust and integrity comes from when we have a relationship with people; where there’s a system of transparency and accountability. Our role as a family farm is to restore trust in our food system. And we’re poised to do that,” says Blaine.
Seven Sons recognizes its unique role in the food industry to spark awareness, support natural farming and supply its community with food it can trust. And to those who think the pasture-raised movement is just another passing trend, think again.
Blaine states, “People are concerned about chemicals in the food and what corporate agriculture is doing to the environment. Consumers are losing trust in the conventional food system. Last time I checked, losing trust wasn’t a fad.”
Owner(s): Family-owned and operated
Address: 15718 Aboite Road Roanoke, Indiana 46783
Phone: (877) 620-1977
Years in Business: 16
Number of Employees: 10
Products & Services: Meat, dairy & grocery