Joel Farmer spent much of his life working in the paper industry, but found a new career on his cattle ranch about a decade ago. A proud steward of Longhorn and Black Angus cattle, this once-UT football player has grown into a farmer who simply wants to support local restaurants and the community with locally grown food.
Joel Farmer loves his cattle. He stares at them wistfully through the window as they roam his 100 acres in Lenoir City; he talks about them like they are family. Because to a certain extent, they are. Joel raises two different types of cattle at Clover Meadow Farm: Certified Black Angus—the kind that produces a “big fat marbly steak,” he says—and Longhorn Angus—a very lean meat. “There’s a certain group of people who want a lean cut of beef,” he tells me. “It doesn’t have a lot of fat in it; they feel like it’s healthier for them.”
His background is in the paper industry—35 years to be exact—and he is still supporting that industry to this day. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1987, he began working in paper mills, spending 25 years with the same company, 10 to 12 of them as vice president for global corporate accounts. “I learned a lot of positive things. I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do for myself and my family and our employees,” he says. “Probably the No.1 one thing was that bigger is not better,” something he learned from one of the company’s presidents.
But he also learned that you have to have the right customers, those who truly understand what you’re about. He uses this mentality at Clover Meadow. Joel has had the farm for the last 15 years, but it wasn’t until about 8 or 9 years ago that cattle became its focal point. The farm, as I have learned, is a family affair. “One of the things some of our mentors, the older people in the family, have taught us is you’ve got to let your farm help you to make your money,” Joel tells me.
His son, Carson, took this to heart and found rodeo after exploring ways the family farm could help him make a living. However, through Carson’s story came Joel’s next chapter. Joel team roped with Carson, he says, and that’s why he started raising his own cattle, “mainly because we wanted to practice here on our farm.”
Occasionally, they would process a cow, and when they did, people bought it. They decided eventually that this was another one of those opportunities the farm was providing them. “Unfortunately, you don’t make a lot of money training horses and rodeoing and so you’ve got to supplement your income, so we used a little bit of our business background and started putting two and two together,” he says. “We found that not only do we love the cattle part of it, we love the interface with the restaurants, talking to the chefs, them telling you what makes a piece of meat special.”
Things really began to take off after Joel’s daughter, Emily, suggested he send some of the beef they were processing to Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived and worked in a restaurant. “We started there supplying beef to that restaurant and then they opened another restaurant and then we started to grow,” Joel recalls, “and man, for good quality local beef, quite honestly, it’s just telling people the truth about what you have and communicating well with them.”
This local, farm-to-table piece is so important to Joel. He appreciates how others appreciate the value of local. And he is quick to give others credit for the farm’s success. His wife, Angela, takes care of the calves until they’re weaned from their mothers, he tells me. He also adds that he has a few partners in this business, particularly in the processing side which he is about to embark on.
The processing facility that they are building on the farm will be USDA certified, no easy feat for an already overworked farmer. Joel walks me through the process. “You’ve got to get certifications on everything in your building, all the equipment,” he says. “They came out and worked with us on the way we handle our cattle.”
I find it incredible that for as much work as farmers have, somehow many, like Joel, find the time and energy to work through this certification process. Joel tells me there are about eight to ten more things that have to be done and addressed in order to be USDA certified, but it’s worth it for him. “My dad always told me: if you’re going to do something, do it right.” Well said, I think to myself.
If you ask Joel about the most important piece of work on the farm, he will easily boil it down for you: it is all because of the grass. “We’re grass farmers first. And then we’re cattle farmers.” I love this line. The cattle at Clover Meadow stay on the grass 80 percent of the time, he tells me. That’s good for the cows, it’s good for the business, he says, but it’s also “part of being a good steward for the land.” And as he looks out on the pasture at healthy and happy cows, Joel knows what his goal is: “We want to be the Benton’s bacon of beef. Bigger is not better, better is better.”