by Jared Cates, CFSA 2011-2012 intern
A refreshingly cool August breeze whistled by as I pulled up to Walters Unlimited at Carls-Beth Farm in Efland, North Carolina. It was the day before Hurricane Irene arrived, and despite the wind, the view of the farm was incredibly serene: rusty red and sleek black cattle happily grazing on rolling green pastures set between the wooded hills that surround this 400-acre farm. Owner Roland Walters met me at his front workshop, which currently doubles as the farm store, and we took a stroll through his fields. Our first stop was his most recent addition to the farm – the catfish pond. There, large fish began surfacing to feed as Roland threw out pellets and told me about his family business and his path to sustainable farming.
Started in 1957 by his parents, Carl and Elizabeth Walters, the original Carls-Beth Farm was a conventional dairy farm with about 300 cows. As a child, Roland spent many hours working for his father. He painfully remembers moving manure off of the cement dairy lot into manure spreaders and retaining ponds. After high school, Roland went on to college at NC State where he earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Animal Science. It was during one of his dairy classes that he began to consider the possibility of using a rotational, grass-fed approach at the dairy farm. Much to his frustration, however, both his professors and his father told him that the idea could never work.
After graduating in 1990, Roland returned to the farm and worked for a little more than four years before moving to Michigan and eventually Virginia. Staying true to his dairy roots, Roland worked as a dairy cattle nutrition specialist; something he still does part-time. His dad sold the dairy cattle in 1998 and turned to beef cattle. When his father became ill in 2004, Roland and his wife, Stacey,
began driving down to NC three days a week to help out and keep the farm operational. As more and more time was spent back in Efland, Roland found that his thoughts constantly revolved around the farm. “Once it was always on my mind, I knew what we needed to do.”
After taking over operations on the farm, Roland decided to remain true to his beliefs about pasture-raised ruminants and pursued rotational grazing. However, Roland’s aversion to manure spreading was not the only reason he wanted to move away from cattle lots; as a young man he had also seen the physical effect that crowded cement lots had on animals. He learned that if a cow got sick, you took it out of the lot and let it pasture graze for two or three days, and then it would normally become healthy again. He firmly believed that if this was beneficial to a sick animal, then pasture grazing could only further enhance healthy animals, as well as function as a preventative measure against illness. Roland states, “It all goes back to the mental mindset of the animals; happier animals do better.”
Roland pastures his animals in a system similar to those used by mob-grazing champions Greg Judy and Joel Salatin. Large concentrations of animals are restricted to graze a small area, usually for a very short period of time. In Roland’s case, around 100 head of cattle are allowed to graze on 1/2 acre per day. Nearly everything in that small area is either eaten or trampled, including weeds and less palatable grasses. This system allows more of the total biomass grown to either be eaten or recycled back into the soil. Plus, manure gets distributed very evenly and is trampled into the soil, improving soil fertility.
Roland began wholesaling his grass-fed beef through Hogan’s Farm in Chapel Hill and another farm in the eastern part of the state. The combination of the 2007 drought and the fact that wholesaling was not enough business led to a change in plan, and he began selling at the Hillsborough Farmers Market and the Elon Farmers Market. After a 50% herd reduction due to the 2007 drought, he also realized that he needed to diversify his products to remain sustainable and in business. Currently, Walters Unlimited has quite a menagerie: 100 head of beef cattle, 1,200 meat chickens, 225 laying hens, 50 Kiko goats, around 2,000 catfish (when the pond is fully stocked) and small herds of Dorper Lambs and hybrid hogs, mostly Duroc and Hampshire crosses. The farm also just added a large brooder barn (lots of room for those baby chicks!) and they are currently in the process of building greenhouses on about 3 acres of land that has been set aside for biodynamic vegetable production. The farm is pesticide free and has not used non-organic sprays in the past five years.
Now that Roland has a varied offering of products, his next project is changing the way that he sells his meat. At present, he has a small trailer full of basic freezers that is used to sell goods on-farm and at market. He has plans in the next couple of years to replace his small workshop store and trailer with a new on-farm store with walk-in coolers and freezers. His goal is to coordinate with other local food producers so that he can sell a little bit of everything at his store to the local community. Roland’s overall ambition is to move away from farmers markets, and sell more to individuals, on-farm and possibly through CSA’s and restaurants. In fact, The Wooden Nickel, a favorite Hillsborough watering hole and restaurant, started buying all of their ground beef, catfish, eggs and goat meat from Walters Unlimited around three years ago; the local, grass-fed burger instantly became a big hit!
Currently, Roland is looking for land to rent so that he can expand his hog and cattle operations. As I began making my way back to my car and Roland finished storm preparations, he concluded, “There’s always something different, something that we can do different. Depending on the demand and the market, who knows what will be next?”
Jared Cates, a native of Chapel Hill, received his Master’s degree at the UNC School of Social Work.