Authentic relationships help build popular agricultural businessAug 18, 2023 01:08PM ● By Randee Brown
Representing the fourth generation of the farm, Hickory Nut Gap Co-founder Jamie Ager has known farm life for all of his life.
The property has been owned by the family since 1916, and Ager’s great-grandfather founded a local farmer’s cooperative called Farmers Federation. “The co-op was his life’s work,” Ager said. “As a minister, he was deeply involved in the community and wanted to be helpful to others. The co-op was his way of doing that.”
As a young boy, Ager said the family grew crops like apples and tobacco, and he helped with their dairy and farm duties. His mother ran beef cows when he was a teenager after the dairy was sold, and he became more interested in sustainable agriculture and attended Warren Wilson College to learn more.
Ager and his wife worked together on a pastured poultry business plan during college. He eventually took over the farm and began direct-marketing meats just as Asheville was burgeoning as a food scene around 2003. He took an agricultural leadership course through NC State and met Sam Dobson, a dairy owner at the time, and realized he wanted to offer more than what he could grow on his own farm.
Learning more about progressive farming methods by visiting other farmers and reading books like Food, Inc. correlated to more businesses becoming interested in sustainably-grown foods and regenerative agriculture, according to Ager. It was around this time that he and his business partner were able to begin selling their grass-fed meat to other local businesses such as Earth Fare, Greenlife, and Tupelo Honey.
“Little wins kept growing and adding up for our business,” Ager said. “When we had extra meat, we got into Ingles. I’m a people person, and we were able to grow organically by getting into more markets and getting more farmers to partner with us. We just kept putting it together.”
It was also exciting for Ager to look at food systems as a whole. He said many of the food systems that exist today were built on cheap methods for mass butchering, which was a major feat in the grand scheme of history, and also shows bad habits of Capitalism coming through the industry.
“As a child of an environmental family, I can see two sides of the regulatory approach of land management,” Ager said. “I believe in advocating for the environment, and I also see that many rules are challenging to live by.”
Recognizing people were seeking a more holistic approach to agriculture by taking the welfare of animals, the community, and the environment into account to be fair to all, Ager rebranded his farm to Hickory Nut Gap. “Branding is the best way for people to learn about ideas and build loyalty,” he said.
Wanting to rethink bad habits and encourage awareness of the importance of regenerative farming methods, Ager said all of his partners operate with the same belief system. Regenerative farming is the practice of using livestock and their grazing instincts to manage the grazing in a way that creates more organic matter in the soil, more water-holding capacity in the land, and increases and enhances the ecosystem as a whole.
“It’s working,” Ager said. “The animals are healthier and the meat tastes better. It’s not impossible to do it right.”
Hickory Nut Gap also works in Ecological Outcome Verification™, which is an analysis of biodiversity based on water quality and soil sampling farmers can use to measure regenerative outcomes on their land. They did baseline research in different regions and are now heading into their third year, hoping that with enough partners they will have enough gathered data moving into the future to look for improvements over time and verify what processes are the most regenerative.
“The challenge is figuring out how to do all of this while maintaining both the revenue for the business and the cost efficiency for our customers,” Ager said.
The farm at Hickory Nut Gap is rather small, and with 100 or so cows, produces only about 3% of the company’s meat, according to Ager. He said their partners must be aligned with their values in farming as well as relationships.
“We try to hire and work with people who really care about the environment and understand the nuances of the work we are doing,” Ager said. “We are trying to be intentional and think about that logistically. There is so much complexity to the system, and we want to work with people that will help move that complexity forward.”
Ager said relationships are a core value to him and the Hickory Nut Gap brand. He believes visiting partner farms, asking questions, and educating consumers on their belief system helps build community through agriculture. Hosting events is part of building that community as it builds brand awareness, and the community has been welcoming the local farming culture for years.
“To have people coming out here visiting our farm feels good, for us and for them,” Ager said. “It feels good on an emotional level to be out on the farm.”