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Local Spotlight: Orchard Pond Organics

Where Happy Cows Make Happy Beef

Natural Times, April/May/June 2013

By Crystal Wakoa

My assignment is to highlight the grass-fed beef operation at Orchard Pond Organics, a farm in the heart of the Red Hills, just 20 minutes north of downtown Tallahassee off North Meridian Road. My tour guide is Mary Phipps, who owns this flourishing enterprise that includes eight acres of USDA certified organic vegetables, a honey operation, an ever-growing herd of beef cattle and a thriving Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA.) Mary drives me over miles of bumpy dirt roads through breathtakingly gorgeous land dotted with ponds and dripping with Spanish moss that hangs from long, out-stretched branches of ancient live oaks.

“What motivated you to get into the beef business?” I ask. “I grew up in Thomasville and the owners of Sweet Grass Dairy are old friends of mine. About four years ago, the couple was having a little turf fight over grass—whose cows had grazing rights—her beef cattle or his dairy cows,” Mary explains with a chuckle. Peace was restored to the couple when Mary offered to buy all 50 of her friend’s beef cattle.

Mary didn’t start out as a farmer. She worked as a landscape architect, her chosen profession, until motherhood shifted her priorities. “When my daughter was born, I wanted to feed her the best food possible,” Mary tells me. “I planted an acre of organic vegetables, figuring I might as well grow good food for other families, too.”

A second daughter and five years later, Orchard Pond Organics is one of the largest organic farms in Tallahassee. “Luckily, I have really good people who have devoted a lot of time and energy to making the farm work,” says Mary. She points to Jeremy, shirtless with shovel on this late February day amid the rows of kale and collards, strawberries and leeks, peas and garlic. Jeremy is one of three salaried growers among a staff that includes a CSA manager, volunteers, interns and WOOFers (workers who stay for an extended time through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.) “Plus my husband, Jeff,” adds Mary. “He helps a lot, too.”

Laura Phipps, Mary’s sister-in-law and manager of the cattle operation, joins us to talk cows, which are everywhere around us, resting and grazing under the live oaks. Laura is a veteran organic gardener and community educator. She has worked as chairperson of the Damayan Garden Project for ten years. I’m curious about her interest in beef cattle.

“Our beef operation is more about sustainability than cows,” says Laura. “Cattle offer us a way to maintain the ground and bring fertility back to the land through… poop!” she declares with an infectious laugh. Laura’s deep knowledge and love of the land are rooted in four generations of her ancestors working the soil. “It’s called Holistic Management—getting the bugs to do the work of soil maintenance instead of chemicals.”

“And grazing means less upkeep of the land for us and fewer controlled burns,” adds Mary. A win-win for everybody—happy cows, fertile soil and the highest quality beef for consumers.

The Orchard Pond herd has increased from 50 to 600 in the past four years, every single one of them 100% grass fed. Under USDA organic standards, cattle farmers are allowed to supplement their cattle’s diet with grain during the last three months of their lives (such beef is labeled “all vegetarian diet”). But Orchard Pond does not agree with this practice, knowing that grain is unnatural to a cow’s complex digestive system and causes suffering and bloat to the cow. In fact, Orchard Pond is poised to receive their Animal Welfare Approved Certification, of which Mary and Laura are deservedly proud.

As we drive by more members of the contented herd on our return to the vegetable fields, I’m inspired by these talented and hard-working women and what they’ve accomplished. How very fortunate we are in Tallahassee to have the choice to eat locally raised, grass-fed organic beef. The nutritional advantages of grass-fed over conventional beef are many: less fat and cholesterol, fewer calories, more vitamin E, C, beta-carotene and omega-3’s. An even bigger advantage is food safety. Orchard Pond cattle, communing among their own on hundreds of shady acres—unlike their conventionally-raised cousins—do not have to cope with hormones, antibiotics, GMO grain or brutal feedlot practices that can result in sick cows and tainted beef.

New Leaf Market sells all cuts of Orchard Pond Organics grass-fed beef, including the bones, liver and heart. If you’d like to stock your freezer, you can buy a quarter, half or a whole cow directly from Orchard Pond. Several local restaurants serve Orchard Pond beef, including Cypress and the Miccosukee Root Cellar.

“What do you see for Orchard Pond in the future?” I ask Mary as she escorts me to my car. “Hopefully, our farm points in the direction our country is heading, in terms of healthy eating,” says Mary. “My vision for the future is to grow with the demand.”

2014 Business of the Year2014 Locally Owned Business of the Year