As Ryan Butler drove a red tractor up a pasture on a hill early Friday morning, two cuddled-up piles of about 70 pigs started to lumber toward the feed he was delivering.
“It’s a mess,” Butler said as he looked around.
The snow and ice left a muddy wake and put Green Button Farm behind in planting. So as the green of spring starts to color in the muddy pastures, Butler knows his life is about to be very busy.
“This is the time of year where I stop sleeping,” said Butler, 37, a full-time financial adviser who owns Green Button Farm with his wife, Alicia, 36, an art teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary in Durham.
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The Butlers, who have three children ages 7 to 9, are among a rapidly increasing group of farmers across the state raising proteins and carving out a niche meat market production line that feeds the farm-to-table movement.
Over the past 12 years, independent meat farmers increased from a handful in the state to more than 800, said Sarah Blacklin, program manager for N.C. Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems program started in 2002 to focus on the farms and other businesses needed to sustain the small-scale meat production chain.
The niche meat market includes farms with alternative agriculture practices that are being embraced by a consumer movement seeking proteins that have been grass fed, pasture raised and without antibiotics or hormones.
The industry generated $19.6 million in sales in the state in 2013, according to a report co-authored by N.C. Choices and based on a survey of about 300 small-scale farmers.
About 35 percent of the survey respondents sold products direct to consumers. About 61 percent sold products through a variety of channels, including to consumers, restaurants, grocery stores and meat aggregators, such as Firsthand Foods in Durham.
Before those proteins make it to the table, they travel through a process that requires farmers to drive on average 110 miles round trip, according to the report.
Last week, Green Button Farm took three steers to Piedmont Custom Meats in Gibsonville to be slaughtered and aged for two weeks before the meat returns to the farm.
Most Sundays, Green Button Farm takes pigs to Custom Quality Packers near the border of Wilson and Nash County to be slaughtered and transferred down the road to Dean Street Processing in Nash County. The meat is delivered back to the Bahama farm every Thursday.
Finding a niche
Larry Moore and his wife, Donna, bought an existing processing plant and reopened it as Piedmont Custom Meats in August to improve the facility and address the increasing demand. The couple is transitioning out of its other business, Hill Meadow Foods in Oakboro, which sells pasture-raised products to hundreds of grocery stores.
The niche meat market, Moore said, requires a lot of startup capital, patience and business acumen. Finding a niche within the niche market, such as a farm that only produces pigs for barbeque, is also an effective way to build a farming business, Moore said.
The Butlers found their niche, selling pork to restaurants, after a series of events that started with prenatal tests that indicated their unborn child could have Down syndrome. The couple decided to move from Baltimore to North Carolina to be closer to family.
Alicia Butler’s dad lived in Durham; Ryan Butler grew up in Martin County working on his grandfather’s and uncles’ farms. His father is a retired cooperative extension agent for Martin County. The Butlers moved in spring 2007 to a 40-acre farm in Bahama that Alicia’s dad owned. It was an easy place to land as they looked for a place to buy.
When Gates, now 7, was born, the Butlers learned he did not have Down syndrome.
The Butlers’ lives, however, did end up taking a drastic turn as a family garden evolved into a small farming business.
Ryan Butler, whose experience included managing a small chain of grocery stores and selling for a wholesale mattress manufacturer, started working as a financial adviser at a Durham firm.
The family planted a small garden and bought six laying hens in the spring of 2008. About a year later, they added six piglets and four steers.
From 2009 to 2012, the Butlers’ vision for the farm expanded from supplying a small vegetable community-supported agriculture to a business that was in a prime location to meet the farm-to-table protein demand.
As the couple expanded the CSA to include meat, they used the revenue to buy the farm and invest in fencing, refrigeration, irrigation, pigs and cows. They sought required meat-handling certification, did research and took classes from N.C. Choices.
Through Gates’ preschool, Ryan Butler met local chef Chris Stinnett, who at the time had a share in Rue Cler, Pop’s, and Pop’s Backdoor in Durham. Stinnett helped Butler understand exactly what chefs are looking for and how to approach restaurants.
Supplying to restaurants
On Friday morning, Ryan Butler and farm employee Trent Morgan put out feed for three steers, the 70 large pigs, 30 medium-sized pigs and 40 piglets. Then they packed pigs’ heads, pork bellies and other items to be delivered to restaurants Stanbury in Raleigh and Gocciolina and Bar Virgile in Durham.
The farm supplies about 18 restaurants, which they deliver products to on Thursdays and Fridays. On Saturdays, Morgan and his wife, Courtney, who also live on the farm, set up a booth at the South Durham Farmers’ Market. Green Button Farm’s CSA pickups and deliveries for about 150 families extend Saturday through Tuesday.
“Often times Wednesday feels like our weekend,” Ryan Butler said.
According to the report co-authored by N.C. Choices, only about half of the niche farmers surveyed reported making a profit. While the Butlers’ farm operates on paper in the red, it sustains itself and pays for a mortgage that the family couldn’t otherwise afford, Ryan Butler said.
Next year, the farm is projected to be profitable after traveling a path that included costly mistakes, late nights and early mornings, building relationships with processors and chefs and running the farm just like the business that it is.
That mindset has led the Butlers to take the next step to scale up and hire a sales representative to approach restaurants and expand the CSA opportunities.
But there’s more to it than money, Ryan Butler said. He’s fallen in love with the challenge of producing a product that sustains other people.
“There’s nothing more rewarding to me for clients to send us pictures of something they grilled on a spring afternoon and they all enjoyed it,” he said.