“I didn’t have any idea that we would be selected as a top three in the state,” said John Bays, sitting in the cab of his pickup travelling across his almost 400-plus-acres of pasture. “I mean, that was a big surprise. The only way we got selected is because of the approach to producing beef that we’re using. The other people who got selected have three, four, even five thousand acres and so on.”
Bays is one of three Kentucky farmers named as finalists for Kentucky Farm Bureau’s Farmer of the Year Award.
He and his wife Anne own Moonlight Farm in Corbin, where they produce beef, pork, chicken and eggs for sale direct to the consumer. The approach Bays refers to is an all-natural one, which is distinct from organically produced meat and more restrictive.
“People get confused about that,” according to John Bays. “If you go to the grocery store and you see organically produced beef, you would think, ‘Man that’s the tops. No hormones in that.’ When in fact, organically, you can use growth hormones, growth stimulants, in that meat. And most people don’t know that. They have another classification, and that’s natural. And natural is just what it says: you don’t use hormones, you don’t use stimulants. You don’t use anything but grass. And that’s what we do.”
Moonlight Farm originally belonged to John Bays’s grandparents, but he said it was vacant for around 15 years before he and Anne took it over and turned it back into a working farm, an arduous task since it had grown up considerably in the meantime. John Bays said, “You couldn’t tell pasture from pasture when we first came here…You’d get lost.”
Fortunately, according to Anne Bays, John had seen the farm in its glory days as a child, “and he had a vision to restore it to that.”
Today, John Bays said Moonlight Farm struggles to meet the demand for their product, mostly because consumers are increasingly demanding more locally and naturally produced food.
According to Anne Bays, Moonlight Farm really emphasizes the transparency of knowing where your food comes from. “At the farmers’ market, several years ago,” she said, “we had t-shirts printed up that said ‘Know Your Farmer.’ And that’s so important because they can ask me ‘What do you feed them?’ and ‘Can I come see them?’ and that’s really what we like to do.”
She added, “It’s fun to be able to respond to the growing concerns of the consumer, on the meat end. They want to know where their food comes from and they want to know how it’s treated.”
At Moonlight Farm, “how it’s treated” means the most natural way possible, the Bays said. Cattle are fed a diet exclusively of grass because, according to John Bays, even a little grain prevents a cow from properly digesting and using the grass in its diet.
“There’s two ways to produce beef,” he said. “You can go the grass-fed route or you can go the grain-fed. Now, 98 percent of the conventional beef market is grain fed. And when you go grain-fed, you lose all the health benefits of the grass because the grain-fed beef, it affects the microflora in the rumen, and they cannot utilitize grass. The benefit of the grass is eliminated.”
Anne Bays added, “People will say, ‘well, all cows eat grass.’ Yes they do, but if they’re totally grass fed they pick up all the extra, added vitamins and minerals and antioxidants in the grass. And if they’re fed grain in addition, they can’t pull that out.”
For that reason, all of Moonlight Farms cattle and pigs that are destined for the plate are born on the farm so that the Bays can know exactly what they’re fed from birth.
That’s not always the case, according to John Bays.
“It’s becoming more popular to do grass-fed beef,” he said, “so you have some people that will go to the market and buy a calf and keep it for two weeks and let it eat grass and say ‘grass-fed beef.’ So we’ve got federal certification. As far as I know we’re the only ones in Southern Kentucky that have federal certification that ours is actually grass-fed beef.”
The Bays not only use all-natural methods but also work almost exclusively with heritage breeds. Their pigs, for instance, are red wattles, a heritage breed that Anne Bays said has been specifically listed by chefs. “The red wattle pork is the only pork that has been listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste,” she said, “which is a listing that premiere chefs refer to because it is a premium tasting pork.”
Moonlight Farms’ pigs are also pastured and allowed to graze, rather than being confined to pens.
Most of their cattle herd is made up of Scottish Highlands cattle, which Anne Bays described as “actually the oldest registered breed of cattle in the United States. They originated in Scotland, which is why they have the toughness that they have because Scotland’s climate is so much more severe than ours.”
According to John Bays, the herd actually prefers temperatures down in the teens and twenties, and they will spend most daylight hours in the wooded parts of the farm and come out in the open to graze in the pastures only in the middle of the night. The breed has a long, dense, shaggy coat.
“They remind me of a woolly mammoth,” said John Bays. “They look almost prehistoric.”
But their interesting appearance isn’t the only reason for focusing on that particular breed. Scottish Highlands beef is also considered a healthier quality of beef, John Bays said. The meat is lower in cholesterol, higher in protein, and lower in fat.
Despite the fact that they take an unusually long time to mature, John Bays said the Scottish Highlands cattle are a good return on investment, in spite of some ribbing they took in the early days of the operation.
“We’ve taken a lot of kidding,” he said. “When we first came to Whitley County and had these cows, the beef producers that had normal cattle, they would say ‘What are you going to do with those little midgets?’ And after awhile, they started to the see the price we were getting for one and they wanted to buy them then. Anne is the President of the Whitley County Cattlemen’s Association now, so they ribbed her more than they did me, but they’ve changed their opinion I think.”
Because of their rugged coat and hide and the fact that both males and females have long, prominent horns, there is a side market in tanned hides and cleaned skulls. According to John Bays, a steer that’s been processed for meat can bring in an additional $150 for the skull and $900 to $1200 for the tanned hide. “It’s like a bear-skin rug,” he said, “except it’s a Scottish Highlands rug.”
The Bays are working on making even the land itself all natural. John Bays’ current project is mixing clover with his grass seed so that nitrogen doesn’t have to be added to soil to keep the pasture grass healthy.
“Grass needs a lot of nitrogen and you can buy nitrogen in a chemical fertilizer but we’re trying to get our nitrogen, natural nitrogen, from the plants,” he said. “The clovers are legumes and they produce 150 lbs. of nitrogen per acre if you have clover in with the grass. So basically what we’re trying to do is get the clover to feed the grass. What we’re hoping to do—and we’re not quite there yet—is not to have to buy fertilizer.”
Although Moonlight Farm did sell to a few restaurants in the past, they now sell all of their product direct-to-consumer. They sell year-round at the Whitley County Farmers’ Market and seasonally at the Knox County Farmers’ Market as well. They also have a Community Supported Agriculture program, which allows consumers to subscribe for a certain amount of meat per month. Moonlight Farm will deliver to Knox, Whitley, and Laurel Counties.
Consumers can contact the farm directly to ask questions, make purchases or schedule a visit by calling 615-478-8450 or emailing email@example.com
With consumer interest in knowing where food comes from at a peak right now, small, natural farms like Moonlight Farm are becoming increasingly popular with the public. John Bays’ selection as a finalist for Kentucky Farm Bureau Farmer of the Year may reflect that interest.
John Bays and his wife Anne certainly believe in the product they’re selling.
According to him, “We like to have a quality product, a healthy product that we have been with at every stage of growth. Unlike if you just got to the market and buy beef. Then you don’t really know what you’re buying—if it’s had growth stimulants, grain fed, whatever. But I think people feel comfortable in coming and buying from us because they can come, they can look, they can see the grass. They know we’re truthful. We’re not trying to just sell them a story. And we call it beef with benefits. It’s amazing the Omega 3s and all the vitamins and minerals. It’s like a 100 percent more, in some cases, than grain-fed beef. It amazed me when I first saw it.”