Some might say it has everything to do with location. Others might say it was sheer luck. Deep down, the Ernst family of Ernst Family Farms near New Douglas knows having a quality product ultimately deserves all the kudos for helping them grow their operation into a farm-to-table success story. Owned by David Ernst, Ernst Family Farms brings beef production full circle in the shadows of St. Louis.
Just a few years ago David and Whitney Ernst, along with their two daughters, operated a commercial cow-calf, backgrounding, and small finishing operation along with marketing halves and quarters privately to friends and neighbors. They often toyed with turning the enterprise into a full-scale business focused on marketing individual cuts after customers kept requesting more ground beef. In 2016, they went to a farmers market to see if they could really turn a profit with the direct-to-consumer market.
Today, the family works with two local processors and has a constant supply of individual beef cuts in a walk-in freezer situated in a building that serves as a retail location on their family farm. Their direct-to-consumer business has taken off since their first farmers market in 2016. They currently sell beef cuts from the “meat shop” adding a discount for those customers that will pick up their order from the farm with about 90 percent of their business coming from farmers markets. You can find Ernst Family Farms beef at a farmers market in Edwardsville every Saturday during the season and on Thursday nights in Maryville.
This farm-to-table business began from humble roots with David learning a lot of lessons as a young producer along the way.
David didn’t set out to raise cattle and market beef direct to consumers, but a series of events helped the pieces fall into place; he took a chance and now operates a full-scale business.
“My family settled in the New Douglas area in the mid-1800s from Germany to farm and raise Holstein cows. That’s all I knew growing up. We started getting into the beef business after the neighbor’s Hereford bull got out and visited our cows – it was definitely not on purpose. The cows calved and we ended up backgrounding heifer calves that we called ‘half-steins’,” David said.
When David was in eighth grade, his dad asked him if he thought he’d be interested in taking over the family’s dairy someday. The answer was no and the herd was sold except for one cow; David’s first 4-H heifer – a Holstein named Cindy.
David made a plan to buy bottle calves from other dairies in the area and raise them with Cindy’s milk before backgrounding the calves. He bought a Simmental bull and slowly started to turn a dairy farm in to a beef haven.
When a tornado hit the area in 1999, the dairy barn was demolished. Tragedy struck again was David’s mom passed away that same year and more responsibility fell to him as he continued to raise cattle and rebuild until he left for college.
David didn’t think he would be able to come back to the family farm so he pursued an animal science degree with a minor in ag business from Western Illinois University (WIU). During this time, David soaked up as much knowledge as possible by saying yes to several different experiences. He participated in international study programs with a focus on agriculture in Russia and China. He interned on a ranch in Montana. He found a mentor in Dr. Ken Nimrick and learned a lot about grazing and pasture management. He graduated from WIU and realized that he wanted to keep working with cattle and took a job working for Larry O’Hern. He found another mentor in Larry and learned a lot about the business side of raising cattle.
After only a few months of working for Larry, David’s dad passed away and he went home to harvest the crop. Later the next spring, he would come back to his family’s farm and make a go of farming on his own. At 22 years old, with just a few thousand dollars in his pocket, he bought a few weaned calves to background.
“Those first few years were tough and I even had people to tell me to get out of raising cattle. I didn’t want to give up and I knew I could find a better way. So, I tried to find ways to cut costs and better integrate the crops and cattle on the farm. I also decided to feed out some of the calves and try marketing freezer beef,” David said.
This is where the direct-to-consumer marketing aspect of the business started to take shape and he realized what it would take to find and keep customers. The “build it and they’ll come” concept might work in the movies, but the Ernsts know developing and nurturing new relationships with their customers and local community is a constant process.
“Marketing a product directly to consumers means you have to have a story, be willing to play 20 questions, and be willing to adjust your business based on what the consumer wants,” he said. “We’ve calmed a lot of fears about animal care and beef production practices. We’re trying to keep the loop as closed and tight and local as possible in all aspects of the business. That way, it keeps not just our business footprint small, but also our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment.”
Conversation and environmental stewardship is not only something David talks about with his customers, but also something he focuses on to help increase the viability of his business.
“Not too long into our farmers market venture I realized there was interest in grass-fed beef so I started raising it to have both grain-fed and grass-fed beef to market. I would provide the facts about either option and use information provided by the Illinois Beef Association about production practices to help people understand the difference and let them make the decision on what they wanted to buy from there.”
Raising grass-fed beef meant added focus on forage production and quality. He figured out how to graze cows almost year round by stockpiling fescue for winter and planting cover crop mixes throughout the year. Added emphasis on grazing also helped David better understand the benefits of plant diversity and the value of manure as fertilizer along with the importance of soil health as he became much more in tune with the biology of his farm.
Operating in a consumer space where sustainability is the trend, David realized that everything he was doing on his farm he could tie to conversation, carbon capture, preserving pollinator habitat, and more. Not only did it make his customers feel good, but it made him feel like he was doing his part too.
Once David turned himself into an environmental steward/beef producer, a new request came from customers at the farmers market.
“People started asking me if I had buffalo,” David said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to think at first, but having enough experience with consumers I know that you have to give them what they want and find ways to stay competitive. I figured out that people were asking for buffalo because it’s lean with a unique flavor profile, and quite honestly, people were somewhat attracted to the oddity so I started doing research and discovered Beefalo.”
A purebred, registered Beefalo is a 37.5 percent American Bison cross. Though always three-eighths bison, various domesticated cattle breeds are selected for desirable qualities to produce the remaining five-eighths heritage. While you might immediately picture a Bison, the Beefalo phenotype is much like a domesticated beef animal and they are an easy to maintain along with offering low birth weights.
David decided to give raising Beefalo a try was able to get in touch with a breeder who had a few steers for sale. Within the last year, he started marketing Beefalo product along with his grain-fed and grass-fed beef.
It takes vision and true grit to put all of the pieces together of a family-owned beef business. A self-professed risk-taker, David admits he’s always got a plan B in his hip pocket. For David and his family, their pasture-to-plate business has been about nurturing that quality niche they planted decades ago.
“It’s an ever-evolving industry,” David said. “But it all goes back to the passion for what we do and sustaining our livelihood with the family business.”
Written by Jill Johnson
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