Food & Drink

Busy as a beef farm

VERSAILLES — The corn and sorghum cane stalks have been mowed down and the fields emptied, but the Congleton farm isn't slowing down just because winter's coming.

Curtis and Marti Congleton and their children, Sarah and Tanner, have cattle to tend, freezer beef to sell, sorghum to make and greenhouses to get ready for next spring's plants.

Curtis Congleton bought the 330-acre farm on Carpenter Pike in 1984, and he and Marti were married on the front steps of the farmhouse in 1990. It has always been a working farm. Originally, tobacco was the prime crop, but when the times changed and farmers began to look at other sources of income, it was the cattle that were deemed most profitable.

But it wasn't until six or eight years ago that the Congletons began processing the cattle for retail beef sales. When the owners of a thoroughbred farm asked them to custom-feed two steers so they could give their employees beef for Christmas bonuses, the couple ran with the idea. They knew their product was top-notch.

"When we would have people over for dinner, using our own beef, they would say, 'That's really good. Where can I get some?' We said, 'We'll give you some,' and they said, 'No, where can we buy it?'" Marti Congleton said.

They began by taking orders from people who wanted a half or a quarter beef for their home e_SDHpfreezers. The customers would custom-order how thick they wanted their steaks cut, how much to grind into hamburger, and whether they wanted the meat vacuum-packed or wrapped in freezer paper.

Then the Congletons pursued the idea of selling smaller amounts of beef on a retail level.

In 2006, they received a joint grant from the Kentucky Cattleman's Association and Kentucky Department of Agriculture for promotion and marketing, and matching money to help build a room in an old mule barn to hold freezers. It was designed under the guidance of the Woodford County Health Department.

The cattle are processed and the cuts of beef are packaged, weighed and given the USDA inspection seal at Boone's Butcher Shop in Bardstown. The only time a cow leaves the Congleton farm is to make that trek to Bardstown.

The cows are bred to deliver calves in the fall instead of the spring, and the Congle tons sell only their farm-raised beef. Because no cows are brought in from other farms, there are few ailments. If a cow does get sick, it's removed from the herd, Marti Congleton said.

The cows are fed bourbon mash from a distiller, and corn silage, hay and spring water from the farm. "We're a working farm," she said. "The fence boards need paint, but they're more important for keeping the animals contained than looking good."

The Congletons have 36 head of cattle. Most are 12 to 14 months old, and they will be "next spring's T-bones," she said.

Curtis Congleton added another dimension to the farm when he and a business partner bought equipment to make sorghum.

"Curtis, who is from Knox County, always thought it was a neat crop," Marti Congleton said. They planted fields of sorghum cane and took about a third of one of the tobacco greenhouses to make sorghum.

The sorghum is sold at the farm and at the farmers market, along with fresh produce and the meat. There was enough grant money for a generator and a 5-cubic-foot freezer that fits in the back of Marti Congleton's Chevrolet Suburban. She sells roasts, steaks, hamburger patties, brats and Italian sausages at the Woodford County farmers market from April through October.

Kentucky is the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River, with more than 40,000 producers, according to the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association. Eighty-six percent of those farms have fewer than 50 head of cattle.

Consumers who are concerned about food safety and want to eat local foods are spending their food dollars closer to home on meats and produce. Chefs are particularly interested in serving local foods, and Jared Richardson at Cleveland's at 140 Park Street in Versailles is buying ground beef, briskets and steaks from Congleton Freezer Beef.

"The beef is amazing. They take great details on the things I like — fat content, what the cattle are eating — which leads to a better-tasting meat from them to me," he said. "The meat is so tasty. It really does have a different flavor from the store-bought."