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Driven to deliver

At Southern Cross Farm, Jim Barkley and Micah Stowe are developing superior Wagyu cattle with a working system to match
Story and photos by Chris Villines 6/28/2018

 

Micah Stowe, left, and Sevier Farmers Cooperative livestock specialist Eric Ellis look over part of Micah and father-in-law Jim Barkley’s Wagyu beef cattle herd at Southern Cross Farm in Weaverville, N.C. The farm has relied on Co-op for items such as this Priefert livestock system.
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For more than 30 years, Jim Barkley made himself a household name in Western North Carolina by offering high-quality, dependable service at his Asheville car dealership, Jim Barkley Toyota.

After selling the dealership in February 2017, Jim has moved on to greener pastures. Literally. He, along with son-in-law Micah Stowe, is intent on building name recognition in another arena: agriculture.

At family-owned Southern Cross Farm in Weaverville, they’ve already made headway with their on-the-farm grown and produced Barkley’s Mill brand of stone ground heirloom grits (see sidebar). Seeking to further capitalize on this “foodie” region, Jim and Micah, who is married to Jim and wife Iris’ daughter Auburn, have added a registered Wagyu cattle operation to the mix. They began this part of their farming venture in August last year.

The goal? To build a clientele by direct marketing quarter, half, or whole carcasses of this high-end Japanese beef — “Wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow — to retail and wholesale buyers. The cattle will be finished in the 1,100-pound range on the same Hickory King Dent white corn grown for the grist mill.

“The Asheville area is a real hotbed for food, and grass-fed beef is a big deal,” says Jim, a Florida State University graduate who spent his entire life in the Sunshine State before moving to North Carolina in 1985. “By finishing the Wagyu with our corn, you get the same health benefits with a better taste profile.”

 Known for its unmatched marbling and tenderness, Wagyu were first introduced to the U.S. in 1975, according to the American Wagyu Association, when two black and two red bulls were imported by Morris Whitney. In the 1990s, there were several importations of Wagyu into the U.S., and these cattle have the greatest influence on the American herd and those in many other countries.

Following extensive research on the breed and locations of some of the most reputable producers, Micah journeyed to his native Texas this past November and bought the base of the herd from Kay Ranch, Ranger Cattle, and Brandon Baker, all located near Austin. In March, he purchased several more head at the Clear Creek Cattle Company Florida Wagyu Production Sale in Ocala, Fla., putting their current Wagyu count at 21 females, two bull calves, and a herd bull.

 “About half of the heifers will calve this fall, and we will AI the other half to calve in the spring,” says Micah. “We’re looking at 18 months to two years before we have anything finished. One drawback to the Wagyu is they take probably 25 to 35 percent more time to feed out than commercial cattle.”

There’s no waiting period on the farm’s cattle-working facilities, however. A complete, sheeted Preifert sweep system, purchased through Sevier Farmers Cooperative’s Waynesville branch, was installed in early March by the Co-op’s Frederick Shelton and Eric Ellis and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Hardware Specialists Gary Satterfield and John Buchanan, along with Micah and farm

employee Justin Waldrup.

The expansive system features:

• several rough stock panels

• arena panels

• holding pens

• a heavy-duty sheeted alley on concrete that leads from the sweep tub

• another heavy-duty sheeted alley on concrete leading to a covered Priefert S04 squeeze chute and AI/palpation cage

• Tru-Test scale, located under the squeeze chute.

“It’s a pretty neat setup,” says Micah, who was raised on his family’s farm near Lubbock, Texas, and relocated to Southern Cross in 2014 from Albany, Ga., where he managed CCC, Inc., a cotton ginnery supply and construction firm. “It allows the cows to come in and be easily sorted. The covered shed makes it easier to work them, too.

“I grew up rodeoing and calf roping, and Priefert was always the premier panel being used. I know how sturdy their products are. This system will serve us for the long haul, and I appreciate how much the Co-op has helped us get off the ground. They’ve been solid and reliable.”

Jim says he wants those who purchase Wagyu beef from Southern Cross to feel similarly at ease.

“We will give each buyer a copy of the registration so they know they’re getting 100 percent Wagyu and not something else,” he explains. “Also, we will give them a copy of the ultrasound. With the price this beef brings, you need to be able to certify that it is full-blooded Wagyu.”

Another step Micah says he takes to ensure their cattle are fully registered is through an ear tissue sample.

“When a calf hits the ground, you punch a hole first with the tissue sampler, put the sample into a vial, and send it off for DNA testing,” he explains. “The DNA will tell you exactly who the dad and mom is and if they are registered Wagyu. If the results say the mom is right but the dad isn’t, we know the animal isn’t one we can register or market.”

In terms of breeding, Micah says his goal right now is to breed all AI with the same bloodlines of the cattle he purchased in Texas.

“That way, when a set of heifers comes out, everything is uniform genetics-wise,” he says. “The herd bull we bought is young and not related to anything the way we are breeding right now. I’m going to use him as a cleanup bull for the time being. Maybe down the road we may not AI some of them. I would like to get to where we didn’t have to.”

At present, Jim says Southern Cross is only using unsexed semen for its AI work.

“We will get a few to feed out, a few replacement heifers and once we get established to our line, then we will see what we are going to do,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we have enough cattle that we can feed out what corn we’ve got and then maybe down the road sell some registered females and bulls. Wagyu is taking off as far as people buying herd bulls for their first-calf heifers.”

As he starts this new chapter in his life, Jim is brimming with optimism. The popularity of Wagyu beef has risen dramatically in the U.S., in accordance with statistics that show the past three years have seen the best growth in beef consumption per person since the 1970s, according to Purdue University Agricultural Economist David Widmar.

“I’m a firm believer in providence,” says Jim. “My roots are with relatives who raised cattle in this very same area. It’s in my genes that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

“When folks serve grits, they want our bag on the counter so everyone knows they’re using the best. We want that same feeling with our Wagyu cattle.”

For more information about Southern Cross Farms, call Micah Stowe at 828-545-3079. To learn more about cattle-handling equipment and systems to fit your needs, visit with the livestock professionals at your local Co-op.


Barkley’s Mill ups the game on grits


Grits have been a staple in many a Southern kitchen for generations. And it’s those deep roots that led Jim Barkley and family to begin producing their Barkley’s Mill brand of heirloom, stone ground grits in 2013.

The impetus for the venture started, Jim says, when he and some friends near his Weaverville, N.C., home base were discussing ways of adding value to the community.

 “What was I going to add to the mix?” he recalls. “I didn’t feel as though I had much to offer. But one of the guys in our group was a third-generation miller, and that got the wheels inside my head turning.”

And with that, Jim soon thereafter plotted a course of action to make the highest quality grits using the time-honored traditions of millers from yesteryear.

“We found an old grist mill that had a mill house which had actually fallen in but the workings of the mill were there — the water wheel, all the shafts, and the fly wheel,” he says. “We had it moved over to the farm and built the mill house by hand from hemlock wood.”

The family also purchased and refurbished two 1919 Williams upright gristmills, which are powered by a waterwheel fed from the farm’s pond and rainwater coming down from the nearby mountains.

“We wanted the upright mills because those are gravity fed,” Jim says. “Gravity pulls the corn through as it is ground.”

This nod to the past and determination to create grits of unsurpassed quality is also reflected in the corn selected to produce Barkley’s Mill grits: Hickory King Dent white corn, a variety that was originally developed in Virginia in the 1880s. Known for its exceptional flavor, Hickory King is disease resistant, can reach heights of up to 16 feet, and has larger kernels. The corn has a tight husk, making it hard for pests to penetrate.

“Each ear of corn is handpicked and processed right out of the field,” says Jim. “We’ve got a sorting table at the head of the crib, and every ear is shucked. If there is a bad kernel in it, we pop the kernel out. And if it’s a bad ear, we throw the ear out. When we pull the corn out of the crib, we inspect it one more time. It takes five people eight hours to do around 50 bushels. It’s very labor intensive, but it shows through in the end product.”

The corn is ground by two vertical stones, ensuring that during grinding temperatures don’t get too high. Heat, Jim says, “bakes out flavor.”

“For that reason, we only grind when it’s cold,” he says. “We start grinding the latter part of January and go through the first week of March. The most we’ve hit so far is about 50,000 pounds, and that includes bagging the product, too. That’s really getting after it.”

As a final touch to preserve quality, the mill adds no preservatives or artificial flavoring, giving the grits a 100-percent, all-natural designation for the finished product.

As time has progressed, the Barkley’s Mill brand has steadily built its reputation among consumers ordering through the farm’s website, www.barkleysmill.com, and several high-profile restaurants serving its grits, such as New York City’s Plaza Hotel, the Admiral’s Club in Washington, D.C., and all eateries under the umbrella of the Biltmore Estate in nearby Asheville. Later this year, Jim says the mill will add corn meal to its product lineup.

“We offer a 30-day, 100-percent money-back guarantee on each bag of grits we produce,” he says. “That’s how confident we are that they’re the best grits you’ll ever taste. It’s what we hang our hat on. We’ll never be the biggest mill around, but we can be the best.”


 
 
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