CLARION, Pa. — Henry Port could be the seventh generation of Ports to farm the family land outside of Clarion.
For right now though, at 18 months old, he’s just running around the farm, chasing barn cats and trying to love any cows that will let him.
The Ports have been farming in Clarion County since the 1860s. The original Henry Port settled about 100 acres just before the Civil War, said John Port, the fifth generation of Ports and young Henry’s grandfather.
With each generation, it looks a little bit different. In the past it’s been a dairy farm and crop farm. They’ve raised traditional beef feeder steers and dairy beef feeders.
The current version of Clarion Farms is selling retail beef, from both grain-fed and grassfed cattle. It’s a multi-generational effort to run the farm. But John-Scott, the sixth generation, is taking the lead these days.
“[John-Scott] has all these different ideas. I am willing to go with it,” John said, of his son. “I’ve had my turn on the land. Now it’s his turn. All I’m here to do is give him a boost.”
Turn, turn, turn
The Clarion Farms name came from the family dairy farm that operated until about 1960, John said.
The farm transitioned into beef cattle next. John Port and his brother, Scott, took over the farm from their father around 1975. They raised feeder steers and grew row crops.
It was getting tough to compete with the bigger Western feedlots. Then one day, John saw an ad in Lancaster Farming for a program feeding out Holstein bull calves.
“I said to my brother ‘I think that’s something we need to do.’” John recalled. “We have dairy farms around here.”
The dairy beef feeders came to the farm in the ‘90s.
As John-Scott got older, he wanted a way to fit into the family farm. John was thinking about selling meat directly to people. John-Scott took the idea and ran with it. So the farm transitioned again, this time to retail.
“Producing a commodity that is overproduced and throwing it on the pile didn’t make any sense,” John said. “If you weren’t the lowest cost producer, you didn’t make it. So that’s when we started to think to take our product to the end-user.”
Opening up shop
In high school, John-Scott started selling cuts of beef on Saturdays from a shed behind his parents’ house, where the main farm is. He also went to the Clarion farmers market. The dairy beef feeders ensured a steady supply of product.
His parents took care of sales while he was at college, although he’d still go to farmers markets on weekends.
The farm store was built in 2008. John-Scott came out of Penn State with a degree in agricultural sciences in 2009, ready to jump into the family operation with both feet.
He started hauling their beef to the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District around 2010, tapping into a new customer base.
It’s a family effort to get it all done. The women of the family — mom, Margy; sister, Katie; and John-Scott’s wife, Gina — all work off farm, but they all pitch in as needed.
“We just have a lot of talent,” John said. “Everybody can fill in where they need to, but everyone has a specialty.”
Bridging the gap
It’s the simple things that matter most when dealing with the public, John-Scott said. Be on time, be organized and be accessible. It might sound silly, he said, but also be polite to customers.
From going to sell in Pittsburgh, he’s seen the gap between the farmer and the consumer firsthand. It can be easy to go in with a chip on your shoulder, John-Scott said.
Instead, he tries to put himself in their shoes.
“People are going to ask weird questions,” he said. “But they’re human beings. They’re just trying to feed themselves.”
It’s a common refrain in agriculture that consumers should know their farmers, know where their food comes from. The Ports have found it pays just as much to get to know the consumer.
Going to grass
The grassfed herd was John-Scott’s idea. It started with four heifer calves in 2012. It’s grown to a cow-calf herd of more than 40.
He became interested in putting cattle on a pasture-based system. And he didn’t like being at the mercy of the volatile grain markets for feed.
At the same time, John and Scott were getting out of cropping. There was the opportunity to turn that land over to pasture. So they started seeding and building fence.
They had their first cuts of grassfed beef for sale in 2015.
It seemed like adding grassfed beef to their product line would be a slam dunk, considering his customers’ interests. John-Scott didn’t foresee that some people would become paralyzed by having choices between grain-fed and grassfed.
“A lot of consumer mindset is that beef is beef is beef,” he said. “People are thrown off whenever they have options.”
It’s almost like starting over, but John-Scott sees it as an opportunity to find new ways to talk to consumers about what they want.
“That’s what people really want is transparency,” he said.
Clarion Farms Beef Barn Facebook page and website is a little different than other farm pages.
John-Scott goes in-depth, sharing photos, recipes and longform posts about daily farm life.
“You have to be interesting enough that people want to see what you’re doing,” he said. “You’ve got to give them a reason to check. People are on their phones constantly. They’re looking at something.”
One of John-Scott’s most popular weekly posts was Farm Dog Friday. He would post a photo and story about an adventure of Oscar, John-Scott and Gina’s pet dachshund.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without people talking about this dog,” he said. “Everyone would wait on Farm Dog Friday.”
Oscar passed away unexpectedly a few months ago. So now John-Scott’s son, Henry, provides weekly farm updates.
The next big thing
The Ports started hosting meals featuring their beef in a century-old bank barn across the road from the main farm a couple years ago.
This one was John’s idea. But John-Scott made the connection with Clarion River Brewing Co. to host the first dinner in 2017.
Leading up to it, they weren’t sure how well a $75-a-plate dinner would sell in such a rural area. John wasn’t worried, though.
“If it doesn’t work, we’ll slide the doors shut and put hay in it,” he said.
The first dinner sold out. People came from all over to eat a five-course meal in the barn. They held two dinners each year after that, with similar success.
The dinners can be hectic to prepare for, but the family says seeing all kinds of people sit down next to each other to enjoy a meal makes it worth it.
“The sense of community during those dinners is the reward,” Margy said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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