BELMONT, Ohio – Eric Rubel lingers at the back of his parents’ garage, looking southeast over the nearby hills and valleys in central Belmont County blanketed with lush green grasses.
In the pastures here, beyond spring developments and under shade trees, the green grass looks like money.
The 33-year-old uses his family’s land resources to raise poultry and lambs on pasture.
Not his favorite. Birds aren’t exactly Rubel’s favorite thing, he admits, but one might be surprised to hear that after they’ve seen his operation.
Two squatting shelters rest on a hillside, shaded by gray tarps and weighted with buckets of feed and water.
Inside each, 75 broilers loaf, drink and pick and peck through grain troughs and the grass underfoot.
Once a day – or maybe twice, depending on the birds’ size and the weather – Rubel grabs hold of the rope attached to the pen’s lightweight plastic pipe frame and drags it 12 feet forward to give the chickens completely new pasture.
“I really like [the shelters] because they don’t require anything but my own power,” he said of the one-man job.
Personal touches. His 10-by-12 foot kit-built shelters aren’t anything special, he said, but he’s added a few touches to make his job easier.
He swapped chicken wire for a heavier gauge welded wire – for durability and to keep out dogs, skunks and raccoons – and added plastic pipe ‘bumpers’ to protect the chickens when the pens are moved.
Both were added after Rubel learned the hard way during his first four years of production. In those four years, he estimates he’s raised 2,500 chickens and a couple hundred turkeys.
Days and weeks. The process begins with day-old peeps in Rubel’s brooder house. After a three-week start, the birds are moved outdoors to the pasture for their final five weeks.
As soon as the brooder house is empty, another shipment of peeps go in.
Orders have already poured in for 620 broilers this year, and Rubel expects to feed well over 700 to meet walk-up demand at farmers’ markets, one of his main retail outlets.
He sells whole chickens for $2.50 a pound, a premium he believes he deserves for his superior product.
“I don’t use any antibiotics or growth or appetite stimulants. It’s not organic, but …”
Rubel complements his stock’s pasture diet with feed made from corn, soybeans, oats, and other supplements. Among the most important additives are kelp and fish meal, which add high protein.
Consumer reaction. He doesn’t call his operation ‘free-range,’ which implies the birds are only sheltered at night inside hoop houses or other structures.
His system utilizes floorless shelters that give 24-hour protection from the elements and predators but requires more daily management and labor.
He prefers to call his product ‘pasture-fed.’ The term helps with consumer perceptions, a major force in his business plan, he said.
“[Pasture fed] is what people want, and they want to know that the animal is being raised in a good way,” he said.
The advantage to pastured livestock is simple, Rubel said.
“Those little [sheep and chickens] are four-legged tractors with rakes and haybines and balers and manure spreaders. You turn them out and you don’t have to do any of the work yourself,” he explained.
Customer relations. To let his customers know what’s available in his freezer as well as changes he’s making for their benefit, Rubel sends out newsletters and maintains a Web site. A key element to both is links to research.
“I really try to tell and show [customers] and share studies that show the nutritional superiority of grass-fed animals over others,” he said.
One of Rubel’s loudest messages comes when he shares “things doctors have known for years but nobody wants to talk about.”
According to research he’s studied and ideals enforced by grazing pioneer Joel Salatin of Virginia, grass-fed livestock products are beneficial in warding off cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Young and naive. Armed with a degree in animal science from Ohio State in the spring of 1993, Rubel didn’t buy into the pasture-fed philosophy.
“When I was in college, they were just starting grazing research. I thought it was kind of hokey,” he admits.
“I always thought, ‘Oh my God, those things will just die’ if all they’ve got is grass, but now my thinking is reversed,” he said.
He’d always dismissed Salatin in publications he received until one day it all made sense. Now Rubel is a proponent of sustainable agriculture based on grazing.
Returning to the home farm after a short stint in feed sales, the young man looked for a start-up enterprise that would be his. Pastured poultry and lambs fit the bill.
“I like to farm and want to leave the land and farm in better condition than when I started. I think pasturing is the way for me to do this,” he said.
Down the road. Though he claims to still be at the bottom of the learning curve, Rubel sees great things in his future.
His marketing goal? To get the profit the middleman is taking from agricultural producers everywhere.
“Any farmer can do [grass-fed animals.] It’s very basic,” he admitted.
Rubel sees room for sales growth in ethnic markets, a move he said he’ll tackle as he perfects his operation.
The sheep and poultry use only around 12 of the farm’s 75 acres, a number that Rubel describes as “totally underutilized.” He’s got room and plans to add beef to the mix since, in his view, “everybody eats beef” and customers have already asked when he’ll offer steaks and hamburgers.
“Chicken can be used as a draw to get people to me, then it becomes a centerpiece to red meats, lamb and eggs,” he said.
He also wants to expand his customer base to include independent restaurants.
Added value. To add value to his products, Rubel does all slaughtering and dressing at the farm. His mom, Elda, does quality control – after all, “nobody can do it like a mom,” he said. His father, Neil, helps with chores.
Rubel hopes to someday afford his own processing facility.
“For my customers, it seems it’s a question of eating healthy or keeping more money. Some are pretty strapped for cash but they remain loyal,” he said, noting some of his customers drive more than an hour to pick up their meats.
“This is the way God created animals to be. I don’t believe they’re supposed to be stuck in a barn all day. Cattle have four stomachs and four legs, they’re supposed to eat grass. When they’re allowed to express that trait, that’s good,” Rubel said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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