Four Brothers Heritage Farms in Scott Valley
12/05/2013 01:31PM ● Published by Jon Lewis
Photo courtesy of Four Brothers Heritage Farms
Stepping into different things comes with the territory when you grow up on a farm. Even so, Rich Harris and his three brothers never expected to step into the sustainable direct-to-consumer ranching business.
Harris and his brothers, now the proud proprietors of Four Brothers Heritage Farms in Scott Valley, got a taste of the farming life while working in the fields with their father, grandfather and uncle. The boys worked cattle near Fort Jones and spent time on a dairy near Willows. Rice, corn and hay were thrown in for good measure.
As young men, though, college, careers and families had them scattered. Preston Harris was in Oregon with his wife, Jill; Thomas Harris was working for the Forest Service; Rich Harris was working in Alaska; and Jim Harris was in Scott Valley, working as a consultant. Their parents, Richard and Jeanette, remained on the family farm and tended to about 50 head of cattle.
It wasn’t long before the siren call of hay balers and lowing cattle lured the Harris brothers back to their roots. “We were all going on different career paths and we decided to get back into farming,” Harris says.
They pooled their resources and purchased 150 acres of hay ground in 2005, put their cattle out to pasture and began talking with their grandfather, 86-year-old Pete Ceccon, about gradually taking over his herd.
Sadly, Ceccon, a hard-working, first-generation Italian-American who was born into the ranching life, passed a month later. Just like that, the brothers had another 150 head of cattle to contend with.
They started with a traditional cow-calf operation, maintaining a herd of cows and heifers and selling the offspring as either calves or steers, and slowly began putting more acreage into the production of hay, alfalfa, wheat and barley.
In the meantime, Harris got interested in raising pigs and invested in some Berkshires, a heritage breed descended from herds maintained by British monarchs since the 1700s. Berkshires are prized for their flavorful meat and Harris says those qualities are accentuated by feeding the pigs a blend of barley, wheat and peas that he grows and mixes on the farm.
Initially, the pigs were intended for the family’s use but friends and neighbors soon came calling and Harris began adding to the herd. “I’ve got seven sows and a boar in breeding stock and about 20 pigs running around. Pretty soon we’ll have 40 or so. It’s grown with the demand for the pork we sell,” he says.
As more people began inquiring about the brothers’ beef and pork, Harris’ wife, Niki, raised the idea of direct sales. As a former vegetarian transplanted from Portland, Niki Harris says she was keenly aware of the local food movement.
“Down here, everybody was so into agriculture that they were kind of buffered from that. A lot of people want to know where their food comes from and it made sense to take their style of farming and go to the direct-from-farmer route,” she says.
The direct sales route appealed to Harris and his brothers since it meshed so well with their emphasis on land stewardship, environmental sustainability and the humane treatment of livestock. Four Brothers Heritage Farms produces all of the feed for its pigs and cattle to ensure the absence of GMO plants.
“Food safety is such an issue,” Niki Harris says. “We go to farmers’ markets here and in Southern Oregon and we get consumers from all ages and demographics. There’s a lot more awareness across the board of where food comes from, the freshness and quality.”
It doesn’t hurt that their grass-fed, hormone-free Black Angus, Red Angus and Shorthorn cattle and heritage pork continue to grow in popularity. “People absolutely love it. We get a lot of referrals. People drive an hour and a half to meet us at farmers’ markets to buy our meat,” Harris says.
The direct sales route offers plenty of rewards, notably the feedback, Harris says. “Everybody who buys a pig comes back and buys them over and over again. That feels really good. All the butchers we go to compliment us on our beef, and the pork processors tell us they’re the most outstanding pigs to go through their markets.”
There are hurdles too, Niki Harris adds. “It’s a huge challenge financially to have it all make sense, growing animals the right way, being transparent… trying to line up all those pieces is a challenge when you’re small.”
For now, though, size is not a concern. “We want to maintain quality over quantity,” Harris says. “Slower growth is better for us.” •