A South Texas Love Story: 1915 Farm09/30/2019 11:32AM ● By Emma Comery
By: Emma Comery Photos by: Juan Jose
Meyersville, Texas is a beautiful, rural blip on the map. A half hour outside of Victoria, it’s a surprising choice for an outgoing couple in their early thirties to call “home.” But as I drive down Fox Crossing Road and hang a right onto 1915 Farm, it becomes instantly obvious why Catherine and Tanner Klemcke decided to move out of Corpus Christi and start “a quieter life” in the country. The farm is stunning.
Wearing muck boots, shorts, and tees, the Klemckes welcome me with warm smiles amid a flurry of excited dogs, clucking chickens, and one sneaky little cat who twines around my ankles. The entire scene is a far cry from their previous lives as city folk building careers in oil and pharma. So, how did two millennials with practically no experience in farming end up starting the Coastal Bend’s only sustainable meat subscription box service?
“We saw a listing for 57 acres and a free house, and we jumped on it,” says Catherine. Turns out that house was free for a reason, and the Klemckes found themselves completely renovating a dilapidated farm house first built in 1915 (hence the farm’s name). Talk about DIY.
“Everyone thought we were crazy,” Tanner says wryly. “Our moms cried.”
Looking at the 1915 farmhouse today, it’s hard to imagine it ever lacked basic amenities like interior walls, insulation, heat, and a sink. From the cedar porch posts, to the custom live edge breakfast bar, to the turquoise longhorn skull hanging in the guest bedroom, this fixer upper dream home would give Chip and Jo Gaines a run for their money.
With no experience beyond Catherine’s two years of 4H in high school, the Klemckes decided to raise a few pigs, cows, and chickens for their own consumption. Raising one’s food has a way of making a person rethink the relationship between farmer and animal, consumer and consumed, and it wasn’t long before Tanner and Catherine were spending date nights binge-watching food documentaries. “The first time I saw Food, Inc,” recalls Catherine, “I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was biased.” The film, which examines the role of large corporations in our nation’s dietary habits, features hard-to-watch footage of animal life inside commercial processing plants. The film, and their subsequent research, made a big impact on Catherine and Tanner. “While some of the stuff in the documentary was stretched,” Catherine says, “there was way more truth to it than I expected. We thought, ‘Is this really how we’ve been eating our whole lives? How is that okay?’”
“It’s not,” Tanner emphasizes firmly. “It’s not okay.”
The other thing that is “not okay” (to put it lightly) for the Klemckes is how deceptive meat labels can be. On their website, Catherine distills much of their research to help educate their customers. While it’s true that organic chickens cannot be given antibiotics starting their second day of life, injecting an egg with antibiotics does not disqualify the resulting chick from being labeled “organic.” And while “cage-free” animals aren’t confined to cages, it doesn’t mean they’ve ever actually been outside. A fenced-off hole cut in the side of a 60,000-chicken barn apparently constitutes “access” to the outdoors. “So many people make the hard decision to eat healthier, knowing it comes at a higher financial cost, because they think they’re getting a better product. But they’re not,” says Catherine.
Furthermore, Tanner points out, “We’re in an age where restrictions on the public’s interaction with conventional farming is at an all time low. It’s illegal to drive down to a feedlot and take pictures of it. They don’t want that story to be told.”
This increasing interest in American food systems eventually led Catherine and Tanner to quit their jobs and start their own meat-selling business on the cornerstones of animal welfare, environmental responsibility, customer health, and brand transparency. Their animals have never seen the inside of a barn or a cage. Contained only by wide-stretching electric fences, they roam across the Texas grass. “Every day,” says Catherine, “we strive to put the best quality product on people’s tables we can without taking any shortcuts. Our chickens are raised on pasture, our beef is grass-finished, so it has more omega-3s, and our pigs are fed on pasture and Non-GMO grain. Our animals have never eaten food with chemicals in it. So you’re getting a healthier product.”
Today, 1915 Farm runs at full capacity. They operate in beef, pork, and poultry, offering traditional and craft cuts like the Tri-Tip Steak, Denver Steak, and Flat-Iron Steak, which can be hard to find outside of small butcher shops or big cities with large local meat markets. Once a week they ship meat (complete with recipe suggestions) all across Texas and even out-of-state, though 60 percent of their business comes from Corpus. Their quickly-growing customer base spans the full range of ages, neighborhoods, and socioeconomic levels. “It means a lot to us that our customers are from all socioeconomic levels,” says Tanner, “because it means people are budgeting to buy our product. We don’t take that lightly.”
1915 Farm strives to recreate what Catherine calls “that early-farmer feel from the 1900s” when folks could walk down the street to their local butcher and be told exactly where their meat came from, what it ate, and how it was taken care of. “What’s been most important to us,” says Tanner, “is the ability to interact directly with our customers. To be not only a brand, but a face.”
But how does a business based two hours away from its biggest delivery hub forge and maintain strong connections with its customers? “We are on social media and email all the time,” explains Catherine, who spends a substantial chunk of her workday creating the farm’s marketing and communication content. “The beauty of social media is that it fosters connections. So even though people aren’t physically here, it feels like they are.” A quick scroll through 1915 Farm’s Instagram page demonstrates exactly how effective that transparency has been. Between gorgeous day-in-the-life style photos and videos of everything from baby chicks to Catherine teasing Tanner for his boyhood Harry Potter obsession, 1915 Farm has amassed well over 10,000 followers. Their biggest Instagram stars include a sassy donkey named Biscuit, their pet shorthaired pointer/guard dog Piper, and a handicapped chicken they didn’t have the heart to take to the processor. “The broiler chicken who lived,” Tanner jokes, making Catherine laugh.
As a small farm, the Klemckes don’t maintain particularly large numbers of livestock, but the animals they do have are certainly happy. A drove of about forty breeder pigs alternate digging a wallow in the mud, napping atop one another, and running across their spacious outdoor pen in what appears to be a game of swine tag.
We walk a ways through the property to another pig pen so large it could probably classify as a pasture, where Catherine introduces me to their breeder sows, six hefty yet adorable Gloucestershire Old Spots bearing names worthy of cane-toting octogenarians. “Gretta, Henrietta, Agnes, Matilda, Mabel, Gypsy” she rattles off as the giant mamas thunder forward to greet us with a dozen and a half tiny piglets trotting behind. It’s like a scene from Babe times 18.
1915 Farm raises hearty, fattier hog breeds that were bred out of production in the ‘50s when pork started making the push to become the next white meat. Well-suited to life outdoors, these pigs produce meat that boasts the color and marbling of a premium beef steak. “The flavor is outstanding,” Tanner promises, then quickly reassures Gretta that he isn’t going to eat her. “We don’t process the breeder sows; we gave them names.”
Unlike with the pigs, the Klemckes don’t have an on-site breeding program for their cattle – that would require far more than their 57 acres. Instead, they buy calves at 10 to 12 months from Catherine’s brother and grass feed them until they’re 24 to 28 months.
1915’s size also prevents them from processing animals on-site. So they leave the butchering to the pros and outsource to small, USDA-inspected facilities. As America shifted from small family farming to more centralized commercial farming, many small processors were put out of business. It can be a challenge to find reputable processors that will not only give farmers 100 percent of their meat back and package that meat nicely, but also take good care of the animals. That’s why Tanner doesn’t mind driving up to two-and-a-half hours to a good processor.
That first trip to the processor five years ago wasn’t easy, though. It’s hard to watch someone butcher an animal you’ve spent so much time and energy raising, especially when you’ve spent a lifetime looking at animals as pets, and meat on your plate as something else entirely. But Catherine and Tanner have a practical yet empathetic perspective on their food. “Animals are going to be raised for meat,” Tanner says pragmatically. “You can either give them a really good life, let them run around, or you can buy your meat from a factory farm. Every animal we raise on our farm takes one away from a factory farm.”
And they make darn sure every day on 1915 Farm is a happy day for their animals. In fact, they cap the number of broiler chickens they raise at a time based on how many a butcher can process in a day (about 350) because they don’t want their chickens waiting in cages to be processed over two days. “They have one bad day here,” Tanner says.
For Catherine and Tanner, though, “every day is a good day.” On the rare occasion they start to feel isolated out in the country, Catherine says they just walk outside and hang out with the dogs or Biscuit the donkey.
“We’re not disillusioned,” says Tanner. “We’re not going to take away significant market share from [big commercial producers], but the more people that get on board with [sustainable farming] and the more farms that raise animals this way, there’s a possibility to grow grassroots pockets of interest.”
Without missing a beat, Catherine sums it all up perfectly, “Every animal we impact also impacts a family.”