Think vine-ripe tomatoes, sweet corn on the cob, plump blueberries. Think New Jersey, aka the Garden State.
In recent years, a number of South Jersey farmers, once thriving on dairy production, have reinvented their offerings with beef, pork, poultry and eggs. And people are seizing the opportunity to buy quality products and freezing their purchases for ready consumption.
Although the practice of raising beef and livestock has existed for years, COVID-19 and supermarket shortages spurred consumers to explore alternative ways to secure food for their families.
Right here in our own backyard, some of the farms in operation for three and four generations have switched gears from not only raising animals like cattle, hogs and chickens – but transformed their efforts into USDA-approved meats that are sold directly to consumers throughout the tri-state region (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware) and beyond.
Sickler’s Circle View Farm
David and Rachel Sickler are the proud owners of Sickler’s Circle View Farm in Monroeville. The Salem County farm houses a retail store where their beef, pork and eggs are sold. They also keep products on hand from neighboring farms, like poultry, mushrooms and barbeque sauce, to name a few. It’s a way to support their close-knit South Jersey farming community.
David Sickler, 33, a fourth-generation farmer, always dreamed of perpetuating the family tradition. That has become a reality as the couple’s sons, Leighton, 3, and Wyatt, 15 months, are integral to daily operations. “They carry small buckets and ride along in the tractors,” said Rachel Sickler, 30.
The couple married in 2017, and their passion for regenerative agriculture and soil conservation became a driving force for moving the farm in new directions. “It’s about good stewardship of our land,” explained Rachel Sickler. “We have a no-till system for all our crops. There is no plowing; we don’t disturb the microbes in the soil.”
Although Rachel Sickler did not grow up farming, she always loved animals. “I had horses and worked on local farms,” she said. “In the back of my mind, I always thought that I would have a farm one day.”
In 2015, Rachel Sickler earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She then worked full-time in a Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at a medical facility. In 2016, the Sicklers attended the annual Pennsylvania Association for Agriculture (PASA) conference, which served as an inspiration for marketing their meats to the public. “We started with a small herd of over 40 Black Angus cattle,” said Rachel Sickler. “We now have over 100 cattle, 100 pigs and 260 laying hens.”
The Sicklers had been selling their meats for years, but in 2019, they launched a website and began offering individual cuts, in addition to larger shares of beef and pork: a quarter, half and a whole. “It takes almost two years to grow a steer (male cow) to be sold,” said Rachel Sickler. The cows, she explained, are taken to a USDA facility in Pennsylvania where the meat is processed, cut, packaged, vacuum sealed and frozen. It’s then sent back to the farm for direct sale to customers.
Fast forward to March 2020 when businesses began shutting down. The Sicklers closed their farm store and transitioned to online ordering and pick-up. Rachel Sickler recalls 85 cars coming through their driveway on March 20 of that year.
The farm store has since reopened, and demand continues to soar. Rachel Sickler left her nursing job at the end of 2020 to focus solely on farming.
Medford Cattle Farms
Medford Cattle Farms is a joint effort between Mill Creek Organic Farm and The Jennings Farm. Chad Muckenfuss, owner of Mill Creek Organic Farm, is a third-generation farmer. The 45-year-old resides in the same Medford house where his grandparents lived. He and his wife, Kate, and children, Emma, 14, and Alex, 12, care for the self-sustaining 130-acre farm. The 24/7 lifestyle is a labor of love for the family, complete with a one-acre vegetable garden that produces tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, string beans, and squash.
Mike Yekenchik, 47, was not raised on a farm but is self-taught in animal husbandry and caring for the land. He and his wife, Steph, became so passionate about farming that they purchased The Jennings Farm in Medford in 2021 where they now reside. His daughter, Vivian, 16, and Steph’s daughter, Gab, 13, are integral to the daily operations.
Muckenfuss, who is director of sales for a Mount Laurel IT company, explained that his family farm always raised animals – including keeping a couple of cattle on hand. Yet the production of beef to sell to the public was not an initial plan. That changed over a year ago when he had the opportunity to purchase a herd of 20 cattle. Chad and Kate Muckenfuss, together with business partners Mike and Stephanie Yekenchik, Rob and Cordy Baffic and Jeff Yekenchik, merged their resources to create Medford Cattle Farms. The group recently purchased another herd of cows from North Jersey.
According to Muckenfuss, people are starting to be more aware of where their food comes from. He explained that much of the ground beef sold in supermarkets is imported from cattle in Argentina and Brazil. “People are interested in getting a better quality of meat while supporting local,” said Muckenfuss, elaborating that their cattle are grass-fed. In addition, they practice sustainable farming that preserves and protects the land.
An online business, they sell subscription boxes through their website that are shipped to customers throughout the region. The boxes are tailored to individual tastes. For those who grill, there’s a box with steaks and burger patties. Customers who smoke their meat may prefer the option with brisket, short ribs and roasts.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Muckenfuss. “We’re actually having difficulty keeping up with the demand. People love the flavor. The comment we hear most often is ‘your beef actually tastes like beef.’”
Muckenfuss explained that their cows grow at their own pace, maturing anywhere from 18-24 months. They are then taken to a USDA processing facility where the meat is dry aged for two to three weeks, cut, packaged, frozen and vacuum sealed. “It can be kept in the freezer from 8 to 12 months,” he said.
“All of our cattle are pasture raised and finished,” continued Muckenfuss. “They are moved from one pasture to another, eating the best grasses and nutrients. They are completely non-GMO by default.” Non-GMO is defined as “not genetically modified.”
The farm also sells fresh eggs from free-range chickens. Those are not shipped; they can be pre-ordered for pick-up. They’ll be offering pork products starting in March 2023.
Muckenfuss explained that their five breeds of chickens lay different colored eggs: blue, green, white, and brown. He underscored the dramatic taste difference between farm fresh and those sold in supermarkets. “In a store, the eggs might be two to four weeks old,” he said. “Farm fresh are a few days to a week. If you crack open the eggs and compare the yolks, ours are much darker in color, almost orange.”
Clover Valley Farm
Meet Danielle and Fred Wainwright III, owners and operators of Clover Valley Farm in Southampton. The couple have been selling beef in bulk directly to customers since 2012. Fred Wainwright is a fourth-generation farmer. Although Danielle Wainwright was not raised on a farm, she always dreamed of being a dairy farmer. “I switched gears from dairy to beef,” explained the 38-year-old who holds a bachelor’s degree in dairy science. Fred Wainwright is a CPA.
The couple raises Angus and Wagyu cattle, which are grain and grass finished. Wagyu cattle, explained Danielle Wainwright, are a much sought-after Japanese breed known for their “marbling” throughout their cuts, and considered a delicacy.
“We are a cow/calf farm,” said Danielle Wainwright. “Cows are giving birth on the farm. We grow the herd, and our steers are raised for our beef program.” The Wainwrights recently began offering individual cuts of meat which are sold at a Southampton farmer’s market six days a week. Their bulk beef orders: a whole, a half or a quarter can be ordered via email and through their website. The quality and taste of their meat has been described by customers as “phenomenal.” They previously sold poultry and will offer this again in the spring of 2023.
The Wainwrights, who have two sons: Fred IV, 4, and Sawyer, almost 3, have the unique distinction of also being animal nutritionists. They formulate feed for their livestock. “The mix is a vegetarian feed that has no hormones or antibiotics,” said Danielle Wainwright. They work with large-scale dairy farmers and homesteaders to establish feeding programs. They also help homesteaders with layout and overall management. Danielle Wainwright noted that since the onset of COVID, there’s been an increased interest in farming and the purchase of livestock.
Danielle Wainwright is one of two Burlington County representatives who serves on the New Jersey Farm Bureau’s Women’s Leadership Committee. She visits classrooms throughout the state to promote and educate about agriculture. She often brings along a baby calf (when visiting local schools) and reads a book to children. “I am passionate about promoting agriculture and showing the kids where their food comes from,” she said.