Gene and Shelly Gatewood discuss farm responsibilities in their tiestall barn near Willmar, Minnesota. The couple and their son and daughter-in-law milk 66 cows. 
Gene and Shelly Gatewood discuss farm responsibilities in their tiestall barn near Willmar, Minnesota. The couple and their son and daughter-in-law milk 66 cows. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

    WILLMAR, Minn. – For four generations, milking cows has been the mainstay of the Gatewood family business.
    In a three-fold effort to connect consumers to agriculture, provide an additional source of income and capture the returns of raising youngstock, the Gatewoods have looked beyond the tiestall barn and toward another business venture of direct marketing meat.
    “When we started this, we were just going to give it a try,” Gene Gatewood said. “No one else was doing it, so it was the right time to start. Now, there’s a market and you could be one of 100 farms doing these sales and you still wouldn’t be competing.”
    Gene and his family – wife, Shelly; son, Jordan; and daughter-in-law, Kristi – operate Grandpa’s Granary on their 66-cow dairy farm in Kandiyohi County near Willmar. At the farm, the Gatewoods raise about 20 Holstein and Holstein-Angus steers for cuts of beef, as well as quarters, halves and wholes.
    “If (Jordan and Kristi) weren’t here, we’re at the point where we’d probably be selling the cows,” Gene said. “I’m at the point that I’m not going to work that hard by myself, and having this with the dairy, there’s no way.”
    Shelly agreed.
    “They help us make it go,” she said.
    While all family members help on the farm, Jordan oversees raising the steers. Calves are given colostrum shortly after birth and then milk replacer until weaned. Both steers and heifers are raised together until about 600 pounds before the steers are separated and fed a corn-based diet until they reach finishing weight.
    The animals are then processed at a United States Department of Agriculture inspected plant in Grove City, which allows the Gatewoods to offer direct sales of their meat.
    “I thought dealing with people was going to be a challenge, but it actually comes pretty easy for me,” Jordan said. “It is fun to sell directly to customers. Some people say they won’t go anywhere else.”
    The Gatewoods offer meat sales at the farm as well as at the farmers market and local spring exposition.  
    During the spring and summer months, popular cuts include steaks and hamburger, while roasts are fall and winter staples.
    “A lot of our sales come from word of mouth,” Kristi said.
    Shelly agreed.
    “And if we get bigger orders in Willmar, we’ll deliver or meet people somewhere,” she said.
    Before kick-starting this enterprise of the dairy, the Gatewoods built a calf barn that allowed more room to raise finishing steers. They also spoke with a meat inspector to have a greater understanding of what would be expected of them.
    The family is now in their fifth year of operating Grandpa’s Granary.
    “We’ve always had livestock and we’ve always milked,” Gene said. “We talked about (selling meat) for a while and finally decided to try it. It hasn’t been a major money maker. … People come, but they don’t come knocking down your door.”
     Jordan agreed.
    “We really didn’t know if this was going to take off or not,” he said. “But, it’s always a way to keep the farm going. If milk prices aren’t good, all your investments aren’t in to that. This guarantees we’ll have an income of some sort.”
    As sales ebb and flow throughout the year, the Gatewoods see a greater purpose to their direct sales. Not only have they created a market for their meat, they have also sparked conversations about farming with those removed from the livelihood.
    “The neatest thing is meeting the people, and I think it’s going to get to where more people want to know where their food comes from,” Gene said. “We don’t sugarcoat it, although there’s an awful lot of pride in what we do as farmers and we want to share that.”
    Kristi agreed.
    “As farmers, we’re sometimes in our own world,” she said. “This is drawing people to the farm and getting our name and business out in the community.”
    The Gatewoods admitted one of their greatest challenges is bringing people to their farm, which is located on a rural road outside of town. Their location and the onset of the pandemic made this past year more problematic than others. Due to the high demand for meat processing last spring, the Gatewoods sold out of the meat supply they had but then could not get another butcher date booked.

    “At one point, we were going to three different meat lockers,” Shelly said. “There aren’t that many that are USDA inspected.”
To combat those setbacks, the Gatewoods hosted a drive-thru brisket dinner where the public was encouraged to come to the farm, enjoy a meal and learn about farming.
    About 150 people attended the event this past October.
    “It not only got people out here to possibly buy, but it was a way to get closer to people and people closer to us,” Gene said. “We want to do a continuation of that next year.”
    Currently, Grandpa’s Granary is connected to the calf barn. Eventually, the family would like to build a small building specifically for the direct sales. They also hope to construct a small event venue in order to host more gatherings on the farm.
    “This is here to stay and makes farming worthwhile,” Jordan said. “There are fewer and fewer small farms, and it feels good that what we’re doing is something to help our community’s agriculture industry.”