By BECKY GILLETTE
Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of an article originally published in Stockman Grass Farmer.
PERKINSTON — When Dr. Michael Stonnington first meets people and talks about his 378-acre grassfed beef operation, he doesn’t usually tell them that in addition to being a grassfed cattle farmer, he is an orthopedic surgeon. That is because people tend to think doctors have farms as a tax write off. Nothing could be farther from the truth for the Stonnington Farm.
“This is a real business,” Stonnington said. “It is a business I have built and am very proud of. This is a successful business that educates people about where their food comes from. I’m proud to be a family farm.”
Stonnington is a very hands-on farm manager even though that means he works literally seven days a week.
“But it is a lifestyle that I love,” he said. “My patients love that I do this. And they love buying my beef. I can’t think of anything better and more worthwhile than helping people think about where their food comes from, and helping raise awareness of the importance of the family farm. We are helping people educate themselves as to what is a good nutritional balance, and how to be aware of how their food is made. I feel like the grassfed movement is the foundation for this. It is a great movement to be a part of because it is bringing to life how food goes from pasture to the table plate.”
He uses his 45-minute drive to work in Hattiesburg each day to go over plans with his ranchers. On the drive back, he gets updates on how the day went. Every weekend he is on the farm fulltime, going over pastures, looking at the animals, fixing fences and pipes, and figuring out pasture management and pasture rotation. He writes out a detailed plan for each week that is sent to all his ranchers.
The Stonningtons also do their marketing. They market quarter, half and whole cows to individuals through the farm’s website, stonningtonfarm.com, and through Facebook. Stonnington does most of the social media posts himself, but also has a social media consultant to advise him. In addition to their website, the farm is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Their biggest marketing success has come from getting into grocery stores and restaurants, particularly the Corner Markets in Hattiesburg and Petal.
“They really took a chance on us,” he said. “When I first started, grassfed beef was not popular or well understood. The cattle farmers thought I was crazy. But it has really, really gone well. Corner Market took a chance on me after I finally got a meeting with the CEO and made a pitch why grassfed beef is important. Forrest Roberts, the owner (and his Chief of Perishables Joe Edwards) took bull by the horns. He has been a big supporter. Then we got into Keg and Barrel Restaurant and Patio 44. A new outlet is Coast Health and Nutrition in Gulfport, and our beef is now being served in the newly opened Patio 44 restaurant in Biloxi.”
Stonnington said it is the grocery store owners, restaurant owners and chefs who have been the heroes of this movement.
“They took this chance when no one was that keen on grassfed beef,” he said. “I just can’t thank them enough. Grassfed beef would be nothing without chefs, restaurant owners and grocery store owners taking a chance with something a bit more expensive.”
Stonnington emigrated from Australia as a toddler with his parents and five brothers and sisters. He grew up (until his teenage years) in Minnesota and then moved to the Southeast. He has lived in the South ever since.
Stonnington was in the Air Force, and ended up at Keesler Air Force Base where he was a staff orthopedic surgeon. He got into horses and bought a 30-acre farm in 1998 that has been gradually added onto over the years. He went into tree farming, and lost heavily on that operation when Hurricane Katrina hit.
“My biggest mistake was to get into tree farming,” he said. “That was very costly. It cost to plant them and when they were destroyed, I had to spend money to clear them off. It was terrible. We weathered the storm here 35 miles north of the Gulf. As we stood there after the horrible storm, there was a bright sunny sky like there always is after a hurricane. I decided it was time to do something different. After cleaning up the farm, within months I had commercial cattle on the farm.
“That began my journey into cattle farming and my education in cattle farming. I did a lot of reading and worked the farm myself with some employees. It was smaller scale at that point. I discovered I was not satisfied doing commercial feedlot cattle. The whole process is really impersonal. I was also reading more about grassfed beef and was really intrigued by the potential health benefits. It was the whole answer to the void I felt. So I sold my cows and started over.”
The farm now has three full-time employees and a half-time employee. He works the weekends.
“My kids grew up farming and they help me on the weekends,” he said. “I’m very active. I manage the farm. I make all the decisions about pasture rotation. I take care of most of the healthcare of the animals. I do all the castrations and vaccinations. The cattle are strictly grassfed and we use no hormones or antibiotics with one exception: Antibiotics are used for life threatening illnesses because we don’t believe animals should suffer or die if they have treatable conditions. These treated cattle are culled from the grassfed program.”
The sky is not the limit for Stonnington, whose farm is certified by the American Grassfed Association. He doesn’t want to get bigger and bigger.
“I will only allow myself to grow so far and it will be at the right pace,” Stonnington said. “Humane treatment is very, very important. We try to keep stress levels low. This stress-free environment has been shown by numerous studies to promote cattle health, as well as improve the quality of beef produced. If you match cattle to the environment, humane and low-stress treatment improves the quality of beef and allows cows to gain weight more easily.”
His wife, Katie, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, handles finances, record keeping and books. She is a founder and president of the local SPCA. They have rescue animals on their farm, as well.