Carl King, Vermont Natural Beef and Kingston Place
The farm had been in the King family since the 1700s. It became one of New England’s most productive creameries, and it produced a host of notable Kings – politicians, soldiers, doctors and businessmen. But the dairy farm in Benson, Vermont, began failing in the 1990s, and the family was forced to sell in 2000.
Carl King was just a teenager at the time, but even then he was thinking about how to get the farm back. He lived on the farm for about six years while he was in elementary and middle school. After he moved away with his parents, he would still come back for the summers and work for his great uncle, milking the dairy cows, “running the equipment when they would let me, and trying not to break it.”
“I’ve always loved that property. It’s one of those places that just sticks with you,” King, 36, said. “So, it was always in the back of my mind that that’s the end goal, find a way to retire up there and farm.”
With the help of Walden Mutual, he found that way in 2020. At the time, the farm belonged to Vermont Natural Beef, which was owned by the Stannard family. The Stannards put the property up for sale, and after a little negotiating, King purchased the company and the old family farm. Walden provided the loan for the equipment - and continues to supply Vermont Natural Beef with operating credit.
“Everything fell together rather rapidly, and it all worked out,” King said. “The Vermont Natural Beef business model was nearly identical to what I wanted to do if I ever went back there.”
That business model is a direct-to-consumer beef operation that makes sustainability a top priority. Part of the reason the old King family dairy farm failed was a heavy reliance on industrialized farming methods. Carl is determined not to make that mistake again. The cows at Kingston Place feed on fresh grass, alfalfa and clover as they roam in Champlain Valley pastures, and they’re never given hormones or fed antibiotics.
“Our model with Vermont Natural Beef is pretty hands-off once we have livestock on the property. They only have to be rotated every couple of days. We don’t do intensive rotational grazing just because, well, we have too much grass,” King said with a laugh. “So, we can put them out in a particular pasture or paddock for two or three days and then move on to the next one. As long as they’re not knocking down fences and running through fences, like they have been this year, it’s just checking in on each group to make sure they have water, they have minerals, and they’re where they’re supposed to be.”
All the birthing is done naturally, in the spring. And all the processing is done by local butchers in the fall.
“We try to keep our system as natural as possible,” King said. “They seem to want to give birth in the spring, so that’s kind of how we have our entire system set up. Instead of creating extra work for ourselves, we just let Mother Nature and the way they’ve evolved drive how we do our sales and processing.”
The business model is much simpler than King’s eclectic business life. Most of the time, he’s a supervisor with the West Springfield (Massachusetts) Police Department, where he’s worked for nine years. When he takes off that uniform, King is usually on the computer organizing orders for Vermont Natural Beef or making the trip from his home in West Springfield to the farm in Benson.
“Nothing is really typical in my work week,” King said. “But I guess I’m usually at the police department about four days a week, and then about two days on the farm with some nights and overnights spread out between.”
All the work is paying off. Business is up from last year, and Vermont Natural Beef is adding a new, non-beef product – pork.
“We’ve had a number of customers reach out over the last few years asking about hogs, and this year it just seemed to reach a crescendo with so many customers asking if we could get hogs or where they could get them, so we decided to make the jump,” King said.
They had a ready-made partner for the expansion in Gibson Family Farms out of Valley Falls, New York. King was already purchasing cattle from Gibson’s, so they simply added some pigs to the order.
“It’s been a natural fit,” King said.
Just like returning to the old family farm.
Photos courtesy of Kingston Place