Doug and Sue Bagwell find inspiration to farm from Kenyan mission trip
Photos by Lucas Kane
“W e specialize in providing local grass-fed, all-natural, dry-aged beef to individuals and establishments looking for superior quality and flavor at a reasonable price.”
It’s a mouthful, and it’s not even the extent of Walnut Hills Farm’s spread. They also provide—either from their farm or through co-op—chickens, seafood and swine, all roaming grounds speckled with walnut trees (well, the pigs are inside a fence, but it’s a generous space). All beef is USDA-inspected and certified natural by the state of Tennessee.
The farmers, Doug and Sue Bagwell, haven’t always found themselves in the great outdoors raising various foods. No, they both grew up in Urban America, essentially. But Sue always had friends who owned farms, and she always wished that she had her own. And while Doug didn’t grow up on a farm, his father’s family had been sharecroppers in the Carolinas. Doug also spent several summers working on farms during the day, raising cash crops that were then shipped off to farmers’ markets. In other words, Doug and Sue grew up on the outskirts of farming, you might say, and they always enjoyed it. They were near it, and occasionally came into contact with it, but it wasn’t their life. So when they got married and moved in together in their early 20s, they got a cookie-cutter home in the suburbs, just like they were used to.
But they had a revelation several years later while serving on mission trips with their church. Doug and Sue decided to get involved in some outreach and service projects in Kenya, with particular attention to helping children. They spent a lot of time helping rescue kids from garbage dumps—kids who had been abandoned and left with no one. Doug and Sue were part of teams who helped those kids find good homes with loving families. Back to the revelation: In Kenya, Doug and Sue spent a lot of time outside. They were in remote areas and working away from major metropolitan areas.
“We just fell in love with being outside the city,” Doug says. “We decided that we wanted to be something other than a cog in the machine.” So a little while later, when their kids got closer to college, they decided to move from their home in Hendersonville and buy a farm. But it was easier said than done.
“It’s not like buying a house in East Nashville where you can find a home pretty quickly,” Doug says. You kind of have to know someone who knows someone who might be interested in selling for a good offer. Well, they finally found that person who knew that person who had that property, and they bought it.
The first thing they tried was goat farming.
“They were a real pain in the neck,” Doug says.
Okay, the goats weren’t profitable on their own, but they gave the Bagwells an advantage in the long run. Goats eat thistles and weeds and locusts. Letting a bunch of goats roam the property for a few years cleared up the ground, left the best grass, and scared away the bugs.
“People ask me all the time what we use to spray our grass, because it’s beautiful, “Doug says. “I’ve never sprayed it, and it was never sprayed before we got it.”
Doug and Sue decided that the time was right to move into something bigger: livestock. After some discussion about the direction in which they wanted to go, they got some cows—Limousins, a French breed—and decided to slaughter the animals and sell the meat. Here’s the kicker, though: Because their lawn was in such great shape, it turned out that letting the cows feed openly on the grass was great for their muscle growth. In other words, it made the meat tastier.
“We didn’t start grass-feeding beef because it was popular,” Doug says. “We started grass-feeding beef because my cows eat grass and turn it to muscle better than any other cow in America. And then shazam, there’s a huge demand for it.”
The goats improve the grass. The cows eat the grass. The cows beef up. People start buying the meat at farmers’ markets, which brings in some money, which helps the Bagwells buy more cows. You get the idea. Suddenly, a secondary source of income—they only sold $110 worth of beef in their first farmers’ market experience—exploded into a major source of income.
In fact, it grew so much that they expanded the business to include the swine and chickens and seafood.
“Now we have to sell $110 worth of meat every half-hour,” Doug says, only half-kidding.