Chase Sanert of Sugar Grove Family Farms holds one of his heritage breed chickens.
A herd of black cats plays alongside a litter of spotted piglets running loose in the farm yard. Chickens waddle closer and cluck as we pass by while cows munch lazily on grass in the hilly distance. An affectionate red Tamworth sow (a mother pig), trots up to the pen as we draw near, eager to have her ears scratched.
Tammy the Tamworth jogs to the fence to say hi.
“This is Tammy. She’s one of our favorites,” Chase Sanert notes of the mother pig as he leans in to give her a pet. He leads me on a farm tour through the barns and pig pens, curious kittens following at our heels, and stops to tell me the history of each animal as we walk by. There’s Renee and Francine, the two piglets that caught ill when they were young and had to be given antibiotics, an event that led them to become the Sugar Grove pet pigs since they can’t be sold under the farm’s antibiotic free label. There’s Dulcie, one of the first Red Devon cows that Chase purchased for his cattle operation and that keeps nonchalantly edging closer and closer to my camera for her beauty shot. There’s also Gordy the boar and Zest the goat and a whole list of names that I can’t possibly remember. But Chase knows.
Chase reaches over to put Renee and Francine, the Sugar Grove pet pigs.
Cats and piglets play together in the farmyard.
“See that piglet,” he says, singling out one of the many spotted piglets playing nearby. “She’s got a lot of character, that one,” he notes. What I note is that Chase knows each of his animal’s as if they were members of the family…and perhaps, in a way, they are.
Piglets roam the farm-yard never straying too far from their mamas.
Chase was raised on a traditional family farm. In fact, the farm dates back to 1943 when his great-grandparents first purchased the 160 acre plot of land on which he now resides. Chase raised cattle, showed pigs, and participated in 4-H growing up, while much of the land was cash-rented for grain production. When it came time to pass on the reigns of the family farm to the younger generation though, Chase had a slightly different vision than the one he grew up with.
“My parents, Ron and Sue Sanert, own the farm now and have allowed us fourth generation siblings to have an influence on the production methods going forward. I had a lot of friends that were interested in buying straight from the farm because they knew about the sustainable production methods I believed in, and that encouraged us to market direct-to-consumer products.”
With encouragement from friends and neighbors, and the support of his family, Chase decided to take the farm in a different direction, establishing Sugar Grove Family Farms in 2013.
“Our farm is focused on the growth and preservation of grasses that are responsible for 100% of our grass-fed beef program and which supplement our pasture-raised chickens and hogs. We are 100% chemical and antibiotic free and raise our animals on pasture because we have seen first-hand the benefits that these methods provide the soil, grasses, livestock, and eventually, the quality of the product we sell to the consumer. Our intention is to always do what is best for the land, the animals, and the consumer-- I do not believe one has to suffer at the expense of the other. We view the improvement of each of those aspects simultaneously as true production efficiency.”
"Our intention is to always do what is best for the land, the animals, and the consumer-- I do not believe one has to suffer at the expense of the other. We view the improvement of each of those aspects simultaneously as true production efficiency.” - Chase Sanert
Chase often refers to his production methods as “beyond organic” as they not only focus on the health and well-being of his animals, but take a broader perspective to focus on the entire ecosystem, including the land, soil, and water that sustain it.
“The production methods that we find are most beneficial to our land and region are often overlooked when it comes down to different certifying bodies. We are interested in using the best practices possible to improve our resources. We believe that predominantly perennial based, outdoor systems that restore the nutrients of our soils through livestock interaction and which reduce inputs are at the heart of what is “organic.” We find those values go above and beyond what is required by most certifications and we have adopted “beyond organic” as a way to define our practices. These practices are important to us because when done correctly, the benefits far out-weigh any of the additional labor. As we become more skilled at the movement of livestock and better understand grasses and soils, we start to see improvement in natural processes that improve our bottom line. What is sustainable for the land has to be sustainable for the farmer, and thankfully, our customers are understanding more and more the impact they can make with each food decision they make.”
Chase goes on to tell me about the different grasses his father now plants on their 160 acres (Ron enjoys the tractor work more than Chase!) to insure soil health and provide the animals with an adequate diet, as well as how they source grain for his chickens and hogs from a neighboring organic farmer, staying true to the mission of supporting soil and environmental health both on and off the farm. He mentions the seasonality of eating grass-fed beef, it’s best in late spring and early summer when the cows are producing the best weight gains, and how this can be extended into fall with the planting of annuals for the cattle to forage. He also mentions how he is trying to breed his cows to be smaller and sturdier, not bigger as is the current practice, so that they will have a better fat to muscle ratio, improving the quality of their meat. “Grass-fed beef shouldn’t taste tough and gamy,” he says, “If done correctly it should be something that people want to eat, not just something they think they should eat.” Quality, in every sense of the word, is high on the list of attributes that Chase is dedicated to achieving.
Dulcie the Cow moves in for her close-up (above), and looks back to Chase for reassurance (below).
Chase closes the gate to the cow pasture as the sun sets behind him, looking back on the rolling hills and the peaceful grazing cattle.
Cows graze on a section of the 160 acre pasture.
“The biggest accomplishment I can say about our farm business right now, and something I think of daily, is the ability of my parents to adjust to a style of farming that is different than what was done before. I’ll always be grateful for their willingness to have an open mind,” he notes.
We walk back through the farmyard where the piglets are still playing with the barn cats, scattering fallen leaves underfoot. The old barn sits sturdy in the background, and an escaped chicken strolls by, clucking to herself and minding nobody’s business but her own. The farm exudes an effortless, natural charm: the quiet happiness of life, strolling merrily along in the right direction. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to take a deep, long breath and fill yourself up with all of the goodness, followed by a long wistful sigh where you wish life could always be this lovely.
“For me, farming is about having a connection to family, to your region, the land you work, and the customers you serve,” says Chase. “It can be as rewarding as it is humbling, but it’s a wonderful experience to do the work that farming involves and to get to know each and every customers you serve – you get to meet some of the best people. I hope in the end what we do through this profession makes a difference in the lives of everybody involved.”
Sugar Grove Family Farm is based in Greenview, Illinois and their products can be purchased through their monthly e-newsletter, found at www.sugargrovefamilyfarms.com and through picking up products at their farm store. The monthly newsletter also indicates which retailers and restaurants have their products on hand. You can also follow Chase’s farming adventures at www.facebook.com/sugargrovefamilyfarms