At Northwest Land & Cattle, fifth-generation farmers AJ and Wade Stanaland are doing things in the new old-fashioned way.
AJ Stanaland never had a doubt about her career plans before owning and operating Northwest Land & Cattle just outside of Leland. The 32-year-old, who graduated from North Brunswick High School and North Carolina State University with a degree in livestock management, is a fifth-generation Brunswick County farmer. And her husband, 34-year-old Wade, is a fifth-generation farmer from Columbus County. Collectively, their 10 generations of farming have covered the range of agriculture from tobacco to row crops to raising cattle and hogs.
“Farming has always been what I’ve wanted to do,” AJ says. “I grew up farming. I grew up on my daddy’s and granddaddy’s heels. I was their little shadow learning everything I could.”
After college, AJ came home to Brunswick County, where she and her dad were raising Angus cattle and growing small row crops of corn and beans. And then she met Wade, who graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in agronomy. It turns out the pair attended NCSU at the same time, but their paths never crossed. For Wade, there was also no question that farming would be his passion.
“I wanted to continue on the family tradition because it allowed me to work outside, walking in the same fields that generations before me did,” he says. “The average farmer feeds 155 people, and I take pride in knowing that I one of the 2 percent of farmers who feeds people.”
After they married, their families combined their efforts. In addition to the cattle farm in Brunswick County that AJ manages, Wade manages their farmlands in Columbus and Bladen counties, where they produce corn, soybeans, peanuts and sweet potatoes.
The Stanalands, following in the footsteps of AJ’s dad, Chip, and her granddad, Charlie, began raising and selling heritage-breed pigs — pigs whose bloodline dates back hundreds of years — to restaurants in Wilmington. But a few years into the endeavor, a high-risk pregnancy for AJ forced the couple to exit the business at that time. “I had to go on bed rest so we sold our herd,” AJ says. “The twins were preemies, so they had some health concerns. Everything just got put on hold for a while.”
Once the twins, William Weston and Sawyer Jean, now 4, were older and healthier, AJ felt that it was time for her to regroup and focus on her goals of taking her cattle herd in the new direction of farm to doorstep.
Beginning in 1898, AJ’s great-grandfather raised and sold cattle along the Cape Fear River to the local general store, where consumers could purchase the meat. Originally, the Stanalands sold their calves at auction. But the idea of not knowing where the calves went to feed out (after they’re sold, where they are fed and raised before being processed) troubled AJ, who sees a trend in farming that is moving away from old school agriculture. Plus, consumer demand for local and sustainable foods is growing.
“Especially now, with COVID-19, I think people are a little more interested in who raises their food and how it gets to their table,” she says. She saw the need to be able to connect her beef directly to the consumer.
AJ and her dad started concentrating on better genetics in early 2000 and bought their first Black Angus bull based on marbling and ribeye scores. Each of their cows is born, pasture-raised and fed all in one location. AJ started her plan to pivot their marketing in 2019, and on February 2020, they sold their first steaks.
“I want to give my customers piece of mind,” AJ says. “I look at the cattle every day. I know what they eat, what they drink and if they are healthy. I want them to have healthy lives so that they are healthy for the people they feed.”
Utilizing the power of social media as well as their website, Northwest Land & Cattle has successfully connected with the consumer directly. There is a waiting list for the subscription boxes because AJ has to plan everything a year in advance, though they always have single boxes that can be purchased through their website.
The beef boxes vary by month, with special box-of-the-month options. Additionally, single cuts of meat can be added to a box as well. Each box includes a recipe card for one of the cuts of meat. They are also producing signature steak butters (five herb, garlic and chive, and blue cheese) and share cooking tips on their social media pages as well.
Currently, the Stanalands offer free delivery in Wilmington, Southport, Leland and Supply. “I’m competing with butcher shops and retail stores, so I have to make it convenient,” AJ says. They are currently working on farm pick up options for those consumers south of Supply.
Just as AJ’s 92-year-old grandfather did before her, she dry-ages all of her beef from 14 to 21 days.
“It’s the new old-fashioned way,” she says, adding that it is unheard of in beef that comes from the grocery store. Dry-aged is the way beef used to be prepared — hung in a cool room, until the beef starts to break down and becomes tender. The modern way, wet-aged, means that as soon as the beef is dressed out, it is immediately cut into steaks and vacuumed sealed, going out the door wet. “I’ve been told my dry-aged hamburger makes phenomenal burgers.” AJ says.
With their farm-to-table business model, the Stanalands are part of a growing trend of young farmers who are changing people’s view of what it means to be a farmer. “I feel like as young, educated farmers, it’s our job to stay up with the times,” AJ says. “We want people to trust us to raise their food right.”
In addition to raising livestock, managing a successful crop business and brining up sixth-generation farmers, AJ and Wade are very active in serving on the N.C. Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers board and are very active with other state and local agriculture advocacy groups.
Even with the technological advances in agricultural equipment and techniques, the time-honored tradition of good, old-fashioned hard work is still at the heart of farming. As one would expect, a farmer’s day doesn’t end at 5 pm. AJ leaves one farm and drives 45 minutes to the other where they live. There are evening rides together, along with the kids, to check on the fields or make sure their horses and pigs have water.
For Wade, the best part about farm life is that “no two days are the same, and everything changes from season to season.”
“I also enjoy a challenge, and farming can definitely be that,” he says. “We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, markets and regulations that are out of control.”
Just a year into their vision of bringing beef to the door of the consumer, the Stanalands are already looking to the future. AJ is partnering with local chef Sarah Gore of Ocean Isle Beach to create a series of small dining events on the farm, hopefully in the fall.
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Northwest Land & Cattle: northwestlandandcattle.com