This is the second in an occasional series celebrating and introducing readers to the folks who grow and produce the food that we eat: South Carolina farmers.
Agnew Hopkins is part of the sixth generation of the Hopkins family to operate the family farm near Simpsonville.
The farm, established in 1834, is rich in history: the Revolutionary War Battle of Canebrake was fought there along the Reedy River and there was once a trading post on site. Over the years the crops may have changed (from cotton to soybean to hay) and cattle come and gone but one thing remains, the dedication of the Hopkins family to preserve and protect the farm’s 450 acres for generations to come.
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Hopkins and his brother John, along with two sisters, see to the daily business of Timberock at Hopkins Farm. John had the idea about 10 years ago to start hosting events at the farm in spaces he and others have converted for that use. An old chicken house is now a dining space with a commercial kitchen; a tractor shed has been converted to an al fresco area for dinners and weddings have taken place in the pastures and at the gazebo. The Hopkinses have even added a bandstand for parties and are in the process of opening up their parents’ old home to host bridal luncheons and showers that will feature the family’s silver, crystal, china and linens (think old-school Southern).
While John Hopkins handles the events, Agnew oversees the organic poultry production at the farm.
Agnew Hopkins’ background is in the culinary arts. He graduated from Johnson & Wales and worked at Magnolia’s in Charleston for about eight years before returning to Johnson & Wales as an instructor (he has a master’s degree in education). About five years ago, after doing some extensive research, Agnew introduced heritage breeds of turkeys, chickens and ducks to the farm. Each breed was in danger of extinction (yes, even today this can happen), and Agnew, who had always had an interest in birds, thought it was his duty to do his part in trying to save them.
On one side of the farm, closest to the house, you’ll find American Standard Bronze turkeys, the classic Thanksgiving bird of choice (black and white birds with bright red wattles at the neck). The breed stock (three toms and 15 hens) is kept separate from the animals designated for market (numbering 60) and all of the animals are inspected for possible genetic defects using American Poultry Association standards of perfection. Turkeys need strong legs to be able to breed. Agnew pointed out a tom that was visibly limping; this one would be watched and possibly culled from the flock if it was decided that it suffered from a genetic defect. Raising animals for food is a serious business and, while Agnew has kept a favorite around from time to time as a pet, livestock has to be kept to certain standards for human consumption.
Along those lines, because turkeys are a fragile animal and subject to avian disease, the chickens and ducks are located about a quarter-mile away on the other side of the farm.
Again, Agnew did some research and chose three breeds of chicken (New Hampshire, Delaware and White Leghorn) that were endangered. The New Hampshires and Delawares are dual-purpose breeds noted for their eggs and meat. The White Leghorns are raised strictly as egg producers. Worth noting: the Delaware chicken and the American Standard Bronze turkey are also on The Slow Food Ark of Taste, a catalog of foods distinctive for flavor and breeds nearing extinction.
On this side of the farm, along with the chickens, you find Guinea hens, Saxony and Silver Appleyard breeds of duck, organic gardens with heirloom vegetables and the compost pile (which Agnew pointed out after I snapped a picture of it, thinking it was just another beautiful spot on the farm).
A hoop house, like a greenhouse except the plants are actually in the ground rather than in pots or on shelves, extends the growing season for tomatoes, squash, collards and curly mustard. Further down the hill are two un-fenced plots with peppers, more greens and tomatoes that Agnew is “sharing” with the local deer population. He’s added some flashing lights that are supposed to keep deer away, but you can see from the sheared tops of the greens that the system is working on only half of the garden.
Up the hill, in the fenced garden, are remnants of heirloom squash (muscat de Provence variety) and greens and tomatoes that are just about done for this season.
Agnew’s organic garden and poultry supplies (in various stages) three restaurants in Greenville (High Cotton, The Roost @ Hyatt and American Grocery Restaurant) and Swamp Rabbit Grocery. And, he’s been known to sell to folks who call him, if the product is available (I bought two frozen chickens that I have waiting for the roasting pan).
Let’s talk turkey...
If you’ve ever wondered why organically raised poultry can be so expensive (Agnew’s chickens go for $4 per pound and a turkey for Thanksgiving, at $6.50 per pound, can reach $100), lets break down the cost of raising heritage breeds:
• Turkeys are born in April and go to market (are processed) in mid-October. Agnew must cover the cost of raising, sheltering and protecting the animals for those seven months before even hoping to see a profit.
• One 50-pound bag (feeding all of the chickens, ducks and turkeys) lasts one day.
• Agnew buys his non-GMO feed from a supplier in Johnson City, Tenn., which he found through the Sustainable Poultry Network, at a reduced rate ($21 per 50-pound bag).
• He buys two tons of non-GMO feed at a time and has it shipped at an additional cost of $300 per shipment. Each shipment lasts six weeks.
• To process the birds, he has to load them up live and drive them to the nearest USDA-certified processing plant in South Carolina (also the only one), in Kingstree. He pays the plant $9 per turkey to process his shipment.
So, don’t be scared, stay with me and let’s do the math...
• The growth cycle, hatching to processing, is 27 weeks.
• 2 tons of feed lasts 6 weeks, so Agnew has to buy 4.5 shipments of feed.
• 2 tons = 4,000 pounds = 800 50-pound bags of feed
• Each shipment costs Agnew $2,700 ($2,400, plus $300 shipping.
• 4.5 shipments of feed = $12,150
Let’s say that the turkeys only eat one third of the total amount of feed; the rest goes to the chickens and ducks. That’s still $4,050 (12,150 divided by 3).
• Agnew has 60 turkeys going to market and the processing plant charges $9 per bird. That’s $720 in processing fees because it must be done to USDA safety and quality standards.
• With the feed and processing, Agnew has $4,770 invested in his 60 birds.
• In order to break even on the food and processing, not taking into account water and shelter or veterinarian and transportation costs or inventory losses (Agnew said a chicken hawk snatched two young birds earlier in the week), Agnew needs to get $78 and some change per bird. To break even.
So you see, he’s not doing this to get rich. Agnew’s raising these animals to sustain the breed so that there will be heritage breeds for future generations. And he knows that not everyone can afford to pay what he has to charge, but wants folks to understand why he does what he does.
He hopes to conserve and preserve the heritage breeds by building a market for them as a food source. “I don’t have kids,” he says. “The poultry is my legacy.”