Jennie Schutte and Walt Patrick met by chance when Jennie made a vaccine sales call on the cattle operation Walt worked for. After a marriage and children came along, a nine-state sales territory with long trips away from family just weren’t in Jennie’s heart any longer. And thus Pilaroc Farms (pronounced pile-a-rock, and named after the rocky soil in northern Lincoln County, TN) was born.
“I thought I hated growing up on a farm, but as I got older, I realized there was absolutely nothing better. And I kept having a strong, emotional pull that I wanted to raise our kids the same way, not necessarily milking three times a day, but in agriculture, on a farm somehow. Walt and I had cattle on a little farm [at the time], but of course nothing like we have today,” Jennie says.
Both Jennie and Walt have a lifetime of agriculture experience across a variety of segments of the livestock industry. Jennie grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana, had internships in farrowing and breeding units and worked on a horticulture farm, before graduating from college and landing a job in advertising in Chicago. That eventually led her to a job in livestock marketing and sales with Pfizer Animal Health, which is how she met Walt. Walt also grew up on a dairy farm and had hog and life-long beef experience as well; managing a ranch in Oklahoma before coming back home to run work on of the largest Angus operations in the U.S.
Part of that job experience for Jennie, traveling and eating at fancy restaurants while making sales calls for Pfizer, inspired Pilaroc’s creation.
“I would take customers to an upscale restaurant in Nashville and the menu would say they were serving ‘local beef,’ but the local beef was coming from Colorado. I didn't understand why that was happening when there were so many cattle in Tennessee. Why weren't they getting beef more locally?” Jennie asked. “That spawned the idea of starting to sell beef. Originally to restaurants and grocery stores and then direct to consumer.”
Leveraging Jennie’s sales and marketing background, one of the benefits of going “Roc-to-Fork” was the ability to market and sell their beef with prices they set themselves, “We worked hard to get that animal to the plate. We wanted to be the ones to sell it to the consumer, not leave our efforts in the hands of an order buyer on weaning day at the sale barn,” they say.
As they partnered with local restaurants and grocery stores, they were ready to diversify; going straight to consumers at markets, and they also added pigs into the mix.
“We knew whatever we did, we were going to be breeding-to-table. We originally purchased some feeder pigs to test the waters with pork in our area, and then did a lot of examining and researching to figure out what the best breeds were to cross for meat quality, for fat quality, for tenderness, and started to grow our herd from there.” Walt says. “If I have a passion, genetics is it. Finding little avenues of genetics to explore and flush out. And with pigs, you can obviously find out what your pairings did a lot quicker than you can with a cow. Our goal is to breed the perfect pork chop and bring back the desire for fat.”
Jennie echoes the importance of genetics and meat quality to keep the business future-focused and growing.
“It’s been a long road, but I've finally gotten people to not compare us to the Walmart’s of the world and compare us to people that do what we do. So then how are we different than the people that do what we do? Walt thinks I’m great at utilizing my background to market our product, but what is truly going to differentiate us is his genetics mastermind, helping us create the most perfect consumable product we can with the resources we have. Knowing what's in his brain is what is going drive our uniqueness into the future,” she says.
Pilaroc also added lamb to their product menu about a year after launching with beef and pork. Jennie sees it as another unique characteristic of their business. “Carrying lamb is certainly setting us apart, but I also love encouraging people to try lamb if they never have. We assumed that it would only sell at Christmas or Easter, but it has really taken off. Lamb is hard to find in this area, it's just not a big seller like it would be maybe in Colorado or out West, so it's fun being able to say that we have almost an ‘exotic’ meat,” Jennie says.
Saving the cost of a storefront, Pilaroc sells out of their customized trailer, dubbed the “Famous Meat Wagon,” that almost functions as a mobile butcher shop, allowing customers to see individual cuts of meat and talk over their selection. When COVID-19 put a hold on farmer’s markets and their meat wagon, Jennie started doing porch deliveries, which they have since paused as Tennessee and Alabama have started to open back up and farmer’s markets are available again, but are considering deliveries, and shipping, as part of the future business model.
“Jeff Bezos has totally spoiled us into thinking that we're supposed to have something on our porch within 24-to-48 hours. And even pre-COVID-19, some people preferred not to go into a grocery store if they didn’t have to, with store pick-up and shipping becoming popular. Consumers are looking for more convenient options,” Jennie says. “And with the huge push for local the last three months, our ability to pivot to deliveries of a product the consumer was demanding, was a no-brainer. We picked up a significant number of new customers not only because of the local movement but also because we were offering delivery.”
Their primary marketing efforts, aside from a website and eNewsletter, are active Facebook and Instagram pages, making connections with customers and potential customers alike, showcasing everyday life on the farm and helping connect consumers to their food. Featured heavily are the kids—Wyatt, Tensie Ruth and John Colyar, also known as the board of directors—because the kids are a large part of the driving force behind the business, as well as a play on Jennie’s corporate past, where titles mean a lot to some.
“I love when people come in and say ‘we've been following you on social media for a long time. I love your family and blog posts. And finally, we've been able to hit this farmers market or try your meats through a friend.’ They appreciate that we're trying to be authentic, to put a face with this meat business, and that we don't take ourselves too seriously. We try to have fun, and yes days are hard but for the most part, we laugh a lot. And it’s exactly how we want to raise our family,” Jennie says.