At Northwest Land and Livestock, farming is truly a family affair. Founded by Doug and Cathie McCollum, the farm is one of the largest cattle and hog operations in the state.
The McCollums’ son-in-law Russ Pinkelman jokingly refers to himself as “just a monkey” in the scheme of things, but he has been involved in the family business since marrying the McCollums’ daughter Jeannie. Pinkelman grew up on a Nebraska farm and brought knowledge of animal husbandry, as well as construction and mechanical skills, to the mix.
“Two farmers put their heads together and all hell broke loose,” Pinkelman said. The McCollums came to Alaska in 1968 from Montana and purchased a 320-acre parcel of land. They owned Delta Concrete for 35 years but kept their hand in agriculture. Since 1984 they have raised Galloway cattle. Today they raise 500 head per year. Yorkshire/Berkshire hogs joined the farm 13 years ago; they number 400 per year.
The Pinkelmans’ sons, Wes, Chad and Matt, still help out. “When we need heavy work done they show up,” Pinkelman said.
“Some families don’t work but we make it work,” Pinkelman summed up the farm’s philosophy. “It takes every one of us to make it work,” he said. “We all have a part in it.” McCollum, Pinkelman and a hired hand run the farm while Jeannie and Cathie manage Delta Meat and Sausage, a slaughtering and processing plant.
In addition to the animals, the family grows hay on 1,000 acres, using it for feed and selling the rest to other animal producers.
For Northwest Land and Livestock, the secret to success is selling directly to consumers. Some of the products are sold to stores, but mainly the animals are raised on the farm, processed at the family plant and sold to customers.
“Direct marketing is key for us,” Pinkelman said. “We cut out the middleman. We stuck our neck out to raise stock and build a USDA-approved plant.”
Quality is another important factor. “If you raise a good quality product people want to have it,” he said. “The market is there. If there were enough producers we could establish steady supplies.” The demand for Alaska-grown beef is so great that the farm maintains a waiting list.
Growing up on a farm gives an extra advantage, Pinkelman said. “The things you learned from your dad and grandpa help you. You know you’ve got to fight the elements and you know there are going to be losses.”
Pinkelman compared farming to a trip to Las Vegas. “It’s a gamble but you take on another year and hope for good results.”
His advice to anyone considering getting into farming is to start out creeping, then crawl before you even think of running. “Don’t think you are going to set the world on fire. If you are going to raise animals you have to have your feed base and marketing. It’s not going to happen overnight. And you’re going to have to deal with hardships.”
He added, “Go ask somebody who’s done it.”
To encourage young farmers, the farm supplies calves and piglets to 4-H and FFA members. The students raise the animals to sell at fair time. Also teenagers are hired to help out every summer.
An exciting new venture is selling beef and pork to school lunch programs across the state, through the Farm to School program. “Our meat is getting into schools in Kotzebue, Tanana, the Pribilofs,” Pinkelman said.
“As far as the product, we’re into natural beef raised on hay. The product sells itself.”
The greatest challenge is the cost of farming. “It’s a struggle,” Pinkelman said. The increasing costs of fertilizer and feed are really having an effect. There is room to grow, but how much growth depends on feed availability and manpower. “We know what we can raise and where we can sell it,” Pinkelman said. “We’re not state-of-the-art but we know how to raise animals.”
In Pinkelman’s view Northwest Land and Livestock may not be gangbusters but the success the family has achieved came from hard work and perseverance. “There’s an old saying that next year will save us,” he said.
“You’ve got to be crazy; that helps.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.