Growing Healthy Foods to Nourish the Community and the Earth

Clutch MOV is proud to sponsor this year’s Mid-Ohio Valley Entrepreneur of the Year. Clutch MOV envisions a community where citizens can take risks on the promise that success would uplift the residents of our valley. Our artists, creators, innovators, and small business owners strive to build something new, better meet the needs of our community, and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of our region. These entrepreneurs are on the edge, finding new ways to build, create, and serve. This year we received dozens of nominations for innovative, forward-thinking, community-building entrepreneurs from the Mid-Ohio Valley. The panel believed five individuals stood out for the impact they are making through their work. We are sharing their stories in this series.

Many people dream of leaving their high stress jobs behind and starting a new life in the country, but few actually take the leap. Eric and Kayla Gibson took that leap, and left their lucrative careers to start Sugar Butte Farms in Lowell, Ohio. Their innovative farming techniques and commitment to healthy, sustainable foods have resulted in a thriving business that continues to grow. The Gibsons had a successful business within the cheerleading community and are proud of the work they did to build a company. “We have always been ‘do it yourself’ people. We are innovators and like to utilize our own interests when building a career.“ When they realized they wouldn’t be part of the cheerleading world long-term, they turned to nutrition and focused on the foods their family was consuming.

The more they researched, the more convinced the Gibsons became that they needed to make a difference. “We learned about farming practices and food labeling that did not align with our beliefs. We are seeing documentaries and articles about tainted farming practices; It is painful, and it is turning people away from consuming meat products. Sometimes these conflicting sources have hidden agendas. As a result, we become afraid. When we learned about these farming practices, we became fearful too. But instead of reacting in anger and sadness, we felt the call to be proactive.”

We formed a farm that allows animals to express their primal characteristics and are fed the most nutritious diet possible.

The first step toward their new life was selling their belongings and moving to Lowell. The Gibsons built their own house, bought their first chickens, and began learning everything they could. They began with the basics of farming, learned from the best organic and sustainable farmers, then applied their own abilities and knowledge to developing a business farm. They suggest others learn from more experienced people when starting a business. “Seek out mentors to help you along the way and give yourself grace for the times you do not succeed and need more mentorship.”

A screen printing businesses in their garage was the primary source of income for a while, until the pandemic shut the country down and eliminated much of their screen printing orders. At the same time, people were suddenly cooking at home more frequently and becoming more interested in healthy food choices. The Gibsons then had to dip into their savings, because increased customers also meant the need for more livestock and equipment. They shared this advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “Carrying debt brings stress on your business from the beginning. Before you begin your business, build yourself a nest egg. Debt often results in cutting corners and when raising living creatures, we felt that was not acceptable.”

The farm itself is a labor of love, requiring long hours of physical work. The Gibsons and their young son Will perform every task in the Sugar Butte business, and their unique mission demands even more time and effort. They never use hormones or GMO feeds, and their supplemental feed is a custom organic mix. The meat chickens are moved to fresh grass every day using a specialized “chicken tractor” to provide them a clean, healthy, food-rich environment. The pigs are also moved, even through the woods, to allow them to grow more naturally. All the livestock is cared for in a personal, caring manner; in the spirit of transparency customers are welcome to visit the farm and see how the animals are raised.

The Gibsons’ method of farming has a positive impact that goes beyond the eggs and meat. “We formed a farm that allows animals to express their primal characteristics and are fed the most nutritious diet possible. Remarkably, it doesn’t stop there. We learned that our type of farming restores the earth. We sometimes joke and call ourselves “soil farmers.” Soil is more important than we ever realized. It is alive and it plays such an important role in our ecosystem. We have big plans to keep expanding our farm but bigger plans for keeping our earth alive and well. After all, our lives depend on it.”

We have not only built a farm with ethical practices but we have built awareness and better options for the community.

The Gibsons are very proud that their mission to provide healthy food for their own family has developed a loyal customer base that continues to expand. “We have not only built a farm with ethical practices but we have built awareness and better options for the community. This operation began as a way to control the products we feed our family – we had hoped other families would jump on board with our ‘experiment’ and they did!” Sugar Butte Farms sells at several farmers markets, at the farm, and through scheduled “meet-ups” at various sites. They are seeing a growing number of people eagerly waiting for the opportunity to try their products.

That customer base is the most rewarding part of the Gibons’ journey. They love to hear the stories and testimonials from their supporters. “Our customers and supporters have placed their resources and trust in us. They have made the extra effort to forego the convenience of the grocery store and seek out our farm, our meet-ups, and market appearances. They are finding us for the health of their family and peace of mind of knowing everything about their food and how it is part of restoring the earth. Having the direct source to sale relationship in a business we own is not only motivational but it also demands that we grow and keep these families nourished.”

Because sustainable, healthy food is not usually the least expensive option, part of the Gibsons’ role is to educate people about the difference. “Initially, we were on a mission to nourish the MOV and help create a healthier community. That was our number one goal. We quickly learned that this mission seemed a bit critical or intimidating to some and that people value our operation in a couple of different ways. Some prefer the humane management and practices we use. Many are fans of the rich flavor and satisfying texture of our meat. Others appreciate the restoration of the soil. All those aspects are important to our customers, so we’ve made them equal parts of our own mission.”

If there’s one thing the Gibsons wish more people knew about Sugar Butte Farms, it’s how much strength is required to run the business. The daily operation takes a toll not only mentally and emotionally, but mostly physically. Each delicious cut of meat has a story behind it, of the hard work and labor that went into producing it.

“We take a physical beating day after day and it is essential that we become stronger. Not just physically, but mentally! We drag feeders and waterers through the woods. We cut down trees, drag brush and stack huge logs to cut paddocks. We have no option other than to be strong. There are days that we do this in the snow and ice and other days in the dead of the heat. Sometimes our body physically gives out on us before the work is done. Then it becomes a mental game. We draw from our past and become each other’s cheerleader (yes, we met in the cheerleading world!) We push for these awesome creatures who work hard and give their life for us!”

I may not be able to use a chainsaw and clear out our biggest trees but I have learned to modify my physical capabilities so that I play an essential role on the farm.

Being a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year is an opportunity for the Gibsons to share their story and shine a light on farming. Kayla wants other women to know that the lifestyle isn’t just for men. “The way we farm requires an instinctually nurturing production model. I was born with it and I fit the part. I may not be able to use a chainsaw and clear out our biggest trees but I have learned to modify my physical capabilities so that I play an essential role on the farm.”

The Gibsons also want to refute the claim that one cannot earn a living as a farmer. They explain that our culture sometimes thinks of farmers simply doing their job because they love it and it may be all they know. “We do love it but we are also smart business people. We are well aware that we will not be here in five years if we do not focus on the economics behind our operation. We only publicly share the fun stuff such as pig moves and the baby chicks in the brooder. What our supporters don’t see is that we have numerous spreadsheets, growth charts, feed to carcass ratios, profits, reinvestments, and amortization of shelters. At the end of the day this is a career for us and we will treat it as such.”

Eric and Kayla Gibson are determined to uphold their mission of raising healthy, happy animals to provide sustainable quality foods for their community. Through hard work, education and the testimonials of satisfied customers, Sugar Butte Farms is growing to be a thriving business that will continue offering healthy options while enriching the very earth that feeds it.

The 2021 MOV Entrepreneur of the Year will be publicly announced during a special program during the Mid-Ohio Valley Entrepreneurial Expo on September 23rd, 2021 hosted by Marietta College, following a panel discussion with all five finalists. Register today!