It may seem contradictory for a real estate developer to buy 640 acres of land to become a farmer. It may seem more unusual for that farmer to start breeding long-haired Scottish Highland cattle in the heart of Alabama. But that’s exactly what’s happening at Katie Farms in Coker, Ala.
Jon Fleenor, owner of Main Street Development in Tuscaloosa, and his wife Dr. Margaret Purcell, a professor at the University of Alabama, bought Katie Farms six years ago and named it in honor of the previous owner.
“We started just growing food for us,” Purcell said. “The first year we grew way too much, and we started giving things away. So the next year we went to farmers markets and shortly after, the restaurants came to ask about our food. It was almost like it was meant to be.”
Today, the farm is home to turkeys, chickens and honeybees. The couple grows and sells seasonal vegetables and fruits including blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, squash, sweet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes and turnip greens.
When they decided to expand their operation to include cattle, the green-horn farmers turned to the long-horned Scottish Highland breed.
“We’ve gotten a lot of stares and people asking questions,” Fleenor said. “These cattle are fantastic foragers. They can live off of something another cow couldn’t survive on.”
Fleenor said the cattle are docile and hardy. Their disease-resistance and calving ease made the breed even more desirable.
“These animals, if they had to, could live in the wild,” Purcell said. “We take care of them much better than that, but it’s a good trait to have.”
Although native to Scotland, the cattle adapt well to warm environments, as long as they have plenty of water and shady retreats to rest in during the heat of the day.
Katie Farms sits on an artesian well, which has allowed the couple to install sprinklers in the pasture.
“We turn those on in the afternoons (when temperatures are hot),” Fleenor said. “Those cows will stand under the sprinklers for hours. A lot of breeders we talked to have lakes and ponds for them to get into and cool off.”
During the summer, the cattle shed some of their hair and become accustomed to early morning and late-night grazing.
With the insulation provided by their long hair, Scottish Highland cattle are known to produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.
“Some restaurants like Highland meat the same way they like buffalo,” Purcell said. “Breeders have turned to Highland because they are easier to work. Buffalo are more rough-around-the-edges, and they’re bigger.”
Fleenor said beef from a Highland and Hereford cross is great on the dinner table. However, Katie Farms is strictly a cow-calf operation. After their first breeding season in 2011, the herd increased by three bulls and one heifer.
Being new to the business of farming, Fleenor said he’s relied on the help of farmers from the Tuscaloosa Farmers Federation and the Tuscaloosa Farmers Co-op for tips and advice.
“I talk to our local farmers and ask about different farming techniques,” he said. “Other farmers may be vaccinating 1,000 head and here I am with just 13. But he’ll take his time to tell me and help. Farmers really do support one another.”
Katie Farms is one of six Scottish Highland operations in Alabama licensed with the American Highland Cattle Association.
Many visitors, including University of Alabama students in Purcell’s classes, have stopped by the farm for a first-hand look at the shaggy cattle and leave with a greater understanding of local foods.
Fleenor and Purcell welcome guests, but ask them to schedule an appointment beforehand by calling (205) 535-0066. To find out more, go to www.VisitKatieFarms.com.