| Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE – Ten months since he last worked a shift in his butcher shop, Casey McKissick drove a dump truck through snowy, frigid weather. It was not glamorous work, but none of the industries he’s been a part of are supposed to be.
The co-founder of Foothills Local Meats and related butcher shops and restaurants, McKissick was clearing some land in Ridgecrest as part of his latest pandemic pivot, Foothills Land Care.
It’s work that’s bringing him back to his roots, and there’s no such thing as bad weather — just bad clothing, he said.
“I’m juggling weather and machinery again, and lot of these lessons are similar to working on the farm,” he said. “I don’t like to sit around.”
Once a wilderness instructor at The Mountain Institute, a preservation organization, McKissick is tapping into Western North Carolina’s construction boom as people snap up parcels of land.
With about half of his land care clients needing help with agricultural ventures, McKissick is using his years of experience in sustainability to help others get into local farming from the ground up.
It’s grounding, the dirty work of setting up agricultural operations, laying waterlines, doing field prep and clearing the way for roads.
“Hopefully, the economy of the restaurant world comes back to some semblance of normalcy, but until then, it seems like a good time to get back to our roots and put our hands in the soil,” McKissick said.
The importance of dirt
It’s not all done by hand. The company has invested in light- to medium-duty construction vehicles, including a single-axle dump truck, an excavator, a new tractor and other tools of the trade.
“It’s money, but it turns out the profit margins of this kind of work are much better than in the restaurant business, and this has actually helped us to stay open and to keep people working,” McKissick said.
There’s a sense of control that comes with the hardest hands-in-the-dirt work, helping farmers repair fences and even, sometimes, shoveling manure.
But also, sharing the principles of proper soil management is good for the health of the local ecology as the region experiences growth.
Farmers see the import in soil in a way that traditional builders might not.
Humans developing the mountains have a knack for violently disturbing the ground, which can lead to soil erosion, sediment in streams and stormwater and, eventually, sinkholes.
“A lot of what we do has to do with retaining soil structure,” McKissick explained. “How to clear land and do it in a sustainable way that doesn’t upset the ecology in the topsoil.”
He’s combatting that with machinery, including a drum mulcher that shreds vegetation without disturbing the ground, returning the remnants to the soil to keep carbon where it belongs.
“Our philosophy and our background is that we protect soil, period,” he said. “That’s the basis of where the food comes from.”
From the farm to the plate and back
McKissick first began farming in earnest in 2002, eventually launching a 32-farmer marketing co-op under the name Foothills Family Farms, selling to tailgate markets and local restaurants.
The way McKissick tells it, he got into the restaurant business almost by accident. He wanted to support local farmers and figured the best way was to buy whole animals and learn how to use each part.
Even his wife Amanda McKissick’s business, Greenbee Cleaning Company, launched a line of products made with rendered beef tallow to use every last bit.
In 2013, he co-founded the Foothills Meats Butcher Shop, in part to reimagine nostalgic childhood fare like hot dogs and bologna sandwiches using local meat.
Aggressive expansion would follow, to include a food truck at Hi-Wire Brewing Big Top that sold handmade hot dogs, big sandwiches and smash burgers.
Then there were two new restaurants, one in West Asheville and another in Black Mountain, both anchored by butcher shops.
At some point, managing them all became more of a hands-off affair.
“I’d been pushing so many pencils, I lost the callouses I had on my hands for most of my life,” McKissick said. “I was getting soft around the midsection.”
McKissick was also missing time with his boys, ages 9 to nearly 13.
Then, in March 2020, COVID shut down dining rooms as the businesses were really beginning to hum. McKissick quickly expanded home delivery options, but his bottom line took a hit.
As revenue plummeted, Foothills’ team of 75 employees was whittled to eight by the end of March.
Now there are 16, in part because they’re cross trained in the kitchen and field, an opportunity to work safely outside while building new skills.
“For us, culturally, it’s one more thing we can offer our employees, and in that way we’re more well-rounded than most restaurants,” McKissick said.
After working for four years with Foothills, Meg Montgomery, who manages the Black Mountain butchery, now spends about one day a week in the field.
She’s no stranger to the work, having learned whole-animal butchery on a Massachusetts farm where she gained a background in agriculture and all the work it entails.
Spending time in the sun has been good for Montgomery’s mental health, as has working for a company that’s stayed true to its roots during an otherwise unstable time, she said.
“Casey has worn a lot of hats, and I feel grateful that we’re able to benefit from that,” she said. “His stewardship for the land motto has really brought our company full circle, back to where he started in the beginning.”
As Foothills Land Care has helped shore up the rest of his business, it’s enabled an even deeper dive into a sustainable farming ethos.
It’s also helped McKissick spend more time with his boys. Faced with remote learning, they expressed more interest in farming, trucks and tractors, and began learning business literally in the field.
He and his family are working to ramp up crop production at the Foothills Family Farm in Old Fort once again, with plans to bring back pork production this year.
“It feels natural and authentic for this to be the next stage of it,” McKissick said. “We’re living the mission of the ‘honest meat’ thing.”
Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
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