Will Witherspoon of Shire Gate Farm

Photograph courtesy of Will Witherspoon

As we approach this year's Green Sports Alliance (GSA) Summit (happening in Chicago, IL this weekend), NFL player turned cattle rancher Will Witherspoon offers insight into why good food goes hand-in-hand with good sports. The founder of Shire Gate Farm, Will is one of the most remarkable farmers we've had the pleasure of speaking with. He's also a father, an athlete and an enthusiastic spokesperson for responsible agriculture. He's sure to give a rousing talk at this year's GSA Summit, and we can't wait to see where his work and the food movement he supports will lead us next.

How did a professional football player get into farming? Did anyone or any experiences in particular inspire you?

Well, my introduction to life with animals came from my great-grandma's little farm in Florida. I visited as a kid and from her I got a good understanding of what I could accomplish as a farmer - growing crops on acreage, raising animals. I purchased Shire Gate Farm in 2007 as a home for my Shire horses, Rocky and Simon, and as the farm grew I decided to turn Shire Gate into a working farm and added cattle. I went out to buy a few head of cattle and came home with 16 - so I figured I better learn how to raise cattle, and quick. I asked myself, if I wanted to raise the best possible animal I would want to eat, how would I do that? As I looked into different management styles I realized I disagreed with commodity beef's top-down approach. At that point I wanted to understand how to produce cattle in a sustainable environment and in a healthier form for everyone involved - hoof to plate. To me, both football and farming are labors of love. They're both something that you have to enjoy doing to really want to be part of it, and you have to be willing to put the work in to get the results you want.

Why did you choose to become certified Animal Welfare Approved?

When I was researching cattle breeds and decided on White Park cattle, my focus on pasture-based farming lead me to AWA. AWA set forward a process that fit the mold I wanted to fit into: animals raised sustainably and healthily. I wanted Shire Gate Farm to be true to nature and true to the way things should be done, and that means putting the welfare and care of the animals first. It means a lot that AWA is self-funded and independent - I don't write them a check, so there's no question that if I'm Certified AWA, I'm following all the standards and protocols. And I'm reviewed every year, which is great because things can change over the year and that's just one more added assurance to my customers that I'm staying on track and doing the right thing. AWA is also great about supporting me if I have questions about management, or breeds - they're really the best of both worlds in terms of independent third party certification and help and support to work with you to meet the standards.

When the bigger players in the food industry raise their game, and start sourcing local, sustainably-produced food in this way, it can lay the foundations for real change - not just at sports venues, but everywhere.

Your sustainably produced burgers and hot dogs went on sale last fall at the Edward Jones Dome, home to the St. Louis Rams - do you expect to see more sports stadiums offering sustainable food options anytime soon?

Yes! I think it's a great thing. I'm speaking at the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Chicago and that's absolutely going to be part of the discussion. Sports and the environment of sports can be a great catalyst for the type of change we're talking about. Stadiums are looking to improve their footprint and provide sustainably produced products, and the demand for those products is in the hands of consumers.

One of our big goals is to eliminate the elitist factor that can come with grass-fed beef. Every day, more and more people are starting to understand where their food comes from, where it begins, and instead they're learning that there's another way to do this. When the bigger players in the food industry raise their game, and start sourcing local, sustainably-produced food in this way, it can lay the foundations for real change - not just at sports venues, but everywhere.

We know that there is growing interest in sustainable food across the country. Where do you see Shire Gate Farm in the next five years?

In the next 5 years I think Shire Gate will become the farm I've always wanted it to be. My hope is to have a full roundhouse of products, not just beef, and to have a truly sustainable working farm in that sense. That said, we may not be producing a massive amount of products, and I'm hoping to work with many sister farms to provide product to consumers on commercial scale in a sustainable manner. For customers, it's an opportunity to come directly to the farmer and order hot dogs and burgers without all the red tape - and to have it delivered to their doorsteps. And on the producer side, we're trying to give farmers a place where they can grow into bigger markets and not feel confined to trade animals into supply chains for pennies on the dollar. It's an exciting opportunity to grow and to work with other farmers to meet the consumer demand for sustainable, high welfare, healthy meat.

You have kids, right? What do they think about food and farming?

Yes, three daughters - Layne, Maya and Shaye. When I asked my 8 year-old Maya where food should come from she said, "I think food should be raised on a farm." If you ask where chicken or beef come from they're not going to say Publix or Kroger or Jewel or whatever your regional chain may be, they're going to say from this farm, from this family farm. It's been a great opportunity for my girls to learn where food comes from and how healthy it can be for them. I want my kids, and all kids, to grow up in a way that is more in touch with the natural environment.

What can sports fans and athletes do to promote better food in the sports world?

I think sports fans have the power to just ask for it. How difficult was it in the past to have vegetarian or vegan options in a sports stadium? But then people started asking, and stadiums made it happen. If the consumer starts wanting something, the sports world will find a way to meet those demands. It can be done and can be done on a scale that many think is unimaginable. Now, athletes are uniquely positioned to promote better food, because we understand that what we're putting into our bodies improves our personal machines, our performance and our game. Athletes want to put best possible products on table or in the fridge, and I think there's a great opportunity there to support family farmers, visit farms and learn about how the best food is being produced.