Before the picnic baskets are unpacked and the fireworks are ignited this Fourth of July, thousands of Alabama families will make tracks to their favorite barbecue joint to stock up on ribs and Boston butts. For many of those, that means a trip to the Marshall County community of Union Grove where Howard and John Gibson are busy cooking some of the best pork barbecue around.As soon as customers get out of their cars at the Gibson farm, they are greeted by the rich aroma of hickory smoke and perhaps a faint whiff of sage and red pepper. That’s because, in addition to barbecue, the Gibsons are famous around these parts for their fresh pork sausage.Howard said the family’s custom meat business began more than 30 years ago when he started making a few pounds of sausage for his neighbors.”I was farming and working in civil service at the time, and I started grinding a little sausage in the kitchen. It just took off from there,” Howard recalled.Today, the sausage and barbecue business is more than just a sideline for the Gibsons. It’s how the farm markets its two major commodities–grain and hogs.Howard’s son, John, explained that he plants about 400 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans each year. The corn and some of the wheat are used as feed in the Gibsons’ 300-head, farrow-to-finish hog operation. The hogs, in turn, sustain the meat business.Economists refer to this strategy of homegrown marketing as a “valued-added” system. The Gibson’s simply call it survival.At a time when low prices have forced many pork producers out of business, the Gibsons have been able to adapt to change by providing consumers a farm-fresh alternative to supermarket meats.”We would have been out of business years ago if it hadn’t been for this place right here,” Howard said. “We would have been out of the row cropping and the hog business.”Walking through the sow barn, John said his dad actually started raising hogs in 1964. Over the years, the Gibsons raised purebred Durocs and ran a finishing operation before getting back into the sow business in 1992. By then, however, most of the hog buying stations in the area had closed their doors due to consolidation of the meat packing industry.”After Daddy retired in 1990, we built this building and topped (finished hogs) in it for two years,” John said. “When all the barns closed down, we got back into the sow business. Now, we just try to raise enough hogs for our own business.”Without the meat store, the younger Gibson admits he probably couldn’t raise hogs because the nearest place to sell them is in Tennessee. In contrast, the Gibsons don’t have to drive anywhere to sell their sausage and barbecue. Their customers come to them–purchasing what amounts to about six hogs a week at the on-farm store.The Gibsons sell about 500 pounds of sausage a week as well as smaller quantities of sugar-cured bacon, fresh pork chops, tenderloin and country-cured ham. This time of year, however, some of their biggest sellers are their hickory smoked ribs and pulled barbecue.Although the Gibsons have only been in the grilling business a little more than a year, they are quickly earning a reputation among barbecue connoisseurs. In fact, a former cook at one of north Alabama’s more popular barbecue restaurants said Howard’s ribs were the best he’d ever eaten.The secret is slow cooking and a special dry rub, Howard said. Lifting one of the steel lids on his 20-foot barbecue pit, the self-taught chef explained that he starts the meat cooking at the end nearest the fire where the temperature hovers around 350 degrees. A few hours later, he moves the ribs, hams and Boston butts closer to the chimney where the temperature is about 200 degrees. After six hours (total), the ribs are so tender the meat will fall right of the bone, Howard said.The flavor comes from hickory smoke–which is drawn across the meat from a fire box at one end of the pit–and from a dry rub made of salt, brown sugar, cayenne pepper and black pepper. But Howard is quick to point out that all the seasoning in the world won’t make good barbecue, if you don’t start with good meat.For this veteran pork producer, that means hogs that are three-quarter Duroc. Other breeds, he argues, just aren’t as good, especially when it comes to making sausage.Whether it’s the Duroc hogs or Howard’s skill as a butcher, customers seem to agree that Gibson’s Farm Fresh sausage tastes better. Using mostly word-of-mouth advertising, Howard and John have grown their business to the point that it now draws folks from hundreds of miles away.”We have quite a few people come up her from Birmingham,” Howard said. “And we have one customer that drives from north of Memphis to buy sausage. Customers say it’s just like the sausage they used to have as kids when their parents ground their own.””A lot of people buy the sausage and ship it overnight to their relatives,” John added.The Gibsons’ hot and mild sausages are made using a commercial blend of spices, and each batch is ground three times to get just the right consistency.Howard warns customers, however, that it may be a little leaner than what they are used to buying in the grocery store. “We get more complaints about our sausage being too lean than too fat,” he said.One thing customers don’t complain about, though, is how fresh it tastes. Because they make sausage every Wednesday, it is seldom more than three days old when bought. For those who prefer to freeze their purchases, the Gibsons have a fully-equipped, health-inspected meat packing facility that includes a stuffing machine that’s used to make neat, two-pound packages of sausage as well as a vacuum packer for barbecue, bacon and ham.The store at the Gibsons’ farm is open Wednesday-Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Howard said his sisters, Mary Sturgeon and Shirley Parker, help keep the store open during the week and his daughter, Jenny Ann Isom, sometimes helps out on Saturdays. Meanwhile, John is responsible for the row crops and hogs, which he manages with the help of one part-time employee. John, who works part-time at the Marshall Farmers Cooperative in nearby Arab, said the meat business has grown to the point that he soon will be back on the farm full time. As for the future, the young farmer said he hopes to see the business expand gradually.”We’ve really grown into this business over the years, and it has allowed us to continue farming,” he said. “We’d like to keep it about where it is for now and continue to grow some as we go.”
For more information or directions, call John or Howard Gibson at (256) 753-6618.