Outstanding Young Farm Family – Pork Division
When Reggie Blair’s little piggys went to market, it made all the difference for life down on the farm in Ashland.
Instead of getting 50 cents on the pound for his 250-pound market hogs, Blair ships his hogs to his own packinghouse where they end up as Cheaha Mountain Sausage at $1.89 per pound.Of course, they could also become center-cut pork chops at $1.99 per pound, Boston butts at $1.69 per pound, a rack of ribs at $2.19 per pound, or tenderloin at $2.99 per pound. All shrink-wrapped and ready to go, just like in the grocery store.”The meat market was a way for us to keep farming, to make a little more profit,” said Blair, who along with his wife Amanda and 3-year-old daughter Rilee, are recognized as the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Outstanding Young Farm Family in the Pork Division.”We wanted to take our product all the way from the farm to the dinner plate,” he continued. “We wanted to grow it, process it and sell it straight to the person’s house.”The Blairs have done just that by buying Mathews Meat Market, a family-run packinghouse that has been doing a steady business from the same small block-and-brick building just off Alabama 49 outside Lineville for the last 43 years. Reggie bought the business on Sept. 1, 2004, soon after graduating from Auburn University with a degree in meat science, only the second degree of its kind ever bestowed from the school of animal science. He had worked at the packinghouse part time so he knew the tradition Charles and Grace Mathews had begun with their sausage business. He also knew enough about the taste of that sausage that he didn’t change a thing — the Mathews name remains on the door, and the family recipe for its best-selling item, Cheaha Mountain Sausage, remains untouched. “It’s their recipe, but we own the rights to it as long as we own the business,” said Reggie.He also has been experimenting with his own sausage recipe, using some low-salt seasonings. “If you’ve got good pork, just about any seasoning is going to be pretty good,” he said. “It’s not the seasoning — it’s more the fat (content) in the meat.”That’s why he takes two inches of back fat and mixes it back into the sausage. “That’s where the taste comes from,” he said. It was actually because of the meat market’s success — the Blairs sell about 400 pounds of sausage a week — that Reggie decided to begin his pork operation. Now he processes four to 10 of his own hogs a week, about the same number he buys from a supplier.”I use my own hogs, plus buy hogs from other farms for my meat market,” he said. “I would like to get to the point that I could supply all the hogs I need for the market, not just for supply’s sake but also for the quality.”That wish may come sooner than he’d like — his main outside supplier plans to call it quits this December.The Blairs are off to a good start should that happen. They began with two sows, but that’s grown to 10 sows and 27 pigs — 11 suckling, 8 weanlings and 8 finishing — on a dirt lot in a converted poultry house. When his pigs reach 80 to 160 pounds, he begins finishing them with a mixture of corn, soybean meal and minerals.In addition, Reggie and his father, Reginald Blair, and grandfather, Gordon Blair, have about 150 head of Simmental-Angus crossed cattle. Some of those cattle also make it to the Blairs’ meat market and into the retail coolers as steaks, chuck roasts, ground chuck, or stew meat. A choice grade of rib eye is the hottest-selling beef item.”And wouldn’t you know that I don’t have any meat at home,” exclaimed Amanda Blair who runs the retail end of the market while Reggie cuts the meat. “I’m always around it, and I don’t even think about bringing it home.”Then, of course, there are the side items — big bags of vegetables such as peas, butter beans, okra, along with frozen biscuits and yeast rolls. Of course, since the sausage sells so well, it was a cinch that the biscuits would be the top non-meat seller at about 1,080 biscuits a week.Deer season also means even more business. Last year, the Blairs processed 543 deer even though the state’s harvest was down 30 percent. The charge for processing is $50 for regular cut, $60 for breakfast sausage and $100 for smoked.He also does custom packing of pork, beef, sheep and goats.The market is open daily 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Wednesdays and Saturdays when it closes at 1 p.m. It’s always closed on Sundays.A state inspector comes by three days a week to make sure the market meets all the requirements.On busy days, Reggie can think back on the days before he returned to school when he labored as a substitute mail carrier, a substitute school bus driver, a part-time meter reader, and as a farmer.”There were a lot more hours back then,” he said. “But this is a lot more fun.”He grew up farming with his Dad and said his grandfathers — 91-year-old G.G. Blair and 80-year-old Earl Hayes — are still farming fulltime. “It’s what I enjoy. I want my daughter to grow up and have the same experiences I have had.”He also wants to experience life as his grandfather. “That’s my goal, to retire when I’m 100. I figure if I make it that long, I’ll be ready to do something else.”