From Football to Farming with Shire Gate Farm’s Will Witherspoon

October 12, 2015

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good, and we’re here in downtown Chicago, and we’ve got with us Will Witherspoon. Welcome to Green Is Good. Will Witherspoon: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It’s a good time. John Shegerian: Now, we’re going to be talking about Shire Gate Farm toda,y but before we get talking about Shire Gate Farm – which is your new venture – I want you to give the Will Witherspoon journey leading up to Shire Gate Farm. Your athletic days and everything. Will Witherspoon: I’m a military kid so that’s always part of it. John Shegerian: Yeah. Will Witherspoon: Travelled the world with my dad and ended up in Panama City, Florida, where we kind of did that. But jumping forward to when I got to college and playing football at the University of Georgia. I did my four years there and enjoyed it – great place which started my professional career. Twelve years in the NFL. Starting Carolina. I played for the Rams, of course. John Shegerian: Wow. Will Witherspoon: Philadelphia and Tennessee in those 12 years. John Shegerian: And you won a Super Bowl with the Rams. Will Witherspoon: Well, actually no. I didn’t win a Super Bowl with the Rams. John Shegerian: Oh, who were you with? Will Witherspoon: I was with the Panthers when we were in the Super Bowl, and we lost that Super bowl to the Patriots in 2003-2004 season. John Shegerian: OK. Will Witherspoon: So February 2004. John Shegerian: And you won the NFC Championship? Will Witherspoon: Won the NFC Championship. Great day. And you asked me earlier. John Shegerian: Yeah, big ring on that. Big ring. Will Witherspoon: If I put this gigantic ring on. It’s like super enormous and put away in a drawer. John Shegerian: Last season, didn’t you lead the team in tackles at some point? Will Witherspoon: Yeah. I’ve led the team in tackles before as the Rams’ 2007 MVP, and of course, in the Super Bowl that I played with in Carolina, I had 18 tackles in that game. A great day. Great day. John Shegerian: Huge. Will Witherspoon: Crazy game to think about. And in the midst of all this now – I don’t want to call it my “new venture” per se, but it’s a new old venture – I started Shire Gate Farm, which is my sustainable grass-fed beef ranch, and am enjoying that. John Shegerian: Will, how did you really come up with that? I mean, you had a fascinating life travelling the world with pops as a military child. You were a Georgia Bulldog so you got a great college education. NFL 12 years. What was the epiphany? Where was sustainability? Where did that come into your life? Will Witherspoon: Well, it starts with the job. John Shegerian: Yeah. Will Witherspoon: When I was playing football, one of the most important things was my diet. What you ate. Making sure you had great food on the plate. So when I bought the first piece of property for Shire Gate – for my horses, essentially – and I went out and bought some cattle to put on the property, I started looking at it and saying, “How would I want to put this beef on my plate? What would I want to produce and how would I want to fill that role for myself?” The easiest thing to come across was to look at it and say, “I want to do something that is great and sustainable,” so I’ve always looked at the beef I produce from hoof to plate. What is the best possible option and the best possible way to produce it? The other side of it is all my kids enjoy it. My oldest daughter is like my chicken house coop girl. At six in the morning, she’s up. John Shegerian: How old is she? Will Witherspoon: She’s 10 now. John Shegerian: And where is your farm? Will Witherspoon: My farm is just about an hour outside of St. Louis. It’s 60 miles southwest in Owensville, Missouri. I’ve got about 700 acres out there. John Shegerian: Wow. Will Witherspoon: A good mix of pasture and forest and creeks and lakes and everything else. It’s a great piece of property that I go out and enjoy whenever I can. John Shegerian: How many children do you have? Will Witherspoon: I’ve got three daughters. John Shegerian: So everyone lives on the farm or everyone lives in the city? Will Witherspoon: We live in St. Louis and, of course, with me still working with the Rams doing the Rams Radio Network, I’ve kind of got to live in town. It’s a little rough to drive 80 miles every day for work. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: But you look at it and go, “Alright, we can be here,” but it’s just far enough away, where you’re really out of the loop. My cell phone doesn’t work there, and if you want to call me, you’ve got to call my farm manager’s house and wait ‘til she gets the message to me. John Shegerian: How many people work on the farm for you? Will Witherspoon: Well, basically, there are four full-time employees and then a couple that really come into play – my farm manager and my dad being two of the top in there. My dad is enjoying his retirement – as we like to call it. Pops is pops and that’s what it is and everybody knows him as such. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Will Witherspoon: But the other employees are really there because moving cattle and range and stuff like that it doesn’t take a ton of extra effort, but moving the bodies around to what you need and where you need them is really the next step. John Shegerian: What does organic beef operation look like? Will Witherspoon: It’s a steady stream of cattle. I think, on the property, really, I only keep about 50 head at a time. John Shegerian: OK. Will Witherspoon: I work with a couple other farmers to produce and raise the cattle there so that way we can efficiently and sustainably produce all the animals we need to produce into the market and put them in a marketplace. So it’s a good steady kind of mechanical operation of how you move animals around from the number of animals that you are moving off the property to the number of animals moving on the property at a time and how you can improve that. How you can improve not only just their livelihood but also the flavor of the plate – is a great way to say it. John Shegerian: Will, what paradigm are you following? Is there a paradigm of organic cattle farming that you saw and said, “I want to replicate that somewhere?” Will Witherspoon: Yeah, actually. I work under the auspices of AWA, which is “Animal Welfare Approved.” As I got into cattle, I learned to really try and do my research and understand what I wanted. And again I asked myself that question, “How would I want to produce this?” and Animal Welfare has done a great job of really putting a great set of rules together. And the other thing is I don’t pay them for that certification. They’re independent. This company comes in and certifies my farm year in and year out, and it’s an independent certification. It’s one that I don’t have to go out and say, “I’ve got to pay you for this certification, so if I’m close, how good are we?” You’re either on the book or you’re not. And if there are adjustments and things, there is a timeframe to adjust and make sure that you can meet their certifications if they’ve made some changes in the rules or what may be happening. John Shegerian: Is there a lot of demand for organic beef now, or do you have to go out and market your beef and make your own marketplace? Will Witherspoon: You do have to market some, but the demand is there. I think you have more so than 10 years ago when I got started, the educated consumer. The consumer is reaching out day in and day out and wanting to know what is out there and what they can get their hands on; whether it be beef or poultry, eggs, cheese, dairy, it doesn’t matter. They are reaching out and trying to find where they can get those products. So there is a market, and yes, you do have to market some because people are reaching into a vast region, a vast marketplace, and the internet has done a great job of that. John Shegerian: Are you just right now just doing cattle? Will Witherspoon: Predominately cattle. I’m working on a couple things now looking at getting into eggs for a couple of the restaurateurs that we work alongside and butcher ships we work alongside as well. Then also working and partnering with two chefs in town locally getting ready to work on opening Community Kitchen, which is going to do food service. John Shegerian: That’s so nice. Will Witherspoon: We’ll do food service delivery, cooking education classes, catering. Just pretty much a full gambit of what people need. The quick and ready prep meal for the soccer mom trying to figure out how she is going to run three kids around and still get dinner on the table. John Shegerian: Can you give a shout out to some of the restaurants or butchers that are now carrying Shire Gate Farm beef? Will Witherspoon: Yeah. Of course, Butch and the Burger here in Chicago. Bullyards is one of the butchers I’ve got in St. Louis. We’ve done things in Nashville – the Standard Nashville, which is a great steakhouse. Will Moon Steakhouse there; they serve Shire Gate Beef, too, as well. And we do things in kind of a rotation with the restaurateurs. Bullyards actually takes a whole animal every week. John Shegerian: Wow. Will Witherspoon: So that’s one that keeps us pretty busy and efficient there. Those are probably three of the top producers. Of course, Community Kitchen is going to be another one when it opens in about three to four weeks there and everything is kind of moving forward. John Shegerian: Obviously, you’re a really smart guy. I mean, unfortunately, we know the stories that have been well told in the media with regards to athletes from all different sports not being able to maintain or save their fortunes and stuff. So now you’ve gone into real estate having all those acres and also organic beef, and obviously, you have a day job still. You’re an announcer. Will Witherspoon: And I do have other businesses, as well. The first business I ever actually started – still animal friendly – it was my doggy daycare in Charlotte, and that was myself and Dan Morgan is one of my partners there and we started that – oh my goodness – now this has almost been 12 years now. So that has been great. John Shegerian: Really? Will Witherspoon: And then, of course, I also own a security automation company called “Professional Automation” in Atlanta. We do everything from safety and security measures, fire safety, communications, energy management systems and things of that nature there. So we cover kind of a full gambit of services around that as well. John Shegerian: Where did this fiscal discipline come from? Did it come from dad or was it something you learned along the way in college and everything else? Will Witherspoon: You learn along the way. I won’t say I haven’t made mistakes, too. John Shegerian: But everyone makes mistakes. Will Witherspoon: That’s what we all do. John Shegerian: We all make mistakes. Will Witherspoon: We’ve all done that. And the good thing is I feel like I’ve made more good mistakes than I have bad ones. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: That’s the thing there, and the other thing is I’ve never not had the willingness to ask somebody what I needed or what was going on or what was a question or find someone who has been somewhere in the space that you’re in and learn something from them and then take a decision as to whether or not you want to venture into that space or venture into that line of work as well. John Shegerian: Is there so much demand and is it such a growing trend – organic beef – that you could, with 700 acres, could that get really big one day where you could have 400 or 500 cattle at any given time on that kind of property? Will Witherspoon: Oh yeah. I mean, you could do probably 200-300 head at a time on there, if you really opened up the entire property. But I want to keep Shire Gate kind of as the family farm was meant to be. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: So you’re probably not going to see many more than 50 head at a time on the property. But it’s also including chickens or sheep and some pigs or horses. It’s going to be a full working farm – is the whole picture – and also show people that sustainable farms and sustainable agriculture should be not only part of what was our nation’s history and past, but it should be part of the future in the long run and part of what is going to feed the future. John Shegerian: That’s great. For our listeners and guests who just tuned, in we’ve got Will Witherspoon with us. He is the owner of Shire Gate Farm. You can find Shire Gate Farm at www.ShireGateFarm.com. Talk a little bit about next steps for you. Obviously, you have a career in broadcasting. How many months a year are you doing the broadcasting stuff? Will Witherspoon: You know the broadcasting is, of course, primarily through the season, but really this year coming up, I’ve already kind of started discussing doing some more year round things so I’ll basically stay pretty busy with broadcasting year round, but the farm is a big piece of what I want to do. I always want to take some time to travel and do things for that. Just like being here at the Green Sports Alliance. This is always part of it. It’s not only tying my sustainable agriculture but my job in working with the Rams and being in professional sports together; those two need to coincide and just to give people another direction. John Shegerian: When you were an athlete, did you always know you wanted to be an announcer when you got out? Will Witherspoon: No. I actually was just – I just enjoy what’s going on. And, actually, when Artis called me and said, “Hey, we need a sideline guy and everybody kept putting your name in the pot.” John Shegerian: Wow. Will Witherspoon: So when that came out I literally said, “Hey, perfect, I’ll do it,” and it’s not a problem and I enjoy it. John Shegerian: So that’s what you do for the L.A. Rams; you’re the sideline guy. Will Witherspoon: Yeah. And right now, it’s considerably the St. Louis Rams. Be careful with that. John Shegerian: I’m sorry. Yeah. I’m sorry. Right. Will Witherspoon: There’s a lot up in the air about that one. John Shegerian: Yeah. Right. Will Witherspoon: But don’t worry, we’ll get you right. Like just what you said “wiping from the bottom up.” This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. John Shegerian: Explain to our viewers. Will Witherspoon: So as we’re walking through the Green Sports Alliance, Solaris Paper here, which is a sustainable paper sourcing for toilet paper, it’s really hilarious. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: I’m picking up a couple, and they wrap these in football skins and he was like, “I just wrapped 100 of these so I figured you might want these.” John Shegerian: This is great. Will Witherspoon: And I was like, “Yeah, that’s pretty solid,” and he goes, “Now you’re green from the bottom up,” and I was like, “Well, ain’t that something.” You can’t say anything more there. John Shegerian: This is great. Will Witherspoon: So now you can get Solaris Paper and be “green from the bottom up.” John Shegerian: Green from the bottom up. You’ve heard it here from Will Witherspoon first. That’s awesome. You’re here at the GSA. Is this your first year at the GSA? Will Witherspoon: No, actually. Last year was my first year at the GSA so I was out in California. John Shegerian: And you were speaking last year? Will Witherspoon: Spoke last year – yeah – in a little smaller deal. John Shegerian: Last year, what did you speak on, Will? Will Witherspoon: We spoke a lot on food service as well. John Shegerian: OK. Will Witherspoon: So staying in that. And last year was the first year that Shire Gate actually serviced Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis with hotdogs and burgers. John Shegerian: Oh nice. Will Witherspoon: So that was a big step when Kevin – the vice president of the team – came up and goes, “Hey. We want to see about if you want to put your hotdogs in the stands. Can you do 12,000 hotdogs and 25,000 burgers?” “Yeah, I’ll figure it out; just give me a minute.” John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: “I know I’ve got some in stock, but we’ll work out the rest.” And that was short notice – only a few weeks before the first game – and it was a little bit of a rush around. John Shegerian: Scramble. Right. Will Witherspoon: Little bit of a scramble. But I knew we had things coming to the pipeline where I could produce more product and get things together. John Shegerian: But that is the life of an entrepreneur. Will Witherspoon: Yeah. John Shegerian: And you’re also an entrepreneur. Will Witherspoon: Definitely. John Shegerian: So saying yes and then figuring it out is really what it’s all about. Will Witherspoon: Exactly. Always say “yes” because you can always go back to saying “no.” John Shegerian: That’s right. Will Witherspoon: And say, “You know what maybe this didn’t work out this time, but we can work to the next step.” John Shegerian: That’s brilliant. Talk a little bit about, what does sustainable beef look like? What makes a piece of beef sustainable? Will Witherspoon: Well, let’s start with how the animal is produced. The animals, we produce and raise in a natural cycle. And by that, I mean cows are meant to eat grass. They’re not meant to be fed high protein corn the entire time. And what people have as this misunderstanding is that corn is our predominant factor to feed commodity beef, but you can do the same thing to a cow if you give it really high protein grasses the entire time. So if you were to feed a cow nothing but alfalfa, you would have the same problems as you do with corn. It’s just the way it is. But getting back to grass-fed and sustainably produced products, you’re going to get typically what is a true steak sizing in serving portion, you’re going to get something that is greater in omega threes, better in LDL, which are your low-density lipids, which are the better fats for you, higher protein per serving typically. And you’re also not going to get this bleach-y white fat. It’s going to be a little more traditional, kind of yellowed. A lot of people were kind of edgy in not knowing and understanding that, but that actually comes from not having the acids within the system. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: You’re not bleaching it out in that same format. John Shegerian: We’re all used to the bleach and now you see it the other way, and it’s like, “What is this?” Will Witherspoon: Exactly. So you have a more natural cut of beef. I mean, I’ve got a guy that lives out near the farm. He just turned 103, and he was like, “Yeah, this is how beef used to taste.” John Shegerian: Wow. Will Witherspoon: So it’s kind of funny to see that you have someone who has been around long enough to understand that difference and really get their input in it and be proud to say I must be doing something right because I brought it back to a point where somebody understands really this is what it is and this is how it used to be and this is how a family would raise their own homestead and do that. John Shegerian: Wow. That’s so nice. And in the marketplace, when you go out and market, it is butchers, restaurateurs, chefs. Will Witherspoon: Retailers. John Shegerian: Willing to pay a little bit more? Will Witherspoon: Yeah. I mean you can work on work on it in many different facets. I mean, the butchers and chefs – one of the great things about it now is you’re seeing more diversity in the fact that they’re willing to utilize the whole animal. John Shegerian: Interesting. Will Witherspoon: Before, it always came down to “I want steak” or “I want this cut” or “I want that cut.” You see really now they’re buying the whole animal and utilizing that because the consumers are asking for more various parts and pieces. And as I think we were just talking about earlier in our little presentation, this Top Chef world and food world that we’re seeing, you see that people are trying to create and recreate some of these great creations. Chefs are using what used to be experimental parts of animals. John Shegerian: Right. And then so what did you talk on specifically at this year’s GSA? Will Witherspoon: Again, we talked about food services, how we can get the consumer to push for the right foods. And the other part is trying to meet that demand. I’ve got 700 acres, but I promise you you’ve got – Aramark that was just in here talking to us and Levy Foods and they’re talking about 2.5 million pounds of hotdogs a year each so that is 5 million pounds of hotdogs to produce just for baseball. That’s not including football, hockey, basketball or any other sports venues. So you can only imagine. And when you have a market that likes grass-fed or sustainably produced products, it’s produced on a much smaller scale and there is no commodity and no huge conglomerate of people working together. So yeah, it would take a significant amount of us to work together to produce just that, just to meet that portion of the demand. And not to mention what else would be left over that you’d have to get rid of. John Shegerian: Right. Will Witherspoon: I mean, if you get 2.5 million pounds of hotdogs, that means you probably have about 3.5 million pounds of the rest of the cuts. John Shegerian: Really. Wow. Talk about the next five years for Will Witherspoon personally and for Shire Gate Farm. Will Witherspoon: For me, I think I see the same steps. Growing – one – in my broadcast career, just growing in that and enjoying it. It keeps me around the sport that I love and in the game that I love and that’s a part of it. But also the same for Shire Gate and growing piece by piece. This year, we’re getting ready to roll into poultry some and do some poultry for some restaurateurs. And some of these same butchers also have some requests for turkey, which is going to be interesting, too. A lot of people, instead of chicken stock, are making turkey stock now, a more bold kind of little sweeter stock that a lot of people are using for their bases there. But it’s, again, whole bird processes and whole bird ideals where people are buying and producing these animals in that quantity, in that nature. John Shegerian: Is one animal more difficult than the other to have on Shire Gate? Will Witherspoon: No. That again comes back to the sustainability part, where you really want to produce the animals in a sustainable environment, where you’re having the cows out there eating that grass, where you can put your chickens and your turkeys out there to eat the insects that are eating within the grass and doing that and they’re also putting down a different type of fertilizer. That’s the next step in how to keep the health of the land and help the land be productive. John Shegerian: That’s right. Will Witherspoon: Same thing if you put them in and they’re working alongside with your sheep or goats or things of that nature. It’s just the cycle of life and how you can work it out. John Shegerian: So just for fun, five years from now. You close your eyes when you go to bed at night and you think “Shire Gate is going to be this,” what’s it going to be five years from now? Will Witherspoon: Five years from now, I think Shire Gate is going to be one of the names that you see as kind of a great example of what modern sustainable agriculture is like in the protein side for sure and how people can come by and visit the farm and take kids out there and say, “Hey, this is what you can do and this is how this is done,” and educate them, too. John Shegerian: One day can you take Shire Gate and have one or two specific products that can be in every Whole Foods or every store that you can be promoting that you would be excited about? Will Witherspoon: Yeah. I think so. I think that’s always a possibility and one that you’ve got to work in bits and pieces and do the right way and you’ve got to do it efficiently. And the other thing is when you’re talking about sustainability, you don’t want to say you’re going to be in every store because there are some far out reaching things, and things that you don’t want to do there. I don’t think that’s a part of it. But another part of it is – for me – to have Shire Gates in basically several different parts of the region or of the country and make that happen. John Shegerian: Right. That’s awesome. Will Witherspoon: So then you meet that demand and that’s the way you look at it and go “this is how we’re going to do this step and this is how we’re going to do the next step.” John Shegerian: Well, Will, you’re the type of guy that I know is going to get this done. We’re going to be back at GSA next year. You’re going to be hopefully back at GSA. We’ll be back here together. Will Witherspoon: Looking forward to it. John Shegerian: And we’ll be able to continue the story on Green Is Good on the journey of Shire Gate Farm. Will Witherspoon: Yes. Thank you. I’m looking forward to it. And we’ll make sure we’ve got the bottom up covered, too. John Shegerian: For our viewers and our listeners out there, you’ve been listening to Will Witherspoon here on Green is Good, and to learn more about what Will is doing and all his great things and to buy his beef, please go to www.ShireGateFarm.com. Will Witherspoon is green from the bottom up. Will, you are making the world a better place. Will Witherspoon: Thank you. John Shegerian: And are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you so much for joining us today. Will Witherspoon: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me on. John Shegerian: Thank you. Will Witherspoon: Great time.