If you drive through the countryside of Roanoke, Indiana, you will see acres of corn and soybean crops. This is fertile farm country, and this is what you’d might expect. However, if you’re lucky, you will find yourself at Seven Sons Farms, owned by the Hitzfield family, and here you’ll discover something surprising.
At Seven Sons, there are 550 acres of perennial pasture on which 200 head of cattle graze and 14,000 hens wander and peck. The farm’s woodland is foraged by 300 to 400 hogs, and there are also bison and sheep. At Seven Sons, said CEO of distribution Blaine Hitzfield, who is the second son of the seven, “we’re a farm with over 10,000 beating hearts out on the land.”
Seven Sons is committed to raising free-range, grass-fed, non-GMO, antibiotic-free food products, and farming regeneratively to preserve soil nutrient value. “It’s a sacred thing that we do,” said Hitzfield. “Regenerate soil by stopping tillage and chemical use, produce nutrient-dense foods, and make an exchange with the consumer, knowing that we are affecting their future health. We are accountable to that.” The farm supports 35 full-time careers, and it feeds over 10,000 families per year via the farm’s meat subscription service.
Hardship Leads to Epiphany
It was not always this way. The abundance on the farm today is the result of a miracle that has taken place over the last 20 years in the lives of the family, the animals, and the soil. In his high school years, Hitzfield’s father, Lee Hitzfield, developed an interest in farming. He dropped out of college and got to know a local farmer in Roanoke who operated a conventional row crop and confinement hog farm. Hitzfield explained, “My dad worked on that farm for about a year free of charge and learned the business, and he purchased it in the early ’80s. It was just 20 acres and came with 800 to 1,000 acres of leased row crop land.”
Lee and his wife Beth continued to farm conventionally through the 1980s, selling the products to Tyson Foods. “Things were going all right,” said Hitzfield. Lee and Beth were able to make their debt payments, and while “it wasn’t the most profitable business, it was cash-flowing.”
But they faced a problem: Farming 1,200 acres of row crops was barely enough to support Lee’s single full-time income; there was no opportunity for his sons to join him. “That’s the reality for most farms,” explained Hitzfield. “How do you transfer to the next generation if the farm cannot support more than one person at a time?”
Then, a turning point came. After the birth of her third son in 1993, Beth became devastatingly ill with rheumatoid arthritis. Severe cases of this condition can affect not only the joints but also the vital organs, and Beth’s case was very severe. Hitzfield said, “Her doctor told her that she couldn’t have any more kids and that in five years she might be in a wheelchair.”
Struggling with an unprofitable farm and a serious health crisis, the Hitzfields happened to meet and become friendly with a soil agronomist called Ray Smith who was willing to take them under his wing. “He was the first person my dad had met who understood so much about animal, plant, and soil biology and how the nutrient cycle is tied together,” said Hitzfield. Smith recommended some simple but fundamental dietary changes for Beth—first by consuming high-nutrient plants through drinking vegetable juice. At the time, recalled Hitzfield, “my dad was carrying her back and forth from the bathroom to the bed because she was in too much pain to get up and walk.” Within a few months of following Smith’s advice, they saw drastic improvements in Beth’s health. Later, Beth removed inflammatory foods from her diet and started eating only meat from the farm and locally grown produce.
“That changed their perspective on everything,” said Hitzfield. Experiencing health changes so dramatically, and at the same time learning from a soil agronomist about “how the nutrient density of foods links back directly to the nutrient cycle in the soil,” caused them to shift their farming philosophy. From this time on, Lee and Beth adopted the belief that “as farmers and food producers, the moment we exchange food dollars for food products to the consumer, we as a farm become personally responsible for that person’s health and well-being.” And, said Hitzfield, “this is the foundational belief that drives what we’ve been doing over the last 20 years.”
A New Chapter
In 1995, Lee sold all the livestock and closed the giant mechanized hog barns worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They sat empty while he continued to make mortgage payments on them. Hitzfield said, “They started to convert some of the land from row crops to perennial pastures because that’s the foundation of a regenerative farming system. You’ve got to stop going out there and tilling the land every year.” So not only were they supporting debt payments on the infrastructure they had abandoned, but they now went further into debt while investing in a new farming system.
The decade from 1995 to 2005 was difficult. “My parents had a vision, they were excited, but none of us had a clue how hard it would get,” Hitzfield said. By 1997, they returned some cattle to the land in a rotational grazing system. Converting row crops to perennial pasture and raising grass-fed beef was not a high-yielding project. It typically takes two years to raise beef this way, Hitzfield explained. “For the family it was a very stressful time. … The farm fell into disrepair, there were bill collectors calling every day, and there wasn’t much money for groceries.”
What brought them out of that tough economic time was changing how they engaged with their consumers. “When we made the transition to regenerative agriculture methods, we learned very quickly that a commodity market rewards quantity, not quality,” said Hitzfield. “It became really evident, around the time that I was starting to get involved on the farm, that if we were going to raise food based on higher nutrient density and long-term plans for soil regeneration, we would have to find a consumer that shared our interest in that quality.”
The farm first started with selling eggs in a small, on-farm store. “That was our first step,” said Hitzfield. “Customers would find us online and come out to the farm and purchase eggs in this little self-serve, honor-based farm store. And that was the very beginning.” Today, the farm has grown to support 35 full-time staff on just 550 acres.
The Hitzfield family believes that God created an uncomplicated system. “God didn’t create a pig to live on concrete slabs with a manure pit below its feet, never to see the light of day!” Hitzfield exclaimed. “God created a pig with this incredibly strong snout. Pigs were created to root and forage.” It was a simple epiphany, said Hitzfield. “Animals are out in the landscape where they were designed to be! They’re walking around self-harvesting their own food. Most of it is returned to the land in manure right where they took it. The animals take care of the whole system themselves.” Lee sold the combine, planters, and chemical applicators. “He didn’t need them anymore.”
Now, the farm of Seven Sons lives in a state of bounty. “Our soil today holds three times as much water as it did 20 years ago. We don’t need to fear drought. Our soil has so much biology in it; we’re raising healthier grasses. And so our animals are healthier—we haven’t had a vet on the farm more than once or twice in the last decade,” Hitzfield said. The farm operates on a farm-to-fork model, selling directly to customers, many of whom have subscriptions and place high value on the quality of the products they get from Seven Sons.
A big part of what the Hitzfields do now is educating and supporting other farmers who want to learn about regenerative farming. The fundamental thing, said Hitzfield, is to stop tilling the land year after year: “If they can stop doing that, just that one thing, and find creative ways to introduce livestock onto their farms, within three years they will see improvement.” The Hitzfields know, through their own experience, that “God designed forgiveness within soil biology.”
After being told that having more children was impossible, Lee and Beth now have seven sons, all of whom work full-time on the farm, six daughters-in-law, and 14 grandchildren. The farm abundantly supports the whole family and is growing in community support (over 2,300 people attended their 2022 Farm Festival, a family-friendly outreach event that is held annually) and in partnerships with about 30 other regenerative farms. “It has taken a long time,” said Hitzfield, “but now a lot of farms are seeing some hope. We want to be that lighthouse: This can work, you can pass the farm to the next generation, your soil can improve, and you can make a big difference in the health of the people who consume your products.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.