'Beyond organic': Alabama family embraces farming operation

Amy Henderson
The Cullman, Ala., Times

CULLMAN, Ala. — Heritage Hills Farmstead’s Karl and Karli Amonite began growing their own meat and eggs on Karli’s family farm years ago as a way of providing their small family with better quality food. Then their organically-grown produce operation began to grow, well, organically.

Karl, who studied exercise science/kinesiology in college, and Karli, a nutritionist, knew the importance of eating healthy foods, especially because Karli has an autoimmune disease. “We know the value of consuming the highest quality, nutrient dense food possible,” said Karl. “We’ve kind of figured out what’s best for our bodies.”

But they had a hard time finding what they were looking for. “We took matters into our own hands,” he said. “We set out on this adventure, just doing it ourselves.”

Karl came from an agricultural community but had no actual farm experience, but Karli grew up on her family’s farm in Northwest Cullman County and that’s where they began their operations.

After several years, and multiple inquiries from friends and neighbors, the Amonites began marketing their produce — eggs, chickens, turkey, hogs and beef — to the public in 2017.

They’re now shipping produce across the country, and delivering to homes in North Alabama, along with some in Tennessee.

“It started kind of organically happening,” said Karl.

The couple shuns the term “organic” when it comes to labeling their produce, noting that under the official USDA designation, some additives that meet USDA standards can be used.

“We rose above the label ‘organic.’ We feel its a term that’s been overused,” said Karl. “We like to think of ourselves as beyond organic. In our sense, it means the original state without anything added to it.”

At Heritage Hills Farmstead, the laying chickens have free-run of the farm; the cows graze on hundreds of acres of pasture year-round and the hogs forage in the woods for their food.

“We provide great habitats for species of all kinds,” said Karl. The result, he said, are happy animals. “We want to make to make sure our animals are humanely raised, so they’re not stressed.

“We feel like overfeeding is a huge problem — for humans and for farms,” he added. “Our practices are more slow growing, it’s a lengthier process. We feel there’s more of a health benefit to our products.”

While the chicken and cattle are grain-free, the Amonites do provide supplemental grain to the hogs to help them through the winter, but stay away from soy and corn. “The hogs right now are in acorn and hickory and walnut heaven,” said Karl.

He said he and his family, which includes 4-year-old Klaire and 8-month-old Kate, love the animals and are grateful to them. Knowing how the animals were raised, what they ate and that they were happy animals also makes the Amonites and their customers feel better about what they’re consuming. “We say to them, ‘thank you for making the ultimate sacrifice for us, so we can eat healthy,’” said Karl.

Like other growers in Cullman County, there’s a lot of planning that goes into the Heritage Hills Farmstead operations. “We have to think three years in advance because you don’t know how many you’re going to sell,” said Karl. They are currently selling 40-50 beef per year, but it’s constantly changing and growing.

“That’s the difficult part,” he added. “It’s not just going out there and farming, it’s planning and preparing to meet customer demand and make an income.”

And no one knew three years ago that a global pandemic was going to impact the economy.

For Heritage Hills Farmstead, the pandemic drove up demand. “It affected us in a positive way,” said Karl. “People became more conscious of food and what they were putting in their bodies, and with supply chain broken, people had to turn somewhere for meat.”

As a result, he said, people became more interested in the produce from his farm, but also started thinking about using their own land in a similar way in order to be able to provide food for their families in the future. “I think it shed a lot of light on what we do, and definitely impacted what we do.”

The Amonites, though, don’t want to grow Heritage Hills Farmstead beyond their own capabilities. “We don’t want to grow to the point where we need people to come in and do this for us, because I think that takes away from from what our goal is,” said Karl. “We really want to hone in locally. We love Cullman and we love North Alabama. We want to continue to grow here. We try to go straight to the people of North Alabama. They’re the people that brought us to where we are today.”

And while Karl notes that what they do is hard work, they have no regrets. Well, maybe one.

“We absolutely love getting out of bed in the morning, cooking the girls breakfast, going outside and being one with our animals,” said Karl. “We love every aspect of what we do. We sometimes kick ourselves and ask, ‘why didn’t we do this earlier’?”