Farm to fork and grain to glass
From the farm to the fork, and from grain to the glass, is the motto of Upstream Farms, owned by Matthew and Joe Brugger.
The twins, who are 22 years old, are adding value to the farm that has been in the family since their great-grandparents, Samuel and Elizabeth, came from Switzerland to America in 1917.
After attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and going through the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program, the men have come back to the family farm, located near Albion, Nebraska.
But they knew the farm couldn’t support two more people, and they didn’t want to be hired hands.
“We wanted to be directly involved in the day to day operation but not take away any value from the farm,” Matt said.
Their parents: Norman and Keri Brugger, have row crops and beef cattle, but the twins would have to find a different way to make a living.
So they did.
It started when they were in college, having to cook. They’d gone to the store and bought ground beef, but after making burgers that didn’t taste like they were used to, they blamed it on their poor cooking skills.
But it wasn’t their cooking. As they had grown up eating beef they had raised, they hadn’t realized their homegrown beef was so much different than some found at the grocers’. “All the things I was being taught, and over four generations, that we had worked to improve,” led to better tasting beef, Matt said. Their beef was of an excellent quality, but they hadn’t realized it.
So, in 2018, the men began selling their beef, under the name of Upstream Farms, on the wholesale level. They sold it to restaurants, institutions and micro-breweries, even the training table for University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletes. Since they attended college in Lincoln, deliveries were relatively short and easy to make.
After college graduation in May of 2019, the men began shifting emphasis from wholesale to retail. They beefed up their website, and switched to retail only, for several reasons. The margin was higher and with no deliveries to make, it took less time and money.
Part of the value of selling meat retail is its quality. Upstream Farms has some Simmental genetics bred into the predominantly Angus cattle. “That allows us to have a good ribeye area to back fat ratio,” Matt said. “It’s good quality beef and also extremely tender.”
Their beef is also dry aged for 28 days at a local processor, which allows the natural enzymes to break it down, making it even more tender and palatable.
“We had been doing those things and didn’t realize we could get a premium for it.”
Another part of its value is in the relationships that are built. “The other thing that gives our product merit is us as individuals,” Joe said. “People want to put a face to a farmer and want to build relationships with a farmer.” Social media allows for that engagement, and Upstream Farms has active Facebook and Instagram accounts (@upstream_farms)
Matt and Joe own the cattle through every process. They background and finish, and also grow every feed source the cattle eat. “It allows us to control quality,” Matt said, “to raise high quality hay, alfalfa, corn and silage.”
Upstream Farms also sells pork raised by college classmate Gage Hoegemeyer, near Hooper, Neb. The Hoegemeyers’ farrow to finish operation raises Berkshires.
The men haven’t stopped with meat production. They’ve also added hops and a distillery.
This will be the third year for their hops, which includes six varieties. Their hops are grown on a quarter acre and are “honestly, very labor intensive,” Joe said. No pesticides or insecticide are used on their hops, but the return from a quarter-acre is more than what corn or beans would have earned them.
Hops were a natural extension for Upstream Farms. Their microbrewery clients who bought beef and pork always said, “what else can you grow for us?”
Their hops are sold to local microbreweries. “It’s a win-win,” Matt said. “It’s a win for the microbreweries and for us. It’s something else to add to our arsenal.”
The men have also added a fourth endeavor, a micro-distillery.
They’ve made their own whiskey at the “home level,” for a while, Joe said.
“It was something we felt had merit, like the beef. It’s a quality product.” The first step in distilling alcohol is similar to brewing beer, and one of their hops customers, HWY 14 Brewing Co. in Albion, offered his mentorship.
Their whiskey is made mostly of corn grown on the farm with some barley and rye.
The fifty-year-old milk barn on the farm was renovated into the distillery, but no product has been barreled yet. Making whiskey is a long process. “We’re a little ways south before we have a product to sell,” Joe said.
The whiskey is a natural fit with the meat and the family heritage. “It’s a product that pairs well with beef and pork, plus it aligns with our roots. Our grandpa used to make dandelion wine and grew his own grapes. We’ve always found those things satisfying, carrying on a family tradition as well as creating another product on the farm.”
Whiskey must be sold through a third-party distributor, and their goal is to have whiskey available eighteen to twenty-four months after barreling.
There have been challenges, coming back to the farm with their parents.
“You leave for four years (for college), and you’re trying to integrate your business into a family business that is already established,” Matt said.
“There’s a little bit of push and pull to that. The struggle we face is being able to manage the time for your business as well.”
Communication is a big part of the relationship between Matt and Joe, Norman and Keri. They’ve created a system. “We’ve made codes red, yellow and green,” Joe said. “If dad asks for help, he might say it’s a code green. It’s not super pressing and I would like your help but it’s not a big deal. Code yellow is I’d like one of you (to help) or both of you if you can, and code red is all hands on deck.
“The expectations versus the role you play, is a fine line and you have to be respectful of each other’s time.”
The adjustment to being on the farm with their parents and running their own businesses has gone smoothly, Joe said. Their parents are very encouraging.
“I never expected both parents to be so supportive of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s because they enjoy having us around and they know this business enables us to come back to the farm.”
Norman and Keri are also good at helping their sons think through projects.
“They’re the first ones to question us and help us with those questions. They never say you can’t do something, they always ask the hard questions and say, ‘prove it to us.’”
“They raised us and they can call us out on our b.s.”
The brothers love being able to being able to farm with a new income stream.
“We wanted to do something different,” Joe said. “Being back on the farm allows us to do that.
“Getting back on the farm was the root of this all. We don’t believe we should be the end of what’s happening here. We think there’s a lot of opportunity for people to replicate this,” Matt said.
“We want to be that model, being able to think outside the box. There are ways to be back in rural communities. For us, we’re passionate about our community and we want to be the model that others can follow.”
Upstream Farms meat is available for online order at http://www.upstreamfarms.com, or, in person, for purchase at the From Nebraska Gift Shop in the Lincoln Haymarket.