By Terrence Corrigan
NORMANDY, Tenn. — Charles Williams worked for 40 years in the petroleum industry and after retiring in 2015 he took up cattle ranching in Middle Tennessee. Williams’ goal in his second career: “We want you to have the best beef money can buy,” he said.
Williams grew up in Mississippi and earned his degree in petroleum engineering from Mississippi State University. Following his graduation from college, he worked four and a half years drilling wells for Mobil Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. From the Gulf, Williams went to New York to work in the business side of the industry: mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, buying pipelines and other assets. “Basically, creating businesses,” is how he describes it.
“We had always wanted to come to Nashville and have a farm,” Williams said. As his retirement approached, Charles and his wife Rhonda began looking for a suitable property. They drew a circle on a map encompassing the area within an hour’s drive of Nashville. They ruled out, Williamson County. “Too much traffic,” Charles said. Their goal was a farm in a rural setting. They found what they wanted on the 460-acre farm in Normandy they’ve named Doddy Creek Farms.
“We started building our cattle operation and here we are six years later,” Charles said. “We’ve moved about 30,000 pounds of processed beef this year (2021).”
But starting their cattle operation from scratch, Charles said, has not been a cakewalk. “It’s been like drinking water through a firehose,” he said, laughing, as he sat for an interview in the farm office. “There’s a lot to know, a lot to learn, a lot to do.”
The land was not in good shape when the Williams’ purchased it, Charles said. “The pastures were full of sage, and old tires and tin,” Charles said. “It was a mess. When we first looked at it there was a dead cow laying in the pasture.”
In addition to building barns and sheds and extensive fencing work, Charles has rebuilt ponds and dug new ones hoping to encourage ducks and other wildlife on the property. “I’m not an environmentalist but I am a conservationist,” he explained. “I want to be a good steward of the land.”
Adding to the normal challenges of raising cattle, Charles said, is his decision to run a “vertically integrated operation.” Doddy Creek Farms controls all aspects of the business, from being there for the delivery of the calves to delivering the processed beef to the customer’s door.
They manage their own inventory, storing the processed beef in the farm’s walk-in cooler and delivering around 160 pounds every week in their 16-foot freezer trailer. “We usually have people on the waiting list,” Charles said.
They currently have around 63 individual customers, two-thirds of them repeat buyers, and they provide beef for three restaurants in Nashville. Their “sweet spot,” Charles said, are families who purchase various portions of whole cows. They also sell individual cuts at Tag’z Premier Meat Shop in Murfreesboro.
“We’re uninterested in producing large quantities of meat for the masses. Instead, we’ve taken a boutique approach that delivers fresh, clean beef to Nashville and the surrounding areas. Our passion for raising and harvesting cattle with care and in superior conditions has resulted in the highest quality beef for our customers,” is how Charles explains business on the farm’s website (https://doddycreekfarms.com).
Williams found what is arguably the “best beef money can buy” at a San Antonio restaurant, Bohanan’s Prime Steak and Seafood. “They showed me a ribeye for $90 on their menu,” he said. “I thought ‘what could this possibly be?’” What it turned out to be, he said “was the best steak I’ve ever had.”
Williams was so impressed with the steaks at Bohanan’s he went back to the restaurant two weeks later to find out where he could get it. The beef Williams wanted comes from the HeartBrand Ranch in Flatonia, Texas where they raise Akaushi (Wagyu) cattle, a breed that was developed in Japan.
Akaushi are one of the four breeds of Wagyu cattle.
Williams took a direct approach to find out more about this breed. He called the president of HeartBrand, fourth-generation cattle rancher Jordan Beeman, and arranged a visit. Williams flew to Flatonia and spent a half-day with Beeman. “One thing led to another, and I bought a bull,” Williams said.
For Doddy Creek beef, Williams decided to use Akaushi bulls bred to Angus and Charolais cows, combining the unsurpassed flavor and fork tenderness of the Akaushi with the density Americans love in British and Continental breeds.
Charles and Rhonda’s business plan was to raise cows under the best conditions. They use “no hormones, no antibiotics, no steroids,” Charles said. “It’s the old school way of doing it right.” They do not use any herbicides on their pastures. They apply lime to raise the soil ph which allows the grasses to thrive and outcompete weeds. They have created 28 pastures and move the cows often enough to prevent overgrazing.
Another factor in producing high-quality beef, Charles said, is raising them humanely in a low-stress environment.
“People want to know where their food is coming from,” Charles said. “People are willing to pay a premium for clean food.”
Doddy Farms is a three-person operation: Charles and Rhonda run the business side of things and operations manager Hunter Jones brings his education and many years of experience with livestock to their operation.
“Hunter’s been with us for a little over six years,” Charles said. “He earned his Agribusiness degree from MTSU. He runs this farm. If I didn’t have him, I’d probably be in trouble. He’s like one of our kids. He’s a great young man. This is his farm. I can call him 24/7 and he’ll be here.”
“Thank God I have good neighbors,” Charles said. “There’s not enough time on this side of the dirt for me to become a great cattleman, but I understand marketing. That’s my gift to the operation.”
One of the rewards Charles and Rhonda have benefited from is the community spirit in rural Bedford County. “If somebody needs something there’s always somebody there to help,” Charles said. “It makes you want to look for opportunities to help other people.”
“The most gratifying piece of this to me is to look at this farm and see the progress we’ve made in being good stewards of the land,” Charles said.
Charles is not happy with the way farmers are treated in the meat business, in which 90 percent of the beef is shipped and processed by three large corporations who enjoy most of the profits.
“Part of the problem,” Charles said, “is the farmer is so busy he’s strapped to get his animals off the farm, and he becomes a price-taker at the sale barn. If they knew how to market, if they got together, they could get a better return for what they are doing. That’s the problem. People just gave up on that piece of it. When you do that, you leave your margin on the table. All the upside of their hard work they give away.”