Dubuque Eats Well - Tom Arnold

Face of a Food Champion: Tom Arnold

When Tom Arnold first took over the family farm after his father’s death in 1988, he continued to sell to commodity meat markets as his father had done. Now, he sells directly to customers, and credits the interest in high-quality, local meat with allowing his small farm to thrive while maintaining sustainable practices.

farmers markaet booth
Tom Arnold is helped by his neighbor Andy Jackson at the Glenview Farmers Market. Arnold sells sustainably produced meat to a large network of customers interested in local foods. Photo contributed by Angela Jackson.

“We decided to begin retailing meats to make the farm work for the next generation,” says Arnold.

Arnold’s Farm is typical of those in the Driftless Region, with rolling hills susceptible to erosion. The property is about one-third timber, one-third pasture and one-third tillable. By transitioning away from commodity markets, Arnold says his farm has remained like how farms used to be, integrating livestock with pasture.

He cultivates some corn, oats and hay to use as livestock feed and says his customers validate what he already knows—they say his seasonal grass- and grain-fed beef, pork and poultry are the best they’ve ever tasted.

The farm phased into selling meat directly to consumers in the early 1990s, starting from whole animals and sides, to 25-pound meat packages, to individual cuts at farm harvest parties, to a buying club in Chicago, to a meat route in Chicago and at farmers markets. Today Arnold’s Farm delivers meats to 18 or 19 drop-off points on a route through the Chicago area, as well as several farmers markets and to Niman Ranch Pork, a natural meats company.

“When we sell to consumers I get more satisfaction,” says Arnold. And by developing a market for local meat over the years, he could pass on his farm to his children if they choose to take up farming in the future.

The children raised lambs when they were in school, but Arnold didn’t have the help he needed to continue raising the animals after they graduated and left the farm. To make up for this, he approached neighbors who raised lamb to sell their product. He also partnered with other producers at farmers markets, who valued his broad customer network. For example, he sells eggs from one producer he met at the Freight House Farmers Market in Davenport, and cheese from a Sunday farmers market producer’s milking herd. He adds their products to his delivery routes through Chicago.

Arnold explains that the arrangement is good for his meat business as well as his partners’. He recently began selling pork through a retail store at the local meat locker, and says that he and the husband and wife team who run the operation “bend over backwards for each other” because they support each other’s businesses.

Arnold’s newest relationship is with the Dubuque Eats Well group. He says it has been an important place to connect with others interested in local foods, and that he would have a hard time entering Iowa markets otherwise. Some members of Dubuque Eats Well want to open a food co-op in Dubuque, and Arnold is exploring whether he might sell his sustainably produced meat to this new market once it forms.

About this story

This story was produced to accompany a report documenting the impact of the local food industry on Iowa’s economy associated with the efforts of the Regional Food Systems Working Group. Consult the statewide report: 2012 Economic Impacts of Iowa’s Regional Food Systems Working Group.

For more information on the local foods work occurring in the Dubuque region, visit the website: Dubuqueeatswell.org.