From September to December, Will Witherspoon spends his time chasing down quarterbacks and grappling with 300-pound linemen. During the off-season, the St. Louis Rams linebacker spends his free time in the company of heavyweights of a different breed: sustainably raised cattle. Witherspoon owns and operates Shire Gate Farm in Owensville, Mo., and has a passion for meat that’s produced in environmentally conscious and humane ways.
So how did Witherspoon end up on a different kind of field? He’s a bonafide foodie, and got into the agriculture game to produce his own line of antibiotic-free, organically raised beef. We chatted with Witherspoon about his love for animals, holistic land management, and how he’s spreading the message of sustainable meat to athletes and congressmembers alike.
Q. Even though you play one of the toughest positions in professional football, we hear you’re a big softy when it comes to animal welfare.
A. I’ve always been an animal lover. My introduction to life with animals came from my great-grandma’s little farm in Florida. As kids, we could always enjoy this farm life and have a great time. And she used to make these old-school, old-fashioned meals out there for family reunions, that kind of thing. But since my dad was in the military, I spent half my youth in Germany, so it wasn’t exactly a full-time farm life. But I kind of got a good understanding of what I could accomplish as a farmer, and how I could accomplish it.
In 2007, I bought the first piece of property [for Shire Gate] for my two horses. And since I always thought it would be awesome to raise my own beef, I wanted to buy a couple head of cattle for the property — and ended up coming home with 16. So that ignited the whole question of figuring out how I wanted to raise these animals. After seeing what the commercial beef market was about, and how the animals are treated and everything else, I thought, I wouldn’t do that.
Q. And how did you first become aware of all the problems in the commercial meat industry?
A. It all starts with me being an athlete. There’s a little clause in our NFL contracts that says: “You are responsible for everything you put in your body.” Well, we all look at that in the context of, “You are what you eat.” If you’re eating something that’s full of antibiotics, steroids, and everything else — well, you can end up transferring that directly to yourself. So you want to try to ingest the cleanest things you can: the cleanest beef, the cleanest poultry, the best eggs, the best vegetables.
Q. You’ve been up to Capitol Hill to tackle some less physically intimidating opponents than you’re used to on the issue of antibiotics in meat. Tell us why.
A. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Animal Welfare Approved gave me the opportunity to speak to Congress in 2012, to help out with all the great things Slaughter’s been working on. The argument that was brought to the table was: why do these antibiotics need to be taken out of livestock anyway? One huge difference is: You and I can’t go to the store and pick antibiotics off the shelf, right? But as a farmer, I can go straight to the feed store and send in my 9-year-old to pick up a 50-60 pound bag of tetracycline. Think about that! Another thing people don’t understand is that 80 percent of antibiotics that are produced in the U.S. go to livestock, because you have a huge commodity market for factory-farmed beef. These animals are being raised shoulder-to-shoulder in filthy conditions, and the only way they’re being kept alive is with antibiotics. We already create an unnatural environment by feeding these cows as much grain as we do. We need to figure out how to get away from this system.
Q. Pop quiz: Tell us how much you really know about sustainable farming.
A. When you talk about the sustainability of cattle, you talk about open pastures, a small herd, and no hormones or antibiotics. You’re also looking at a situation where the animals are rotating on different types of grasses, different fields throughout the property. These animals are naturally improving the quality of the soil by feeding that way, and maintaining a better and healthier lifestyle by being able to move around the property and graze naturally in open pastures. So, you’re looking at just a higher quality product in terms of not just health, but also the environment. If you do things the right way, you can realistically improve the land.
Animal Welfare Approved has these fantastic guidelines for raising livestock. They come in and they scan my books, they go through the cattle, and they look at the property. That happens every year. And it just makes sense to me that they don’t charge for that, so it’s not an additional cost to the farmer — it’s just, “Follow the rules, and we’ll make sure you use our stamp.”
I’m actually working on getting certified organic by the USDA next. Everything I do is done organically, but I’ve been waiting to take the time to actually do the certification.
Q. Time for a little locker room talk: Do you feel a personal responsibility to inform your teammates about the issues surrounding the food system?
A. Well, yeah, of course. I’m making them aware of the issues. I’m kind of educating the guys as I go — just answering their questions and giving them the knowledge they need to make decisions. A lot of guys are receptive to it, of course — they say, “Man, you know more about where this comes from, how it’s produced, all before it gets to us.” In that situation, you’re looked at [as providing] this expert’s point of view. You’re the person that people rely on. It’s a viewpoint that I’m not sure many people can say they have.
Q. And have you noticed a trend of other professional athletes getting more interested in sustainable food?
A. Yeah — we have been talking more along the lines of the health benefits of safer foods, or good holistic practices. And our chef does a great job of bringing quality products in — he’s served Shire Gate beef to the team several times this year alone. These guys want great meals, not garbage, in their bodies. But it’s become more and more about having an understanding of where that food has to come from.
Q. A little poetic reflection, if we may: Tell us, how does football compare to farming?
A. To me, they’re both labors of love. They’re both something that you have to enjoy doing to really want to be part of it, and you have to be willing to put the work in to get the results you want.