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For Jeff and Cindy Harding, there’s nothing like life on Hess Farm

PHOTO PROVIDED The Harding family poses for a photo, front row, from left: Jeff, Cindy, Jay and Andy. Back row: Zach, Maggie and Luke. Below, a Hess Farm cow gazes at the camera.

STATE COLLEGE — When it comes to food, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. From a routine trip to the grocery store to dining out, things are, quite simply, different.

According to Cindy and Jeff Harding of State College, owners of Hess Farm, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It was a reality check for a lot of people,” Cindy said. “The unintended consequence of COVID was that all of a sudden, people started thinking about where their food was coming from.”

Finding certain types of food — whether it be flour, eggs or even a thick, juicy steak — became a challenge at times.

“We take food availability for granted in our country,” Jeff said. “We’re a fat and happy society. We take that for granted. We go to the store and there’s not only meat, milk and eggs, but there’s 100 kinds of potato chips. There’s a hundred different brands of a lot of different foods. We take that very much for granted. I think this helped people recognize that maybe we shouldn’t take our food sourcing here in the United States quite as for granted as we have in the past.”

PHOTO PROVIDED Jeff Harding tends to cows at pasture.

The Hardings are a farm family. Cindy grew up in Centre County and went to Penn State. Jeff is from western Pennsylvania, where his family owned a dairy farm. They milked Guernsey cows originally had a farm market and sold jugged milk in glass bottles. The two met at Penn State. Jeff was an animal science major. Cindy majored in journalism.

The couple has five kids, four boys and one girl — all working in agriculture. Two of their children are commodities traders in Minneapolis and Kansas City, respectively. Two are food animal veterinarians — one specializing in dairy in the central valley in California, one specializing in beef/feedlot nutrition/medicine in Alberta, Canada. Another child is a cheese maker in Buffalo, N.Y., working for a French company that is the largest dairy company in the world and who have their U.S. headquarters in Buffalo.

They have lived on their farm for 25 years. The couple bought it from Cindy’s grandmother Hess. Cindy believes their kids are the seventh generation of my family to live here.

“We think we’re incredibly lucky to be here, and to have been able to raise our children here,” Cindy said.

Jeff has an off-the-farm job. He grows and finishes the cattle and all that entails. Cindy manages orders, deals with the butchers and schedules deliveries.

PHOTO PROVIDED Cows stand near a barn on the Hess Farm in Centre County.

The Hardings raise a herd of Angus cattle — a cow/calf operation — and finish steers in order to sell beef wholesale. That means they sell quantities of beef — quarters, halves, whole steers — but not individual cuts.

“We’re a relatively small beef operation, we only finish enough cattle to meet the demand of our beef customers,” Cindy noted.

The Hardings did notice an uptick in business due to the pandemic.

“A lot of our potential customers had to switch how they were thinking about buying food. To buy beef from us, they had to change their buying habits. Instead of only thinking a week at a time, they were going to be buying beef that would fill their freezer and would last from nine months to a year,” Cindy said.

Simply put, instead of going to the grocery store for a week’s worth of beef and spending $40 or $50, their customers would plunk down a much larger amount of cash and fill their freezer for the year. For families who can afford to do that, it makes financial sense. The quality of beef from a family-owned farm is also better quality than something you’d purchase at a big box grocery store.

PHOTO PROVIDED The Harding children pose for a photo at Luke’s wedding in the yard at Hess Farm in 2019, which was the first wedding there since 1900.

“It’s a different way of thinking for a lot of customers,” Cindy said. “COVID kind of pushed them over. They didn’t like going to the grocery store and not being able to get what they wanted … it requires a little bit more planning ahead.”

According to Cindy, in many communities, the pandemic didn’t hurt the small farm. In fact, small farms that provided locally-sourced products became a popular destination for families.

“They started thinking ‘I’m gonna stock my freezer and I’m gonna pay for that up front.’ It’s a different mindset entirely,” Cindy said.

Jeff had a simple comparison.

“It’s like going to the convenience store versus going to the grocery store. Some people would go to the convenience store every two to three days and go to the grocery store once a week. As a society, we’ve gotten that way — we’re more convenience-oriented. We’re very much, ‘buy it today, use it the next day,'” Jeff said.

PHOTO PROVIDED Cows emerge from the mist on Hess Farm.

According to Cindy, they only supply families. Their farm is not built to supply restaurants.

“If you’re a restaurant, you might need 30 filets a week, or something like that. We’d have to have 600 cows here. And we’d have a lot of leftover ground beef,” she said. “We’d have to be able to butcher 30 cows a week. We are much more seasonally based.”

If you are interested in buying a side of beef to stock your freezer, the Hardings say they can accommodate more customers as we head into fall.

“We take orders mostly in the spring and summer. We’re finishing our cattle now. We’re still taking orders, but we’re at the point where we’re almost done,” Cindy said. “People who have never bought beef wholesale … I like to talk to them on the phone first. I like to make sure that we are on the same page and we are going to meet their expectations.”

For more information about Hess Farm and pricing, email Cindy at hardingshessfarm@aol.com.

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