By Courtenay Bouvier and Kate Conlow
On their small farm nestled between Solon and Mount Vernon, Lois Pavelka and Bill Ellison of Pavelka’s Point Meats have set the local standard for sustainable livestock production.
Lois Pavelka and Bill Ellison operate Pavelka’s Point Meats, raising livestock on their combined farms between Mount Vernon and Solon. You can regularly find Lois at area farmers’ markets, including Iowa City’s downtown and winter markets and the Mount Vernon market. Their consistently delicious meats are regularly featured on the menus at Devotay, El Banditos, Kalona Brewing Company, Motley Cow Cafe, Orchard Green, Salt Fork Kitchen and Sanctuary Pub.
How did you get into the livestock business?
Lois Pavelka: The basic facts are: My husband [a crop farmer] died; Bill was the neighbor, his wife had died. We had a big farm sale to get rid of my machinery, and after that he told me he loved me.
Bill says, “We can farm.” I say, “Oh. No.” And then he said, we can farm, and we did. You know — he convinced me. And then he said we’ll never survive doing corn and beans — doing that kind of farming — so he says, “You can do farmers’ markets.” So the day I retired [from being a school nurse for the Mount Vernon Community School District], I did my first farmers’ market in 2006 in Mount Vernon. We started with pork. We added lamb. And then we added beef.
Bill, Did you raise livestock before? Was that your thing?
Bill Ellison: That’s all I’ve ever done.
LP: No, it’s not all he’s ever done. He’s also been a long-distance truck driver with Jim [Ellison, Bill’s brother]. And he’s also been an auctioneer since he was 17. And I’m not biased at all, but he’s really good [at auctioning]. He works at Sharpless once in a while and then he did the produce [auction in Kalona] all summer.
So he swept you off your feet?
LP: Yes, and we started farming all over like 20-year-olds, purchasing used machinery. He is just always is a risk taker, and I’m real conservative. And when we really started doing farmers’ markets, I had retired then and somebody told me, “Oh, you should do Iowa City.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’m afraid of Iowa City, I don’t know anything about it, it’s hard to drive around.” I’m a country bumpkin [laughs].
BE: That’s where all the weirdos live.
LP: And my gosh, I fell in love with Iowa City. I mean the people. I’ve got relationships. I just get almost emotional. Because Bill laughs, “Your people” — they really are my people.
There is all this push toward sustainability and environmental farm practices. How does your operation fit into this larger idea?
LP: For one thing, Bill had become adamant, years before people started talking about GMOs, he was saying, “We’re not going to raise GMO beans or corn.”
BE: We were country before country was cool, you know? I’ve never used anhydrous ammonia, I see those going through the field.
LP: And he was always crazy about pesticides — chemicals of any kind.
BE: We feed [our livestock] most of our crops. You talk about sustainable, we’re about as sustainable as anybody could be.
LP: You get the whole cycle, because we’ve got all this corn, beans, sheep, lambs — what did I miss — beef, hogs, horses, chickens … and we feed non-GMO crops and it does make a difference. I can see it in the livestock, you know I can give it a diet of this and a diet of this and you can just see it change.
So to what do you attribute the quality of your product?
LP: They are raised outside, they have kind of a normal life. They come inside and sleep, they go outside and play … we have a pasture down by the Cedar River, and that’s where Bill takes hogs — mothers and babies, sows and pigs — in the summer, and they stay down there. It’s sandy, and they can roll around.
What are your thoughts on the future of small farms?
LP: I’d like to think there’s going to be an upsurge of small farms.
BE: There’ll be more people like us, who choose to learn our set-up, because we can’t do this forever, you know.
Do you have an emotional attachment to the animals?
BE: Oh, I do. I do more than Lois does … I can put tears in my eyes if I sat here and thought about it, you know … I get more involved with the cattle. A pig is a hard thing to get attached to, especially the son of a bitch who won’t pause when you’re trying to load him, you know, and they bite you and they hurt you… the lambs. I have a hard time with the lambs, because lambs are gentle and they’re the lamb of God type thing.
What are the challenges and rewards of being small business owners?
LP: Juggling the money.
BE: I just like to work. I do. One of my mantras is when I come in at night, all my animals will have been fed, watered and bedded to the best of my ability or I don’t come to the house.