When sub-zero temperatures hit in February, Matt Bailey considered closing his shop, Bailey’s Meats in Schoolcraft, on one of the most frigid days. He didn’t think customers would battle wind, snow and bone-chilling temperatures to purchase his specialty non-GMO (genetically modified organism) pork products and fresh eggs — but he guessed wrong.
“People started calling (and asking), ‘Are you going to be open today?’” says Bailey, the co-owner of Bailey’s Meats and Bailey Terra Nova Farms. So he opened the store. “And away they came.”
The taste difference
Why doesn’t snow, rain, heat or gloom of night keep customers from darkening the door of Bailey’s Meats? Bailey says he believes they come because of the flavor and quality imparted by the old-school method of processing the meat: rubbing it with salt.
“Not just injecting it or soaking it overnight,” says Karen Bailey, co-owner of the business and Matt’s mother.
The products sold by Bailey’s Meats include snack sticks, bacon, roasts, ribs and beer-and-jalapeno brats. The pork first gets rubbed with salt on the outside and packed with salt on the inside to cure it. The meat remains in a salt brine for seven days and then gets pulled out, washed and put into a smoker.
“It’s not chemically done,” Matt says. “It’s done the old-fashioned way.”
The meat-processing company where Bailey’s sends its meat provides a 100 percent guarantee that what Bailey’s Meats delivers to be processed is what they get back. “I want to know that’s our (meat) in the package,” Matt emphasizes.
But how the meat starts out also matters. Bailey’s boars are a heritage breed, and its sows come from genetic lines curated over the last century.
The pigs are raised on non-GMO feed made from corn grown on the family’s 1,300 acres and on an additional 680 acres they rent. To ensure purity, the seeds for the corn and soybeans that they grow to sell are tested prior to planting.
“We have definite control of what’s not in it (the feed),” Karen says.
Launching the business
Before opening the meat market in May 2016, the Baileys sold their pigs to big chain slaughterhouses, but it was proving more and more difficult to make money that way, Matt says. The purchasing habits of friends and neighbors who came to the Baileys for meat sparked the idea for the meat market. Some customers purchased a half or a whole pig, while others just wanted to purchase certain cuts, Karen explains.
“A lot of people only like bacon or sausage,” she says.
So the Baileys devised a new formula: Reduce the number of sows from 1,000 to 300, get the necessary permits, build a store and redirect efforts to produce specialty meats. While constructing the store, they put a “Coming Soon” sign out in front, and that was all it took to generate plenty of foot traffic on opening day.
“We have a very strong customer base,” Matt says. “Since we opened, there’s only been maybe six or seven days where we haven’t had a new customer walking through the door.”
Bailey’s Meats has also built a following at the Vicksburg, Mattawan and Texas Corners farmers markets. Business was so brisk that in 2017 they purchased a 7-by-12-foot utility trailer with two freezers and a refrigerator.
“It literally takes three of us on Saturday mornings to run the Texas Corners market,” Matt says.
Bailey’s Meats also supplies shaved ham and bacon to Texas Corners Brewing Co., a restaurant and microbrewery. Located a jog down the road from the restaurant, Bailey’s Meats created a top-selling beer brat using the brewery’s Three Brothers IPA. The beer brat is sold at Bailey’s Meats year ’round and appears on the Texas Corners Brewing Co.’s menu from Memorial Day to October.
As for Bailey Terra Nova Farms, Matt and his brother, Darren Bailey, are the fourth generation of Baileys to work the Schoolcraft farm.
Matt’s great-grandfather, Ward Bailey, started the family enterprise in 1916 when he relocated from southeastern Iowa to Michigan. He was a tenant farmer in Iowa until a banker recognized his potential and offered advice: Purchase your own farm.
“So he packed up, bought a little farm in Lawton for two years, and then found this place,” Matt says.
What made Ward settle in Schoolcraft? Nobody knows.
“He could have went another 10 miles that way,” Matt says, gesturing toward the east, “and gotten away from the lake-effect snow. But …”
On 200 acres in Schoolcraft, Ward and his wife, Daphne, raised pigs, milked cows and raised chickens for their eggs. They also grew 20 to 40 acres of potatoes — a starchy crop that inevitably showcased Ward’s ingenuity.
“He irrigated potatoes back during the Depression,” Matt says.
In those days, if no rain fell, most farmers’ crops suffered. But Ward concocted a way to create soaker hoses. The Baileys bought lots of burlap. The fields were 20 rods long, Matt says, and a rod is 16½ feet, for a total of 330 feet. His great-grandmother hand-stitched the burlap, forming it into a lengthy hose, which the couple then attached to their steam-powered well. After the hose filled, they shut it off.
“Basically it was a soaker hose,” Matt explains, “and when it soaked out, (they would) roll it to the next row, fill it back up and do it again. They spent the whole summer watering potatoes. My great-grandfather was very ahead of his time as far as thinking outside the box.”
Now a fifth generation of Baileys — the three children of Darren and his wife, Melissa — take care of the farm’s chickens. Matt and his wife, Ashley, Darren and Melissa, and Karen and her husband, Curtis, all co-own the farm. Karen and Melissa work the store and farmers markets, as does Ashley, who also is a third-grade teacher at Mattawan Later Elementary School. Even Matt’s uncle, Harlow Bailey, still works on the farm.
Want eggs with your bacon?
When visiting the meat store, customers often notice an old meat cutter’s table, scales, stamps and other items that decorate the room. The items aren’t simply for aesthetics: They are mementos of Karen’s father, Dennis House, who was a meat cutter by trade.
“You can’t cut meat on it anymore,” Matt says of his grandfather’s table. “When I was a little kid, I’d cut meat with him on his back porch.”
Karen fondly remembers getting overzealous with the stamps as a child and being told by her dad to “stop putting six bacon stamps on the package.”
But what would bacon be without eggs? Bailey’s other big seller is its non-GMO eggs. Back in the day, Ward and Daphne had 3,000 laying hens and sold the eggs to Bronson Methodist Hospital. The family reintroduced chickens to the farm a few years ago, starting with 20 or 30. That number quickly grew to 160 hens because all the eggs were spoken for — two weeks in advance. Customers would arrive 10 minutes before the store opened to lay claim to them. If Bailey family members wanted to scramble up some of their own eggs, forget it.
“We had to go to the (grocery) store to buy eggs for our personal use because they were all gone, ” Matt says with a laugh.