Ex-pilot raises grass-fed beef

WARRIORS MARK – Farming is in George Lake’s blood.

After retiring as a pilot from Continental Airlines in 2006, Lake, who also was a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, came back to his roots to run the family farm, now known as Thistle Creek Farms near here in Franklin Township.

“I always liked farming from the time I was a kid. This is romance for me,” Lake said.

The farm, formerly known as Greystone Farms, was founded by Lake’s grandfather – also named George Lake – in 1921.

Today, the 66-year-old Lake raises about 450 head of cattle – his specialty is raising grass-fed beef – and 100 sheep on 400 acres.

He started raising grass-fed beef about 25 years ago when he came home from the Marine Corps. While working as a pilot for Continental, he said he found time to farm between flight assignments.

“I was farming and flying. It was a fantastic job,” Lake said.

Grass-fed beef has become quite popular among foodies and those interested in healthy living, Lake said.

“It started out as a health food thing but has become a more marketable entity,” Lake said.

Grass-fed beef has several advantages over feedlot beef, he said. Beef raised on grass has significantly more Omega-3 fatty acids, which he said are essential to human nutrition.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid is found in higher amounts in grass-fed beef, along with increased levels of Vitamin E, Lake said.

“CLA has natural anti-carcinogenic properties that make a powerful impact on your diet. Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin that helps neutralize free radicals in your body,” Lake said.

Raising grass-fed beef can be advantageous financially, said Dan Kniffen, assistant professor of dairy and animal sciences at Penn State University. He and his wife, Dr. Ann Swinker, operate Windy Butte Ranch-Kniffen Livestock in Spring Mills.

“You can avoid the use of concentrated feeds that right now are somewhat higher priced and there is a segment of the beef-eating population that believe eating grass-fed beef is being environmentally sensitive,” Kniffen said.

Lake uses special grasses where his animals graze – the grasses come from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand and Romania.

“Our main goal is to raise grass-fed beef on the best grasses from around the world. They provide a great tasting product as well as the health benefits of beef raised on grass,” Lake said. “They are very sweet, high-nutrient grasses, and the cattle really like them. They are rotated every day.”

Lake said the cattle graze year round, even when there is snow on the ground. He said they can graze through snow as long as there is not a crust on the snow to keep them from getting down to the grass.

Most of Lake’s cattle are Aberdeen Angus, and the sheep are a cross between St. Croix and white dorper.

Some of the animals are taken to Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, where they are butchered and processed.

“I believe that George’s approach to grass fed beef is better than most. He has done a lot of research on different grasses and uses ones that work well in his climate. That has helped him bring cattle to market a little earlier with fairly consistent quality,” owner Jay Smucker said.

The grass fed beef is sold at Wegman’s in State College, as well as five-star restaurants and farmers’ markets in the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg areas. The sheep go mostly to farmers’ markets in Lancaster and New York City.

Todd Strassner, Wegman’s store manager, said Thistle Creek Farms’ meat is popular there.

“Customers like that they are able to buy a local product that is of good quality. A lot of our educated customers want local beef, ” Strassner said. “It is another unique thing that Wegman’s carries for its customers. The meat comes in individual packages. The ground beef is the most popular.”

Lake said sales of his grass-fed beef are continuing to grow.

“Last year we sold 120 finished animals. This year, we expect about 140 and in two years we will be at 200. We are growing. We started with 30 when we started grass feeding,” Lake said. “Our profit margin is better than in most farming enterprises I have been in. This is a niche market; profit margins are better in niche markets.”

Thistle Creek Farms is a family business, Lake said.

His wife, Christy, a retired fifth-grade teacher, helps with paperwork. His son, Chris, a pilot with United Airlines, helps on the farm and his daughter, Laura Newlin, a veterinarian, does some of the vet work.

The children eventually will take over the farm, but not any time soon, Lake said.

Lake, who was named Outstanding Pasture Producer of the Year by the Pennsylvania Forage and Grassland Council in 2012, said he has no immediate plans to retire.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.