Looking across the fields of Skelton Farms in Washington Township, you can see how past and present have come together. An outbuilding dates to the days when this land was a dairy farm. Alpacas share space with chickens. Beef cattle graze in a grassy pasture.

These are all signs of what co-owner Trish Skelton calls the “evolution” of Skelton Farms – and also signs of what has kept the farm thriving.

“You have to evolve, or you’re not going to stay around,” she says.

When she and her husband, Terry, decided to take over the farm that had been in her husband’s family for years, they decided to branch out from dairy farming, seeking an operation that could guarantee a more steady cash flow.

At one point, they added alpacas, which proved to be a great asset. But when the fiber market started to dip, they branched out again, this time to grass-fed beef.

Trish Skelton had done her research into the health benefits of grass-fed beef – “I knew beef was going to be big,” she says – and the family decided to stake their future on it.

That was an evolution that continues to prove successful for the farm. As the Skeltons have steadily, and selectively, grown their herd of Piedmontese beef cattle, they have found their niche in offering healthier meat to customers in Erie County.

Skelton Farms is still dabbling with evolution: They grow their own pesticide-free, herbicide-free hay, to ensure their cattle are fed the highest-quality grass year-round. (“We’re meticulous about it,” Trish Skelton says.) They’ve allotted land for the next generation – Trish and Terry Skelton’s son – to experiment with growing vegetables.

Meanwhile, they’re still tracking the grass-fed beef market, while still keeping an eye on opportunities to expand.

“We’re satisfied with beef for right now,” Trish Skelton says.

About Skelton Farms: Skelton Farms is focused on providing a healthier meat option for customers, who buy the beef for home use. The beef that they sell is leaner, with good fats, healthier cholesterol and a higher level of Omega-3. Because of the genetic makeup of the Piedmontese breed, the meat is naturally tender – without requiring the marbling that usually is present in tender beef. The health benefits of the grass-fed beef are a selling point for Skelton Farms, and are what brings in most customers.

Why Erie County: Terry Skelton’s family has been farming in northwestern Pennsylvania for generations, and his father purchased the Washington Township property after World War II. So Skelton Farms’ roots run deep in Erie County, and the current owners are content with that. Trish Skelton says that one of the highlights of her job is meeting customers, and she takes pride in the Skelton Farms operation. “I like supplying healthy, grass-fed beef to the people of Erie County,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, even if it’s not always easy.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that face Skelton Farms are echoed throughout family farms across the county, and across the country. Cash flow is a constant challenge, as is the unpredictable weather, which can make or break a season. Some challenges are unique to Skelton Farms, however. Educating customers about the health benefits of grass-fed beef is an ongoing challenge, Trish Skelton says. Other challenges come in the form of state and federal regulations. Skelton Farms, for example, would qualify for organic certification, except for the fact that they don’t use a certified-organic butcher – the closest is four hours away. Other regulations mandate that the Skeltons must sell their cattle before slaughter, rather than selling packaged meat, because of the uncertainty of using a USDA butcher in Erie County. They are hopeful, however, that pending legislation might alter those rules enough to allow them to use their preferred custom butcher, so they can continue to expand their options for their customers.

Fun fact:  Skelton Farms prides itself on the fact that the cattle are humanely raised, never confined, fed only grass, and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Address: 13388 Cambridge Springs Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.skeltonfarms.com