Swift Level Farm proves providing high-quality, locally sourced products is best when it’s a family affair.
Every summer during her childhood, Jennifer “Tootie” Jones woke up, pulled on her boots, and ran around her grandparents’ farm in Greenbrier County with her siblings and a crew of cousins. Some days, the kids packed a lunch, saddled up, and explored Morlunda Farms—now called Swift Level Farm—from dawn to dusk. Other days, they cooled off in the pool or slept under the stars.
The kids were also expected to help with chores and tend to the cattle and horses. Jones rode with genuine cowboys before the era of cell phones and ATVs. “All of us kids were included in everything, even from a young age,” she says. A home-cooked meal from Jones’ grandmother, better known as Granny Nelson, was a thrice-daily incentive for a job well done.
The history of the land Jones traversed every summer wasn’t lost on her. Before the turn of the century, her grandfather Oscar Nelson had immigrated to the United States from Sweden with a mere $19 in his pocket. In the 1930s, he bought the West Virginia property because the rolling hills mirrored those of his homeland. That land became home to generations of his own family, alongside the cattle they raised.
In 1994, Jones returned to her grandfather’s property—all grown up with a husband and two young children in tow. “Although I’d lived in other places, it was a dream come true to move back into the home I grew up in and raise my own children there,” she says.
That dream required some work, though. The farm had fallen into disrepair, and Jones had to invest much of herself—financially and emotionally—into its renovation. She was eventually able to start a bed and breakfast on the property, offering horseback riding trips and attracting guests from around the world. Then Jones decided to bring back the cattle. But, unlike her grandfather who bred and sold his livestock, she got into the beef business to stay with the animals throughout their lives and sell directly to the customers.
Setting Up Shop
On any given day, Jones gets up before daylight and pulls on her boots to venture out to the barns. In the winter, she fuels a wood fire, breaks ice from water troughs, and sets out bales of hay twice a day. In the warmer months, rather than set out hay, she moves cattle from pasture to pasture. While some farmers use ATVs to herd cattle, Jones opts for a more familiar technique. “I call the cattle, and they get to know my voice,” she says. “They learn to associate me with bringing them new hay or leading them to a new pasture.”
Swift Level specializes in all grass-finished beef, which means the steers are never fed any grain. Instead, they journey between pastures to eat the grass and fertilize the soil. Doing so requires constant monitoring and diligence. “I don’t go by the calendar. I go by Mother Nature,” Jones says. Just like her grandfather, she continues to keep the land chemical, pesticide, and herbicide-free. “The better the land and the grass are, the better our beef is going to be.”
After Jones tends to the cattle, she often heads down to her latest business venture—Swift Level Fine Meats. Opened in 2017, the retail shop features locally sourced beef, pork, poultry, and lamb. The shop also serves fresh seafood and prepared meals.
If Jones herself isn’t behind the counter, her son Everett O’Flaherty will be. As a teenager, he spent Saturdays setting up Swift Level’s stand for farmers’ markets. Now, at Swift Level Fine Meats, he says he’s honored to be part of a business that enables farmers to retail their goods six days a week instead of just on weekends. “The shop is a wonderful service I wish we would have had ten years ago,” O’Flaherty says. “I’m glad to see it’s here now and making it more viable for people to hold onto their family farms.”
Whether he’s curing ham or whipping up a pot of bœuf bourguignon, O’Flaherty sees interaction with customers as the glue that holds together all the other tasks of the day. “A lot of our customers are more friends at this point than customers,” he says. “They may come in to get a pound of beef, but then stay for 20 minutes.”
Through these conversations, O’Flaherty advises customers how to prepare a certain cut of meat or shares how the animal was raised. Occasionally, someone may question the prices, which O’Flaherty understands. “If you aren’t educated about how much it costs the farmer to raise that animal, it’s hard to see a grocery store sell ground beef for 99 cents versus $9 a pound,” he says. “Once people know how much it takes to produce that meat, they have a very different outlook.”
That’s why Swift Level Fine Meats strives for strong relationships with both its farmers and its customers. “It’s a wonderful time to be in the food economy here in West Virginia. It’s not always easy, but it’s wonderful nonetheless,” O’Flaherty says.
He knows firsthand the sacrifices local farmers make to create high-quality products. He also sees his role in butchering, curing, and cooking for West Virginian families as a way to continue honoring the animals’ lives and give customers an avenue to support their community. “Having a business you feel good about is worth far more than anything else.”
Leaving a Legacy
The Swift Level family business doesn’t just stop with animals, either. The land is a destination for agritourism and serves as the backdrop for weddings and dinner parties. Visitors journey to Swift Level to rent the nearly 200-year-old house property and dine on regional cuisine with tastings from the local cidery, brewery, and distillery.
Jones’ daughter, Rece Nester, who lives on an adjacent farm with her three children and husband, Will, acted for several years as the events director. She remains active with the farm and, together with Will, raises a herd of cattle to produce calves for the Swift Level beef line.
O’Flaherty says growing up in a place with a history of family members saying “yes” to any challenge inspired in him the belief that he could achieve anything he set his mind to. “That determination has passed through the generations, especially with my mother,” he says. “She has gone above and beyond in not only making a name for the farm again, but also caring for the animals so tenderly.”
Jones credits the strong women who came before her. When Jones was little, she remembers her mother loading crates with food and clothes and then driving around surrounding counties to deliver them to neighbors in need. Through her example, Jones learned caring for your community is just something you do.
Now, Jones watches her grandchildren run around as she once did. They make the fifth generation on a land filled with cattle, history, and—perhaps most of all—perseverance.
Written by Jess Walker
Photographed by Nikki Bowman