hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Building a grass-fed future

Beef farmers band together for access to new markets and new hope



Contributing writer


At first glance, Sarah Teale seems an unlikely person to organize an agricultural cooperative for small-scale producers of grass-fed beef.

She lives in Manhattan, where she has a successful documentary filmmaking career and her own production company.

Despite her current urban trappings, however, Teale spent her childhood in rural Hampshire, England, where she was the daughter of a large-animal veterinarian.

“I’m very comfortable around farmers, and I love cattle,” she said.

Her connections to upstate New York evolved because her husband, Gordon Chaplin, owned a farm in North Hebron where the couple spent weekends. But after Dwayne Burch, a neighboring farmer who had worked the property for several decades, sold his dairy herd seven years ago, no one was mowing or cultivating the fields, and brush started to encroach. Chaplin bought a tractor to bring the fields back.

Then in 2011, at Burch’s suggestion, they bought eight Angus cattle to graze the fields.

Teale wondered whether raising cattle at their weekend home could be done in a way that made sense financially. So that summer, she contacted Cornell Cooperative Extension. Sandy Buxton, an extension educator who specializes in business management, came to visit the farm.

During the consultation, Teale said, “we realized we couldn’t make it profitable.”

But the conversation with Buxton also generated an idea for solving one of the biggest challenges for small-scale beef farmers.

“Sandy and I talked about how it made sense to get everybody together, and I'd sell their beef in New York City,” Teale recalled.

That November, Buxton invited area beef farmers to a meeting to gauge their interest. About 40 people from a few dozen farms showed up. By the end of the evening, it was clear that they were onto something.

“The room was full,” Buxton recalled. “We went around the room, and everybody had the same story. People were selling to friends and family for the freezer market and at farmers market, but they couldn’t make the next leap.”

At a follow-up meeting the next month, some of the farmers agreed to serve on a steering committee and began researching the nuts and bolts of forming a co-op. They sought help from the Cooperative Development Institute in Greenfield, Mass., and they checked out comparable co-ops elsewhere, borrowing the ideas they liked. They also made some financial projections.

By spring they had draft bylaws and protocols the co-op’s member farmers would follow in raising beef. Interested farmers put in $50, and those who wanted to go forward as full members contributed $950 more. The fee is refundable in installments if a farmer leaves, which no member so far has done.

Finding markets, setting standards

The result is the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, which officially started operating in June 2012 and now claims 15 member cattle farmers from Washington County and beyond. The co-op sells pasture-raised beef, both grass-finished and grain-finished.

“Our philosophy is to bring the money back to the farm, so we're the market of choice for our members,” explained Dan Stone, who grazes heritage breed Dexter cattle at Stone Meadow Farm in Easton and now serves as the co-op’s president. “The idea is to find markets that cover co-op expenses and leave enough to make it worthwhile to our members to sell us their animals.”

The Adirondack Grazers co-op is much more than a group of farmers with beef available, however. It sets production and care standards for its members to follow. These standards are intended to ensure that farmers use good practices and that the beef they produce achieves a consistent level of taste and tenderness.

The co-op’s standards require humane handling and prohibit the use of growth hormones and of antibiotics in feed. The group also sets minimum requirements for pasture access and intake for the cattle. Calves cannot be weaned before six months of age.

Cattle sold as "100 percent grass fed" must be raised and finished on pasture and forages. The member farmers cannot feed grain-finished cattle certain products used widely in the industry, such as animal or fish byproducts, bakery waste or candy. Farmers also cannot acquire animals and then turn around and sell them through the co-op; all cattle must live on the co-op member's farm for at least 12 months prior to sale. (Most are born on the farm.)

Getting a better price

Teale, acting as the group’s marketing maven, has connected the co-op with elite New York City chefs and butchers eager for sustainably and humanely raised meat from regional farms. One of the chefs, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, has been buying a half an animal every week from the co-op since January.

“We’ve been sending some nice checks to farmers, and that feels good,” Teale said.

When the co-op sells a member’s cattle, the farmer receives a price more than 50 percent higher than what they'd typically get through commodity channels like the local livestock auction. There, the prices, in addition to being low, can fluctuate unpredictably.

At this early stage in its development, Adirondack Grazers Cooperative isn’t yet selling anywhere close to the number of animals that its growing membership is able to produce. The founders anticipated that getting started would take two or three years, and most co-op members are also selling to other outlets. But the co-op’s prospects for growth seem to have energized its members.

“The co-op will grow slowly and solidly," said Cynthia Larson of Larson Family Farm in Wells, Vt., the only member farm from Vermont.

Though her farm so far has sold only two or three animals through the co-op, Larson said that, because of it, she and her husband believe they have a future as producers of grass-fed beef.

“And we didn't know that before,” she said.

With 15 percent of each sale earmarked to fund co-op operations, its business plan puts the break-even point around monthly sales of 16 or 18 animals. Since January, the co-op has been consistently selling an animal per week.

Amounting to more than 500 pounds of actual meat, that's no small feat. But it's not enough. Last month, the co-op sold a record three animals in a single week, and members are hoping that will soon become the new normal.

Making connections

From the beginning, Teale took on the task single-handedly of developing markets. Luckily, she said, she had no sense of the enormity of the challenge.

Last year, she had promised her husband and daughter that she would take some time off after she completed “The Weight of the Nation,” a four-part series that aired on HBO last spring. The film project put her in contact with farmers across the country, including Diane Endicott, a Kansas farmer's wife who founded a successful beef co-op called Good Natured Family Farms and became a source of inspiration.

“I thought I'd put the co-op together and go back to making films," Teale said, laughing at her naiveté.

Instead, she spent last summer running all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. She took meat samples to every restaurant and butcher that would see her.

“It was very hot and exhausting,” she recalled.

That early period was fraught with mistakes and their repercussions. The co-op, for example, arranged to have two animals per week butchered without having orders in place for the meat. At the time, the group was not selling any meat frozen. This caused a lot of sleepless nights for Teale.

“I was scrambling,” she recalled. “It was just terrifying without the frozen fallback."

The situation pushed the co-op to develop a market for frozen meat through Regional Access, a distributor based in the Finger Lakes area that also handles the group’s trucking to New York City.

“That took some of the pressure off,” she said.

But at first they got it wrong. They packed a mixture of different cuts in every freezer box, only to find that they couldn't sell any of it. The co-op ended up paying Regional Access to repack the boxes by the cut.

As for selling animals by the whole or half, Teale discovered that very few chefs have the skills -- or the space in their cramped New York City kitchens – to break down a carcass. (Five chefs, however, have signed up for an upcoming meat-cutting demonstration the co-op is organizing with Slow Food, she said.)

Applying those lessons, Teale is making new inroads to broaden the co-op’s customer base. Currently the co-op has five restaurants and several butchers that buy regularly and are good about paying. Several private schools buy frozen ground beef from a single animal, and a few community-supported-agriculture organizations offer frozen cuts to their shareholders.

Now that the co-op has more members and the flexibility to sell fresh or frozen beef, Teale is also wooing buyers likely to need larger volumes on a regular basis. Especially intriguing are Web-based distribution companies, each with a particular target audience, whether high-end restaurants or individual home delivery.

"We kind of have to try everything," she said.

Lisa Randles of White Clover Farm in Argyle, a board member serving as the co-op’s interim coordinator (a job that's been hard to find the right person to fill), described Teale as “a whirlwind.”

Teale recently promoted the co-op at the New York Marketplace food show, held at the Jacob Javits convention center in Manhattan, spending eight hours nonstop cooking little pieces of beef.

“It was completely insane,” Teale said. “We must have given out thousands of samples.”

Other member farmers also help to represent the co-op to its customers. Last fall, Drexel Frye of Frye Angus Beef in Argyle traveled to New York City for a meet-the-farmer event at Ceriello’s, which has a butcher shop in Grand Central Terminal. The shop had bought one of his animals through the co-op, and he went to answer customers’ questions. When a woman asked if his beef was free-range, he replied, “Only if I forget to turn on the electric fence.”

Good pasture, good beef

At the preliminary meetings for the co-op, the farmers who turned out realized they all pastured their animals, and they made that fact a central part of their production protocol. Most of the co-op’s members sell beef fattened only on grass and other forages, which fits well with the market niche to which the organization is trying to appeal.

But grass finishing can be challenging if pastures are not managed for optimal performance, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Helping members develop more effective approaches to pasture management has become one of the next priorities for the co-op.

“Everyone has quite different practices,” Teale said.

Such variation is hardly surprising given the remarkable diversity of the co-op’s membership, which includes some lifelong farmers, former dairy farmers and children of dairy farmers, and others who took up farming later in life or who rely on hired farm managers.

Among the members, experience with beef cattle, sophistication in managing pasture and involvement in direct marketing all run the gamut.

One would think these differences in experience and practices would make it difficult for Teale in her effort to build bridges between the farmers and the marketplace. But instead she sees potential, with the co-op as a vehicle for farmer-to-farmer learning. With that in mind, Teale and other co-op leaders would like to hold pasture walks this year with an outside expert to introduce members to the benefits of intensive grazing management.

Rich and Cynthia Larson, the farmers from Wells, probably have the most grazing expertise of anyone in the co-op, and Teale credits them with helping her evolve in her own thinking about the subject.

The Larsons ran a commercial dairy farm for many years on land that was so eroded when they bought it that “no one else wanted it,” Cynthia Larson said. Later, they milked a much smaller herd for raw milk sales.

Today they have a 30-head beef herd, and they milk 30 Jersey cows that help to supply the artisan cheese-making enterprise at Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, Vt. Rich Larson also has a farm real estate appraisal business.

To maximize pasture health and efficiency, they move their cattle to a new piece of grazing ground every 12 hours. It only takes a little time to subdivide paddocks every day with easy-to-handle, temporary electric fencing, Cynthia Larson said.

“We think of our fields as solar collectors,” she said. Plants capture the energy of sunlight and manufacture carbohydrates through photosynthesis.

Larson said she and her husband learned about the value of good grazing after they quit milking cows for the conventional market. With no animals on the farm, they initially were glad to have a neighbor take off the hay and keep the fields open.

But that was a mistake, Larson said. The couple realized that to be good stewards of their land, they needed animals to recycle nutrients, instead of exporting nutrients with the hay or other crops that were removed from the farm.

Grazing animals spread their own manure and urine. If they're “mob-grazed,” with large groups on a small piece of pasture for a short period of time, they'll trample uneaten grass and weeds and stimulate vigorous re-growth.

Rolling hills and less-than-prime soils are best suited to grass, Larson said. And ruminants -- cows, sheep and goats that have multiple stomachs and chew their cud -- are the only animals that can efficiently convert grasses into meat or milk, high quality human foods.

With her enthusiasm for pasturing, Larson said she's on board to share her knowledge with other famers.

Cultivating relationships

In Teale’s view, the co-op is a group effort, not just an organization to serve farmers. For the group to thrive and prosper requires commitment on the part of the members and an understanding that each person will contribute "whatever bit they can do" for the common good, she said.

She stresses that integrity and the free exchange of information are essential in all aspects of the co-op. Members need to be kept in the loop and have their voices heard.

“It won’t work without total transparency,” she said.

The board of directors realized they needed to be in frequent communication “to stay on the same page,” she said. They board meets every Tuesday via a conference call, and usually in person once a month.

Similarly, regular contact and full disclosure help maintain good relationships with buyers.

“I'm very careful to tell my customers everything,” Teale said.

The co-op gives buyers the farmer’s evaluation of the live animal whenever a carcass is sold, and the co-op’s Web site introduces each member farm through a short film or description. Because members are far from uniform in their practices, this information helps customers.

Relationships are also the foundation on which the co-op rests in other ways. It couldn't operate without its key partners. Farm Credit East gave the co-op a $50,000 operating loan through its Farm Start program and also provides accounting and other services. Regional Access delivers the beef to New York City and lists the co-op's products in its catalog.

Eagle Bridge Custom Meats, a small USDA-inspected plant, slaughters the cattle sold by the co-op, ages the beef and processes it as required. Plant owners Stephen Farrara and Debbie Ball work closely with the co-op to help it reach its quality goals.

Good timing for a startup

Teale says the co-op was able to get off the ground quickly because “the moment is right.”

Buxton, who still acts as an adviser to the group, said that in her nearly 18 years at Cornell Cooperative Extension, she has never encountered anything like it.

With a decline in the number of traditional dairy farms in the region and the rise of the local food movement, new opportunities have emerged. Some of the land that dairy farmers previously used, especially the more hilly land with poorer soils, became available for other uses.

Often landowners get into raising beef cattle for an agricultural exemption to help limit their tax burden, Buxton said. Eventually they need to start selling some of their animals for meat. But with more small farms raising meat animals, farmers markets are running out of slots for meat producers, precluding easy access to pools of consumers. The co-op presents a solution.

By aggregating large numbers of cattle, the co-op answers another need as well. Several members stressed that it's impossible for small farmers to service a big market like a large restaurant by themselves. And in eastern New York and much of New England, factors like topography, population density and high land values tend to limit the size of farms that rely on pasture.

At Stone Meadow Farm, Stone and his wife had been selling their meat to individual customers, mostly as mixed quarters. They turned their customers over to the co-op.

“I felt very comfortable selling six to eight animals a year,” Stone said. “But more? No. I have a full-time job. Twenty animals a year would be a whole different deal.”