Chicoine Family Farm
By Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant
Published in the February 2013 CISA Enewsletter
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Bill and Susan Chicoine take pride in raising their grass-fed beef – and it shows, from their care and passion for their animals to their meticulous upkeep of their land. Chicoine Family Farm has always raised their animals completely on grass – even at a time when this was largely unheard of in the area. The animals never spend time in feed lots and are never fed grain; they are even finished on pasture. “We just knew that the animals thrived that way,” explains Bill, who worked on a grass-fed dairy in Alaska before returning to manage the farm he had grown up on in Easthampton. In Alaska, meadow land was abundant. There, says Bill, “you knew your neighbors 300 miles away like you know your neighbors next door here,” so raising animals on pasture simply made sense.
To succeed in raising cattle completely on grass is no easy task: pastures must be managed intensively and the herd has to be moved onto fresh pasture daily. Bill and Susan are careful to rotate their herd through the 22 pastures on their property, sow high quality seed for forage, and keep their hay fields well-maintained. They can’t emphasize enough the difference between their animals and your typical grocery-store feed lot beef: “This is as close to buffalo as you can get,” Bill says with a smile.
Susan points to the variety of different breeds represented in their herd as another key to the quality of their beef. “Black Angus is just a brand,” says Susan. Bill has experimented with breeding different crosses for decades to see which performed the best on grass and produced the highest quality beef. Their herd now includes a diverse mix of Belted Galloway, Devon, Normande and Piedmontese crosses. Bill reports having gotten comments from surprised customers, who told him, “Gee I threw the A1 sauce away – this meat actually has flavor!”
When Chicoine Family Farm started raising grass-fed beef in Easthampton in the 1970’s, it wasn’t the norm. “We were about the only grass-fed retailers,” explains Bill, “so we established our market. The level of awareness around food has grown dramatically since then. The farmer’s the new rock star now. There’s been a lot of education – just an awakening in general about what people are eating and where it’s coming from.”
Bill and Susan credit the “grass-fed beef renaissance” with popularizing farms like theirs in the marketplace. “Early on it was almost anonymous. People have become a lot more educated,” says Susan. Unlike cheaper supermarket beef, Susan explains, grass-fed beef is low in unhealthy fat and has higher levels good fats like conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids, which help maintain cardiovascular health. It is also has a higher levels of vitamins like Vitamin A and E, says Susan, and the animals are far happier.
The farm has seen other changes over the decades. In those early years Bill could call Adams slaughterhouse in Athol on a Friday to make an appointment and pick up the meat on Saturday; now he has to book a year ahead of time. Bill has seen local meat production increase in recent years, but there are fewer slaughterhouses now than in the past (one in Hadley closed down decades ago).
The local landscape in Easthampton has also changed, as farmland has been developed. Maintaining access to enough land for their operation has been challenging. The Chicoines use their home farm for pasture, but rely on leased land for much of their hay production. For over 30 years Bill has leased the Easthampton town farm, supplying manure to the land and harvesting hay, but recently was outbid on the land by a hay farm and almost lost access to it. The town changed this decision in response to significant public protest, but it highlighted some of the challenges the Chicoines are up against in accessing an adequate land base for their farm. “We’re basically at a loss to expand or meet our needs,” says Bill. Though its roots are strongly rural, says Bill, Chicoine Family Farm is nestled in what is now the middle of a suburban neighborhood. “We were the 2nd house on the left growing up, and now we’re 40-something.”
Chicoine Family Farm has persisted in the midst of these and many other changes. The Chicoine family has been farming for generations, and the home farm is located on the very same land that Bill grew up on. It’s good land. Bill’s father moved to Easthampton from Ware in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. In Ware, says Bill, “You’re always breaking plow shares and always harvesting stone.” But the farm in Easthampton was lake-bottom land, and Bill’s father could plow all day without hitting a stone. The farm started out as a dairy – cream was sold locally, and calves were raised for sale. When new dairy regulations were enacted, Bill’s father stopped selling cream due to the high expense of complying with the new regulations, and later transitioned to boarding horses for income.
No doubt there are more changes to come, but Bill is optimistic that the family tradition will carry on through whatever lies ahead. “It’s a real lifestyle choice, but it’s also a tradition,” says Susan. “There’s such a wealth of knowledge that he has.” Bill’s sons Corbin and James share this knowledge – both grew up on the farm and continue to lend a hand when needed. “It’s all second nature to them – the whole agriculture thing, the knowledge of equipment and the whole rhythm of it,” says Bill.
Susan and Bill warmly welcome individuals and families to come to their farm and meet their herd of about sixty animals. It’s worth the visit – the sloping fields at Chicoine Family Farm have a peaceful beauty that infuses both animals and visitors with calm. “It’s not always luscious green fields and red barns,” says Susan’s daughter, who also acknowledges the many challenges of farm life. But the strong appeal of these traditions is clear, and Bill and Susan both care deeply about their animals and land. The Chicoines’ deep commitment, as well as the growing community support for local farms, both bode well for the longevity of their farm—and their tradition—for generations to come.