From farm animal to filet mignon: The path from farm to plate of local meat in Western Massachusetts

MassLive, April 14, 2014. By Kate Royals.

This story is the second of several on the topic of local food. The first story focused on the challenges restaurants face when sourcing local beef. Future stories will look at the costs of local vs. non-local meat, the scarcity of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the state, and the future of the local food movement in Western Massachusetts.

The number of small farms in Massachusetts is increasing, and consumers are buying more local food, according to the most recent agricultural data. Statistics aside, evidence of the local food movement can be seen by a simple look around the Pioneer Valley. From a growing number of farmer’s markets, to restaurants serving local meat and produce, to a retail butcher shop that offers only meat raised on area farms, the growing focus on “local” is apparent.

Massachusetts farms sold almost 6 percent more food in 2012 than in 2007, according to preliminary data from the 2012 U.S. Agricultural Census. Over 95 percent of those farms fit the criteria for “small farm,” or farms that sold less than $250,000 worth of agricultural products in 2007. Farms in the Pioneer Valley specifically sold about $9 million of agricultural products to consumers in 2007, or twice what was sold in 2002.

The increased demand for and sales of local food, specifically meat, could be said to show consumers’ need to become more knowledgable about the food they eat. But how much is really known about the path an animal takes from the time it’s born on a Western Massachusetts farm to the time it’s served at a restaurant or displayed on shelves at a grocery store? What goes into maintaining the local food culture at a time when Big Agriculture and corporate farming dominate? And with no across-the-board definition of “local,” just how local is the meat?

To shed light on some of these questions, we talked to a Pioneer Valley farmer, a market manager, and the owners of a restaurant, butcher shop and slaughterhouse. Each one described the process — and challenges — from his or her perspective.

Pete Solis, Mockingbird Farm’s owner, stands with the Devon cows on his farm in Easthampton.Kate Royals,

The farm: Mockingbird Farm, Easthampton, Mass.

This four-year-old, family-owned farm in Easthampton raises pastured cattle, pigs and chickens for eggs and meat. The animals span out over a 60-acre area of half-wooded, half-pastured land on Torrey Road in Easthampton, a few miles from downtown. Some of the farm’s cattle also graze in a 27-acre plot of land in Northampton, leased by the farm’s owner Pete Solis.

Throughout the course of a year, the farm will be home to about 1,200 chickens, 200 laying hens, 30 cattle (bulls, calves and cows), and around 60 pigs (sows, piglets, and boars). Though Solis has brought in cattle from other farms (a now-defunct farm in Amherst and Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield) in previous years, all cows sent to slaughter this year will have been born and raised on Mockingbird Farm. Currently, the same is true for this year’s pigs, though Solis says he may purchase some additional piglets from Big Pig Farm in Williamstown in Berkshire County, about 50 miles from Easthampton.

The farm’s chickens, however, are shipped in from Pennsylvania. Though chickens live at Mockingbird for about 10 and a half weeks from the time they arrive in the mail to the time they are sent to the slaughterhouse, they are not hatched there. Solis gets his day-old baby chicks in the mail from a hatchery in Gratz, Pa.

Solis laughed while describing getting a phone call from the post office and hearing the chirps of baby chicks as the postal worker tells him he has a package at the store. To hatch the chickens on site “requires a whole other set of skills,” Solis explained, adding it would be too time-consuming and expensive of an endeavor.

After the 10-and-a-half-week period ends, the chickens are transported about 60 miles to Westminster Poultry in Westminster Station, Vt., though Solis notes that beginning this year, he plans to use a mobile poultry processing unit. The unit will allow chickens to be processed right at the farm.

Calves and pigs, on the other hand, are mostly born on the farm and go through a number of transitions during their time at Mockingbird. From conception to slaughter, the Devon cows at Mockingbird live at the farm for about 2 to 2 and a half years. At about two to three months old, the calves will start eating grass and at eight months will make make the transition to a grazing pasture away from their mother. Around two years, the cow will be sent to slaughter at Adams Farm Slaughterhouse, a USDA inspected meat processing facility in Athol.

The pigs — a mix of Berkshire, Tamworth and Large Black breeds at Mockingbird — live at the farm for about 13 months total. After staying with the mom, or sow, for six to eight weeks, the mom is eventually moved to another location with the boar, or male pig, and the pigs divide their time on the pasture and in the woods for about six months. Once the 13-month period is up, they are also sent to Adams for processing.

Once the meat is processed and sent back to Solis in the form he specified — whether fresh or frozen, whole or cut — he then delivers the meat to his customers. Currently, Solis works primarily with farmer’s markets and customers who opt into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, along with a restaurant and cooperative market in Amherst: Wheatberry and All Things Local.

A customer exits Adams Farm, a slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass. The site includes a deli and grocery area selling local meat and other products.Greg Saulmon, The Republican

The slaughterhouse: Adams Farm Slaughterhouse, Athol, Mass.

Currently the only operating USDA-inspected meat processing facility in the state, Adams Farm Slaughterhouse is a full-service slaughterhouse for farmers and mid-sized companies. Adams, a family-owned company in business since 1946, processes about 26,000 animals from 450 New England farmers each year. Adams employs 41 people at its processing facility and retail store.

Located in Athol in Worcester County, the 12,000-square-foot building is about 50 miles from Springfield. About 20 percent of the slaughterhouse’s total business comes from Massachusetts, with the majority coming in from Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to General Manager Ed Maltby.

According to the facility’s website, the process and techniques used at Adams are unique in their emphasis on humane handling, including:

  • a consistently applied animal tracking system, to ensure each farmer knows the meat he or she receives is from the farmer’s original animal
  • the use of fully equipped livestock trailers with plenty of food and water for animals being transported
  • livestock holding pens designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science and livestock industry consultant
  • a humanely-designed path to guide animals from the holding pens to the processing plant
The storefront of River Valley Market, a co-operative grocery store in Northampton that specializes in locally sourced foods.Kate Royals,

The market: River Valley Market, Northampton, Mass.

River Valley Market is a co-operative grocery store that specializes in local, organic foods in Northampton. Founded in 2008, the market sells produce, meat and seafood, cheese and dairy, bread and baked goods, bulk foods like nuts and granola, and prepared foods from its cafe.

“The goal is to support local farmers but also to provide a healthy and affordable place for everyone to shop,” Meat and Seafood Manager Travis Keith explained. “Rather than kicking a lot of lower-income or large families or young people out of the customer base, we try to have a range of — while not local — healthy, responsibly raised products so that it’s not an exclusive place to shop.”

When labeling the meat on the shelves, the market adheres to two separate definitions of “local.” Beef, pork and poultry raised at farms in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties receive the “Local Color” label on its packaging. Keith says the majority of the “Local Color” farms he works with are in Hampshire and Hampden counties. The broader definition of “local” includes beef, pork and poultry from farms in New England and upstate New York.

According to Keith, about a third of all products sold in the meat department are from farms in New England.

The market sells (mostly frozen) beef year-round from Bridgmont Farm in Westhampton, Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, Steady Lane Farm in Ashfield and Hardwick Beef in Jericho, Vt. The market receives about two to three sides of beef, brought in fresh, from Hardwick each week.

For pork, Keith says the market has worked with a lot of local farms in the past, and will be getting its pork from Gray Dog’s Farm out of Huntington this year.

“We expect the first pig from them in April and then we’ll be on schedule with them for the rest of the year,” Keith said.

While Keith maintains finding enough local beef and pork for the market is not a problem, poultry from the Pioneer Valley is another story. He describes it as one of the “real gaps” in the area.

“True local Hampden and Hampshire county poultry is very difficult to find a consistent supply of,” Keith said. “It’s for many reasons — the expense of raising it (poultry) is one of them, another is slaughtering poultry winds up being very difficult for people to do … We haven’t found anybody able to consistently give us what we need and the volume that we need.”

Citing the increase in sales of local beef from the store’s opening to last year — about 4,000 lbs. in 2009 to 18,000 lbs. in 2013 — Keith said he expects sales of local products at the store to increase at a faster rate than any other category.

“Hopefully obstacles that hinder farmers from raising meats locally for retail sale will be overcome and we can continue to grow the local economy as much as possible,” Keith said.

Sutter Meats, a newly opened butcher shop in Northampton, specializes in sourcing from only local farms and using all parts of the animals.Don Treeger/The Republican

The butcher shops: Sutter Meats, Northampton, Mass. and Arnold’s Meats, Chicopee and East Longmeadow, Mass.

Although butcher shops and meat markets are on the decline across the country, these businesses can play a pivotal role in the world of local meat. In the Pioneer Valley, meat eaters now have the option of the newly-opened, locally-emphasized Sutter Meats in Northampton, in addition to butcher shops like Serio’s Market in Northampton, Arnold’s Meats in Chicopee and East Longmeadow, and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe in West Springfield.

Sutter Meats

Sutter Meats, which opened its downtown Northampton business in late January, is unlike other butcher shops in the area because it works exclusively with local farms and sources no outside meat. All of the animals come delivered from the slaughterhouse in their whole form, as opposed to already cut. The butchers work to use as much of the animal as possible, which can be seen by the range of “offal” meats (like tongues and organs) on display at the front of the store.

For beef and pork, the shop works mostly with farms in the Pioneer Valley, along with Elmartin Farm in Berkshire County and Signal Rock Farm in Worcester County. The shop’s poultry, however, comes from Misty Knoll, a farm in New Haven, Vt.

“For chickens, we can’t source locally. We have yet to find a (local poultry) source that is slaughtered through a USDA facility,” Sutter Meats butcher and co-owner Terry Ragasa said, referring to the lack of a USDA-inspected poultry slaughterhouse in the state. Because poultry and red meat fall under different regulations by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, they cannot be processed in the same facility. “A lot of (Pioneer Valley) farms do on-farm slaughter, but they’re only able to sell at farmer’s markets or off of their farm because they don’t have a USDA certification.”

Although some local farms send poultry to be processed at Westminster Meats in Westminster, Vt., Ragasa explains that if he were to use that chicken, the price would have to be marked up dramatically. “I would get them at almost 20-something dollars for a whole bird. I’m already selling chickens for 20-something (dollars) for a whole bird, so I’d have to sell them at 30-something (dollars). We’ve been asking customers about that, and people aren’t comfortable paying more than a couple dollars a pound for chicken, really … So to bring in a 30-something dollar chicken would really be a turn off to people.”

Ragasa said he and his wife Susan, a co-owner of the shop, visited each farm to ensure they meet several criteria, including the space the animals have, access to food and water and the transparency and openness of the farmer.

“We look at the animals’ living conditions, if there’s available pasture and water, that there are no visible signs of stress. And, we look at whether they have shade if need be, or a barn to go in if they want.” Ragasa described when asked about some of the standards held for farms. “The ones (farms) we’re working with are so small there’s not much to hide, and they’re out in the public anyway.”

After cows are slaughtered, the carcasses are hung for around two weeks before being delivered in a refrigerator truck to Sutter Meats. Pigs don’t require as long of a hanging time, however, and are brought to the butcher shop about four days after being processed. Each week, about 60 to 70 chickens are brought in on Tuesdays after being slaughtered the previous Thursday. The birds are delivered by Black River Meats, a distributor of local foods that works with and processes poultry from Misty Knoll Farms in Vermont.

Despite the niche market Sutter Meats serves, Ragasa said the shop regularly sells out each week thanks to a loyal base of regular customers and a continuing influx of new visitors from Northampton and the surrounding region.

Arnold’s Meats

Arnold’s Meats, a mid-sized butcher shop with locations in Chicopee and East Longmeadow, offers a glimpse at a more typical butcher shop. The shop sells about 20 million pounds of meat to restaurants, hospitals, schools and businesses across New England each year. While Arnold’s sell some products from Adams Farm in Athol, the majority of its meat comes from the western part of the country, according to owner Larry Katz.

“First of all, there’s not enough local meat to supply me. And that’s the main reason why I don’t do it,” Katz said. “Secondly, I don’t think the quality of local meat is as high as western beef. I think western beef has much more flavor, is much more tender and I can get as much as I want of it.”

Katz also mentioned that the companies he works with — IBP Beef, Excel Fresh Meats, Hormel Foods and Farmland Foods — offer all-natural programs that he has purchased previously. However, he mentioned one experiment with providing natural and organic meats that proved unsuccessful.

“We tried it with bringing in all natural and all organic, and making two different sections of the store, but people weren’t spending the money for it because it’s expensive,” he recalled.

Blue Heron restaurant in Sunderland, Mass., is an upscale restaurant that uses local beef, poultry, and pork as much as possible, according to co-owner and executive chef Deborah Snow.Blue Heron Restaurant

The restaurant: Blue Heron Restaurant, Sunderland, Mass.

Deborah Snow and Barbara White, the owners of Blue Heron in Sunderland, describe their restaurant as “an intimate, relaxed upscale restaurant featuring globally inspired cuisine sourced ethically from our Valley and beyond.”

Snow, the co-owner and executive chef, says the restaurant uses beef, poultry and pork raised locally “as much as possible,” but acknowledges some shortcomings and exceptions. Currently, she estimates about 20 percent of the meat served at the restaurant comes from New England and Pennsylvania.

“There is probably, not at this time, enough beef grown in the area to give me all that I need. And certainly not enough of what we would refer to as steaks — whether it’s filet mignon, ribeye, or anything like that,” Snow explained to MassLive for a previous story on restaurants’ use of local beef, though she acknowledges the supply of local produce is plentiful. “Some of the aspects people don’t understand is that the majority of beef goes to ground beef. A steer (male cow) will go to slaughter, say, at about 1,500 pounds or somewhere in there. There’s only, for example, two filet mignons, two sides to the animal, two of every cut on that one animal, and about 30 percent of the animal goes to waste.”

Snow also discussed how farmers sometimes prefer to sell to individuals, who pay the higher wholesale price for the animal, as opposed to restaurants, which would pay the retail price.

To make up for the shortfall of those particular cuts of beef and other meat shortfalls, Snow vets farms outside of the area to find sustainably raised and ethically sourced meats. To Snow, this means the purveyor she’s buying from (like Snake River Farms, where she buys American Wagyu beef) knows the farm the meat comes from, knows where the animals were slaughtered, and that they’re “not standing in knee-high manure and being force fed and that kind of stuff,” said Snow.

Currently, the restaurant works directly with Niman Ranch in California, Creekstone Farms in Kansas and Joe Jurgielewicz & Son in Pennsylvania.

The restaurant gets enough ground beef from Foxbard Farm in Shelburne for all of its burgers, including its namesake “The Blue Heron Burger.” While the restaurant can’t use all-local beef for steaks and other cuts, it does work with a long list of farms in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York to get its beef and pork.

Blue Heron, like River Valley Market and Sutter Meats, also gets its chicken from Misty Knoll Farms In Vermont.

The future of local food in the Pioneer Valley

Although small farms and businesses emphasizing local food are growing throughout Western Massachusetts, a small supply of local meat — particularly beef and poultry — limit the amount of local meat some restaurants, markets and butcher shops are able to offer.

recent report by Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture points out that while more local food is being consumed, it still “makes up only a tiny portion of the food consumed by the three-county region’s 700,000 residents.” In the same report, CISA called for an increase in the infrastructure needed to support local food — including meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities, dairy processing facilities, temperature and humidity-controlled storage facilities, and distribution and delivery services to markets and farms, among others.

The remainder of this project will look at the current conditions and challenges of food production in the region, including the scarcity of slaughterhouses in the state, along with the impact future efforts (like changes to the mobile poultry processing unit) could have on scaling up access to local food.