Local Farmers Finding Market for their Meat CSA Subscriptions

The Recorder, December 26, 2016, by Richie Davis

If your answer to “Where’s the beef?” is “local, local, local,” you’re not alone.

The demand for locally raised beef, as well as lamb, pork, chicken and turkey, has been inching upward enough in recent years, with Shelburne’s Foxbard and Wheel-View farms specializing in grass-fed beef, and Leverett’s EIEIO Farm selling beef, lamb, pork, and even goat meat.

But now, meat farm-shares operations, like Bostrom Farm in Greenfield are also on the rise.

Bostrom, which offers shares for 40-pound monthly beef and pork distributions from March to June, also sells its meat at Green Fields Market, at restaurants and through direct sales at the Greenfield Farmers Market and the Colrain Road farm.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA — the up-front subscription approach that’s gained a following for produce, and even grains, seafood and beer — is also being used by livestock producers as one way of marketing their grass-fed beef, and other locally raised meats.

“There are some wonderful vegetable CSAs around, but very few meat CSAs,” Ipek Kursat of Ashfield’s DewGreen Farm said to Janet Clark of nearby Steady Lane Farm a few years back, after she’d been raising pigs and deciding that a collaborative CSA might make sense. Ashfield Meat CSA was born this last spring.

Kursat, a Turkish native who moved to Ashfield in 1995 and had been doing organizational consulting nationally and internationally while running a 3-acre “mini-farm” that began selling lamb and pork to area co-ops, found that markets were tightening and the cost of storing the frozen meat and transporting it was increasing.

“The most-efficient way to sell farm products is on the farm,” she said. CSAs enable that. “The customers are local, they come here.”

In fact, the “here” is Steady Lane, the former 70-acre dairy farm that Clark moved to in 2002 from Acton, where she had been working for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. That’s where she tends 15 cows and calves — Galloways, Herefords, Angus and others — as well as some of Kursat’s Icelandic and Katahdin lambs. In this “geographically dispersed” operation, some of Kursat’s hogs are on a 5-acre rented pasture in Shelburne.

The Ashfield women, who have launched their second six-month CSA cycle this month, also buy chickens from farmers around the area.

“We’re feeling our way in what the demographics are in our market,” said Clark, who says that their approach also allows for “multi-species grazing, which is good for the land because the animals, which are moved from field to field, graze on grass of different heights.

They have sold to River Valley and Green Fields Market, as well as Sutter Meats in Northampton and some restaurants, but Clark says there’s increasing competition, so they’ve turned to the CSA model, attracting 16 members last spring and summer, mostly around the Pioneer Valley, including Ashfield, South Deerfield and Northampton, but also from eastern Massachusetts and Keene, N.H.

They offer a range of share sizes, from 22 pounds a month down to 6 pounds of meat a month, and also offer custom shares.

“We try not to lock people into a standard CSA share,” said Clark, who includes recipes in the distribution bags. “It’s very individualized, and we try to recognize that people have different needs. What they’re buying is part of a whole animal, so cuts can vary every month.”

They’re also flexible in having “rolling sign-ups” for the December-May cycle, with second-Saturday distributions at the farm, or delivered in the case of customers father away, said Clark, who says the hope is for the CSA to grow much larger.

That’s what happened at Hettie Belle Farm, a meat CSA in Warwick that went from 40 members seven years ago to 200 subscribers today and from 12 to 60 acres.

“We always sell out,” said Jennifer Core, who operates the farm with her husband, Olivier Flagollet.

Together, they raise 24 beef cattle, 25 to 30 pigs, 600 to 700 chickens, 100 turkeys and 40 lambs and offer 45- and 65-pound winter shares monthly from November through March as well as a “grill-able” summer share.

Hettie Belle, with virtually all of its meat sold through the CSA, has distributions on the farm, but also at Atlas Farm in South Deerfield, Crimson and Clover Farm in Florence, and at sites in Keene and Brattleboro, Vt.

“Initially, it was a real stretch to get folks thinking about what a meat CSA model would look like, because it’s different than a veggie model. Now it’s much more mainstreamed. That’s a really positive thing,” said Core.

Still, she says, it takes a lot of time to work, one family at a time, to sell CSA shares from year to year, and although the farm has a good renewal rate, there are a lot of new farms in the area, resulting in more competition.

“We’re one of a very, very few organic meat and poultry CSAs,” she says, although the farm’s website makes it clear that while it’s not certified organic, Hettie Belle uses organic grain for its pigs and chickens and only apply compost “tea” and manure to its fields.

“Also, were raising grass as much as animals, so any intense weather fluctuation impacts us pretty drastically, says Core, who had to buy hay this year. “Obviously, the drought this year was stressful.”

And while Hettie Belle has managed to sell out its shares year after year, Core said, “It’s always uncertain, like any CSA there are days, there are a number of weeks, when you just don’t know,” when selling the last 10 or 15 shares is an uncertainty. “That’s just the reality.”

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