Spreading the wealth: Smith College commitment to local meat a boon to area farmers

Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 10, 2019. By Luis Fieldman.

In the past three years, Goshen farmer Cosimo Ferrante has struggled economically, having to transition from raising cows for beef to raising pigs, which have lower overhead costs. But a new deal with Smith College, which is focusing on serving local meat to its students, is helping ensure his farm can be maintained for the long haul.

Smith College is collaborating with Mount Holyoke College and Westfield State University to purchase entire pigs from Ferrante and entire cows from Poplar Hill Farms and other local farmers as part of the “Whole Animals for the Whole Region” program.

“We’ve been struggling for a long time without an anchor customer,” Ferrante said. By cutting out the middleman, the colleges will be purchasing directly from local farmers, making the Whole Animals program “a game-changer for me and probably a lot of other people,” according to Ferrante.

Last year, Smith College received a $250,000 grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation in Boston for the Whole Animals program, which will fund the college’s transition to nearly 100 percent of its meat for dining halls to be sourced from farms in the Valley and processed at Adam’s Farm in Athol. Funds from the grant will pay for infrastructure upgrades to accommodate large volumes of beef and pork at the colleges.

Farmland in Goshen is different than that in the Valley closer to the Connecticut River, which is more nutrient-rich. For that reason, Ferrante said growing hay and cow feed is not a viable option for him, and the time it takes to get to market with pork is much shorter. It can take up to 20 months to get a steer to market, and only six to nine months to sell a hog.

“It was an attempt to do a grass-fed beef model,” Ferrante said of raising cows. “What I realized was that the land I have to use is not as suitable without that component of cutting hay.”

With the Whole Animals program, he not only found a reliable customer, but the financing to make improvements to his farm in order to bring back cows to his operations, he said.

“Basically, I’ll be bringing some beef back into the farm to help reclaim some of those areas that have gone fallow,” Ferrante said. Fallow areas, or uncultivated land, could become grazing land for cows.

As for Poplar Hill Farm, its cows graze on land owned by Smith College as they have for the past 150 years, according to farm owner Mike Mahar.

“It’s a natural union for us to work with Smith,” Mahar said. “It doesn’t get any more sustainable for Smith to have cows raised on their own land. Not many colleges can say that.”
Selling the whole animal

By 2020, Smith College will be sourcing half of all meat in their dining halls from local farms, according to Andrew Cox, director of dining services at Smith. Within the next couple of years, Cox said he hopes the college can transition to nearly 100 percent of the meat served in the college’s dining halls will be sourced locally.

“Buying a whole animal is a relief for a farmer,” Cox said. At a farmer’s market, by contrast, a farmer might be selling strip steaks, tenderloin or sirloin, which takes time to process and can take up room in their storage freezers.

For Ferrante, that means that he can increase his amount of pigs by half and save valuable time instead of trying to sell at a farmer’s market, which can be a “dead end,” he said. He will be selling nearly 50 pigs to Smith College this upcoming spring.

“Once an established meat person is in a particular market, they are not going to let someone else in, so you are straight-up excluded,” Ferrante said. “There is a lack of opportunity; there aren’t enough venues to make sales.”

As part of the Whole Animal program, Smith College put out a request for proposals that called for antibiotic free, 100 percent grass-fed, non-GMO grain beef and pork. After getting back 34 responses, Smith ended up drawing up agreements with 17 farms.

Over the course of the next few years, Smith College will be transitioning from purchasing its meat from farms in Vermont and New York to farms within a 15-mile radius. For next spring, the college will be collecting 100 cows and 320 hogs in total.

The animals will be brought to Adams Farm in Athol, which will be slaughtering and processing the animals for the three colleges.

Part of the grant, about $140,000, will go toward a new 2,400-square-foot freezer at Smith College, according to Cox. For farmers, it will mean that they no longer have to keep a freezer stocked with less-popular cuts, such as bottom round, brisket or flank. Plus, there is only so much ground meat that farmers can sell, and for some farmers, it could be up to 200 pounds that they need to offload.
‘A very steady income’

Poplar Hill Farms is home to nearly 120 cattle, and with a reliable customer such as Smith, Mahar said it will provide a steady income in a sometimes unpredictable market.

“It will allow me to take more risks in other ventures,” Mahar said. “I don’t think Smith College is going to go out of business anytime soon and they have kids that need to eat and that’s not going to change. You know they are going to pay their bill, you know that it’s a very steady income.”

Mahar’s agreement with Smith College means that he will be selling five cows a month from January to March, typically a slow time for many farmers, he said. Knowing that he is guaranteed payments at that time will help him with the preparations for his farm in the spring.

“Every year you have to buy $5,000 worth of corn seed, plus fertilizer, fuel and maintenance,” Mahar said. “To be able to send five animals in January, February and March and know you are going to be paid for them is nice.”

It can be a challenge to sell ground beef in general, Mahar said, simply because there is so much of it and special cuts are higher in demand.

“The idea of whole foods cannot be emphasized enough,” he said. “You can sell most of (a cow) really easily because everyone wants that T-bone steak, so being able to use the whole thing … that is really good because a lot of times (ground beef) is the hardest part to get rid of.”

Not only does the Whole Animal program mean that Mahar has a reliable customer and one that is willing to take all the cuts of a cow, it also means that smaller farms that Mahar works with will benefit as well.

Mahar buys cows from smaller family farms in Florence and Conway with herds of less than 10 cows, farms that otherwise would have to individually bring meat to market.

“They are trying to make enough money on their farm by selling some animals and selling some hay to pay the taxes and because they love doing it,” Mahar said. “In theory, by (Smith) signing an agreement with me, it does help spread the wealth with the trickle-down effect to these small guys.”

For Ferrante, being part of the Whole Animal program will help fund improvements to his farm, such a new feeding area for his pigs and he will be able to raise more pigs as the demand from Smith grows until it reaches its total need for pork.

“The Whole Animal program is an innovative concept because it does get it to a scale that can actually help some people make some money that can help them develop their farms,” Ferrante said. The program “will allow local farmers a potential avenue to sell their product at a reasonable return, and maybe even expand on some areas that have gone fallow because they will pay people pretty well.”

Ferrante has a lot of land as part of his farm — about 1,084 acres of leases property — and some of the land has gone underused over the last few years. He even plans on bringing back cows to his farm once he builds out the infrastructure this upcoming spring — and expanding with his cattle into the land that has gone uncultivated for the past few years.

“The idea and hope is that this is a model that will be emulated by other schools and could ultimately be a boon for local farmers throughout New England and really all over,” Ferrante said.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at