Valley Bounty: Meat
Spring is in full force on Freeman Farm.
“We’re getting animals out to pasture, repairing fences, and waiting for the hay to grow,” Mike Freeman explained recently.
Mike and Carin Freeman, with the help of their kids, raise cows, chickens, lambs, and pigs on about 500 acres of land across Heath.
“Everything we have is pastured, grass-fed, free-range, that kind of thing,” Freeman said.
Raising animals on pasture means putting in the work to maintain that land. This time of year, the Freemans are spending long days walking their fence lines with chain saws and loppers to cut back dead branches and brush.
The Freemans also recently acquired several new pastures that need new fences built around them. What’s the process like for building a new fence?
“Long,” Carin said.
“Feels like we’re feeding the mosquitos,” Mike added with a laugh.
For one new pasture that covers over 60 acres of land, the family is in the process of cutting back all the brush along the perimeter, driving in the fence posts, stringing up the high tensile wire, and then ‘flagging’ the fence so the animals can see it by attaching surveyor’s tape to the wire.
The growth cycle of the different animals on Freeman Farm varies.
Right now, they have 200 chickens that are three weeks into their eight-week growth cycle. Their 30 lambs were born between January and March and will be big enough for processing by August. Pigs need about six months to size up and are sent off in groups throughout the summer. Cattle take about two years to grow, and most of them get slaughtered in September and October.
The Freemans sell their products at the Shelburne Falls and Ashfield farmers’ markets. Both markets opened in May, but have had a very different feel during this time of pandemic.
“Normally a farmers’ market is a social event,” Mike said. “But now it’s basically just business.”
At the markets all the vendors and customers wear facemasks and social distancing measures are in place. In the past, Carin used to enjoy chatting with customers who had questions about the farm. But now there isn’t time for long conversations. “You feel like you have to rush to keep the flow moving,” Carin said.
“There’s definitely a loss of community. People miss being able to hang out and socialize,” Carin explained.
But despite that social loss, the opening of farmers’ markets across the Valley using these socially distant protocols has kept an essential food access point available for customers, and an important venue for selling products open for farmers.
Fortunately for Freeman Farm, sales have kept up during the pandemic.
“We’re selling really well right across the board with our beef, pork, chicken, and lamb,” Carin said.
As news spread that major meat processing plants in the Midwest would be forced to temporarily close due to the pandemic, the demand for local meat surged. That’s been great for Freeman Farm’s sales at the farmers’ markets and has increased the number of wholesale orders they’re receiving from local retailers like McCusker’s Market. But when you’re raising livestock, there’s a limit to how much it’s possible to increase production in a short period of time.
“There’s a bottle neck on the processing side.” Mike explained.
The Freemans would typically have no trouble making an appointment a week out to get a pig processed this time of year. Right now, it’s a two month wait. And it’s pretty much impossible to get an appointment to have animals processed in the fall, the typical busy season for slaughterhouses.
“When the pandemic hit, anyone who had a meat animal was hearing on the news how there could be a meat shortage. So people just started calling and making process appointments, in a panic basically,” Mike said.
Fortunately, the Freemans have standing processing appointments that they made months before the pandemic hit. So they’ll have a steady supply of meat throughout the summer and fall.
In addition to the farmers’ markets and local retailers, you can also buy meat directly from Freeman Farm. They offer meat Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, where you pay up front and then receive a regular share of products from the farm. Freeman Farm also sells half and whole animals. For prices and more information, visit their website: freemanfarm.biz.
Local meat farmers across the Valley are stepping up to fill the increased demand. So if you can’t find the cut you’re looking for in the grocery store, now is a great time to try out a local farm stand or butchers shop. To find local meat near you, visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).