Valley Bounty: Poplar Hill Farm

Mike Mahar of Poplar Hill Farm can tell you more about the burger his farm put on your plate than you want or need to know. But that’s a mark of a thoughtful farmer for whom transparency, sustainability, and keeping things local are key.

Mike manages the farm, located in Whatley, and works alongside his brother, Peter, and father, Thomas. Together they care for a herd of around 150 cattle, forty-five of which are slated for sale this year. What sets this farm apart is their commitment to keeping their footprint within the Valley whenever possible.

As Mike shares, “Everything our cows eat for the entirety of their life is grown by us directly, except for a small amount of ground corn we buy from a farm in Hadley. All the rest of the feed we grow in house.” All of their beef is sold within the Valley as well.

Short supply chains mean you know where your meat comes from. “We know the history of every animal that goes to slaughter. From the day it was born, we can tell you who its mother and father were, what it’s eaten the entirety of its life, and where that food came from,” says Mike.

You might not need that much information to choose a steak, but in a world where the quality and origin of most meat is a mystery, it’s relieving to find something with an uncomplicated past. In the case of Poplar Hill Farm, you can trust that the work and resources put towards raising that cow fed the local economy at every stage of this journey to your table.

Local supply chains are transparent supply chains, and when it comes to Poplar Hill beef, transparency tastes great.

There is one wrinkle. Because Poplar Hill is a larger operation that sells wholesale to butchers, grocers, and restaurants, it’s these businesses that ultimately dictate how much customers know about where that meat comes from. “Because we don’t interact with customers directly, it’s hard to get information out sometimes,” shares Mike. Some businesses list product origins somewhere in the store, but if you don’t see a sign just ask!

As demand for their beef has grown, Poplar Hill has been creative in raising as many animals as their land allows without compromising ethically or ecologically. For instance, they partner with other farms to raise some calves off-site. As Mike explains, “They use our bull for breeding and follow our breeding program. Once the calves are old enough, we bring them here and they get finished on our program.” This arrangement lets Poplar Hill expand their herd while partner farms, who might not be able to raise and market cattle on their own, can add another revenue stream by selling yearlings to a dependable buyer.

To supply their own feed, they grow a mix of corn and hay in addition to pasturing their cows on grass. “If we were 100% grass-fed, we would need eight times the land for our herd size. If we had five hundred acres of pasture maybe we could do that, but that’s not realistic in western Massachusetts. By growing some corn we’re able to feed way more animals per acre.”

Poplar Hill Farm tills their corn fields minimally to protect soil health. They also compost an enormous amount of cow manure for use on their fields, closing the “nutrient loop” as the fields grow food for the cows to eat again.

Mike gives a lot of thought to the dance they do to meet their sustainability goals while still offering quality local meat to the masses at scale. “It’s not easy, but … it’s the future. Farms don’t last long if they’re not willing to change. We have to find a better way. My interest is finding a better way on a bigger scale. Anyone can have chickens in their backyard or raise two grass-fed cows. But there’s only so many farms left, so you have to do it on a bigger scale to feed people. How do you do that? That’s where my interest is.”

You can find the best cuts of Poplar Hill Farm’s beef at Sutter Meats in Northampton and Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, perfect for winter stews and holiday roasts. Their beef is also often on the menu at three Northampton restaurants: Homestead, Patria, and The Dirty Truth Beer Hall. Wherever you eat or get your meat, be sure to ask where it came from!

Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

Visit CISAs searchable online food and farm guide to find local meat, produce, and other farm goodies this holiday season: