Natural beef: in a Downeast Beantown.
It's September as these words are being written, and the saltwater farm's herd of Angus-Hereford cattle is typically scattered across the landscape. Where the Harraseeket enters Casco Bay, brightly colored tents are strung along the edge of the farm's main pasture at Recompense Shores, a seasonal campground run by Wolfe's Neck that emphasizes low-impact camping. It's low tide, and a few clammers are plying the ebony-colored mud. Just down the road past the calving barn lies Wolfe's Neck State Park, full of rocky trails and dramatic coastal overlooks. The blend of open farm fields, blue water, and dark fir forests--the archetypal landscape of coastal Maine--reflects the vision and public spiritedness of two people, Eleanor and Lawrence Smith of Philadelphia.
The Smiths' shared interest in conservation and working landscapes led to the creation of Wolfe's Neck Farm. In 1946, they began to purchase the lands that would someday comprise it. The farm began operation in 1959, the Smiths' intent being to preserve and protect open space, by making the land productive. Included in that vision was a desire--continued to this day--to abstain from using synthetic chemicals, either on its land or in its cattle feed.
In 1984, after the death of her husband, Eleanor Smith donated the farm to Portland's University of Southern Maine. In 1997, the university turned it over to the Wolfe's Neck Farm Foundation, a nonprofit begun in 1984 to support the farm; the foundation's goal has evolved into educating the public about farming, and assisting farmers in maintaining their land in agricultural production. Peter Cox, a member of CLF's Maine Advisory Board, was chair of the Farm Foundation for five years, and he continues to serve on the board.
Cox says, "I call what we do at the farm `market-based environmentalism.' We're trying to answer a question: How do you get the premium price for your product while allowing the producer to grow that product in an environmentally sensitive way?"
Ne Elegant Euphemism
One of the challenges Wolfe's Neck faces, in marketing meat under its label, is the high cost of slaughtering (there is no elegant euphemism for that word) animals. At first, they were sent to Windham Butchers, in Windham, Maine. Small numbers of animals could be sent at any time, but the cost per head was prohibitively high. Then farm manager Erick Jensen found a slaughtering facility in Pennsylvania, where costs were approximately 200% less than those in Maine. As Jensen recalls, "Even with shipping product from Aroostook county to Pennsylvania, the costs were so much less." But they wouldn't process less than a truckload of cattle at a time in Pennsylvania--78 head--and Cox says, "Because of the limited shelf-life of processed beef, we had to have a truckload down there every three weeks." To do that, the Wolfe's Neck supply of naturally-raised cattle had to be increased.
The farm's staff and Board of Directors were hesitant to make that commitment. Cox recalls discussing the possibility of creating a beef cooperative. But the Wolfe's Neck people realized that they couldn't ask Maine farmers to take the risk of joining a cooperative, and then adapting their operations to meet hypothetical demand. And Cox adds, "We really wanted to affect agriculture in Maine, to get at the big stuff [such as land preservation and sustainable agriculture]."
To do this, in August 2001 a foundation was created through Wolfe's Neck Farm: The Foundation for Agricultural Renewal. Its mission is to work with Maine farmers, providing assistance to cattle producers on marketing their beef for the highest price possible. "Maine has small herds, and because they're small they don't need antibiotics," Cox says. "They generally don't use additional feeds, chemical additives, or hormones because the farmers can't afford them. In essence, they're already raising `natural' beef."
The job of Wolfe's Neck Farm, as the Board saw it, was to increase demand for that quality product.
Jensen, who has managed Wolfe's Neck Farm since 1996, now meets frequently with satellite farmers, helping them to improve their husbandry practices in order to get more money for their animals. He travels throughout the state, speaking with farmers about nutrition and genetics, and about marketing their beef as "natural." His circuit rider approach seems to be working. He currently has between 50 and 60 producers in the network, and, he reports, "These farmers follow our protocols, keeping clear paper trails on all animals--from birth to shipment." Jensen also connects his producers with two large feedlots in Aroostook county, for a reliable source of high-quality feed.
In 2001, Wolfe's Neck signed up 24 A&P grocery store accounts in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Last August, Hannaford Inc.--operators of Shop & Save grocery stores--agreed to place the Wolfe's Neck label in 70 of its stores. Now demand is growing; Wolfe's Neck is shipping 80 head of cattle per week to the Pennsylvania slaughtering facility. Farmers are receiving 10 to 15 cents more per pound of beef than before. And consumers have a reliable source of high quality USDA "Choice" natural beef.
Meanwhile, the board and staff at Wolfe's Neck Farm are continuing to expand their network of beef producers. They've applied for a USDA grant to expand their education activities among farmers. Jensen is teaching Maine dairy farmers who have gone out of business to raise beef cattle, in an effort to both increase supply and preserve working farm lands. Wolfe's Neck Farm is expanding its line of products to include natural hamburger, a product much in demand by American consumers. And Jensen continues to discuss the link between high-quality product and higher price with Maine farmers. "A producer came down from Fort Kent (in Aroostook county) recently," he says. "I took him to Shop & Save and he saw his beef in the beef counter. He stood over his product like a proud father in a maternity ward. Before this, the end of his relationship with it was loading the animal onto a truck."
RELATED ARTICLE: An unfamiliar challenge for CLF-Vermont.
Recently, the subject of slaughtering was big news in Vermont, where farmers turned to CLF for assistance. Slaughtering facilities are responsible for disposing of unmarketable portions of animals, such as fat and bone. Wolfe's Neck Farm's Pennsylvania facility has developed markets for such unmarketables. But for those without ready markets, composting animal waste is a viable option. CLF-Vermont's Sandy Levine worked with eight Vermont processors to help them evaluate the composting alternative. As Levine explains, "The state once had 20 slaughtering facilities; now we have just eight, and they're marginal In partnership with the Vermont Department of Agriculture, we met with staff at those eight facilities to discuss waste disposal options. We found that several of them already did composting, two weren't interested, and two were very interested. Our task was to help the two interested ones obtain the necessary solid waste permits [from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources] to compost cattle carcasses. CLF reviewed the individual waste disposal needs of the eight facilities, and assisted each in developing general terms and conditions to satisfy permit requirements. As a result, Levine says, "One processor is now composting on its site, and the other in cooperation with a Local farm."
According to Steve Justice, marketing specialist at the Vermont Department of Agriculture, retaining slaughtering capacity in the state is all about economics. "About two-thirds of the 140 to 150,000 animals slaughtered here each year are shipped out of state," he says. "Most of those are dairy cows. Each time an animal Leaves Vermont, the farmer Loses $150 to $200." Justice believes that relying on out-of-state processors Leaves the state's farmers vulnerable in the long term. He explains, "The Pennsylvania slaughtering companies are consolidating. Down the road we may be in trouble due to lack of markets. We need to invest in slaughtering infrastructure within the state." --MW
Melissa Waterman is a freelance environmental writer who lives and recreates in Rockland, Maine.
("Natural Beef in a Downeast Beantown," page 39) writes from Rockland, Maine, near Penobscot Bay. True to her name, she has nearly always lived near the water, whether capsizing her Sunfish at the age of nine, or working as a freelance environmental writer. Her articles have appeared in Coastal Living, the EPA Journal, National Fisherman, Habitat, and Conservation Matters, and her essays have been broadcast on Maine Public Radio. She earned a B.A. in American history from Connecticut's Wesleyan University, and did graduate work in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. During the summer, she co-operates a small Rockland bed-and-breakfast inn--Waterman House.
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|Title Annotation:||Freeport, Maine|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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