New England Conference Promotes the Region’s Beef
Mary Lake of Brookfield, Vt., stands for a portrait at Royal Butcher in Randolph, Vt., last week. She participated in a recent panel discussion on women in the meat industry. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Royal Larocque, who owns Royal Butcher in Randolph, seeks to improve the reputation of slaughterhouses. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
When you think about the origin of a thick slice of top-quality beef, marbled with fat and needing only salt and pepper to bring out its succulence, you may have an image of Angus steers roaming an expansive Western range, even if the reality is a crowded feed lot in Kansas or South Dakota.
But what if that steak on your plate came not from ranches in the Texas Panhandle or the Northern Plains, but from smaller farms in North Haverhill, N.H., or Hardwick, Mass., where a big herd numbers 70 and the cattle feed on grass?
New England isn’t a region that most Americans have traditionally associated with meat production, but a conference last week in Concord aimed to change the profile of New England meat producers and capitalize on fast-growing interest among consumers, retailers and restaurants in beef, lamb and pig raised on smaller farms in the region.
Organized by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Northeast Organic Farm Association of Vermont (NOFA-Vermont), the first New England Meat Conference attracted some 250 farmers, butchers and retailers from the six New England states and New York state.
Held at the Marriott in downtown Concord, the conference took place over two days and addressed such topics as Mobile Poultry Processing, What You Need to Know About Financing, Raising Small Ruminants, Crisis Management and Intro to Whole Animal Butchery. In all, 26 different sessions were offered.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the marketplace around local and regional meat. People want to know where their meat comes from,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, one of the conference organizers who is a senior agricultural development coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture in Montpelier.
The idea behind the conference, which was modeled on one in North Carolina that brought together different segments of the industry, Lewis said, was how to move meat production in New England “to the next level. We don’t want to be just a fad. How can we institutionalize that?”
As dairy farms continue to go out of business, Lewis said, farmers are looking at shifting from dairy alone to dairy and meat, or to meat alone. While New England farms are nowhere near the size of Midwestern or Western ones, she said, they do have a competitive advantage and that is “proximity to the marketplace.” Further, there’s a “new generation of producers getting out on the farm,” some of whom may not have grown up on farms or had farm experience.
Tara Roy, who with her husband Pete runs P.T. Farm in North Haverhill, a producer and processor of beef and swine, was a labor and delivery nurse in the Army before she went into farming. When she and her husband returned to New Hampshire from Army service in Hawaii, she said, her husband proposed buying and refurbishing a slaughterhouse in North Haverhill. “Every girl’s dream!” she joked.
Roy was one of the women at a panel discussion on the rise of women in the meat industry. Led by Kari Underly, a master butcher and author of The Art of Beef Cutting, the panel focused on such issues as battling stereotypes of women in an industry dominated by men, bringing other women into the business through apprentice or mentor programs and making the atmosphere for women palatable in whatever niche of the business they go into.
“The biggest thing you can do as a woman is to do all the work,” said Kate Stillman, owner of Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm in Hardwick, Mass. “If you do the work no one can say anything.”
A later panel on humane handling practices for livestock included Andrew Gunther, program director for Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a program that audits and certifies farms with an AWA label, Marc Moran, owner of Hopewell Farm in Newbury, N.H., and Royal LaRocque, owner of the Royal Butcher in Randolph. LaRocque worked as an electrician before buying an abandoned slaughterhouse in 2003. “I saw there was a need for it,” he said.
He decided to apply for an AWA certification after a livestock producer asked him if he had one. Since then, he has kept up to date on best handling practices and had his crew read the works of Temple Grandin, the writer and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, as well as making modifications in the setup of the slaughterhouse to improve how livestock are funneled in to the kill floor.
“I was trying to change the image,” he said. “Slaughterhouses get a bad rap. I’ve got nothing to hide so I can show everybody.”
Mary Lake, a sheep farmer and butcher who works with LaRocque and participated in the panel on women in the meat industry, has encouraged the men she works with to take pride in what they do. “When I first got there, the boys were ashamed of what they did.”
The reality is, she added, “When you tell people you kill animals for a living, no one says, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ ”
Telling the story of what you do and how you do it, and inviting the consumer into the process of raising and slaughtering livestock, whether you’re a farmer or processor, is now an integral part of marketing the product, Lewis said. Consumers want to know who the farmer is, what the operation is like, and the way in which the animals were raised. Offering tours of the farm, going to farmers’ markets and using social media are critical elements in whether a farm succeeds.
If farmers and processors can juggle the new demands of operating in a media-saturated environment, they have the advantage of the region’s agricultural heritage at their back.“(New England) does have a really good ethic, and there’s a long history of grass-based agricultural production in the region,” Lewis said.
The New England and New York state farms that are taking advantage of consumer demand for high-quality, locally-raised meats, she said, are “getting a real premium in the marketplace.”
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.