Meat is not murder, but it is killing. There is not space here to go into the arguments for and against—and I was a vegetarian for 18 years, so I’m well-acquainted with both points of view—so let’s begin by stipulating that local small farms are categorically different from the huge factory operations such as those depicted in Food, Inc. If we can agree on that, separating the sustainable from the indefensible, then we can focus on the many benefits that such farms bring to our region. Besides healthier, better-tasting meat, prosperous farms provide jobs, preserve our scenic landscape, and promote both tourism and our local culinary identity. And many of them sell directly to the public.
Eric Eschbach of Cedar Hill Farm in Amenia is a third-generation farmer raising cattle on land that has been agricultural since the 18th century. He raises grass-fed certified Black Angus cattle, which until this year were 100 percent grass-fed. Now he gives them a supplement of corn silage for the last 30 days, which improves the marbling of fat in the meat without altering the nutritional profile; among other things, grass-fed meat in the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acid that lowers cholesterol as opposed to the unhealthy Omega-6 found in grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is also much higher in vitamins, especially E, and cancer-fighting CLA fatty acids. Cows evolved to eat grass, not grain (though the seeds of mature grasses are part of their natural diet) and healthy cows have healthy meat. Because there’s less intramuscular fat, though, the meat should be cooked on the rarer side for best flavor and texture. And the flavor is noticeably beefier. On the debate over methods, he says that both sides “use extremes to make a point; you can go right down the middle and still make a good product.” He resists labels, saying “There’s nothing wrong with ‘conventional’ agriculture, if that means doing it the way it’s always been done.” In other words, there’s nothing conventional about cement feedlots, antibiotic and hormone-laden grain, and vast lagoons of shit; if a farmer from 100 or 1,000 years ago would recognize every step of your process, you’re doing it right.
Meet Your Meat
A little bit of research can pay off; like Cedar Hill Farm, there are numerous small operations that do not yet have websites and sell only from their farms. Sepascot Home Farm in Rhinebeck, run by Susan and Chris Fitzgerald, has been selling beef, pork, chicken, and eggs for about a year. Susan, a vegetarian, says she struggled with the decision to grow animals for food but ultimately decided that it was better to raise them humanely, according to her high standards, and also make a profit to prevent the farm—in her family since 1906—from becoming “another housing development. People should put a face and a place to where their food comes from,” she says, and notes that her customers are delighted to have a good local source. Another under-the-radar producer is Barr Vista farm in Willow, where Dana LaBarr raises a few cattle a year and sells eggs to neighbors. She relies entirely on word-of-mouth for publicity, but as demand increases she may begin to advertise. “Farmers are animal lovers,” she emphasizes; “they have their best interest at heart and are proud of the finished product.” That pride and caring is strongly evident in all of the farmers interviewed for this piece.
Some farms offer a meat CSA; Northwind Farm in Tivoli is one. Jane and Richard Biezynski offer whole and half shares of their chicken, beef, and pork for monthly pickup or delivery to their stand at the Farmers’ Markets in Woodstock and Kingston. Orders can be customized, and they try to accommodate requests. Jane Biezynski feels strongly that people should know the source of their meat: “Just because it’s a family farm, that doesn’t guarantee the condition of animals. Go to the farm and see the conditions.” Few of our regional animal farms are certified organic. Stephanie Turco of Veritas Farm in Esopus explains: “We’re well beyond it. ‘Organic’ doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the animals’ life; organic chickens can be battery-raised, and organic beef and pork can be kept in horrific conditions. Our animals are outside all year round.” Turco also works exclusively with a slaughterhouse that is Animal Welfare Approved, the highest rating for humane practices. Turco, like many of her peers, practices rotational grazing, moving the cows from pasture to pasture with chickens not far behind to scatter the manure and eat all the bugs. This system grows the best possible grass, which in turn makes for the best possible meat.