HARMONY, Maine — WARNING: Do not read this article while gobbling down a hamburger or enjoying a thick steak. That is, unless the meat comes from farmers you know, local farmers such as Karina Lewis and Kirk Stanley.
High on a ridge overlooking Great Moose Lake in Somerset County, the couple is farming with their own set of values based on being good to the land and caring well for their stock. As a result, they are finding it hard to keep up with the orders flooding into their farm for their natural meat — beef, lamb, turkey, chicken and pork.
Consumers across the country are buying into this attitude, what Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association calls “food with a [farmer’s] face.”
“We have never advertised. Never sold at a farmers market. Never supplied a co-op,” Lewis said Friday. “Yet just by word of mouth, we can’t grow our animals fast enough to meet the demand.”
The buy-local, buy-fresh movement, which began with vegetables and gradually included dairy and cheese, now carries some of the highest-quality meat available. And clearly there is a hunger to learn where the meat on our plates originates.
Fueling this desire is that the past 18 months have been the worst on record for U.S. meat safety, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2007, there were 21 beef recalls nationwide for possible E. coli contamination, the most in five years, with 33.4 million pounds recalled, setting a new record.
Still, that pales in comparison to the single largest recall of beef in U.S. history: 143 million pounds was called back in February 2008 from a California meatpacking plant.
Take a quick look at the recalls for just the month of August this year: 153,630 pounds of frozen beef patties from California; 4,535 pounds of pork products from Hawaii; 51,360 pounds of chicken breasts from Mississippi; 215,660 pounds of frozen pepperoni products from Kentucky; 5.3 million pounds of beef from Nebraska.
The United States is not alone, either. Also in August, 15 deaths in Canada were attributed to listeria-tainted deli meat.
Lewis and Stanley believe in the way they farm, a traditional, back-to-basics approach, using oxen and horses instead of tractors, rotational pasturing, hands-on care of livestock, free-range poultry, calves and pigs. Their simple philosophy is that care of the land is as important as the care of the animals, and preserving the land is vital to the farm’s success.
The farm is orderly — no piles of debris or junk hanging around. Chickens and geese wander about; calves romp in a pasture; horses nicker from a nearby apple orchard bordered with homemade beehives.
There’s no surplus of discarded machinery because they use animal power. Even though they rise each day before dawn, Lewis said the last thing they do at night is to pick up as much as possible. “Even if we don’t get dinner until 10 p.m., we make sure the animals and the land are all set before we go in,” she said.
Stanley has a degree in zoology from the University of Maine; Lewis has a degree in psychology and grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana. Coming to Harmony a year ago, the couple have pledged to create a relationship with the land, the livestock and with their customers.
“Customers are definitely seeking that kind of relationship with whomever is raising their food,” Stanley said. “And in terms of sustainable agriculture, a grass-based system is the least energy-dependent in the world.”
The pair use the most basic of tools: oxen, horses, a wheel-barrow and a shovel.
They manage 400 acres through a rotational system of movable fencing and portable shelters.
Stanley explained that the sheep are put to pasture first because they push their heads down into the tall grass for the food they want; cattle follow and graze the rest of the grasses; horses are moved in last to nibble away at the short grasses and tender shoots; and chickens free range throughout the rotation. The couple move their animals frequently — every day or so — but said some rotational farmers move live-stock every 12 hours.
This way, the animals get the best of the grasses and the land is never overgrazed.
“To tell you the truth, the fences are more to keep the predators out than to keep the animals in,” Stanley said.
Lewis is a horse trainer and Stanley is a farrier but their natural meat business is growing so quickly, they hope it will be self-supporting within two years.
“When we first came here, we looked at the overall best use of the land without compromising the beauty of it. That’s why we have adopted this specialized system.”
This gentle way of farming is exactly what landowners John and Annette Veelenturf, who live down the road, were looking for. “They bought the property because it was in the hands of developers and was going to be cut up into 1-acre mobile home lots,” Lewis said. “This land will now be conserved for the future and never developed.”
Eventually, Lewis and Stanley will purchase the property from the Veelenturfs and continue their conservation efforts. The rolling green fields and slender threads of fencing are in direct contrast to massive feedlots and confined livestock operations.
Once, all beef was grass-fed, but in the United States today, commercial beef is almost all feedlot beef because commercial growers maintain that it is faster to grow and more profitable.
Seventy-five years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. “You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass,” Lewis said. “It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.”
Grass-fed beef not only is lower in overall fat and saturated fat, it also has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats and is higher in vitamin E, Lewis said.
“We did some test marketing and asked for really unbiased opinions,” Lewis said. “Most people have the opinion that grass-fed animals have tough meat. We heard back that no, that was not the case. The meat was far more sweet and tender than anything they were buying in the stores.”
“Once someone tastes locally grown, grass-fed meat, it sells itself,” Lewis said.
Stanley said naturally raised meat costs the consumer about 20 percent more than commercially raised. But some natural meat is competitive. For example, he sells lamb at $5 a pound, about the price in the super-market. As food prices continue to rise, local farmers will have a competitive edge, he said.
Lewis said the meat processor is critical to the success of the farm. Their meat is processed at Maple Lane Farm in Charleston.
But it is the couple’s commitment to the land that stands out as their primary marketing tool. “Come out and see us. See how we farm. See the fields, the animals,” Stanley said. Although he admits, “I don’t really want to be financially desperate all my life,” Stanley said grass-fed, natural farming maintains the values the couple has as well as maintains the land for the future.
“I believe farming can be done in Maine, or anywhere else, profitably,” he said, “while still being true to the animals and the land.”
Lists of Maine farms carrying locally grown meat can be found at www.getrealmaine.com, www.mainefoods.net and www.mofga.org.