PORTLAND, Maine — With climbing grain prices, drought in some of America’s biggest agricultural states and a growing consumer demand for healthier food, Maine has a chance to secure a foothold in the country’s lucrative specialty beef market, experts say.

And with a growing burger chain — with a Portland franchise on the way — using specialty Pine Tree State beef for its patties, the Maine brand is creeping into a fast-food sector formerly written off as almost exclusively mass-produced, hormone-enhanced meat.

“There are people who are really seriously looking at the expansion of the meat-based agriculture of this state, and I have no doubt that it’s coming,” said Mark Lapping, distinguished professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and an expert in food sources. “We’re not at what I’d describe as even the crest of the wave. It’s not quite a wave yet, but it’s coming.”

There are plenty of statistics on the exploding popularity of niche beef — organic, grass-fed, locally grown beef and various combinations thereof — to make Maine beef producers’ mouths water.

According to California State University at Chico’s grass-fed beef educational website, the country is in the midst of a five-year period in which the organic and natural beef market is growing from $350 million annually to around $1 billion per year, and consumers will pay between 15 percent and 200 percent more for organic meats.

There is a difference in the definitions of what’s considered certifiably “natural,” “organic” and “grass-fed.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires beef cows to be fed organic grains or grasses and be free of antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones in order to be stamped as “organic.”

“Natural” beef, in comparison, defines the resultant meat products as having no artificial colorings, preservatives or other ingredients, while the less-regulated “grass-fed” term applies to beef from cows fed exclusively grass.

Beef that is not artificially colored or otherwise altered from a cow raised on grass without antibiotics or growth hormones would be considered natural, organic and grass-fed beef, and that beef has the potential to be the most valuable of all in a market where consumers are developing increasingly refined palates.

With several states long known as powerhouses in American agriculture — such as Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma — facing water deficits resulting from recent droughts, Lapping said, the door has opened to states such Maine, which was a major agricultural producer for the country in the mid-19th century before the Great Plains were settled.

“One of the advantages Maine has that still hasn’t been realized is that Maine has very high-quality grasslands,” Lapping said. “We could be using this grass for a better articulated and larger livestock population than we currently have. It’s lush, it’s nutritious, and it’s very well-watered. One of our trump cards for the future for Maine is that we are in one of those very well-watered regions.”

Gabe Clark, owner of Cold Spring Ranch in New Portland and president of the Maine Grass Farmers Network, said most beef farmers he knows are now seeing more demand than they’ve been able to meet.

Clark said his farm has grown from processing 25 beef cows in 2006 to more than 100.

“We continue to grow,” he said. “Our limitations are not related to the market, they’re more related to … land opportunity, animal availability, things like that.”

Clark’s grass-fed beef is sold year-round at Whole Foods Market and Rosemont Market and Bakery, among other locations, and served seasonally at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Maine, such as Primo in Rockland and Fore Street in Portland.

While studies performed at Auburn University and the aforementioned California State University found that as many as a quarter to a third of consumers prefer the taste of grass-fed beef — perhaps explaining its popularity in high-end eateries — the meat also appeals to the health conscious, advocates say.

Red meat in general has been given a black eye in recent years by studies tying its consumption to shorter life expectancies and cancer rates.

But while eating a rare steak will never be the same healthwise as nibbling on a cucumber, the Cold Spring Ranch website provides a glimmer of hope to meat enthusiasts.

The farm site notes that, when compared with conventional beef, the grass-fed variety has as much as five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, an anti-carcinogen, and 400 percent more vitamin A, another cancer-fighting agent. The grass-fed beef also trumps the grain- and chemically fattened alternative in levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and beta carotene.

Maine’s advantage

Clark said the business model used in Big Agriculture — low sale prices, small profit margins but high volumes — won’t work in Maine. So the popularity of specialty beef, more expensive and labor-intensive, works in Maine’s favor.

“We don’t have the land in Maine to replicate that model if we wanted to, so this is one of the best ways for Maine farmers to generate the kind of profit margin necessary to stay in business,” Clark said.

Skyrocketing wholesale prices for grain are increasing the prices of alternatives to grass-fed beef.

“Costs of conventional beefs have come up closer to specialty beefs,” Clark said. “Competitively, grass has gotten cheaper and by comparison, less expensive.”

Specialty beef served faster

By the end of the summer, Portland will be home to Maine’s first b.good burger, a Boston-based chain of nine cooperatively owned Massachusetts fast food restaurants.

What’s notable about b.good burger is that the chain uses beef from Pineland Farms, which is headquartered in New Gloucester and advertises its meat as natural, with no growth hormones or antibiotics.

“From the beginning we had this idea that we’d make fast food ‘real,’” b.good burger co-founder Jon Olinto said. “We’ve proven that our models work. We’ve proven that customers care about where their food comes from.”

B.good burger represents a specialty Maine beef producer’s foray into a field not previously known for natural, untreated meats, and the company’s success proves that there’s an audience for that beef outside high-end restaurants and specialty grocers.

While Pineland Farms beef comes from a collective of more than 200 northeastern farms, including many out-of-state, the organization is still largely associated with Maine and can be a torchbearer for a state brand of specialty beef, USM’s Lapping said.

Including the 15 Exchange St. location, Olinto said the chain has sold licenses for two additional franchises in Maine, five in New Hampshire, four in Connecticut, three in Rhode Island and one more in the group’s home state of Massachusetts.

All three Maine franchise licenses were sold to Bangor physician Ben Zolper and his son, University of Southern Maine graduate Bill Zolper, Olinto said.

“Maine has an incredible brand,” Lapping said. “We’re well known for quality and the environment. It’s not only smart marketing, it’s the sense of what people think we have here. We could use that brand and market it all over the world — and better feed ourselves close to home while we’re at it.”


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.