NEW CANADA, Maine — Erin Parisien has the heart and soul of a gambler.
Now she and her husband, Richard Nielsen, have gone all in, raising and selling beef cattle in northern Maine, and they’re betting the area’s appetite for locally produced beef will pay off.
The couple founded Aroostook Beef Co. in 2014 after moving to Maine from Nebraska and purchasing land in New Canada, just south of Fort Kent.
“We started off with Black Angus beef,” Parisien said over breakfast at a local diner recently. “That’s what we raised in Nebraska. That’s what we know.”
A native of Maine, the 28-year-old rancher moved as a young girl to Nebraska said cattle ranching was never anything she’d given thought to as a career, much less in Maine.
“I was a city kid,” Parisien said. “I grew up just outside Omaha, and in high school I thought cow tipping was a real thing.”
For a time, she planned to head to Las Vegas and score big playing poker. She even saved up the money to fund the venture.
But when her fellow poker partner backed out, she found herself working at a diner, where she met Nielsen, an experienced cattleman. The two eventually decided to go into the cattle business as a team.
At first, she said, they were looking at land in Montana, but visits to the St. John Valley — where Parisien has family — and the availability of land that met their criteria changed those plans.
“Northern Maine is actually good beef country,” Parisien said. “It’s working pretty well. There is open pastureland and a lot of water. In fact, when I first went out on our pastures and saw water actually bubbling out of the ground, I thought that was the neatest thing ever.”
Roughy half the ranch is wooded, and it’s in those shady woods where most of the cattle spend hot summer afternoons.
Days at Aroostook Beef Co. start at sunup, with feeding and watering the 100-plus member cattle herd and tending the large flock of chickens and several pet goats.
With the recently warm and finally rain-free weather, haying has begun.
“We do give them a lot of treats,” Parisien said. “So if they hear us coming, they’ll usually come running.”
The Aroostook Beef Co.’s cattle being sold for meat were born and raised on the New Canada farm. They are fed only local hay and grain, Parisien said, and are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
For now, Aroostook Beef is sold locally, directly from the farm and at area farmers markets.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle to get people to realize local beef is going to be superior to what they get at a grocery store with commercial beef, but they are beginning to figure that out,” she said.
This season, Parisien and Nielsen are offering beef CSAs, allowing people to pre-purchase a set amount of beef by the month.
For Parisien, the entire cattle process has been a learning experience.
“You have to start somewhere. For us it was buying the land, build[ing] storage for food and equipment and then buy[ing our] first cows and bull,” she said. “Nine months later you have a calf and — if you are lucky — 16 months after that you have something to sell.”
She also had to learn how to run the various tractors and implements needed to manage the land.
“When anything on the equipment would go wrong, right away I’d call Rich,” she said with a laugh. “Now, with some of the minor breakdowns I can figure it out. But there is still stuff that goes really wrong [and] repairs of that are beyond my paygrade.”
Parisien also finds the science behind what makes a good meat producer fascinating.
“I’ll spend a lot of time researching the DNA and genetics of different cows and bulls,” she said. “I want to track down what I feel is that perfect animal.”
Using that knowledge, Parisien said she and Nielsen purchased their first cows and bulls from western states, including Montana and the Dakotas. The cattle being sold for meat are the Maine-born offspring of those animals.
So far, the couple is pleased with how their herd and life in Maine is shaping up, and Parisien said it was worth the toss of the dice.
“When I play poker there is so much more going on than just what cards you have or what meets the eye,” she said. “With my cattle, I find there is so much more going on with them than meets the eye; you just have to play your cards and go with it.”