Happy cows, good food, more profits for farmers

By: - December 27, 2022 7:00 am
Joseph Monroe, holding his son Angus, raises grass-fed calves in Henry County and markets them through Our Home Place Meat. Photo courtesy of The Berry Center

Joseph Monroe, holding his son Angus, raises grass-fed calves in Henry County and markets them through Our Home Place Meat. Photo courtesy of The Berry Center

For more than a century Kentucky’s Henry County relied on tobacco to keep its farmers and its economy going.

For most of the second half of the 20th century a federal program stabilized the price of tobacco, guaranteeing those farmers a steady, predictable income. That all changed in the new century after Congress ended tobacco price supports.

Just as all that change was underway, Mary Berry, the daughter of Henry County’s renowned author, activist, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, founded The Berry Center to carry on his vision of “prosperous well-tended farms serving and supporting healthy local communities.”

Thinking about how to help farmers prosper, they began with the mantra, “start with what you have.” With tobacco gone, what Henry County had was cattle and pasture.

No state east of the Mississippi River produces more cattle than Kentucky.

So the Berry Center began to think about ways small farmers could make more, and more predictable, money from their cattle operations and landed on the idea of producing veal.

Rose veal is so natural. You don’t feed mama cows grain, they just live on the farm and eat grass, and the calves aren’t given antibiotics, steroids or hormones.

– Bob Perry, chef and teacher

The economics made sense. Typically, weaned calves would be sent off in a tractor-trailer to a feedlot in the Midwest, fattened up and then sold into the industrial meat complex. Cutting out all the middlemen and harvesting them at weaning for a premium product could mean more money going directly to the farmer.

Calves graze at their mothers’ sides. Weanlings are slaughtered locally rather than being shipped to a distant feedlot. The Berry Center
Calves graze at their mothers’ sides. Weanlings are slaughtered locally rather than being shipped to a distant feedlot. The Berry Center

And that’s how Our Home Place Meat came to be in 2017. A pilot program created and supported by the nonprofit Berry Center, Our Home Place took on the challenge of persuading farmers to raise the veal, guaranteeing them a price for it, and finding markets for it.

It was a tall order.

The program began with the principle of guaranteeing a price that took into account farmers’ expenses and added a reasonable profit. “With the market you are gambling,”explained Beth Douglas, who directs the program. “At the beginning of the year we tell the farmers how many cattle we will purchase and at what price. That allows the farmers to plan for the year.”

Plus, the farmers don’t have to invest in different equipment or new barns, they just have to keep raising cattle and, instead of sending them off to feed lots, “we take it to Trackside Butcher Shoppe,” in Campbellsburg (also in Henry County), Douglas said. “So it’s literally not changing anything for the farmer. It’s taking them where they are.”

At the same time, Our Home Place began developing partnerships for marketing the product.

Overcoming veal’s bad rep

Veal had fallen out of the favor in the United States because of inhumane methods — confining calves in small pens to prevent muscle development, feeding them only milk or milk solids — used to produce a very white, tender meat.

But in Europe veal is different, a rosy-colored meat from calves raised outside, nursing and eating grass. This was the type of veal they wanted to raise in Henry County.

Perry helped with the re-education process by preparing a multi-course meal at The Berry Center in 2017 using Rose Veal, inviting chefs to taste the product. He cooked sliders, ribeyes, strips and filets, even veal blanc which he described as “the national French hangover food” to demonstrate the flavor and versatility of Rose Veal.

Meatballs prepared with beef raised and slaughtered in Henry County.
Meatballs prepared with beef raised and slaughtered in Henry County.

But even if chefs wanted it they had to be able to get it. That’s where What Chefs Want! (formerly Creation Gardens), a Louisville-based wholesaler came into the venture.

John Thomas, a vice-president there, said it is a partnership, not a typical customer-vendor relationship. His team works with the farmers, Douglas and the people at Trackside Butcher Shoppe, discussing pricing, production and quality.

“Everybody’s really on the same page and pulling in the same direction,” Thomas said.

That gives What Chefs Want! what it needs to promote Rose Veal to restaurateurs who want to source more of their food locally and support family farmers.

Saltimbocca, popular in Italy, is made with layers of prosciutto, sage and veal from Our Home Place Meat.
Saltimbocca, popular in Italy, is made with layers of prosciutto, sage and veal from Our Home Place Meat.

“There’s plenty of beef out there to buy, we didn’t need another beef supplier. We needed a relationship that has a purpose.”

And, he adds, “we’re very, very happy with the product.”

At Red Hog Artisan Meat in Louisville most of the meat comes from whole animals that are processed in-house by a team of five butchers. But Aaron Sortman, the executive butcher there, jumped at the chance to get involved when he learned what the Berry Center was doing “to help out these smaller farms.” He’d always admired Wendell Berry’s work (“I think he’s the coolest”) and is constantly on the lookout for “local farms that ethically raise their animals.”

Although Red Hog butchers most of its own meat, they need to fill in the gaps for many popular items like tenderloins, New York strip steaks and ribeyes, and Our Home Place has “become our main supplemental supplier.” Sortman buys both Rose Veal and Berry Beef, meat from older cattle that are finished on grain but on the farm in pastures not in feedlots.

‘Better product from a taste standpoint’

As with Thomas at What Chefs Want!, Sortman said there’s a personal relationship that he’d never get with a commodity producer. He met several of the farmers at a dinner sponsored by Our Home Place and has sent some of his butchers to workshops to learn more about the product.

As far as he’s concerned, it’s a safer product (less chance of bacterial contamination from large farms and factory feedlots) and “an alternative to the supermarket food chain.”

Plus, Sortman said, “it’s a better product from a taste standpoint.”

Most new ventures fail because they must make money from day one, explained Douglas, but the Berry Center’s support has “given us time to build the program and figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Last year the program handled about 100 head and returned $245,000 to the Henry County economy through direct payments to farmers and to Trackside for processing the meat. This year Douglas figures that the combination of Rose Veal and Berry Beef will reach about 270 head.

Caleb Fiechter and Joseph Monroe farm together on Valley Spirit Farm in Henry County. Photo courtesy of The Berry Center
Caleb Fiechter and Joseph Monroe farm together on Valley Spirit Farm in Henry County. Photo courtesy of The Berry Center

Those aren’t big figures in the sea of the Kentucky agriculture economy but they make a difference to local farmers, said John Logan Brent, the retiring Henry County judge executive, a member of The Berry Center board and a farmer who sells to the program — about 20 head of veal and 10 of beef this year. He figures the contract with Our Home Place typically adds from $200 to $300 a head to the commodity price. For small operations that extra income is “something they can count on, (it) certainly makes a difference at the end of the year.”

Brent sees a future when this pilot program can grow up and become a full-fledged agricultural cooperative that can pay its own administrative costs but believes it will have to achieve a scale of about 1,000 head processed annually to get there.

Our Home Place targets young farmers, Brent said, many of whom “desperately want to be involved in agriculture,” whether they are trying to make a family farm work or are new to the business. An added benefit of this program is that it gives them a product they can be proud of. “Who thanks you for your animals at a sale barn?”

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Jacalyn Carfagno
Jacalyn Carfagno

Jacalyn Carfagno has been a journalist for more than three decades, writing about business and economics, land use and development, food and culture, among many other topics. She has received state, regional and national awards and recognition for her writing and editing. She is a freelancer for the Kentucky Lantern.

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