A push to sell humanely raised veal is winning fans and influencing people
POMFRET, Conn. -- On Karen Rowley's farm here, about two dozen cows and their calves roam over a hilly pasture. The mothers nibble at the grass, while the spindly-legged calves take turns staring at the intruding humans and then nuzzling their mothers, seeking an extra meal. The late-spring day is idyllic and the animals, with 50 acres to graze, are living a life as unfettered and natural as calves might have a century ago.
"These are the days that make you glad you're a farmer," says Rowley, a small woman with a friendly, open manner, who inherited this land. Her father sold off a dairy herd in the 1980s, her brothers pursued other careers, but she wanted to raise animals. Once you're in farming, she says, "It's in your blood."
Her solution is one that might seem to fly in the face of public sentiment. Through a project called Azuluna Brands, founded by the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine , Rowley and more than 20 other producers in New England are growing bull calves for veal. The Azuluna project comes at a time when consumers want to eat locally raised foods, and are actively seeking meats, seafood, and vegetables that have not been shipped across country.
Veal is the Rip Van Winkle of farm products, meat that all but disappeared from restaurants about 20 years ago. It dropped precipitously in popularity after a successful animal-rights campaign emblazoned the images of calves confined in tight crates. The point of crating is to prevent the young animals from developing muscle, so their meat turns snowy white and tender. The dining public, who were eating about four pounds of veal a year per capita, were reluctant to buy it. Besides the guilt of eating meat from animals so poorly treated, there was a problem with the veal itself. Though the white meat was tender, it was often tasteless. Nowadays, that same meat has a rosy hue. The free-range veal is quite pink when cooked, with a more pronounced meaty flavor.
At the moment, consumers can buy Azuluna veal only at restaurants and private clubs -- for a premium. But then, veal has never been inexpensive. George Saperstein , a department chair at Tufts veterinary school, saw an opportunity. The dairy business, a mainstay of New England agriculture, had become less diversified and much less profitable. Calves had been sold for slaughter at less than three days old, and producers sometimes took a loss. If bull calves were raised on their mothers' milk -- or milk from under-producing foster-mother cows -- farmers could increase profits by selling veal. "It's a different way of harvesting milk," Saperstein says from his office in North Grafton.
The veterinarian calculated that this old-fashioned milking system would appeal to a public looking for local and naturally raised food and humane treatment of animals. The Northeast has "a high density of consumers interested in buying locally, high-quality [products]," he says. Besides, he figured, there was a pent-up desire for meat that had once been so popular. Veal raised this way had to be more flavorful than meat from animals deprived of movement and fresh air.
At first farmers were skeptical about the Azuluna project, underwritten by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture. Tufts set directives for feeding, pasturing, antibiotics (none are allowed), and small supplements of whole grains. Slowly, the farmers came around. "Oh, I get it," Saperstein recalls one saying. "You want me to raise these animals like I was going to feed my own family."
The program went from 13 calves sold in 2004 to 300 last year, and the producers are now in every New England state except Maine. In their agreement with the Azuluna project, they deliver four-month-old calves that are between 350 to 400; farmers are guaranteed a fair price and Azuluna does the marketing. Over-the-Hill Farm , a small slaughterhouse in Benson, Vt., processes veal to the specifications of Azuluna and Dole & Bailey, the local distributor.
On a restaurant menu, chefs can say that the meat comes from this area. That's not lost on chef Ana Sortun , who braises Azuluna veal with almonds in a Moroccan-style dumpling at her Cambridge restaurant, Oleana ; the dish, which comes with a fava bean salad, costs $24. She buys the veal for several reasons. "I would love to see them do well," she says, not just for the social aspect of championing humanely raised meat, but because "to me, this is real veal. Anywhere else in the world, this is what you're having." Veal in Europe tastes similar. Sortun explains that taste as somewhere between "what Americans know as veal and beef."
In fact, the commercial veal industry is changing as well, moving to a large-pen method widely used in Holland and elsewhere in Europe. Steven Kraut , executive director of the American Veal Association , says his members are pushing to change over all veal operations, mostly on small farms, to group housing by 2017. This method allows the calves more movement and socialization. The calves are fed a varied diet, including milk supplements, but are not nursed, and are not in pastures. "This is what our consumers would like," Kraut says.
Dole & Bailey's director of sustainable agriculture, John Stowell , takes a practical view. The company's veal sales are only 5 to 10 percent of the total fresh meat sales, but take a lot of time to promote, Stowell says, so the wholesaler is subsidizing it. "But it's something we can embrace."
Restaurants interested in the veal, he says, are usually smaller establishments that pride themselves on prime ingredients. "This is a product they can feel good about," says Stowell.
As with all artisan-quality foods, the consistency of the cuts can be a problem. Michael Leviton of Lumiere says that he stopped buying the veal chops for his West Newton restaurant because of inconsistent sizes. Stowell is aware of this. "When everybody sitting at a table orders veal chop and one gets a big one and another a small one, it can be a problem," he says. However, Ted Kolota , the marketing and business development director of Azuluna, says that farmers have been working on standardizing sizes.
In fact, right now, the biggest dilemma for everyone involved is the shortage of meat available.
"Demand definitely exceeds supply," says Saperstein. Yet, there's no plan to radically increase the number of veal calves. Kolota hopes the program can grow by 25 percent next year.
Stowell says that by definition, expansion has to be slow. "We're trying to recreate a system that existed several hundred years ago."