Joe Beaulieu is a tall, lanky man who wears a steer’s head brass belt buckle that makes him look like a Texan.
But Beaulieu is a local man -- from Fairhaven -- a livestock and produce farmer who calls his cattle by name and says that when he does, they come.
And I believe that because when he speaks, I trust him.
If you’re trying to find good meat in today’s factory-farm-dominated marketplace, your best bet is to find a farmer you trust who raised the animals you’re eating.
Forget most of the buzzwords, they’re not going to steer you right.
Organic? It doesn’t mean much in reference to meat -- certification is too complicated and costly for most small family farms.
Free-range? Not so helpful either: Factory chickens raised in football field-sized quarters can be labeled free-range if there’s a single small yard off the vast building they’re packed into. Even the important terms pasture- and grass-fed can be misleading since meat from animals designated as grass-fed can be fed grass most of their lives then stuffed with grains for the last few months to fatten them up.
Best, then, to find farms and farmers you can visit, talk to, name, call, or otherwise reach.
Which is exactly what motivated about 70 people to brave the heat of an old meeting hall in Kingston late last month to hear from several speakers, including four area livestock farmers.
“Local Meat: Benefits, Choices, Challenges, and Cooking” was the sixth in a series of programs on the phenomenon of eating locally sponsored by edible South Shore magazine and the Kingston Public Library. The series has been so popular it has outgrown the library and moved to the larger Beal Building.
The gathering felt a bit like an underground group of black marketeers organizing the procurement of an illegal substance. But meat from humanely raised, locally grown, well-fed animals isn’t illegal, of course; it’s just hard to find anymore.
A bit of background: Cows are ruminants and have evolved to eat a diet of at least 90 percent grass and a little grain. Factory farms, where most of our meat has been raised since the ‘60s, reverse that equation, feeding cattle about 90 percent grain, corn mostly, which makes them both fat (the goal for big business) and often sick, requiring that they be treated with antibiotics.
A growing number of studies show that the meat from cattle raised on a natural, predominantly grass diet is high in a number of very nutritious substances, including beta-carotene, vitamin E, and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Because of all this (and much, much more), a growing number of people want to support and eat meat from local farms.
Beaulieu’s operation is small -- he raises about 40 animals at a time on his 27 acres, but not as small as Patrick Roll’s 5-acre West Elm Farm in Pembroke, where he raises rabbit, chicken, and lamb.
All the farmers who addressed the crowd raise their animals without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones in free-range or other comfortable, natural environments.
“Our pigs are doing what pigs should be doing, they’re sniffling around in the woods, eating chestnuts and acorns,” said Meaghan Swetish, who lives in Scituate but works with her father and brother who run Brown Boar Farm in Wells, Vt.
Like the vast majority of small farmers today, Swetish uses e-mail to take orders from people for Brown Boar Farm’s once-monthly delivery to Cohasset. And, like most local farmers, Swetish sells her pork and beef at farmers markets (in Vermont).
I was amazed at the crowd. They were a group who, for the most part, consume meat differently than main stream America has for the past 50 years – preferring to eat smaller amounts but of the highest quality.
I admired their knowledge and will to question issues surrounding even the hardest challenges to local livestock farmers -- including the dearth of small-scale, humane, regional slaughterhouses in New England. Most farmers drive their animals an hour or more when the time has come.
“I spend half my life in my truck,” said Beaulieu, who takes a couple cows at a time to slaughter.
Experts say that transporting animals with others they know greatly relieves their stress. As does a nice holding pen, with water and food, upon arrival at the slaughterhouse.
Many say animals are adaptable and very in the moment. So humane slaughter is paramount. Slaughter isn’t just slaughter: It can be accomplished with minimum pain – or not.
“We go to Eagle Bridge slaughter house in New York,” said Swetish. “It’s a humane slaughter house and it makes a big difference to the animals and to the taste of the meat.”
Hard to think about?
Yet even if you’re a vegetarian who eats dairy, your dollars are going to support factory farming -- unless you buy products from animals raised, and milked, on smaller family-run farms.
It’s up to you.
For more information on local farmers and farming see:
Plato’s Harvest, Middleborough, http://platosharvest.wordpress.com; Brown Board Farm, Wells, Vt., http://brownboarfarm.com; West Elm Farm, Pembroke, http://www.westelmfarm.com; or contact Joe Beaulieu at J. H. Beaulieu Livestock and Produce Farm, Fairhaven, at email@example.com.