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In the market for meat

When it comes to eating local, more consumers are going beyond the veggies

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / July 24, 2011

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WAYLAND - Even the July heat could not keep Mary Smucker-Priest from her goal: some locally raised ground beef and Italian sausage for a chili dinner for her family.

At the farmers’ market at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland one recent Wednesday afternoon, the Waltham resident said she was drawn back to the booth run by David Petrovick of Barre-based Caledonia Farm after an encounter last week with his short ribs and London broil at an outdoor market in her hometown.

Petrovick’s animals - mainly cows and pigs - are raised in his own pastures, eating grass, for much of their lives, as opposed to animals raised in large commercial feedlots hundreds or thousands of miles away from Massachusetts.

“The meat is so much richer,’’ said Smucker-Priest. “It’s fresher. I know it’s from up the road.’’

The 35-year-old has already talked to her children, ages 12 and 5, about choosing meat raised on small Massachusetts farms, which send their animals to slaughtering operations here or New Hampshire, thereby requiring less fuel to transport.

“I tell them I don’t want them to eat factory-processed meat,’’ she said. “It’s a more responsible way to eat.’’

If the demand in recent years for local produce at the state’s farmers’ markets is a tidal wave, then the burgeoning interest in locally farmed meat is more like an undertow.

“It’s still not completely mainstream, and it has been much more of a quiet change,’’ said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets.

A decade ago, there were just one or two enterprising farmers willing to invest in refrigerated trucks, battle through seemingly endless paperwork to obtain permits, and take hours to drive locally raised beef, pork and poultry products from farms in Western or Central Massachusetts to reach the relatively few customers in Greater Boston interested in their wares.

This year, the federation has nearly 45 meat vendors registered at the 258 seasonal farmers’ markets it oversees around the state.

As phrases like “free-range,’’ “grass-fed,’’ and “antibiotic-free’’ slowly enter the popular lexicon because of blockbuster food-awareness documentaries like 2008’s “Food Inc.,’’ which raised criticism about factory farming practices, Cole said he expects the demand among typical shoppers for local meat to keep growing.

“It is more expensive to choose local meat, but we are seeing, more and more, the average person looking and questioning where their meat comes from,’’ said Cole. “They are seeing that the health of animals we eat, and our own health, is connected.’’

In addition to the higher cost of local meat, the producers usually have a far smaller selection of cuts and types of meat available.

A recent sampling of prices at farmers’ markets and farmstands found a pound of ground beef priced at $4.99, top round beef at $8.99, and pork chops at $10.99 per pound. The figures were, on average, several dollars more per pound than at most supermarket meat departments.

Last week, Whole Foods Market in Framingham featured grass-fed ground beef for $4.99 per pound, top round beef cuts ranging from $5.99 to $8.99, and pork chops for $6.49 per pound.

Customers who buy in bulk on a monthly basis in Community Supported Agriculture programs typically pay $8 to $9 per pound for various seasonal cuts of beef, chicken, pork and lamb, several dollars more per pound than typical prices in a conventional supermarket.

Ellen O’Brien of Reading said she was willing to upgrade from already robust meat prices at Whole Foods to buy meat last week from the Caledonia stall at the Wayland outdoor market.

“I like supporting local food,’’ said O’Brien, a volunteer for a horse-rescue program. “I consider myself pretty aware about life on a farm.’’

Because many farmers specialize in only one or two animal species and products, and do not all belong to the same organizations, figures on local meat farmers are difficult to collect, said Julie Rawson, executive director the Northeast Organic Farming Association. But consumer interest and awareness in local meat has been on the rise in recent years, she said.

Floyd Kelley, who manages the 60-acre Burnshirt Valley Farm in Barre and sells its meat in conjunction with Caledonia at several area markets, said he and his partners have also noticed the increased awareness and interest in their products.

“People are starting to search us out,’’ said Kelley, who said he started transporting his meat to sell at community markets about five years ago. “They want to see the farm and our systems and how we do things.’’

Burnshirt Valley keeps about 17 hogs, 200 chickens, and 100 ducks, Kelley said, and he expects the numbers to slightly increase each year. Pork chops have been his most popular product, sought out for their taste and natural texture, he said.

“It’s fortunate that people are getting excited’’ about the advantages of local meat, and to see meat vendors at the farmers’ markets, he said.

Tim Henderson, from Mainstone Farm in Wayland, said he remembers a time when it was a huge struggle to persuade people to even try cuts of his locally raised beef and pork.

He spent years “giving away meat,’’ recalled Henderson, who has been the manager at Mainstone for 18 years. The 140-year-old former dairy operation is one of the few meat-producing farms operating within close proximity to Route 128/Interstate 95.

In the wake of books like Michael Pollan’s 2006 “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’’ which examines the nation’s commercial food production system, Henderson has found more passersby pulling over to buy meat from Mainstone’s farmstand along Route 126.

He has printed up a brochure to help educate customers, noting that his cows do not receive growth hormones and are allowed to graze on pastures year-round, with farm-raised hay supplementing their diet.

“I think it was about four years ago that finally, with all the books and movies, that it’s really taking off,’’ said Henderson, who also offers homegrown corn, peppers, zucchini, and peppers.

Mainstone also features a specialty product - stone-ground corn meal made on the farm using an heirloom type of corn and a process that dates to the first settlers in Colonial Massachusetts.

Still, he said, he’s not increasing his 60-head herd of cattle, mostly Galloway and part-Devon cows, until he sees that there is a steadily expanding market for local meat.

In the meantime, Henderson said, he plans to try out a small flock of capons - neutered male chickens popular for their tender meat - and see how they sell this holiday season.

Local meat still has a long way to go, he said.

“People now ask me when they taste it for the first time, ‘What did you do to flavor the meat?’

“I say, ‘The flavor is what real meat tastes like.’ ’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

A lexicon to aid your hunt
Grass-fed - Implies that the animal (usually a cow) has eaten only its mother’s milk and grass, as opposed to corn or grain-based feed. Fat in grass-fed animal is typically yellow, as opposed to the white pearl-colored fat seen in feedlot cattle.
Free-range - In the United States, the term applies to poultry, and means only that the birds had access to outdoor space, not that the animals moved about in open space.
Pasture-raised - The animal (a term usually applied to livestock) has not been confined, but rather has lived in open, green pastures, grazing on wild vegetation.
Organic - A complicated label that implies, in general, that the food has been raised without chemical pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, using environmentally sustainable means, and has been certified by a third party.
SOURCE: USDA fact sheets