by AMANDA HUTCHINSON
August 6, 2016
Published August 06. 2016 9:49PM | Updated August 07. 2016 7:23PM
By Amanda Hutchinson Day Staff Writer
Anyone driving on Wintechog Hill Road in North Stonington the evening of July 29 found it temporarily blocked as Firefly Farms’ herd of about 120 cows and calves made its way across the street.
A band of volunteers led by farm manager Dugan Tillman-Brown held ropes across the street, talked to the cows and played acoustic guitar for them to gently coax the herd across the road. Black, blue and red-speckled cows, all with a white stripe along their backbones, made their way to the rain-refreshed pasture on the other side of the road. One calf temporarily was stranded after taking a drink out of a puddle in the road but, with some additional coaxing by farmhand Josh Santerre, he, too, made it to the field. As the mother appeared to be scolding the little one for running off, the rest of the herd munched on fresh grass.
Farm partner and patriarch Van Brown looked upon the pasture, beaming. It’s hard not to be proud of the herd, he said. After all, it’s the third largest herd of one of the most critically endangered breeds of cattle in the world.
Since its start in 2011, Firefly Farms has been dedicated to producing quality meat with the philosophy that animals that are cared for properly will produce a better product, according to Brown.
He has chronic Lyme disease, and the family thought that producing their own cleaner food might help.
“We learned that with very conscientious husbandry, we can produce an animal that tastes absolutely wonderful,” he said. They make sure that the animals at Firefly have a good life. And, through their grazing and spreading of manure, the animals at Firefly have improved the quality of the fields of the farm, which was once a YMCA camp, he said.
The North Stonington farm is currently the only commercial Certified Humane farm in the state, a designation granted by the international nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care to farms that raise their animals in ways that are kinder and healthier for the animals.
Firefly Farms is also one of only a handful of farms certified for chicken, pork and beef, and the only Certified Humane farm in the world dedicated to saving critically endangered breeds, according to Brown.
Cattle, pigs and chickens as a whole are plentiful, but specific breeds become endangered as their populations shrink due to crossbreeding with other breeds or not being able to compete with the production levels of more common breeds.
Brown said many heritage breeds also don’t do as well under factory farming conditions.
After starting the farm with five heritage breed pigs from Footsteps Farm in Stonington, farmhand and farm partner Beth Tillman started looking into The Livestock Conservancy, a North Carolina-based organization that works to save endangered livestock and poultry breeds.
Since then, the farm has expanded to focus on critically endangered breeds that are acclimated to the New England weather.
The Wintechog Hill Road herd of cattle are Randall linebacks, a Vermont breed that helped General George Washington haul his cannons during the Revolutionary War.
The farm’s main property on Button Road is home to about 200 mulefoot hogs, which have a solid hoof rather than a cloven hoof, and Dorking chickens, a five-toed breed of chicken that was prized by the Romans and brought to England in the 1st century, A.D.
According to The Livestock Conservancy, there are only about 500 registered Randall linebacks and about 200 registered mulefoots, with the numbers slightly higher when including unregistered animals.
With the World Wildlife Fund estimating the giant panda population around 1,800, there are more giant pandas in the world than both of these breeds of animals combined.
But Brown said that offering meat from endangered livestock breeds will help preserve and grow the population.
The meat isn’t cheap; the farm's filet mignon is $20 per pound, as opposed to $11 or $12 per pound of the same cuts from common livestock available at grocery stores.
However, Brown said people who taste a Randall lineback steak or mulefoot pork chop will want to continue paying extra and supporting the farms that raise the endangered breeds because the meat is better.
“All three of them hands-down won the blind taste tests,” he said. “We have such great expectations for our food and our meat, and our husbandry practices are even better than the ones that won the taste test.”
Not just anyone can raise endangered breeds.
Firefly Farms is expecting to start raising turkeys this year, but Tillman said they won’t be diving in with Beltsville small whites, which is the most endangered breed of turkey.
“We are sort of on a waiting list for Beltsvilles, and we need to prove ourselves as good turkey conservators before any of these Beltsvilles will be released to us,” she said.
The Livestock Conservancy wants to make sure that anyone working with endangered breeds knows what they’re doing so the breeds don’t die out.
As members of the conservancy, Tillman-Brown said he and his mother have given talks around the country about rare breeds and small farms, including one at the S&P Oyster House in Mystic last winter for people interested in learning about farm-to-table practices.
They also work with the Swiss Village Foundation, a Rhode Island-based organization that preserves semen and embryos from endangered livestock breeds.
In the future, the farm also may include Choctaw hogs, which migrated to Oklahoma when the Choctaw tribe was ousted from Mississippi and Alabama in the 1800s, and Tennessee fainting goats, a smaller breed of goat known for a genetic disorder that causes them to stiffen and fall over when startled.
Firefly Farms sells its products at farmers markets in Stonington borough, Bozrah, Waterford and Coventry as well as through the CT Farm Fresh Online Store, www.ctfarmfreshstore.com.
The farm stand at 96 Button Road also is open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but the family urges people to call ahead at (860) 917-7568.