The NY Times
Buying Your Beef Right on the Farm
By CHRISTOPHER BROOKS
AUG. 12, 2016
Few meat eaters would ever confuse towns such as Griswold and Cornwall with Texas locales like Abilene or Amarillo, but as different as they may be, those places do have one thing in common: cattle ranching.
“Not a lot of people associate Connecticut with beef, even people here in the state,” said Rich Campbell Jr., a sixth-generation farmer at Campbell’s Crooked Brook Farm in Griswold.
Unlike the many cattle operations out West that pack their animals onto small lots and feed them a slurry of grains to fatten them up quickly, Campbell’s allows its Black Angus steers to graze on pastureland for much of the year, taking nearly two years to mature the animals. In winter, their diet is supplemented with corn silage and hay.
“We’re raising them the right way, in a healthy environment,” Mr. Campbell said.
That approach results in beef prices that are higher than those charged by grocery stores for comparable cuts. Campbell’s, which takes about a dozen animals to market every year, lists its meat at $5 a pound for brisket and up to $19 for tenderloin at its stand at the corner of Route 138 and Campbell Road.Photo
Black Angus steers at Campbell’s. Credit Jessica Hill for The New York Times
“Our overhead is much higher than a huge corporation that runs thousands of animals,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’re with them every day, patting them on the head, feeding them by hand, virtually treating them like pets.”
In Connecticut, such close attention to livestock is not unique to Campbell’s. Dugan Tillman-Brown, farm manager at Firefly Farms in North Stonington, claims to know the names of every animal in his herd of 120 Randall cattle. “It’s a matter of respect,” he said.
Firefly Farms specializes in heritage breeds, and in keeping with throwbacks such as Mulefoot pigs and Muscovy ducks, it grazes its animals outdoors year-round.
“One of our goals is to try to emulate the systems that have been in place in nature while turning our stock into salable products,” Mr. Tillman-Brown said. Firefly’s beef, available both at the farm and at area farmers’ markets, ranges from $8 a pound for short ribs to $20 for tenderloin.Photo
Cuts of Black Angus beef from Campbell’s Crooked Brook Farm. Credit Jessica Hill for The New York Times
Typically, Firefly’s line of Randall steers requires up to two and a half years to reach full maturity. But, recent rains notwithstanding, Connecticut’s continuing drought has complicated matters.
“Obtaining well-marbled meat in grass-fed cattle is a much greater challenge because you can only produce that overabundance of calories in a very short seasonal window,” Mr. Tillman-Brown said. Thus, Firefly has recently been adding hay to its herd’s diet, in part to keep the farm’s pastures from being grazed too short.
Managing so many animals is a continuous learning process for Mr. Tillman-Brown, who came to his family’s farm, which opened in 2011, straight from a Texas oil concern. Still, he finds being around the Randalls relaxing. “There’s very little that’s as calming as a cow out there on pasture,” he said.
The Belted Galloway cattle at Birdseye and Tanner Brooks Farm in Cornwall, are similarly pleasing to observe. “The little calves run around, kicking up their heels, playing with each other on a daily basis, and sometimes their mothers get involved, too,” Mark Orth, the farm manager, said of the animals, members of a Scottish heritage breed.Photo
Dugan Tillman-Brown, with Randall steers at Firefly Farms in North Stonington. Credit Jessica Hill for The New York Times
Birdseye, established in 2002, pasture-raises its 30 head of cattle and, like Firefly, never feeds them corn. “No grains, no hormones, no corn, it’s the grass that grows our beef and lambs,” Mr. Orth said. “Starting with pasture rotation, making sure they get the organic minerals, caring for and keeping an eye on them, that’s the way they were meant to be grown and raised.”
Unlike feedlot-raised or -finished cattle, whose limited mobility gives them an inherent fatty tenderness, pastured animals tend to be more muscular. That is where dry-aging comes in. “Being grass fed, you have to hang them longer to get them more tender,” Mr. Orth said. “Our beef is on a hook, in a controlled environment, for three to four weeks.”
The beef at Four Mile River Farm, in Old Lyme, is dry-aged for three to six weeks. “There are enzymes in that fat that act as a natural tenderizer as you age the meat,” said Nunzio Corsino, who owns the farm with his wife, Irene, and his son Christopher. “But the more it ages, the more your cost goes up.”
Prices at Four Mile, which raises Black Angus, Hereford and a cross between the two known as Black Baldy, run from $6 a pound for short ribs to $27 for tenderloin. “Our clientele wants quality, they want to know where their food is coming from, and they’re willing to pay for it,” Mr. Corsino said.
Four Mile maintains a farm stand on-site, and pastures its cattle — and pigs — on fields in nearby Lyme. “It’s a natural setting, unlike factory farms, so we seldom have a sick animal, and don’t have to use all those medicines,” Mr. Corsino said. “That makes a difference in the meat.”
The farm and nearby pastures are open to the public, though visitors are advised to watch their language. “Please refer to them as steers, not cows,” Mr. Corsino said, “Because cows are turned into hamburger and lunchmeat, and that’s not who we are.”
Many cattle farmers welcome visitors, but it is always best to call in advance, not just to confirm opening hours, but also to learn what cuts are available and at which farmers markets they may be found.