Behind the label
Photography by Monica Lynn and Heartstone Farm
Heartstone Farm defines grass-fed through flavor and sustainability
For farmer Dan Kaplan, having a walk-in freezer that is “way too empty” is a good problem to have. Although he reassured his customers in a blog post this past April that his grass-fed beef supply would increase in the summer, he also explained why being sold out of certain cuts can be a good thing.
It takes three years to raise a steak on Heartstone Farm’s 300 acres of pasture-grazing land in Charleston, Maine, beginning with gestation, which takes one year, and another two years to raise the cow to a mature weight and body condition on a diet of grass and hay.
Growing the grass to sustain his cows—mostly cross-breeds that combine the best of several British breeds, including Angus, Hereford, and Devon, which have shown to do really well on grass—is no easy task in New England’s climate. There’s also the challenge of ensuring that the cows don’t eat the grass down too low, which kills the plant.
Kaplan’s efforts represent one end of beef production. His three-year process allows cattle to grow naturally, roaming free and foraging their natural diet of grass and hay. The higher-volume factory farms, however, maintain an eerily steady supply of beef by confining their cows in feedlots and fattening them quickly on a diet of corn. These cows often experience health issues because their four-part stomachs weren’t made to digest large amounts of corn and grain, resulting in antibiotic treatments that inevitably end up in your food.
And while exposure to the negative health effects of eating corn and grain-fed beef is increasing, so too is awareness of the benefits of eating grass-fed, including less fat overall and more vitamins and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Some consumers notice a difference in the flavor of grass-fed beef, namely that it lacks in such. But it’s important to remember that not all grass-fed beef is created equal, and Kaplan’s approach, while very labor-intensive, pays off in the quality and flavor of his product, which is used in several popular Maine restaurants, including The Lost Kitchen (Freedom), Acadia House Provisions (Stonington), Hoxbill (Camden), Blaze (Bangor and Bar Harbor), and Finback Alehouse (Bar Harbor). One of Maine’s charcuterie shops, A Small Good, uses Kaplan’s beef in its sausage. Kaplan’s customers also rave about their experience with not just the product, but farmer Dan himself, who often makes in-person deliveries throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
Many consumers have reconciled the financial investment of eating grass-fed with its added health benefits, but environmental advocates worry about the cost of livestock production to the environment. During the digestion process, cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to climate change. Overgrazing has also been proven to release carbon stored in soils, which makes its way into the air and can contribute to global warming.
An increasing body of science, however, is finding that different types of grazing (such as rotational or adaptive multi-paddock grazing) may have less of an impact on the environment. One recent study published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Agricultural Systems suggests that avoiding overgrazing by moving the cows around to allow for more optimal forage growth and recovery can potentially sequester more soil organic carbon than when a continuous grazing approach is used (meaning the cows graze in the same pasture for an entire season).
While some researchers and climate activists aren’t buying the idea that this shift in grazing methodology can have a notable impact on mitigating climate change, Kaplan believes Heartstone Farm is making a net positive contribution by practicing rotational grazing.
“We give paddocks a minimum of 30 days rest/regrowth periods between grazings. This practice allows us to take care of the grass and soil as well as keep up weight gains on our herd. We like to average two to three pounds a day weight gain, which is super important in raising well-marbled, tasty beef. Most grass-fed beef is not rationally grazed, which results in lean beef and poor grass growth,” Kaplan says.
Rotational grazing is a much more labor-intensive approach than continuous grazing. For a small producer like Kaplan, that can mean having a lower supply and higher prices when compared to less-expensive and always-available supermarket sales. Some may consider the fact that his beef isn’t turned out at the drop of a hat to be a positive move toward preserving the environment, as his customers may eat smaller portions and less beef overall to make their share last until the next carefully raised supply is ready.
Some business owners might consider a lower supply with higher prices to be a double-edged sword, but in Kaplan’s case, having two edges just means a better tool for cutting through the many labels that characterize the packaged beef we find in grocery stores and at some farmers’ markets. And like any labels, those applied to grass-fed beef sold in America often defy real definition or fail to capture the complexities of the subject, which cannot be communicated in the two words that consumers have been flocking to with a real desire for, but often undelivered promise of, health and sustainability.
Consumers have been subjected to the tricks of suggestive marketing for years, with trending words such as healthy, local, and organic. The suggestion is that products carrying these labels are good for us, but what’s left unanswered is why, and who’s deciding? On top of all that, there is the complicated and constantly changing, or otherwise archaic and outdated, USDA criteria that qualify a food product to carry a particular label, none of which is printed on that package you’re buying and feeling good about.
According to a 2017 report, grass-fed beef retail sales doubled each year between 2012 and 2016, showing a clear increase in demand. Large producers have been quick to fulfill the need, but slow to commit to transparency when it comes to the logistics.
For starters, there are at least four different phrases containing the words “grass-fed” that you may come across, all of which mean something different:
• Percentage grass-fed: The cow was fed some grass, supplemented with grain. According to the Cornucopia Institute, studies show that even a small amount of grain in a cow’s diet can affect the nutritional value of the meat.
• Grass-fed that is a “Product of the USA”: According to the American Grass-fed Association (AGA), 85% of grass-fed beef bought at retail today may say "product of the USA," but the USDA labeling branch allows any meat that is raised overseas, shipped to the United States alive, and repackaged, to carry that label. This means that the “product of the USA” that you’re eating was not raised anywhere near where you bought it, or under U.S. regulations.
• Free-range grass-fed: A Boston-based meat seller says on its website, “Our cattle are free to range on grassy pastures throughout their entire lives, eating their natural diet of grass. Thanks to the climate, they graze year-round.” If that last part didn’t catch your attention, remember to about last February. Do you think many cows were grazing in grassy pastures? They were—but not in Maine. Many meat producers include language on their site and labels that suggest they are the farmers, when in reality, a lot of that meat is being raised by farmers in Australia, where the climate is much better fit for raising grass-fed beef, but adds a colossal number of miles and middlemen between farm and table.
• AGA-certified grass-fed: To be considered AGA-certified, the meat has to be raised in the United States, fed a lifetime diet of 100% forage, raised on pasture (not in confinement), and never treated with added hormones or antibiotics. Checking for this certification may be a good place to start; however, keep in mind that it doesn’t specify whether rotational grazing was used, which is a question for your farmer if that’s something that is important to you.
Although Heartstone Farm is not AGA-certified (Kaplan says many people don’t know what the certification means, so there’s not much of a market to justify investing in it, although the AGA is working to spread awareness), the farm does follow AGA standards when it comes to raising their meat. The choice for Kaplan comes down to trust and transparency.
“The reason for certification by an outside organization would be if there was any question about our practices. We engage our customers in a conversation about where their beef comes from, how we grow it, and how we move our herd every single day. So I encourage customers—when they can—to come and visit and see for themselves. I love that!”
Choosing the right things to invest in is crucial for any business, especially small-scale cattle producers like Heartstone Farm, which means they don’t have access to large, hyper-efficient processing plants with more affordable prices. Instead, they must rely on smaller and more costly regional plants, which can charge more than double per head compared to those that go through larger branded programs. Although branded programs can provide a small amount of economy of scale through aggregation, they also charge producers a mark-up to cover their marketing costs. This means higher-priced beef for the consumer, and a smaller premium for the farmer.
Heartstone Farm doesn’t sell its meat to branded programs, meaning higher overhead costs and extra time and resources put into direct marketing to customers, but Kaplan, who was a business technology media entrepreneur for 40 years before starting Heartstone Farm, has never shied away from delivering great customer service.
“Customers will email or call me at any time and they have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be able to get answers to their questions. Customer service is critical these days, in addition to delivering a great product. When both those things exist, there’s an implication that we’re taking care of our cattle and the product in all the same ways.”
Kaplan isn’t ignorant of the need for marketing to run a business juxtaposed with the solitude that draws many to the farming lifestyle.
“It’s really hard, maybe even impossible, to be a farmer and a marketer. Those are two really different things. I’ve been able to find some really good people who I can work with from the farmhand perspective, which allows me to work on the marketing end more.”
At 62, Kaplan has been carrying around his dream to run his own farm for a long time, and despite his clear success, he’s not taking it for granted for one second.
“Even though we’ve got over 400 customers at this point, I feel that I have a personal relationship with each of them and their families. I really value that—even as we grow.”