Meat at the Market

Phrankly takes a deep dive with animal farmers at the Rochester Public Market to discover more about the local sustainable meat industry.

The 1950s was the last era in which you could drive along the countryside and observe small farms with a hen house, a few grazing cows, and maybe an apple orchard. A farm like this could support a family well enough to send the kids to college. These farms were diverse and depended on natural processes; a tradition that protected the land and animals from disease, and the farmer from drought and rough markets. Over the last few decades, these small, diverse farms have sharply declined. Farmers have been taught to specialize and expand, breeding animals for production. Animals were removed from pasture and introduced to subsidy-supported homogeneous diets to stabilize their environments and digestive tracts. Previously desirable characteristics, such as livestock health and quality of meat, became secondary. An era of efficiency and corporate mega-farms prevailed. Less healthy and less flavorful meat dominated American markets and consumers largely focused on popular, promoted cuts. A culture of culinary apathy seemed to have plagued generations. Though recently, especially here in Rochester, NY, we’ve seen a small farm resurgence motivated by consumer disillusionment with untraceable, industrial food.

This is what we opted out of 18 years ago,” says fifth generation farmer Rick Austin of Heiden Valley Farms. As former dairy farmers, Austin and his wife Deborah began raising animals on pasture. Controlled grazing not only drove vet bills down, but also benefited the land, fertilizing the soil and keeping out invasive weeds. With an emphasis on natural health, Austin feeds his animals a mix of kombucha, diatomaceous earth, and treats them with naturally occurring oils that fight bacteria. Seven Bridges, another local farm, keeps an animal nutritionist on staff and supplements their cattle’s diet with minerals and molasses. Chickens on the farm Workin’ in the Dirt share land with a pony. The chickens eat the bugs that attack the pony, creating a healthy symbiotic relationship that promotes a natural diet. Phillip Munson from Fisher Hill Farm only sources baby chicks from a single hatchery he trusts due to their clean breeding practices. While these farms, serving Rochester, NY, take extra care with their animals, none are USDA certified organic.

People ask if we’re grass-fed, and when we say we’re not, they just walk by,” says Barrita Shanks of Seven Bridges Farm. But Grass-Fed and Organic certifications only tell part of the story. Organic certifications used to be issued by several separate, small organizations with high standards. When organic standards were consolidated under the USDA, requirements were watered down so industrial animal farms could break into the organic market. For example, these Rochester area farmers keep their chickens on the grass and move them to a new spot every few days. To satisfy large scale producers, the USDA only requires cage-free chickens be fed organic feed to be considered certified organic.

Farmers are also required to use USDA inspected and approved processors to legally sell their meat and eggs. During the 1970s, there were about 150 slaughterhouses in the Rochester region. Now, there are only 15 and many of those cater to the industrial farmers. “They would laugh at someone like me coming to them,” says Rick Austin. He, as well as other farmers, travel to a small scale processor, an hour away, every week. The small processors also come with more regard for the purity of the product that pass through them. Seven Bridges, for instance, chose their processor based on the total freedom of inspection granted to them. If something happens to these few processors, these Rochester-area farmers would go out of business. Seven Bridges believes in thoughtful slaughter to reduce anxiety their animals may experience during the process. This practice speaks to Seven Bridges’ reverence for their animals, deserving of consideration.

These local animal farms are rarely 100% grass-fed and don’t strive to be, because grass-fed meat is leaner and generally doesn’t appeal to western tastes; consumers are accustomed to the corn-finished flavor. Art Rogers, a 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef of the Northeast and owner of Lento, a farm-to-table restaurant in NOTA, understands that people tend to prefer local and sustainably raised meat. Lento prides themselves on using local meat, which is only available on a relatively small scale.

“You can get any amount of any cut of any type of meat from Sysco or Palmer’s. Buying local, you’re limited. You can’t call and ask for 30 pounds of chicken breast. You have to buy the whole chicken and figure out how to use the entire thing. Much of the time, we commit to buying the whole animal, especially small animals.”

Several years ago, Rogers remembers it was hard to find local meat; “now I get two emails per week from a new farm looking to do business. There are a ton of sustainable farms all of a sudden.” Kevin McCann of McCann’s Local Meats, a butcher shop in the South Wedge, bridges the gap between sustainable farmers and engaged home cooks. “I’m not interested in selling you a huge steak every day,” says Kevin. To fight culinary apathy, he promotes a variety of cuts, since there are generally only two of each muscle per animal. For his popular meat sauce, he uses pork hearts and tongue. Their liverwurst is made with pork liver, and they carry corned beef heart and pastrami beef tongue in the deli meat section. ”

“We make food with organs and ingredients people are familiar with, and then throw in something they’re not familiar with to get our foot in the door. As a responsible modern butcher, I recommend people eat less meat. When you do eat meat, eat good meat. If the cost of local meat is an issue, eat less and eat better. Not every meal has to be protein forward.

The Rochester Public Market, as well as certain local restaurants and butchers, are rich in flavorful, healthfully raised meat and eggs. They provide ample opportunities to embrace the experience of using the whole animal. Check out foods from different sources and cultures that embrace the lesser known cuts that you might walk past at the market. Slow down and talk to your farmer and find out what they’re excited about, whether it be a beautiful bavette steak or those chicken hearts you’ve been avoiding. Check out the farms listed in this article to find sustainable, healthy meat at the Rochester Public Market every Saturday.

Marcy McMahon has a passion for food with a commitment to ethical consumption. She is interested in how food production and consumption shapes business growth and consumer trends.