Fat Rooster Farm


'I Just Wanted to Farm Right'

By Omar Sacirbey
Valley News Staff Writer

Leo LaDouceur loves his Herefords. He caresses them, talks to them, and when he's not around to do that, he leaves the radio on in the barn to soothe them. That's why they're so mellow, he says — even a 20-month-old bull will allow a stranger to approach, hay in hand, and stroke him on the shoulder.

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But perhaps the most important thing LaDouceur, a self-described flatlander who grew up in New Britain, Conn., does for his herd of close to 50 head is feed them grass and hay and nothing but.

"Who's the boss, who's the boss," he called as he forked out hay to several heifers on a recent afternoon at his Bowman Hill Farm in Barnard, prompting a few of them to "talk" back.

"I just liked animals. And I liked the earth," LaDouceur said, explaining his decision to return to Barnard in 1977 and take over his grandfather's farm, the same one he happily spent his summer vacations on.

LaDouceur, 66, was trained and worked as a toolmaker and, despite his obvious love for the farming life, dismisses claims to be a farmer. Rather, LaDouceur adheres to a few beef farming fundamentals: He pasture-raises his cattle instead of confining them to stalls as is commonly done at large-scale stockyards, and he rotates his herd around plots of pasture, never letting them feed on the same plot for more than three days at a time. He line-breeds his cattle to keep the genetics of his herd consistent, and he keeps them on a grass- and hay-only diet, firmly believing that cattle were not meant to consume growth hormones, steroids and animal byproducts that are commonly mixed into feed.

"I just wanted to farm right. I wanted to do it the right way. And I didn't want to use chemicals or junk," he said.

That philosophy is gaining appeal among American carnivores, especially after the Department of Agriculture announced in December that a dairy cow in Washington state had been found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. It was the first confirmed case of the degenerative disease, which affects the central nervous system of cattle, in the United States. According to the National Cattleman's Beef Association, there is a link between products containing brain or spinal cord tissue from BSE-infected cattle and a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal human brain disorder whose symptoms include dementia and an unsteady gait.

"The mad cow thing made people that weren't buying organic a little more concerned. My customers were all pleased to know they were eating good, clean meat," LaDouceur said.

Although local organic beef farmers and grocery retailers say more consumers are inquiring about organic beef, December's mad cow scare does not seem to have been a watershed moment for organic beef, as some industry observers predicted. Instead, at least one organic food advocate said, the discovery of a BSE-cow in the United States has been yet another development that has raised awareness in consumers about where the food they eat comes from.

"The mad cow news was one event that's part of a whole series of events that's pushing consumers towards healthier and safer meats," said John Cleary, organic certification administrator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "Part of that is a growing consumer awareness of grass-fed animals. ... This mad cow incident pushed that movement along a little further."

That's been evident to Jennifer Megyesi and Kyle Jones, the wife-and-husband team who run Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton. They say they have received a higher-than-usual number of phone calls from people asking about organic beef.

"After the mad cow story broke in the U.S., we got something like eight inquiries in a week. Since then, it's died down," said Megyesi. "In the long run, I don't know if it's going to make a lot of difference."

Although December's mad cow news provided only a short-lived spike in organic beef demand, Megyesi and Jones, who keep eight beef cows plus about 60 organic sheep, are confident that interest in organic meats will continue growing as consumers learn more about the benefits.

"People really being better-educated about where their meat comes from is the key," Megyesi said. "Just because it's USDA approved doesn't mean you know how it was slaughtered, or how it was packaged," she said. "Know your farmer is the best thing to do."

Managers at area grocery stores say they have also seen an increased interest in organic beef, as well as what's been called "natural" meat, which doesn't have to meet the same strict standards that organic beef does, but still has to be additive-free.

"More people are buying (organic) and the natural, because you can't get mad cow from it," said Barbara Emery, grocery buyer at the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction. "They want better meat now."

Before the mad cow scare, Emery's co-op sold 12 to 15 pounds of organic beef a week, but now averages about 25 pounds a week, she estimated.

"We've always had a customer base (for organic meats), but it's definitely increased since the mad cow scare," said Peggy Grote, manager at the South Royalton Food Co-op. "There's more people buying it."

Grote estimated that her store receives 40 to 60 pounds of fresh organic beef a month, while the Bowman Road Farm supplies the store with about 30 pounds of frozen organic beef a month. "I hear more and more people talk about the concerns they have about where their meat comes from," she said.

It's hard to pinpoint how organic beef demand has increased over the years, and neither Vermont nor New Hampshire keeps statistics, but there are indicators at the national level.

The number of certified organic cattle more than tripled to about 15,000 from 1997 to 2001, according to the National Cattleman's Beef Association. But, the organization points out, these numbers pale in comparison to the "astronomical growth" of organic broiler chickens, which numbered more than 3 million in 2001.

Estimates on organic food sales vary, with the Organic Foods Report of the Nutrition Business Journal putting the U.S. sales figures in 2001 at $6.95 billion, a 20 percent increase from the $5.8 billion in 2000, while Datamonitor estimated $9.4 billion in sales in 2001. But the meat, fish and poultry category was the smallest component of organic sales, according to the nutrition journal, with $69 million, or about 1 percent, of all organic sales. According to the NCBA, this equals about one-tenth of 1 percent of all retail sales of meat, poultry, and seafood.

The amount of certified organic pasture and rangeland has also more than doubled from 1997 to 2001, the NCBA said, while 37 states had certified organic animal production systems, up from 23 states in 1997.

Where organic food is sold today, compared with a few years ago, is also indicative of rising consumer demand. In 1991, only 7 percent of organic foods were sold in supermarkets, while about 68 percent were sold in natural food stores and about a quarter were sold through farmers markets or some other direct sales channel.

In 2000, however, traditional supermarkets accounted for 49 percent of organic sales, while natural food stores were responsible for 48 percent. Farmers markets and the other channels made up the rest.

The NCBA also reported that 66 percent of consumers cited health and nutrition benefits as the main reason for purchasing organic products, while other reasons included taste, safety and the environment.

BSE was first diagnosed in the United Kingdom in 1985, prompting the United States in 1989 to ban the import of cattle, sheep and other ruminant animals from countries with confirmed BSE cases. In 1996, the British government announced the discovery of a possible link between BSE and a new CJD variant, while in 1997, the United States banned the use of cattle brain, spinal tissue and other by-products in cattle feed.

Despite the mad cow concerns, beef industry advocates assert that safeguards have kept America's beef supply safe, and that there have no cases of the CJD variant found in the United States. Nevertheless, some observers say that going organic is the only sure way to be safe.

James Riddle, founding chairman of the Independent Organic Inspector's Association, has said that, besides the mad cow issue, other unhealthy additives are used in non-organic beef production. Further, the United States tests only 0.5 percent of cattle, compared with 100 percent of cattle in Japan and 75 percent of cattle in Germany and France. Cleary, from NOFA, noted that non-organic cows have higher incidence of E.coli than organic cows.

While consumer concerns over health and safety, as well as the desire for better taste, are driving the organic beef market, price and availability have been prohibitive for many consumers. Organic meats can cost double what conventionally farmed meats cost.

"A number of people wish they could afford it. They would eat if they could buy it," said Grote of the South Royalton co-op.

If market dynamics affect organic meats the same way they affected other organic foods, prices will likely come down, said Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. Many organic vegetable and milk producers, for example, have joined regional — even national — cooperatives, such as the Organic Valley Family of Farms in Wisconsin, which allows organic farmers to pull resources toward efforts such as marketing and packaging.

"The prices will probably come down over time as farmers take advantage of economies of scale," Givens said.

She noted that raising cows organically is also more expensive. "The farmers deserve to be able to make a living doing what they do," she said.

LaDouceur, whose cattle have a classic beef cow look, with short legs and deep, round chests, as opposed to the typically long-legged dairy cows, figures he sells between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of beef every year. His main outlets are the food cooperatives in Hanover, Lebanon, South Royalton and Randolph, as well as the Barnard General Store and Woodstock Farmers Market.

Nevertheless, it is far from enough to make ends meet, he said. To do that, he also depends on his son, Michael, a forester and logger who sells firewood and also produces his own maple syrup.

Despite the cost pressures, LaDouceur said, he'd like to keep his herd size about where it is now. If it were any bigger, it would become unmanageable for him and his family. To make a living off organic beef alone, LaDouceur figures he'd have to have about 500 cows. "On a hill farm, it's be too much running around for a big herd," he said.

Tony White, perishables manager at the Lebanon and Hanover food co-ops, also sees supplies as a barrier to lower prices, although one that will eventually come down.

"There is very little organic beef available in the Northeast, that's the biggest problem," White said, adding that there are also not enough organically certified slaughterhouses.

For example, the only organic beef that the Hanover and Lebanon co-ops carry is from the Bowman farm, White said.

"Any time more people are buying it, and the supplies increases, the price will come down," he said.

Valley News — March 21, 2004

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