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Raised in Vermont: Meeting the Demand for Local Meat

John KleptzFrom our Spring 2014 newsletter. By Will Lindner.

Vermont has a well-earned reputation as a leader in the ‘localvore’ movement that favors consumption of locally grown foods and direct support of small, family farms. This enthusiasm for buying local extends well beyond produce and eggs. It has created what VLT-conserved Clay Hill Farm proprietor Guy Crosby calls a niche market for the beef he produces from his herd of 70 Black Angus cattle in Hartland. “People are concerned about what they eat, and they want to know where their food comes from and what it’s been fed,” says Guy, whose cattle are grass-fed on fields he enriches with manure from a local dairy.

Guy supplies beef to neighboring Sunrise Farm, a CSA (community-supported agriculture; typically, a membership arrangement between a farm and its customers), and the Hanover Co-op. He sells directly to two eateries: Harpoon Brewery in Windsor and Relish the Dog in Quechee.

Farther north, the beef served at A Single Pebble restaurant in Burlington comes from LaPlatte River Angus, operated commercially since 1988 by the Kleptz family in Shelburne and, since 2011, in Milton as well. With an average herd size of 400, LaPlatte is one of the largest Registered Black Angus operations in New England. Second-generation co-owner John Kleptz delivers the restaurant’s weekly order himself, as he also does for City Market and Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, Healthy Living Market in South Burlington, and Shelburne Supermarket in Shelburne.

“We’ve got wonderful customers,” says John. “Over the years, the sales part has gotten easier because I have to do less of it. Our beef basically sells by word of mouth.”

Historically, that was not the case. John Kleptz’s father, Jim, moved the family to Vermont from Massachusetts in 1973 to take an engineering job at General Electric in Burlington. They bought 10 acres in Shelburne and Jim raised a few Angus for a hobby, with his sons Mark, Chris, and John growing more involved over time. Jim told a CBS News reporter in October, 2013, “If you go back 30 years, you couldn’t sell local beef in Vermont.”

John explains why: “If you bought Vermont beef back then, it was some burned-out cow from a dairy. Native beef was considered not very good. We struggled for a lot of years, not only to sell the beef, but learning how to take care of animals, because we weren’t farmers to start. My father read all the articles, went to classes at VTC, and studied up on genetics, feeding animals, humane handling, managing the [feed] crops.”

Clay Hill Farm and LaPlatte River Angus are two of some 125 farms statewide that produce meat on land fully or partially conserved by the Vermont Land Trust. Some familiar names are Misty Knoll in New Haven, Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, Badger Brook Meats in Danville, Boyden Farm in Cambridge, Robb Family Farm in Brattleboro, Hollister Hill Farm in Marshfield, Cloudland Farm in Pomfret, and the new Vermont Goat Collaborative in Colchester, a project of Pine Island Farm, owned by VLT.

Another is Tangletown Farm, where Lila Bennett and David Robb, parents of three children, keep a stunning variety of animals, all free-range and pasture-raised. “I guess we just thought that’s how it’s done; so that when we went to the farmers’ market, we could offer more choices,” says David, 40. A former carpenter, he and Lila, who was a teacher, began raising cattle for meat partly in response to a national beef-recall that affected their local school, Rumney Memorial in Middlesex.

They went full time into farming in 2008, commuting to dispersed plots of leased land, and then consolidated their operations in Glover in November 2012, where they now keep, on average, some 50 Angus, 1,000 rabbits, 60 pigs, 250 turkeys, 500 guinea hens, and 10,000 chickens. Once they have fully modified the former dairy farm to fit their needs, they’ll resume raising and selling lambs as well.

Bennett-Robb familyYet the vigor of Vermont’s buy-local movement cannot overcome institutionalized barriers to the success of modest farms. Vermont’s Farm To Plate report cites the artificially low costs of the country’s industrial food system, for example, grain subsidies targeted to agribusinesses—as well as economies of scale that greatly favor imports from the West and Midwest.

The price differential is a problem local growers admit that they can’t solve. But they contend with the challenge as best they can. David Robb says organic grain (used to “finish” pasture-raised beef) is unaffordable for him, so he emphasizes other meaningful practices at Tangletown Farm. “Our corn is from conventional cornfields, and the same for our soy, but we don’t use antibiotics or hormones. Primarily, our focus is on the lifestyle of the animals.”

Tangletown Farm is active at the year-round Montpelier Farmers’ Market, and operates a pre-buy program (similar to a CSA). They wholesale chickens and eggs to Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, and to City Market and Healthy Living Market in Chittenden County.

Land conservation, too, plays a role as these farms seek to economize. Clay Hill Farm was one of VLT’s earliest conservation projects back in 1985 when VLT was still known as the Ottauquechee Land Trust. In a region of the state where property values are high, the conservation easement moderates Guy’s taxes by removing the land’s development potential.

LaPlatte River Angus and Tangletown Farm both worked closely with VLT’s innovative Farmland Access Program. “The program provides a suite of services to help farmers find affordable farmland,” explains program director Jon Ramsay. “It accomplishes the twin goals of helping new farm operations acquire land to expand their business and getting a conservation easement on the land.”

Frustrated with the inefficiencies of pasturing their animals on widely scattered, leased land, David and Lila wanted to buy a place, but found nothing affordable until they learned of the Glover property. Working with Jon, they created a transition plan to help buy it. “We borrowed the entire amount,” says David, “then three months after we closed, the land trust bought the development rights. It removed 55 percent of the purchase price, which benefited us hugely. There’s no way we’d be here without the Vermont Land Trust.” VLT secured funds for the easement purchase from a Freeman Foundation grant.

LaPlatte River Angus was in a very different situation from Tangletown when, with VLT’s help, it closed on 139 acres of already conserved farmland in Milton in 2011. Jim, John, and Mark Kleptz had grown their beef operation quite successfully, farming on some 600 acres in and around Shelburne, most of it leased from other landowners. And while additional land would provide more pasture and cultivatable fields, the Milton property offered something enticing: an opportunity to build and operate their own slaughterhouse and processing facility.LaPlatte River Angus slaughterhouse

According to the Farm to Plate report, the slaughterhouse “bottleneck” is one of the Vermont industry’s most critical problems, the scarcity and limited capacity of the existing facilities imposing a barrier to efficient, lucrative production. That’s why it was big news last year when Black River Produce announced it would invest several million dollars renovating a decrepit industrial building in Springfield to develop a full-service slaughterhouse and meat-processing facility. The processing (butchering) plant is now in operation, with the slaughter facility on track for an opening this summer.
Guy Crosby, at Clay Hill Farm, who says he has a “handshake deal” with Black River, is excited. “Once you get your brand in the door, you don’t want to have to tell them you ran out of beef.” He tries to pace his operation so that six animals will provide his meat requirements through the winter and early spring. By comparison, John Kleptz must harvest nine cattle every week. Currently, he uses Vermont Livestock in Ferrisburgh for these services, but he has experience in the trade and is eager to gain more control over this aspect of its business. The Kleptz family hopes to begin using its slaughtering facility next fall.

More than ever, Vermonters wish to purchase locally grown meat for their tables, and more than ever, Vermont farmers are trying to provide it. Innovation in the land trust movement can help those efforts go further.

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