By Margaret LeRoux / Photos by Kristin Teig
For Andy and Kerrie Hertel, farming is a delicate and relentless balancing act. The couple raises beef cows, pigs, chickens, and a host of vegetables on the 50-acre Maple Heights Farm in Westminster, Massachusetts. Since acquiring the land seven years ago, they’ve pursued a goal of equilibrium between nature and commerce while bringing up four children and juggling the many demands of parenthood.
The Hertels have worked hard to build a loyal base of customers who are willing to pay premium prices for their grass fed beef, pastured pork, and chickens. “One guy buys all the tenderloin I can grow,” says Andy. “Another customer buys 10 to 12 chickens every month.”
The Hertels approach to selling meat is to first focus on the land. “If the soil is healthy, the animals and the crops are healthy,” says Kerrie.
Their small herd of two dozen Herefords and Hereford cross cows graze in pastures they themselves help clear. “Our animals do their chores,” Andy quips. Besides fertilizing the fields with their manure, the cows do a good job of clearing them of grass.
About every five days the cows move to adjacent pastures and the Hertels go to work on the vacated field. They chop out perennial weeds like thistle or wild rose, then “bush” the field by dragging a box rake around it. This breaks up manure and keeps flies under control. Next, they “brush hog” with a large mower to chop up any plants that the cows won’t eat.
“We do this before any biennials have a chance to flower or saplings take hold,” says Kerrie. Finally, the pasture rests and grows until it is ready for another feeding.
They follow a similar procedure in the fields where their 30 Landrace and Duroc pigs graze. Their flock of 150 Rock Cornish cross broilers eat bugs and grasshoppers as they circumnavigate their fields in a protected free range manner. The chickens live in movable pens of wire and wood big enough to prevent overcrowding, but also able to shield them from predators like foxes, coyotes, and hawks.
The Hertels’ passion for soil has paid off. After four years of careful stewardship, the farm’s grass, vegetables, and fruit earned an organic certification from Baystate Organic Certifiers, a USDA organic program. Although the animals themselves are not certified organic—because it’s a prohibitively expensive process—they point out that the cows are fed solely from their organically certified fields. “We’re proud that we are one of the few farms in the state to offer 100% grass fed beef,” Kerrie says. The pigs and chickens also eat the farm’s organic grass but receive supplementary grains from local sources.
You might think the Hertels’ hyper attention to soil management would spill over to animal husbandry. Not so; they follow a hands-off approach to their animals—“Unless they’re hurt or need medical attention, which is rare,” Kerrie says, “our animals basically watch out for themselves. The cows come into the barn for water, but they prefer being outside in most weather. So do the pigs.”
Occasionally a cow wanders off; a while ago one of them strolled through neighboring fields and ended up at the Wachusett Brewery about a mile and a half from the farm.
The end point of this healthy life for the animals is the production of high quality meat for the farm’s customers. At the age of two for cows and between six and eight months for pigs they’re taken to a pen next to the barn. Early the next morning the animals are loaded into the farm’s trailer for a trip to the slaughterhouse. Until January of this year, that meant a short ride of about 30 minutes to Blood Farm in Groton.
In January, a fire destroyed the Blood slaughterhouse and farmers from Central Massachusetts had to scramble to find a replacement. The Blood Farm fire was especially painful for the Hertels; just days before, two of their cows were slaughtered at the facility and the meat was destroyed in the blaze.
Since the fire, Andy has been taking his cows and pigs to Lemay & Sons in Goffstown, New Hampshire, almost 50 miles away and twice as long a ride. For the chickens, Andy must drive 53 miles to Westminster, Vermont, more than an hour away from the farm. The slaughterhouses charge them a $5 per bird processing fee, while cows and pigs are processed for $1 per pound.
There are a lot of other expenses in running a farm. For example, the machinery that makes tidy bales of grass to store for winter-feed carries a $50,000 price tag.
“As a farmer, you’re always living on the edge,” Andy says. Which brings us back to the Hertels’ goal of equilibrium. In the seven years since they bought the farm, they have yet to successfully balance the time it consumes with their other responsibilities.
“Our days on the farm need to be shortened to a respectable 10 hours instead of consistently being more than 12 hours long,” Kerrie says. Besides running the farm, Andy has another fulltime job as a builder. Kerrie devoted thousands of hours to help launch and maintain Mass Local Food Co-op, an online farmers market where she and Andy sell a good portion of their meat. The Hertels were among the original members of Mass Local Food; Kerrie serves on the board of directors and the couple both represent farmers on the co-op’s producer standards and review committee.
Devoted parents, they volunteer in their children’s classrooms, teach Sunday School, and drive carpools to sporting events. In fact, it was during a family hike along the Mid-state Trail nine years ago when they discovered the 133-year-old farm that later became their home.
“The trail is mostly through the woods and all of sudden we came upon this hilltop field with an abandoned barn,” Kerrie says. The view was beautiful, but the fields were badly overgrown. “No one had lived there for years,” she said.
A few months later Kerrie received a mailing from a local realtor advertising the farm for sale and she persuaded Andy to take a serious look at the property. They were ripe for farming. Their suburban yard was home to a few chickens, a couple of miniature goats, and Milton, the family’s pet cow. Kerrie had left her job as a software engineer to raise their children. Andy grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Fitchburg and studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts in Stockbridge, although at the time he had no intention of becoming a farmer.
After two years and a lot of negotiating, the Hertels bought the farm through the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. The state program pays the difference between fair market value and agricultural value of farmland in exchange for a permanent restriction preventing the land from being developed. Included in the terms of purchase was a permanent right of way for the Midstate hiking trail.
Maple Heights Farm, named for the grove of maple trees that lines the Hertels’ driveway, will always be farmland and hikers will be able to enjoy the pastoral hilltop view of cows grazing in the pastures.
Margaret LeRoux is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about good food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it. You can reach Margaret at: email@example.com.