Meat Market

Photographs by Michael Piazza

What constitutes ‘farm-raised’? Well, that’s up to you.

As the local food movement comes of age, we’ve become accustomed to filling our bags and baskets with more than just kale and tomatoes when we visit the farmers market. We bring home cheeses and chocolates, syrups and sunflowers, honey and homemade jellies. And with livestock and poultry currently available at more of the state’s markets, more of us are buying at least some of our meat there as well.

This is a story about the spectrum of small meat producers in Massachusetts and how shoppers can know the origins of the meat they buy at the farmers market or through community supported agriculture (CSAs).

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With one hand, Michael Lee scoops the hour-old lamb up from the pen where she and her brother just entered the world. As he does so, the ewe, still lying down from recent events, looks up at Lee as if to say, “Be careful with her.”

Michael certainly is. The baby girl sheep looks tiny in his big arms, but seems relaxed, content. An hour ago, she and her brother were inside the mother ewe, who is still looking up at us from her hay-lined pen. Now, thanks in part to Michael’s assistance, she’s joined the dozens of other lambs—some a week old and others just a few hours old—that will call this cavernous barn home until they’re strong enough go into the fields. As he cradles the newborn, Lee—who usually works with the horses but helps out during lambing season—smiles affectionately.

Lambs and sheep are the only show in town at Signal Rock Farm in Charlton—there were more than 160 born this spring—and they are raised with the utmost care. Newborns are given their first meal from their mother’s udder with a syringe, by hand. Someone checks them for fluid in their lungs. They are docked, tagged, and spray-painted with a number that corresponds to their mother’s. Starting out in a pen with just their mother, recently expanded families of sheep are moved a few days later to a larger pen with several other ewes and their lambs. They will be learning how to find their mother in a group and how to interact with others before they are moved to a second, and then a third, holding pen. Each afternoon, farm co-owner Marianne McCarthy will sit among the sheep and just watch for any social or biological abnormality that may signal a sick lamb.

Before they can leave the third pen and enter the open fields with their mothers, lambs must weigh at least 12 pounds. Marianne spends time every day with the sheep in the fields, looking for a sheep off by itself or refusing to eat. The herd is constantly rotating between fields as they devour sections of grass. This gives them not only the nutrition they need, but also the physical exercise and the assurance that a meal (only hay, milk, and a touch of grain) is a step or two away. Because after all, as Marianne reminds me, happy, non-stressed lambs make the best meat, and Signal Rock is widely thought to produce some of the tastiest lamb in Massachusetts.

But to get the happy, healthy mothers and lambs, the McCarthys have to work for it—hard. The two haven’t gone away together for years, unable to entrust a responsibility like administering emergency medical care to Lee or anyone else. During lambing season, Marianne is up every few hours during the night checking on the expecting mothers and lambs born the day before. Kevin McCarthy is constantly in the fields, testing the soil of the hay fields he manages. Raising lambs this way is tough.

But it isn’t the only way.

There’s a spectrum of practices in the local food movement. For meat, that spectrum ranges from birthing and slaughtering animals on the farm to acquiring an animal later in its life and “finishing it” locally before having its slaughtered elsewhere. Depending on the breed and intended use, these animals will have also enjoyed a diet that runs the gamut between 100 percent grass-fed to some combination of grass, corn, and grain. Labels like “natural,” “organic,” and “grass-fed” confuse the issue for consumers even more, and some producers seem poised to allow the ambiguity between labels and practices to work in their favor.

“Farmers are trying to get in on the pasture-raised, organic trend that consumers want more and more,” says Heidi Thunberg, farm manager at Green Meadows Farm in South Hamilton. “Unless consumers ask the questions, it’s pretty easy to fool them.”

Although her lamb business differs in several ways from that of Signal Rock’s, Heidi is open with her farm stand customers and 400 CSA members about how their meat is raised. Lambs are a month old when they are brought to Green Meadows Farm. (Her piglets come from Maine, and chicks show up on her doorstep in boxes each spring.) Heidi says she that while she would love to institute a breeding program, raising animals from birth is expensive. Charlie Thayer, co-owner of Red River Rock Farm in Brimfield, also relies on satellite suppliers for his calves, citing cost and a lack of adequate veterinary care as his reasons for not birthing his animals on-site.

Recently popularized food labels often betray consumers of local meat. “Grass-fed” is the best example, because many animals simply cannot be fed only grass. Until the lambs at Green Meadows are slaughtered six or seven months after their birth, they will have lived and grazed in the pastures, eating clover, hay, and yes—about a cup of grain per day. At Signal Rock, Kevin and Marianne McCarthy give their lambs about a half-pound of grain per day, a standard amount for pasture-raised sheep. Some farms, they say, feed their lambs up to four pounds of grain per day—making it a largely grain-fed animal.

“The grain is what you can’t digest, and neither can they,” Marianne says. “None of these animals were meant to eat grain. They were meant to eat the seed head with the stalk, and when you give them just grain it’s like giving them just seed heads. A lot of people do it because they want to get them up to weight quickly and don’t want to keep them very long.”

But even so, to call Signal Rock’s lamb meat “100% Grass-Fed” would be inaccurate. The same is true with beef from River Rock Farm, where they produce meat that is dry aged and slightly fattier than most. To get this tastier, more marbled cut of beef, their cattle—which spend most of their lives in the field eating grass—get a daily “dessert” of a bucket of corn.

Despite their differences, though, all the farmers say they adhere to the most sustainable, most humane methods in caring for their poultry and livestock up until slaughter.

“We raise them the way we do because we care about the animals,” Heidi says. “When you domesticate an animal, I believe you are responsible for its well-being all its life. I have a duty to give it the best life I can.”

With so many different practices and confusing buzz-words, how can a consumer be certain about the origins of the meat they buy at the market or through a CSA?

Lori DeLiso, who has co-managed the Lexington Farmers Market for all nine years of its existence, says she assumed all farmers applying for a spot at her market would be raising their animals for the majority, if not all, of their lives. That is until she visited two of the farms herself, which is her practice. On those visits, she says she recognized immediately that animals were only being housed at the farm for a very short span of their lives, if at all. Since the Lexington market is open only to producers of the products they’re selling, those farms’ applications were not accepted, and DeLiso says she’s proud to know that all three of the meat producers that currently come to her market provide a “quality, local product.”

Signal Rock Farm has been coming to Lexington Farmers Market since the beginning. But owners Kevin and Marianne McCarthy noticed several years ago that other farmers markets they attend do not have a consistent definition of “farm-raised.” Were some producers bringing meat or poultry to the market that they’d barely raised, or not raised at all? And if so, how would shoppers even know?

The couple brought these questions to the Federation of Mass Farmers Markets, which supports and promotes farmers markets across the state and directly manages greater Boston’s markets. Producers’ guidelines, they said, were focused heavily on fruits and vegetables, leaving the guidelines around meat and poultry vague at best. They proposed adding language stating that for its meat to be sold at a farmers market, an animal needed to have lived on the seller’s farm for 75% of its life or 180 days—whichever is longer. They’re also pushing for more market managers to regularly visit the farms of their sellers. Above all, farmers would be transparent with customers about the meat they’re selling.

Jeff Cole, Executive Director of the Federation of Mass Farmers Markets, says some sellers have accused others of representing themselves as something they’re not—bringing meat to the market that they haven’t raised, for instance, and not telling customers. But Cole says he’s hesitant to vilify these farmers without proper evidence.

Even so, the Federation has formed a committee to explore the issue of clarifying the statewide policies around meat and poultry sales.

“Are they standards that other markets have to adopt? No,” Cole says. “But they are good standards that are simple and relatively easy to understand.”

The best way consumers can truly know the origins of their poultry and meat, say farmers, farmers market managers, and most everyone else, is to ask.

“The unique thing about farmers markets still is the capacity for the consumer to talk with the producer and ask a bunch of questions to have a deeper understanding of what’s going on—and then make their purchasing decision,” Cole says. “You can’t do that in the supermarket. You can’t go to the butcher and say, ‘Did that cow die with a smile on its face? How was it treated?’ The butcher’s going to look at you like you’ve got seven heads.”

Most farmers welcome the questions, and Heidi even invites her customers to visit Green Meadows Farm to get a closer look at how her animals are raised.

“You’ll say, ‘Where are your pigs?’ And we’ll say, ‘They’re down the street.’ And you can go see them,” she says. “Same with our chicks and same with our lambs. You can see what we do to them — and that is exactly what farming is.”

Steve Holt doesn’t always eat meat, but when he does, it’s often from Massachusetts farms. Besides Edible Boston, Steve writes for TakePart.com and has contributed to the Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Culinate.com.

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STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.