On a crisp morning, bacon is frying. It is the season for sweet herbed sausage to go with scrambled eggs.
In the fall, animals raised over the summer become a part of the harvest at local farms. And many of those same farms are finding new ways to offer them.
Farmers markets move into winter schedules in October and November, but local meats are within reach any time. Farms are creating shares in community-supported agriculture, or CSA—from M and A Farm in Stephentown, New York, to Hancock Shaker Village, to Mill River Farm in New Marlborough—or offering discounts for buying in bulk. And more year-round farm stores are opening up, ranging from a small shop that takes Venmo to a quiet corner of the barn.
In Dalton, Holiday Brook Farm’s shop is in a sunny room near the sugar house, with meat freezers downstairs. And Mill River Farm has expanded into a wooden room, like a tiny house, with meats in the refrigerator or freezer and fresh eggs from the hens gossiping outside. They offer a meat share or individual cuts. In October they will restock on pork.
“We want to be flexible,” says Mill River’s owner, Jan Johnson. She speaks with respect for the animals she raises, and she has felt the farm changing her feelings about turning them into food.
“Being here did something to me,” she says. “I used to think, I’m so squeamish, how could I do this? At this stage, I realized I was thinking differently. I’m a different person through this journey, and I’m proud that we can do this—I think we’re doing the best for these animals that can be done. If you’re going to eat meat, we feel this is the kind of meat we want to eat.”
This is her seventh year on the farm and raising chickens—meat birds, broilers and laying hens—and her fourth year raising Tamworth hogs, a heritage breed. “They are full-flavored,” she says.
“All animals have fat deposits around the muscles, but these guys have marbling. There’s a saying, the flavor is in the fat. Industrial breeding has taken that away.”
Living outdoors makes a difference, she says, to the pigs and to the pork as well. Eating green plants keeps them healthy and changes the chemistry of the meat.
“These hogs are pasture-raised,” she says. “They are also hardy here. They’re originally from Ireland, and they’re delightful—mild-mannered, sturdy and sweet, good mothers.”
Holiday Brook sells meats year-round, in bulk or by the cut. Ruth Crane runs the farm with her husband, Dickon. They have grown a base of regular customers; some come monthly for their selection. They also walk through the pine woods on three miles of trails, or watch the heritage breed turkeys strut among the laying hens in the coop. These two turkeys were hatched by a neighbor, Crane says, and they have lived through many holidays.
But many of the animals are raised for meat. Their cattle are a heritage breed, belted Galloway, crossed with black angus, and they are wholly grass-fed, between pasture and the farm’s own hay. The pigs are Berkshire, Duroc, Tamworth, and Gloucester Old Spot, and they live at the forested edge of a broad pasture where the sheep wander. She, too, will have a fresh supply of pork in October. The farm store keeps stocked all year and resupplies some meats in fall and winter.
It will restock with fresh lamb in January, she says. The sheep are Jacob, a heritage breed—self-sufficient and good mothers, bred for the flavor and texture of the meat.
The challenge of raising good meat goes beyond the breed of the animal and the quality of their pasture and care. The farm has to turn the animal into meat to sell, and that process is complex.
Massachusetts sets strict rules on who can butcher an animal and how the meat is sold. A farmer can be licensed to sell a whole animal standing and process it on the farm. Some farms offer chickens and Thanksgiving turkeys that way.
Mill River is one of the few organic farms licensed by the state to process and sell whole chickens and turkeys, Johnson says.
But for larger animals, to offer individual cuts of meat, any farm has to work with a butcher licensed to process an animal cleanly and safely for the customer. And for local farms, these facilities can be few and far between. Holiday Brook Farm works with Eagle Bridge Custom Meat in Eagle Bridge, New York, and they have to book their time a year in advance. That means they have to set out how many animals to raise, far ahead of the day the sausage appears in their freezers. They have to anticipate the need.
Mill River works with Hilltown Pork in Canaan, N.Y., and has held workshops with Jake Levin, the Roving Butcher. And in the fall, as the frost sets in, the Adams family farm in Athol makes smoked hams for them.