Taking on industrial agriculture, one calf at a time

A Kentucky foundation is trying to build a local food economy that works for farmers and the planet


Donavyn Coffey, ScienceLine

August 5, 2019


ScienceLine.org. A project of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.


The nondescript two-story house settled at the end of Main Street in the little hilltop town of New Castle, Kentucky does not look like the headquarters of a revolutionary movement.


But the people inside are plotting to upend industrial agriculture — and they’re making some modest progress with the help of 50 baby calves and 10 local farms.


The Berry Center is a tribute to the work and legacy of novelist, poet and agrarian Wendell Berry. But this is no museum — it’s more of a reflective think-tank, drawing from the environmental and agricultural work of the past to improve the way Kentuckians farm and eat. The center’s latest ambition is to try and create a true local food economy – one that pays farmers well to encourage them to make better decisions for our planet.


The program is called Our Home Place Meats, after a phrase that frequently appears in Wendel Berry’s books and essays. It’s the beginnings of a co-op that offers a yearly-set, above market price to farmers who are willing to raise meat according to a set of ecological and husbandry standards. The project launched last year with 10 farmers and each of them are now raising five calves.


“In our food system now, we oversupply and our farmers get nothing because our food is so cheap,” says program director Sandy Canon. This works, says Canon, because Our Homes Place Meats is controlling the supply to match the demand.


Canon is well over six-feet-tall with fiery red hair and bursting with an entrepreneurial energy. Her job? Create demand for high-end meat, specifically rose veal.


To some, veal might seem an unlikely focus. It fell out of fashion in the 1980s after publicity about farming practices that included tearing calves from their mothers, keeping them in tiny cages and stuffing them full of glutinous grain. But times have changed, and so has veal farming.


Rose veal cattle are 575 to 675 pounds and seven to eleven months old at slaughter – that’s bigger and older than typical veal as defined by the USDA. They are grass-fed, and receive no unnecessary antibiotics, steroids or hormones. They spend their entire lives on open pasture with their mothers and are never castrated. The “rose” denotes the color of the meat, whose pink tint is different from conventional, confined white veal.


Our Home Place Meats sells ground rose veal to customers for about $8.92 per pound, compared to $4.99 for conventionally raised veal. Other cuts have an even higher premium. And Canon spends all year blazing markets and building demand for rose veal. Restaurants in Cincinnati and Louisville represent the majority of rose veal customers, though the meat has made it as far as Washington D.C. and New Orleans.


The intent is that the revenue from all her sales can one day make Our Home Place Meats self-sustaining.


“It’s all about volume,” Canon says. In order to be self-sustaining, the program will need to quadruple its volume to 200 calves so she will need to quadruple demand. For now, it relies on a USDA local food promotion grant worth “a tad over $300,000 over three years” to pay farmers, she says. At the end of the three-year grant period, the Berry Center hopes the program will be self-sustaining, with one year’s rose veal sales paying for the next year’s crop of calves.


The program began as an initiative to improve the local farm economy and make it possible for farmers to make a living on sustainable practices. The decision to focus on beef came later after the Berry Center and a board of advisors took stock of local agriculture


“The raising of corn and soybeans here and all over this country is too toxic and too erosive. Its destroying land and its destroying people,” says Mary Berry, founder of the Berry Center. The same is true, she adds, for industrial-scale meat production...


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