Back to the Farm

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By Elizabeth Troutman

Editor's note: Janey Norton Newton says farming in Brownsboro is almost impossible anymore land value ranges $30,000 to $50,000 an acre and farmer's can't afford to expand. But she has committed to keeping her family's 1,300 acres as an agricultural land, and has recently revitalized the old dairy farm. In an area facing inevitable development, Janey and daughter, Maggie Barrett, are keeping a family promising while offering an organic alternative to supermarket beef.

Maggie Barrett dreaded her first visit to Memphis Meats.

She associated the Indiana meat processing plant with inevitable tragedy. For nine Black Angus cattle that grazed in the fields surrounding her office, the trip meant an end to a peaceful life feeding on rich clover at Foxhollow Farm in Brownsboro.

As a marketing specialist, Barrett, 23, was obligated to go to inspect her product. She was taken into a warehouse of hanging caracassses. She looked up at the body of a cow, her cow, hanging before her with a plant worker pointing out each section of the cow: the ribeye, the loin, the chuck.

"It's amazing," she said. "It was not gross."

Actually Barrett described the experience as somewhat appetizing. In her mind, there was no longer a cow before her, but potential hamburgers, steaks and chili.

"It was quality meat," she said of inspecting her cows. "When you look at the ribeye, it's just a juicy looking piece of meat."

Barrett grew up on Foxhollow Farm, where she now markets the grass-fed beef that is raised on her family's 1,300-acre property. Once a popular spa and alternative medical clinic, Foxhollow is now the home of more than a hundred cattle who live stress-free, healthy lives and are treated with biodynamic farming methods.

Biodynamic farming practices create harmony between the environment and the consumer by nourishing soil, vegetation and animals with natural substances. Biodynamic farming was founded by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who believed the farm should function as a self-reliant system. The family mixes their own fertilizers with natural ingredients, so their cows are antibiotic and toxin-free.

For Barrett and Newton, the process meant literally starting from the ground up— they changed the way they treated their soil by using cows as "natural fertilizing machines."

Barrett's consolation to the death of her cattle is their "happy" lives, at least happier than most beef cows. Happy cattle make better quality meat. And that means happy customers.

"They are loved by our farmer and everyone else," Maggie said of her cows.

In fact, Barrett and her family members even worry about whether their cows are stressed when they are loaded into trucks. They want to provide their cattle with the most relaxed environment possible.

The idea of converting to biodynamic farming came to Janey Norton Newton two years ago, and after research, bringing a group of cattle to the farm was the first step in the "healing process" of the land. She's been studying Steiner's philosophy since she was 20.

Workers rotate the herds of cattle throughout the farm every one to three days with moveable fencing. Cattle go for the best quality grass, what Newton calls the "dessert." Once this grass is eaten up, they move to another field.

"By the time they get back to the first field, the good grass has taken off," said Newton.

The cattle feast on a combination of orchard grass and clover, and act as a natural fertilizer for the soil. Their hooves also puncture the soil, which creates a sponge-like turf that is more likely to absorb water and nutrients. They are required to move from field to field, and they rarely resist the transitions.

George Seay, the cattle farmer at Foxhollow, interacts with the cattle everyday. He said the quality of the meat is reflected in in the life of the cattle. The meat is higher quality when the cattle eat natural foods, get exercise and are stress-free.

"If you are truly stressed, you tend to get sick," he said, comparing the cattle to people. "Except it's more magnified with them."

The cattle follow Seay, who guides them to each different field on the biodynamic schedule. Seay tries to allow the cattle to move naturally as a herd and keeps their stress levels down by avoiding force.

"There's no rodeo here," he said. "We pay attention to the way the animals naturally want to move."

All of the cows have remained healthy since the first group was brought to the farm in July 2006. The farm lost five cattle to a lightning strike this summer. Seay is in the process of monitoring the first attempt to breed the cattle.

Most beef cattle that wind up as meat in a supermarket are fed with grain and corn, which Barrett says is hard on the cow's digestive system. Most beef cattle are confined during their short lives, usually ranging from 14 to 16 months.

"They don't move, and they don't graze," Barrett said.

Barrett said she's read that in some cases, horrific items are thrown into the feed of mainstream beef cattle –feathers, candy, bone marrow and feces of other animals. She said unhealthy cows are more likely to contract a disease, which can remain in the meat through processing.

Foxhollow cattle drink filtered water and are restricted to grass, which is never treated with pesticides. They live to be at least two years old. The grass at Foxhollow is a lush green, even through the summer's drought. Janey attributes their success to her biodynamic methods, including the use of homemade organic sprays and the rotation of cattle. Among other natural ingredients, the organic sprays consist of compost, Valerian root and Dandelion.

Barrett sees physical evidence of her cattle's health in the marbling of the meat, or distribution of fat in a piece of meat. In Foxhollow beef, the portions of fat are visibly smaller and distorted evenly throughout a piece of meat.

Foxhollow beef is leaner that store-bought and consists of omega-3 acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease and may prevent cancer. The meat has the same fat content as a chicken. But the obvious distinction is the taste, Barrett said.

Newton hosts "tasting" parties where she features the beef raised on her farm in her dishes. Her vision is to have the whole menu come out of the farm. The family's next venture is raising organic chickens and goats. For now, she is proud of the bolongnese sauce that one of her dinner guests called "magic."

"It's best if you cook it slowly," said Janey of the meat. "It's so tender, and more substantial. It feels good after you eat it."

Newton runs a community-supported agriculture business of organic vegetables from May to November. For now, she is selling products directly from the farm, though she hopes to see their beef in local health food stores and restaurants.

Barrett said two local schools, St. Francis School and Kentucky Country Day, are interested in buying their beef. Though they hope to expand their business, they want to remain local. Maggie said current customers don't mind driving the distance for quality meat.

The mere mentioning of McDonald's repulses the mother and daughter, who say their eating habits have changed dramatically since they started farming. They have always been an "organic" family, but they feel that they are now using their land to contribute to a relocalization movement.

"It's hard to eat any other beef," said Barrett. "I don't eat any other unless it's rude."

Newton believes she is simply doing her part to contribute to the relocalization of food by farming on her land. She and Barrett now have a better understanding of what it means to eat organically now that they are practicing biodynamic methods. They would rather take their beloved cattle to a meat processing plant and know the background of their food than settle for conventional beef.

"It's not that we live organically, that's a trendy word," said Barrett. "It's that we live locally. We all need to go back to the farm."

E-mail us about this story at: elizabeth@oldhamera.com.