Co-op helps organic beef farmers stay in business

  • Mark DiOrio / Observer-Dispatch  Berni Ortensi of the Ortensi Farm and Equestrian Center, greets Lucy, a Simmental cow that is being prepared to breed, Oct. 14, 2014, in Richfield Springs, N.Y. The Ortensi Farm is one of the farms in the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, a cooperative formed with farms that raise livestock through organic means.

    -Dispatch Berni Ortensi of the Ortensi Farm and Equestrian Center, greets Lucy, a Simmental cow that is being prepared to breed, Oct. 14, 2014, in Richfield Springs, N.Y. The Ortensi Farm is one of the farms in the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, a cooperative formed with farms that raise livestock through organic means.
  • About Adirondack Grazers Cooperative

    * At the cooperative, which sells 100 percent grass-fed or pasture-raised but grain-finished beef, farmers work together to make rules and to fulfill orders, using only local, small-scale U.S. D…

    Sarah Teale came to New York City as a filmmaker.
  • But now, she’s a founding member for Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, a group of 36 small- to mid-scale farms in New York and Vermont selling 100 percent grass-fed or pasture-raised, grain-finished beef.
    The co-op is helping to support a segment of New York’s agricultural industry, which is losing one farm every three and a half days, according to the Agricultural Stewardship Association.
    “I hadn’t really anticipated that I would be running around selling beef,” Teale said.
    She and her husband live in New York City but have a farm in North Hebron near the Vermont border. When they started raising grass-fed beef as a way to salvage their fields, they came upon an unexpected roadblock: it’s almost impossible to sell to restaurants as a single farm.
    “(Restaurants) only want certain cuts, like 50 hanger steaks a week,” Teale explained.
    But every cow only has one hanger steak, and many small farms only have 50 cows.
    “A lot of people were giving up dairy and going into beef, but (they) didn’t have a market for it,” Teale said. “Alot of the farmers around us had been going out of business.”
    So, in late 2011, Teale began hosting meetings to see if there was interest in forming a co-op. Fifty farms came to the first gathering. A short time later, Adirondack Grazers was born.
    It’s catching on in Central New York.
    Berni Ortensi — who’s owned The Ortensi Farm in Richfield Springs with her husband, Greg, since 1997 — attended every meeting with piqued interest, eventually joining the co-op last fall and becoming a board member in January.
    Ortensi, whose farm has been certified organic since 2006, wanted cattle to graze on the cover crops she rotates around the farm’s more than 300 acres. But she already knew she couldn’t sell those cows on her own.
    “I thought, ‘This is brilliant. We can just concentrate on raising really good organic cattle,’” she said.
    And that’s the point.
    “The farmer doesn’t have to do marketing,” Teale said. “All they have to do is take their animals and drop them off (at local slaughterhouses). They get a check within 30 days.”After a “very scary” first summer, the co-op is on track to sell more than $1 million of grass-fed beef this year, and actually can’t meet the demand of those wanting to buy from it.

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 A Charolais bull on Ron Cieri’s farm. Cooperative members must agree not to use antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticides, and to treat animals humanely. CreditPhil Mansfield for The New York Times

It was time for the running of the bulls.

As Ron Cieri watched from his ATV this summer, his farm manager, Jim Ingram, unleashed five hulking males into a verdant Catskills pasture, where 80 brood cows — a patchwork of red, black and white — grazed with their calves.

After a few minutes of sniffing around, one bull trailed his desired mate to the edge of the woods and, with a nuzzle as foreplay, mounted her as she nonchalantly munched on sweet grass.

“It’s like being let out at the Playboy mansion, right?” Mr. Cieri said to his visitors — Stefan Oellinger, the senior meat buyer for the online grocer FreshDirect, and Sarah Teale and Dan Stone of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative — as the bulls made their rounds.

“Look at that beautiful fertility,” said Mr. Oellinger, gazing admiringly at Mr. Cieri’s mix of Angus, Hereford, Simmental and White Park breeds. Four years ago, Mr. Cieri traded Wall Street talk of structured credit derivatives for this kind of cattle banter. He owns Stonewall Pastures outside East Meredith, N.Y., about three hours northwest of Manhattan, and is one of 36 members of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative.


Dan Stone, left, president of the co-op board, talks to Mr. Cieri. The cooperative has been able to strike a deal with FreshDirect, whose grass-fed beef market has increased 300 percent in the last two and a half years. The cooperative expects close to $1 million in sales this year.CreditPhil Mansfield for The New York Times

While New York has been a haven for dairy cooperatives, the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative is something much less common in the state — a co-op for grass-fed beef. Its members inhabit farms from the Adirondacks south to the Pennsylvania border and east into Vermont. In addition to helping farmers with tangibles like the marketing and sale of their beef, the cooperative is also providing something more elusive — call it hope — in a state where, according to the Agricultural Stewardship Association, anonprofit land trust, one farm is lost to development every three and a half days.

Cooperatives have long allowed smaller farmers and ranchers around the country to pool their resources and expertise for financial gain without relinquishing control. And because cooperatives often impose production standards on their members, clients reap the benefit of quality products available on a consistent basis.

Ms. Teale, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, started to understand the need for a co-op in the summer of 2011, when she and her husband, the writer Gordon Chaplin, decided to raise grass-fed cattle on their Emsig Farm in North Hebron, southeast of Lake George.

But after running the numbers with Sandy Buxton of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the couple realized “that you couldn’t raise beef as one farm, even a big farm, and sell it on a regular, consistent basis to even one restaurant,” Ms. Teale said. “And if you were selling locally, you were losing money on every animal.”

“I’m like, ‘This is stupid. Why would anybody do this?’ ” she recalled. “And Sandy laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s just farming.’ ”

Which prompted Ms. Teale to wonder, “What if it weren’t?”

Plenty of others had wondered the same in a region where family farms teeter on the edge of extinction.

“It’s a pretty tough business, really,” said Al Fargnoli of A&J Enterprises, a cattle ranch in Apalachin, who has witnessed the farms on the same road as his, many of them dairy, dwindle from 30 to three. “You can drive anywhere in rural New York and you see the same thing: Barns sitting there, not doing anything.”

Much of the country’s beef comes from major producers like JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef as well as smaller regional packers, among them Greater Omaha and Creekstone Farms, that usually focus on higher-quality meat. Restaurants are often supplied through food-service distributors and meat purveyors like US Foods or Buckhead Beef, with specialty restaurants often sourcing from farms.

New York State has about 6,000 cow-calf farms, with a median of around 25 cows, said Michael J. Baker, a beef cattle extension specialist for Cornell University. The majority of calves are sold at auction as feeders to be fattened elsewhere, with less than 10 percent of the state’s cattle finished on grass.

“If there were a more organized and steady market for grass-finished cattle, you’d see a lot more,” he said. The challenge, he said, is that “cattle are so high-priced, how much can you pass on to the consumer?”

While producing HBO’s “The Weight of the Nation,” a four-part series about obesity, Ms. Teale met Diana Endicott, who had founded Good Natured Family Farms, a cooperative on the Kansas-Missouri border, and decided that a cooperative just made sense.

That fall, Ms. Teale and Ms. Buxton sent around notice of a meeting to discuss formation of a cooperative and held their breath. To their amazement, nearly 50 farmers turned up. “And then we realized that there’s a real need for this,” Ms. Teale said.


Ron Cieri’s cattle farm in upstate New York belongs to the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, which markets and sells beef for its 36 members. Mr. Cieri’s herd is a mix of Angus, Hereford, Simmental and White Park breeds. CreditPhil Mansfield for The New York Times

By June 2012 — with a $15,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, a $50,000 line of credit from Farm Credit East, and eight founding farms that had each purchased a $1,000 share — the cooperative was on its way.

Until it wasn’t. Initially, members decided to freeze their beef for easier storage and shipping, resulting in $30,000 of inventory not easily unloaded because of the stigma attached to frozen meat in the culinary world. A panicked Ms. Teale knew that she had to make the fresh-meat business work. “I’m a producer,” she said, “so I went out and decided to produce this.”

Armed with a cooler full of samples, she made cold calls at restaurants and butcher shops in New York, where she lives part time, and found takers that included the Gramercy Tavern restaurant. Slowly sales increased from one or two cows a week to three or four.

But most restaurants either did not feature much beef on their menus or requested large quantities of specific cuts, like 50 hanger steaks when there was only one per animal. Butchers, on the other hand, would buy the whole cow. “We realized that our sweet spot was the wholesale market,” Ms. Teale said.

Eventually, a restaurant consultant suggested she contact Mr. Oellinger of FreshDirect, which delivers groceries to its customers’ homes in five states surrounding the greater New York City and Philadelphia areas. FreshDirect, whose grass-fed beef market has increased 300 percent in the last two and a half years, prefers British breeds like Angus and Hereford that are about 18 to 24 months old with a 550- to 650-pound hanging weight after slaughter. These are the ideal standards, Mr. Oellinger said, for the leaner, more tender, less-gamy, inch-and-a-half-thick rib-eye that his health-conscious customers crave.

And while some co-op members preferred selling their cattle at the traditional slaughter age of around 29 months, when their heavier weight would fetch more money, for others the shorter growth period meant that they could get their beef to market more quickly and not endure an extra winter with the expense of feeding the animals.

When Ms. Teale first spoke with Mr. Oellinger early in 2013, the cooperative was still too small to meet his needs. But by last October it had grown to 22 members, most of whom ran 40 to 50 head, and started supplying FreshDirect an average of 10 cattle every other week.

Last month the cooperative bumped it up to 10 cattle weekly, an order that is filled by about 15 farmers. (Not all the farms participate in the program; some are building their herds while others finish theirs on grain.) Cattle are slaughtered at New York Custom Processing in Bridgewater, with farmers responsible for transporting their animals to the facility and FreshDirect handling the processing and shipping afterward.

Mr. Stone, the board president, said: “Farmers are independent and they don’t cooperate very well, so now we have to try to corral this group into some normalcy: Give us an inventory, tag your animals, give us the tools so that we know that when we certify an animal, it can be really certified.”

The cooperative, which Ms. Teale expects to make close to $1 million in sales this year, keeps 10 to 15 percent of what the farmers receive to help pay for two full-time employees and a part-time bookkeeper. Members must agree not to use antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticides, and to treat animals humanely.

“What the co-op has done at this point is guarantee a fair market price” — around $3.50 a pound, calculated after the carcass is skinned — “higher than going to an auction house,” said Berni Ortensi, who raises certified organic Simmentals in Richfield Springs. “And to be honest, it’s much easier to ship four to eight at a time to the processing facility and then not have to pick up the meat.”

This month the cooperative finally achieved profitability with the sale of 57 cattle to FreshDirect and other clients, and it expects to increase that number to 60 per month by early 2015.

And Ms. Teale has naturally turned her experiences into a film, with the documentary filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson. “Grazers: A Cooperative Story” will have its debut at DOC NYC, the documentary film group, in November.

Cooperatives have notoriously come and gone in New York State, said Mr. Baker of Cornell University, but that was the last thing on anybody’s mind at Stonewall Pastures that day as they watched Mr. Cieri’s bulls and cows extend their profitable bloodlines among the clover.

Grazing livestock can save the world.

Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world

L Hunter Lovins: George Monbiot’s recent criticism of Allan Savory’s theory that grazing livestock can reverse climate change ignores evidence that it’s already experiencing success

cow in a field
Can grazing cows save the world? Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

In his recent interview with Allan Savory, the high profile biologist and farmer who argues that properly managing grazing animals can counter climate chaos, George Monbiot reasonably asks for proof. Where I believe he strays into the unreasonable, is in asserting that there is none.

Savory’s argument, which counters popular conceptions, is that more livestock rather than fewer can help save the planet through a concept he calls “holistic management.” In brief, he contends that grazing livestock can reverse desertification and restore carbon to the soil, enhancing its biodiversity and countering climate change. Monbiot claims that this approach doesn’t work and in fact does more harm than good. But his assertions skip over the science and on the ground evidence that say otherwise.

Richard Teague, a range scientist from Texas A&M University, presented in favour of Savory’s theory at the recent Putting Grasslands to Work conference in London. Teague’s research is finding significant soil carbon sequestration from holistic range management practices.

Soil scientist, Dr Elaine Ingham, a microbiologist and until recently chief scientist at Rodale Institute, described how healthy soil, the underpinning of civilization throughout history, is created in interaction between grazing animals and soil microbiologyPeer-reviewed research from Rodale has shown how regenerative agriculture can sequester more carbon than humans are now emitting. Scientists, as well as dozens of farmers, ranchers and pastoralists from around the world, describe how they are increasing the health of their land, the carrying capacity of it, its biodiversity, and its profitability, all while preserving their culture and traditions.

How much carbon can be sequestered in properly managed grasslands and how fast? We don’t know, but we do know that massive carbon reserves were present in the ten-foot thick black soil of the historic grasslands of the Great Plains of the US. We know that the globe’s grasslands are the second largest store of naturally sequestered carbon after the oceans. They got that way by co-evolving with pre-industrial grazing practices: sufficient herds of native graziers, dense packed by healthy populations of predators.

It’s reasonable to call for more research on whether properly managed grazing offers people a way to take carbon from the air and return it to the soil where nature intended it to be. What is not reasonable, is attacking without at least also citing the peer-reviewed science that backs up Savory’s assertions.

Claims that Savory’s approach has been discredited in the academic literature are based solely on two papers, one of which Monbiot cites. Both have been countered in academic and professional literature bypapers which find that Savory’s method meets the claimed ecological, economic, and quality of life enhancing goals. It improves grass density, soil moisture, soil bulk density, standing crop biomass, and soil organic matter, an indicator of increases in soil carbon.

Monbiot’s claims that Savory’s approach does not work will come as a surprise to the best-known practitioner of the approach, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Salatin was made famous in UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores his success using Savory’s approach. Salatin explains how Savory’s approach enabled him to turn an uneconomic farm into an operation that now supports 35 prosperous agricultural ventures. From selling grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs to health-conscious connoisseurs and teaching interns how to replicate its successes, Polyface Farms is leading an agricultural revival.

I can attest from personal experience that Savory’s approach works. I used holistic management several decades ago on a thousand acres of ground taken out of cattle production for 20 years and let to degrade, erode and be overrun by noxious weeds. Its owners believed that resting land would increase its health. This may be true of intact wilderness. But it is demonstrably not true of most of the planet’s agricultural lands, now rapidly releasing stored carbon, nitrogen and other gasses, worsening global warming. Conventional agricultural practices strip the soil of nutrients and life, leading farmers to use expensive, chemical intensive substitutes, which in turn worsen the global warming. In our case, we restored cattle to the ground, managed as Savory advised, and within two years watched the water table rise, wetland plants returned and the economic value of the property increase.

In Australia, for profit company Sustainable Land Management says it has more than doubled stocking rates of cattle over historic rates on seriously desertified Australian range, achieved superior weight gain, doubled plant diversity, restored the grasslands, while buying no feed, even despite severely deficient rain. The land management company isattracting foreign investment to a region of Australia hungry for economic development.

In the American heartland, Grasslands Llc is practicing the same land stewardship, healing grazing land and rural communities. On properties such as the Hana Ranch on Maui, Savory’s approach is making farming economically viable. Patagonia, the clothing company committed to environmental responsibility, has partnered with Ovis XXI and the Nature Conservancy to regenerate the grasslands of Patagonia using holistic management.

As someone who lies awake at night wondering if what works in practice can possibly be true in theory, Monbiot might do well to adopt Savory’s mantra: always assume that you are wrong, test for that, and then revise your approach appropriately. Allan Savory has done this for decades, subjecting his methods to the discipline of the marketplace, his suggestions to science and his ideas to the relentless scrutiny of people who make their living from their land.

If Monbiot is serious about informing and educating his followers, he might do well to educate himself first. I’d invite him to come out on the land, see with his own eyes and learn from those who are healing grasslands while producing food, fibre and community prosperity. Savory’s network would be more than happy to once more make themselves available.

Grazers Documentary, Blog & KickStarter

As many of you know, Sarah Teale and Lisa Jackson have been making a documentary about the founding of the Adirondack Grazers. Sarah is a Grazers Founding Member but she is also an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker, as is Lisa Jackson. Lisa and Sarah started by making short film farm profiles for the web site and never stopped filming.

You can find more information out about the film on their KickStarter link at

They are also on Twitter @grazersdoc and have launched Grazers: A Farm, Film and Food Blog. If you do participate in social media please do send out the information to your friends and families.

A Tour of Gramercy Tavern

Step into the kitchen of Gramercy Tavern with Sarah Teale and award winning chef Michael Anthony for a special look at how he prepares Adirondack beef.

“Producers of grass-fed beef team to sell product”

It was while working as a producer for an episode of the HBO documentary series “Weight of the Nation” that Sarah Teale decided it wasn’t enough to show people the problems involved with today’s food systems.

“I did a lot of filming all across the country with farmers in Iowa and Kansas and Missouri and California,” Teale said. “It really pushed me toward doing this.”

“This” is raising a small herd of grass-fed cattle on about 80 acres of pasture land in Granville.

Rosie’s Beef LLC, owned by Teale and Gordon Chaplin and named after their daughter, is part of a co-op of more than a dozen grass-fed beef producers, mostly in Washington County, who have combined forces to get their beef to consumers, restaurants and butchers as far away as New York City.

For the complete article click here.

Published July 31, 2013