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.
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.
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.