On Saturday, LaPlatte River Angus Farm owner Jim Kleptz will travel to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction to attend a cattle auction. For Kleptz, the semiannual event is the best place to secure the volume of steers he needs to meet the growing demand in Vermont for local beef.
Most of those cattle, which are between six months and a year and a half old, hail from Vermont farms. But others are coming from New York or New Hampshire and will be fattened up — aka “finished” — in Vermont before being slaughtered and sold as “local” meat.
The practice raises a tricky question: Does a flatlander cow shipped in from out of state count as local?
Not according to some in the beef industry, who are drawing a line in the sand when it comes to defining the popular “locavore” foods market. “If some farmer was going to New York with a tanker and bringing back maple sap, it wouldn’t be Vermont maple syrup,” argues Cole Ward, a veteran Vermont butcher based in Bakersfield.
Farmer Paul List, who raises grass-fed lowline Angus cattle in Shelburne, agrees.
“There’s a lot of deception, a lot of people riding the wave of the local Vermont label,” says List. What counts as local to him? “My standard is simple: born in Vermont. I’ve lived most of my life here, but I don’t pretend to be a Vermonter.” And as far as List is concerned, the same standard should apply to local beef.
Purists such as List and Ward draw a firm line at the state’s boundaries. Ward sets the bar even higher; he believes that to count as truly local, animals should be born and raised on the same farm, from breeding stock on that farm.
Of course, not everyone favors such a strict interpretation. Are plants that are brought in from out of state, then sold at a Vermont nursery, local? What about chicks hatched in Canada, transported across the border and then raised for meat in at Misty Knoll Farms in Addison County?
For beef, which grow to approximately 1200 pounds, “I think the accepted practice is, if they’re growing from 700 pounds ’til you finish them, that’s considered a Vermont animal,” says Kleptz.
Kleptz and his three sons run LaPlatte River Angus, a booming Shelburne-based farm that grazes several hundred cows over 600 acres of leased land in and around Chittenden County. At Saturday’s auction, he’ll be bidding on “feeder cattle,” the industry term for steers destined for meat production. He’ll fatten up the cows — first on grass, then on grain for the final weeks of their lives — before dispatching them to the slaughterhouse. From there, LaPlatte meat goes to grocery stores like Healthy Living and City Market as well as to high-end restaurants such as the South Burlington Guild & Company steakhouse.
“I don’t believe in knocking somebody else’s product down to sell mine,” says Kleptz, who suggests that some of the nitpicking over local labels amounts to competition within the beef industry. “They should stand on their own. Let the consumers decide.”
“It’s really up for interpretation,” agrees Mark Boyden, the owner of Boyden Farm in Cambridge. One of the largest beef operations in the state, Boyden Farm sends nearly 500 head of cattle each year to slaughter. Keeping a herd that size without buying steers from other farms would require some 500 “mama cows,” Boyden says. “Where would I put them?”
Similarly, Kleptz purchases more feeder cattle than his brood cows produce calves each year. Like Boyden, Kleptz says he’s partially limited by available land. But Kleptz also points out that it takes a “special kind of person … to mess around with calving cows.”
“Not everybody wants to, or has the knack to do it,” he says. And Kleptz and Boyden say the same goes for marketing and distributing their own beef: Not every farmer in Vermont wants to do it.
Boyden says he tries to buy Vermont-born cattle “whenever humanly possible,” and prefers working with farmers he knows and trusts. But a Vermont zip code isn’t a guarantee for high quality.
“Some of the Vermont cattle are really just junk,” Boyden says. He bought cows from one local farmer last year that didn’t grow according to plan, and he opted not to buy from that farmer again.
So what’s all the fuss about? Vermont-made sells. Chip Morgan, the president of the Vermont Beef Producers Association, calls “local” the most popular marketing term in the state’s beef industry today. That marks a shift from the conventional way of describing and marketing meat, which relies on a grading system — think USDA “Prime” versus “Select.”
Today, Morgan says, consumers are “trying to make a smart choice or a healthy choice” — even if they’re “making a choice based on a qualitative analysis rather than really understanding what they’re buying.”
Vermont has a statutory definition of “local” on the books, but it’s not very strict. Under state law, local applies to any goods that originated in Vermont or within 30 miles of the place they were sold. Labels can also be modified with descriptors like “local to New England,” or “local within 100 miles.”
More specific are the rules around use of the word “Vermont” on product labels. The state attorney general’s office has cracked down in certain cases, citing a consumer protection regulation that strictly governs representations of “Vermont origin.” Last year, Cabot Creamery chose to strike the word “Vermont” from its label because its butter is made in Springfield, Mass., from milk produced in Vermont, New York and other parts of New England.
Assistant Attorney General Elliot Burg says there are no complaints on record of farmers allegedly misrepresenting the term “local.”
Some farmers markets have attempted to clear up the fuzzy “local” definition themselves. Montpelier’s Capital City Farmers Market, for instance, requires that vendors own, manage and feed the animal they’re selling as “local” for at least the last 75 percent of the animal’s life. For poultry and laying hens, the rule is stricter; the market vendor is required to raise those animals from day one.
Glover farmer and Capital City Farmers Market president Lila Bennett says the 75 percent rule was instituted a few years ago after one farmer at the market complained about another vendor’s practices. Bennett says the 25 percent of wiggle room at the beginning of an animal’s life was designed to allow young farmers a chance to buy livestock from elsewhere as their businesses are getting off the ground.
The Burlington Farmers Market also employs the 75 percent provision — a rule intended to “discourage brokering of meat and simply finishing meat and selling it at the market,” according to vendor guidelines on the market’s website.
“It’s really up to the farmers who are working hard and producing these animals well to educate our customers and reach out to new people,” says Bennett, of Montpelier’s farmer’s market. “We need to get more people to know their farmers.”
She adds that consumers also have an obligation ask questions about where and how their food is raised, without making assumptions based on labels alone.
Take Vermont Smoke and Cure, the popular line of smoked meats produced in Hinesburg. While the company does produce Vermont-grown meats under its “5 Knives” label, the flagship Vermont Smoke and Cure products are only processed in Vermont — not made with locally raised meat.
“People buy Vermont Smoke and Cure, and there’s not one pound of Vermont product in that, but nobody knows,” says Bennett. She’s not pointing any fingers at the producer; she just wants consumers to do their due diligence.
Sean Buchanan, the business development manager at Black River Produce in North Springfield, agrees that consumers shouldn’t blindly assume that “local” equates to whatever they most value in food production. Buchanan says they should be asking questions such as: Is an animal treated humanely? Is it fed grass or grain? How large is the farm?
“We all go to the farmers’ market, we connect with our grower, but we’re not willing to go out to their farm … and see how it is produced,” says Buchanan. Asking for a transparent food system — and then relying on websites or Facebook for that transparency — just won’t work, he argues.
Along those lines, Ward worries that a farmer buying feeder cattle from elsewhere can’t tell consumers much about that animal’s history, treatment or health. Those producers still charge top dollar for their meat, Ward says, but the butcher believes they aren’t any different from “factory farms” out west.
“Don’t sell me a Chevrolet at a Cadillac price,” says Ward.
List, meanwhile, is frustrated that he’s “thrown in the same category” as farmers whose business model doesn’t call for raising animals from birth to slaughter. It gives his competitors an unfair advantage.
“I’m trying to build my brand, and keep my standards high, and I’m not chasing money,” says List. Raising cattle in Vermont is inevitably more expensive than doing so out west, where cheap, abundant grasslands — including grazing on government-owned parcels — keep costs down. But what Vermont does have, List says, is a clean environment, plenty of water and a good reputation.
“We better take care of that label, because as soon as we don’t, we’ll lose,” he says. “When you have people bring in animals from out of state, you’ve undermined it.”