The Call and Times, Column 25 – The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

7 08 2015

(July 26, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

Blackbird Farm Cows

For this week’s edition of The Hand That Feeds You, I spent an afternoon with the Bouthillette family, the owners of Blackbird Farm in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Ann Marie and Kevin Bouthillette, with their sons Brandon and Troy, and their daughter Sam, own and operate a cow and pig farm that sits on over 200 acres on Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise 100% Angus beef and 100% American Heritage Berkshire pork, breeds whose genetics they’ve carefully selected for over many years to produce a high-quality, great-tasting product.

They sell all cuts of beef and pork at their Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike (Rt. 7) in Smithfield, which is open Fridays 1 – 6 pm, Saturdays 9 – 6 pm, and Sundays 9 – 4 pm. They also sell at the Providence Downtown Farmers Market in Kennedy Plaza, on Tuesdays 3 – 6 pm, and the Providence Armory Farmers Market at the Cranston Armory, on Thursdays 3:30 – 7 pm, both through the end of October. You can find more information on their website (http://blackbirdfarmri.com/), their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/blackbirdfarm), and their Farm Fresh RI profile page (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2134).

Sitting at their kitchen table, Ann Marie described to me the long history of what was to become Blackbird Farm. Her father had a life-long love for Angus beef, and always had the desire to become a farmer. After marrying her mother and traveling around the US, they settled down on some land in Glocester, Rhode Island and did just that, raising turkeys and eventually Angus cows.
Ann Marie grew up in the 4-H Club, and her interest in agriculture began with breeding Angus cattle for shows. Here, she learned firsthand how to selectively breed in order to improve the genetic characteristics of the herd, a practice that her son Brandon specializes in today.

After studying Animal Science at the University of Connecticut, Ann Marie married Kevin Bouthillette, who had lived on four acres of what was to become Blackbird Farm since the mid-1970s. Over the next few years, they had kids and made some sacrifices (including, as Ann Marie fondly told me, Kevin selling his prized Corvette) to expand the farm to 40 acres, but still weren’t doing much farming. They were breeding for cattle shows, and a trip to Montana yielded 20 pregnant cows, high-end Angus cattle whose genetic characteristics just happened to be perfect for beef agriculture.

As the family grew and went in the different directions that life took them, the focus on cattle showing became too costly and hard to sustain long-term, and they considered selling the cows. It was then that the couple made a life-altering decision. They had the “carcass cattle”, specifically bred for beef production; they had the land; and they had the know-how – they had become a beef farm. That decision was made a decade ago, and they’ve since expanded to over 200 acres.

When the rain finally let up, we took a drive around the farm. Ann Marie explained how the Angus cattle are broken into three groups, based on the point in their lifecycle: the cows (females who have carried young) and their calves, the feeder cattle, and the finishing cattle.

Ann Marie showed me two of the pastures where the cows and their calves graze on some of the healthiest, greenest, most bio-diverse grass I’ve ever seen. When the calves are a few months old, they are moved to a feeder area, where they eat a wet hay (called “bailage”) grown on-site, and supplemented with free-choice local brewer’s grain, apple peels, and non-GMO corn. Finally, a few months before slaughter, they are moved to the finishing area, where they are finished on hay and non-mega doses of non-GMO corn.

The cattle are given no hormones or antibiotics. Because they are fed a pasture-based, grain-supplemented diet natural to their species, they gain the necessary weight and are naturally very healthy – a world of difference from industrial agriculture.

We then visited the American Berkshire pigs. They are fed a diet of non-GMO corn and soy, and live in large, wooded lots, where they root and forage for tubers, shrubs, and berries, a behavior very natural to their species.

Through the course of the afternoon, the family described the diverse range of markets where they sell their product. There are the Farm Stand and farmers markets, of course. But there is also a long list of restaurants (available on their website) and local processing companies, like Daniele, Inc Fine Charcuterie. In addition, they are planning to start offering monthly farm tours.

One theme that seemed to permeate into many of our conversations, and indeed into much of Blackbird’s agricultural model, is the burgeoning farm-to-table movement in Rhode Island. “I want people to be educated about industrial farming”, Ann Marie explained, so they know the reasons to support local farms that use responsible, sustainable practices.

She explained that “everything Blackbird Farm does, is done in Rhode Island” – RI Beef and Veal harvests the animals, Westerly Meat Packing cuts the beef and pork, Central Falls Provisions makes their sausages and hotdogs, and Eat Drink RI manages their media and cooking classes.

And as many things in life do, our conversation came to the cost of their products. “It’s going to cost a little more” than industrial meat, Ann Marie said plainly. As she explained, every part of their production model focuses on quality – the superior breeding of Angus cattle; the pasture-based feeding; the local processing; and even small-scale packaging. Pasture is not subsidized by the federal government, and federal agricultural policy actually makes non-GMO feed more expensive than GMO (despite little actual increase in yields), and artificial drives up demand for meat grown in factory farms and in foreign countries, as compared to local, sustainable farms.

Decisions at Blackbird are made “to bring superior quality to the consumer”. This motivation is in direct contrast to that of industrial agriculture, where quantity and profit are the only driving factors, and questions of animal welfare, the growth of local economies, the appropriateness of diet regimens, and the use of pharmaceuticals are largely ignored.

Looking at Blackbird Farm, and at the local, sustainable food economy in Rhode Island to which it is so intimately tied, it’s hard to even directly compare it to industrial agriculture. Blackbird Farm’s model is a completely different paradigm than that of industrial agriculture; their meat, a completely different product.

“Once people come here, see what goes into our product, and taste it, they’re sold”, Ann Marie said candidly. This sentiment is validated by the number of repeat customers that they have, and I can personally attest to it myself. The marbling, the color, and the taste are all vastly superior to industrial meat, and the pasture-based diet means that the meat is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Ann Marie left me with a reiteration of the phrase that has grown in popularity in recent years: “know who your farmer is, know where your food comes from”. Personally, my journey towards local, sustainable food over the past few years brought me to Blackbird Farm as a principle source of my family’s meat. I have come to know my farmers, and I see where my food comes from; and you know what? From the animal treatment and the pastures to the sustainable practices and local production – I really like what I see.

 

 

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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