MEAFORD, ONT. — The fields at the foot of Scotch Mountain are starting to turn gold. Soon, their grain will be harvested for the herd of cows that graze by the side of the road. It’s idyllic farmland here, south of Georgian Bay in Grey County, part of Ontario’s prime beef country.
But only a few kilometres from this bucolic scene, large refrigerated trucks speed down the highway, packed with American-raised beef on the way to the local grocery store.
This incongruity is something the two families who founded Scotch Mountain Meats, a farmers’ co-operative, are trying to change.
Since 2005, they have been promoting a local market for their naturally raised meats in a move away from the modern conventions of the North American meat industry.
In the process, they’ve started a small revolution and attracted the attention of chefs across Ontario.
It started when Murray Jansen, a goat and pig farmer, dropped in on his neighbour Frank Batty, who raises beef and lamb.
Both of their farms were suffering; due to mad-cow-disease scares they had not been able to export their livestock to the United States since 2003. With the border closed, they could only fetch rock-bottom prices at auction.
“We started talking that there had to be another way,” Mr. Jansen’s wife, Donna, says. “Why do we have to depend on the Americans? Why can’t we sell to our neighbours?”
So they devised a plan to save their farms and feed their community.
Instead of sending their livestock to the auction barn where a slaughterhouse would purchase, butcher and package the meat for a grocery chain, the farmers decided to take over the entire process – and return to the way the industry operated 50 years ago.”There was natural skepticism within the community,” Mr. Jansen says. “People wanted us to succeed, but it was a wait-and-see kind of thing.”
The co-operative found two family-run meat plants that would handle their small-scale operation. A plant in Stayner, Ont., wood-smokes their pork sausages and wraps them in natural casings.
In building their customer base, the major hurdle they faced was price: Because of economies of scale and the fact that they pay farmers more for their livestock, Scotch Mountain’s cuts are more expensive than those in the grocery-store cooler.
Nevertheless, through word-of-mouth and the rapidly expanding farmers’ market circuit in Southern Ontario, they have managed to win over chefs and shoppers – and double their sales in the past year alone.
Mr. Jansen credits their success to the quality of the meat, which is free of hormones and antibiotics.
Cattle on Mr. Batty’s farm are raised as they have been since the 1800s, when the first of six generations of his family started farming here.
For the first year of their lives, the cattle are left to graze on the pasture before they are brought into the barn for several months of “finishing” in which they’re fed a diet of grains such as soybeans and peas that the Battys grow themselves.
After the animals are slaughtered, the beef is hung to age for 21 days. Commercial cuts are usually hung for up to 48 hours.
Now, the chef of Cobble Beach Golf Links, a high-end golf club that opened this spring near Owen Sound, buys his meat from Scotch Mountain.
A pub in Thornbury, Ont., serves the co-operative’s prime rib, hamburger and lamb.
And Anthony Rose, executive chef at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, has cooked the co-op’s rib-eye steak and lamb.
“It’s being raised mostly on grass. You can taste it in the final flavour,” Mr. Rose says, pointing out that the lamb is not gamey like the ubiquitous New Zealand variety and the beef has excellent marbling.
The neighbours are also eating Scotch Mountain meat. The co-op runs a shop at the Jansens’ farm; its stall at the Meaford farmers’ market is always busy, and the local chip truck grills Scotch Mountain hamburgers.
In Toronto, the co-op sells to the public at the Brick Works farmers’ market and will soon be selling at the Liberty Village market.
Business is going so well that Mr. Jansen was able to quit his job after 30 years of driving transport trucks.
Now, other farmers in the area are dropping in on the Jansens, asking if they can get on board and sell through the co-operative.
Mr. Jansen welcomes the prospect of growing the business.”People think you have to go to the grocery store to get everything,” he says. “But the time is right for this local-food movement.”