Long Island’s Livestock

Herds of cows, pigs, goats and sheep are expanding on the East End.

Ten years ago, Art Ludlow of Mecox Bay Farm in Bridgehampton stopped growing potatoes. He turned from generations of tradition by putting away his tractor and picking up a milking bucket; he wanted to make cheese. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he said this past spring while slopping milky curds and whey, which would soon turn into his popular cheddar, onto a stainless steel drainage table. The cheese will be cut, molded, salted and then sold to gourmet stores and at local farmers markets where shoppers line up for tastes served from a large, two-handled cheese knife.

Customers were willing to pay a premium. So he added Berkshire pigs, which after they are slaughtered in the fall, are turned into pork chops, pork belly, ground pork, roasts and ribs. But before that, they eat the leftover whey and unmarketable vegetables from his brother Harry’s adjacent farm, Fairview Farm, which also grows pigs and chickens. Art also took the obvious step of turning his older milking cows into marketable beef. The former potato farm now grows something more valuable, which has enabled the Ludlows to remain farmers and keep the land in production.

They are not alone. There are approximately 15 to 20 farms on the East End raising livestock. Some have been around for decades, like the Iacono chicken farm in East Hampton, Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, Chester Massey & Sons duck farm in Eastport and Miloski’s Poultry Farm in Calverton. But within the past 10 years the number of livestock farmers has increased, often as a result of the drive of locavorism, the appeal of sustainably raised food and a desire to get back to the land. These include Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven and a roster from the North Fork: McCall Ranch, Macari Vineyards, Browder’s Birds, Ty Llwyd, Garden of Eve, Goodale Farms, Catapano Dairy, Wells Farms, North Quarter Farm, and Tom Geppel and Carol Festa’s brand new Icelandic sheep farm.

This total doesn’t include countless vegetable producers and nurseries in Suffolk County that keep some poultry or other animals among their crops, or the increasing number of families with backyard flocks, which has inspired East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Huntington and other municipalities to legalize poultry-keeping within village limits.

“I wanted to sell more eggs, so I realized I needed to keep more chickens,” says Marilee Foster of Foster Farms in Sagaponack, whose flock now includes chickens, ducks and guinea hens. Livestock give farmers another product to sell, a source of fertilizer and allow them to use land that might be fallow. It also gives eaters and chefs another choice.

It’s What the People Want

Last year Herb Strobel, executive director of the Hallockville Museum in Riverhead, and Dale Moyer, agriculture program director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, surveyed farmers, chefs, farmers market managers and food community members to gauge interest in raising livestock. Among the 30 respondents, about half already raise livestock and will continue to do so. The other half say they would buy more locally raised meat if it were available.

As this interest in local proteins grows, farmers are struggling to meet demand. In addition to the same challenges faced by produce growers in Suffolk County—including high land and labor costs, conflicts with non-farmer neighbors, and regulations—federal meat-processing laws require meat to be slaughtered at a U.S. Department of Agriculture–approved slaughterhouse; there is only one on Long Island, and it is not open to the public. As a result, some farmers choose to slaughter their animals on-farm for use by family and friends. Still others—with the careful consultation of lawyers—sell customers the live animal and then provide the slaughtering and butchering as an additional service, an arrangement that helps navigate the complicated laws.

Despite such barriers, raising livestock has a long history in the region, says Strobel. From the 1600s to the 1960s, most farm families raised some livestock for their own use or for sale to neighbors, including chickens, goats, hogs and milking cows. On the South Fork, many old-timers will remember drinking glass-bottled milk from the Cilli Farm Dairy in Sag Harbor or Dune Alpine Dairy in East Hampton, both of which operated until the late 1960s.

Due to lack of pasture, Strobel says, “Beef has never been a big player in agriculture on Long Island.” Before the mid-19th century, when people started to use cotton instead of wool, there used to be more sheep farmers on the island.

In the early 1900s, ducks—suited to the region’s water-pocked landscape and maritime climate—became the main animal raised on Long Island, and by mid-century, Long Island duck enjoyed a national reputation. But the growth of bayside duck farms caused coastal pollution and prompted restrictions that—combined with soaring property values and suburban migration—put many of the duck farms out of business. Strobel himself grew up on Thee’s Dairy Farm, which operated in Moriches from about 1920 through the mid-1980s, maintaining on-farm sales and several milk delivery routes. Today, Oak Tree Dairy in East Northport is the only full-service dairy plant in Suffolk County. And there is only one duck farm and processor in the region, Crescent in Aquebogue, which accounts for a substantial share of regional duck production.

For a look at a typical player in the livestock resurgence, visit Thomas Hart, 27, who is in his first season raising hogs and chickens at his Deep Roots Farm in Orient. He’s as happy as a pig in mud talking to his hogs as he feeds them. “They have a lot more personality than spinach,” he says. After spending two seasons apprenticing with Chris Browder of Browder’s Birds in Southold and Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport, Hart leased 10 acres and now sells chickens through a CSA out of the Fork and Anchor General Store in East Marion.

In Riverhead, Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve says, “We have livestock because we like having them around,” about her goats, chickens and pigs. “They are fun for kids to see and experience.” This year, the farm added a meat share to its vegetable CSA that includes some lamb and chicken.

Farms that have been on this land much longer are also building herds, especially as the next generation looks for a crop to call their own. At Mecox Bay Dairy, Pete Ludlow, 24, has been experimenting with growing his own forage, while his 20-something cousins at Fairview Farm, Meredith and Nathan Ludlow, are crafting ground-meat blends and aging pancetta.

Wells Farms in Aquebogue sells at least 200 pigs a season, says Laura Wells of her family’s business. Aside from free-range Russian boar and Hampshire pigs—popular for backyard barbecues—her husband, Todd, and son, Eric, also raise goats and lamb. Also on Sound Avenue, across the road from Wells, at Ty Llwyd Farm, known for its year-round vegetable production and poultry flock, Chris Wines has added a milking herd of nine Jersey cows. (On-farm sale of raw milk was recently made legal in New York State. Ty Llwyd’s usually sells out by noon each day.) Further west from Ty Llwyd, Goodale Farm in Riverhead, a dairy founded just a few years ago, produces about 140 pounds of cheese a day. Like Ludlow, his fellow cheesemaker on the South Fork, Hal Goodale’s family was in the potato business until he decided to go full-dairy, now selling cheese, butter and milk.

It’s What the Chefs Want

“I would love to serve locally raised hamburgers on the grill,” says Bryan Futerman, a Slow Food leader and owner of Foody’s restaurant in Water Mill, adding that he sees an unlimited demand for local meat. “It would be so cool if Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, the first cattle ranch in the United States, went back to raising cattle.” For locavores looking for winter sustenance, he says, pancetta and pork belly are much easier to come by than cukes and corn.

“It may be smellier, bloodier and less sexy than growing heirloom tomatoes, but making the move from feedlots to pasture-raised meat is essential,” says Brianna Fokine, manager of the Shelter Island Farmers Market, which sells Browder’s Birds. “The addition of local livestock to the market enriches the whole dialogue. It takes the market one step closer to being the main source of food for people, instead of just somewhere to go pick up a few things to supplement their trips to the supermarket.”

Ed Tuccio raises 300 bison on his North Quarter Farm in Riverhead and serves the meat—in the form of burgers, steaks and tartare—at his restaurant, Tweeds, a 116-year-old tavern on Main Street in Riverhead. (A buffalo head, shot by Teddy Roosevelt, hangs on the wall and every glass is etched with a buffalo.) His bison are fed leftover hops and barley from local brewers, potato pick-outs, post-Halloween pumpkins, apple mash and chopped sweet corn. “It’s a wonderful marriage,” he says of his neighboring farmers, “What they can’t use, we can.”

In a recent op-ed in Newsday, Dee Mumu, who owns North Quarter Farm with Tuccio, argued the ecological and economic imperatives to raising livestock on Long Island, since many vegetable crops extract nutrients from the soil (which livestock can help replace) and because animal crops are harvested in the fall (after the main vegetable season). And unlike large-scale factory farms, which might crowd tens of thousands of animals into close quarters, all of the East End’s livestock farmers are raising animals on pasture, where they help to restore the land by treading and manuring it, and adding diversity to the landscape. As chef and proprietor of the Dark Horse Restaurant in Riverhead, Muma says a wider selection of local meat “would allow me to have much more variation in the foods I serve,” as well as greater peace of mind. “Remember that major scare in tomatoes nationwide, and all of us on Long Island could safely continue to eat tomatoes? Don’t get me started on why you should know your sources for meat.”

But First, Get It to Market

Both Muma and Tuccio are “enormous advocates” of a local meat-processing facility. Like Ludlow of Mecox Bay, they currently truck their bison to Pennsylvania for slaughter. Currently, there is only one USDA meat-processing plant in Suffolk County, at the Suffolk County Farm and Educational Center in Yaphank. Managed by Cornell Cooperative Extension, it is a butcher-training facility for inmates from the Yaphank and Riverhead jails and not open to the public. The meat comes from livestock at the Suffolk County Farm and is used in the jail cafeterias. Many farmers and members of the food community have suggested this facility be open to the public on a pay-per-animal basis, yielding more local meat and additional income for the county. Some have also pointed out the butchery is old and in need upgrade.

Among the most supported, and feasible, ideas would be a “shared interest” mobile unit, in a central location on Long Island. An example of this comes from Glynwood, a farm and institute in Cold Spring, New York, which created the Modular Harvest System as a role model for other communities. The unit meets the strictest requirements, including the humane treatment of
animals. It also keeps waste and everything else indoors. It would cost $750,000 to replicate, according to Glynwood’s Web site. “Even a small-scale meat-processing plant is expensive, and no one farmer is going to foot the bill,” says Futerman.

Also in discussion is including meat processing in a new produce-processing facility in Riverhead that is being jointly supported by the Long Island food distributor J. Kings and the Long Island Farm Bureau. For now, the facility will focus on vegetable processing and perhaps wine storage. Pending funding, the organizers say there is an interest in a slaughterhouse. And while Joseph M. Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, acknowledges the benefits of local slaughtering, he says that without additional state support and buy-ins from more farmers, such an investment might be years away.

Joseph Macari of Macari Vineyards is willing to put his money where his mouth is by investing in a slaughterhouse. Macari is phasing out the Longhorns grazing his land for 40 Herefords, which he’s been processing himself and feeding to his family and employees. “I have restaurants who want it now, but I can’t give it to them,” he says of vendors that carry his wine. “If I can do anything to help it happen I will.” Macari also raises meat goats, for which the halal market is growing, as well as Flemish and New Zealand rabbits.

Fellow winery owner and rancher Russell McCall of McCall Vineyards & Ranch currently brings his white Charolais cattle to a halal slaughterhouse in Queens. He then sells his purebred, grassfed, hormone-steroid-antibiotic-free beef to restaurants and retail outlets. (Currently North Fork Table and Inn in Southold buys 60 percent of his wares, taking in four quarters of a steer every other week. Last year the restaurant went through three and a half cows.)

Chris and Holly Browder, who both left jobs in the corporate world to start their poultry operation in Southold, process the birds themselves every Tuesday. They are able to do this without USDA inspection because the law allows operations under 1,000 birds per year to do it themselves. These chickens are on North Fork Table’s menu as well. Chef de cuisine Stephan Bogardus, who was born and raised in Cutchogue, loves that he is working in a local restaurant serving locally raised meat, poultry and produce and agrees a closer slaughterhouse would make it easier.

Goodale agrees but says he’s doing just fine without one—for now. So, like many farmers, he believes “if you build it they will come.” Hart, the hog farmer in Orient, says, “The only way you’ll see meat production on a larger scale is if there is a local slaughterhouse.”

“Given the potential animal production numbers at this time, it would be a challenge to efficiently establish and operate a processing facility,” says Stroebel. “This is not the Hudson Valley or Vermont.” Moyer of CCE agrees livestock production will be a niche market in the foreseeable future, although he does note that wine grapes and organic vegetables were once niche crops. It is the extension’s mission to assist nearby farmers, and while Suffolk County extension no longer employs a livestock specialist, he has plenty of colleagues in Ithaca he can tap.

In the meantime, this fall Art Ludlow will cull several cows from his milking herd and drive them the five hours to USDA processing plants in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, adding to the cost of processing and a travel burden on the animals. That meat will be on sale at the Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Westhampton Beach farmers markets as well as at his brother’s Fairview Farm. This will be Ludlow’s second season selling beef, and it will sell out fast.

“Now everyone thinks a meat processing plant is crazy,” says Ludlow. “But I would not be so hasty.”

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Kelly Ann Smith

Kelly Ann Smith lives on Paradise Peninsula in Springs and writes a weekly column, "View from Bonac," in the East Hampton Press.