Nestled in the hills of Washington County, N.Y., just outside the Village of Argyle, Mack Brook Farm raises grass-fed mostly Angus cattle on approximately 300 or so acres of land with a herd of about 50 at this time. The farm has been family owned since the 1920's, but until 2003 was primarily a dairy farm. Since that time Kevin Jablonski and Karen Christensen have been building a herd and a reputation for finely marbled and delicious grassfed beef - yes, I said, finely marbled grass-fed beef. The cattle feed on natural grass in the warmer months and "bailage" or bailed hay from their farm in the cooler months, a process that Jablonski says results in the marbling. Over time, it has not just been the size of the herd that has grown, but also the size of the individuals within the herd, with their average animal topping out at over 900 pounds dressed weight.
I toured the farm the other day with Kevin Jablonski. Our first stop was to visit the cows, their calves and the breeding bull. While the stock is not entirely Angus (it is mostly so), it does contain a bull who is a descendant of the original Scottish Angus breed. The recently acquired bull was brought in to return the stock to prime grass-eating characteristics. In the United States, corn-fed beef has been bred to be tall and narrow, easier to fit into feed lots and confinement. Traditionally, cattle best suited for their natural grass diets have tended to be shorter and squatter. Mack Brook cattle are nothing if not short and stout! While it can be tempting to think all cattle are alike, this is clearly not the case. In addition to the physical differences between cattle bred to eat corn and those more suited for grass, there is a big difference between cattle bred for meat vs. those bred for dairy purposes. Beef cattle tend to be larger, incorporating their feed into muscle mass and fat rather than pouring their calories into milk production.
From the cows and calves and an overprotective mother, we proceeded to another lush field to visit the heifers (females who have not yet bred) and steers (castrated males - they are castrated by banding their scrotum beneath their testicles at birth, preventing their development). These animals tended to be a bit more skittish, but ultimately proved very curious, slowly gravitating towards us as we stood still in the field. The animals are beautiful with full, shiny coats and powerful muscles evident underneath.
While Jablonski and Christensen have not pursued an organic designation secondary to the expense associated with obtaining it, the animals are raised in an organic fashion. Jablonski and Christensen do not use pesticides, herbicides or non-organic fertilizers on their land nor do they administer antibiotics or hormones to their animals. They do, however, vaccinate their cattle, something that Jablonski said, was enough to turn off one dogmatic potential meat purchaser. The irony is that vaccinating the cattle is safer for them and everyone else without adversely effecting the quality of the meat or indicating any lapses in how the animals are raised. Taking offense to vaccination simply doesn't make sense from either a scientific or humanistic perspective.
The cattle of Mack Brook Farm are extremely well taken care of. One certification Jablonski and Christensen did go through the trouble and expense of obtaining is that of being Certified Humane. This process not only looks at the conditions on the farm, but where and how the animals are slaughtered. Jablonski explained that they bring their animals to slaughter at a slaughterhouse literally five miles from the farm, an important step that Jablonski feels makes a big difference in the ultimate quality of the meat, since stress of travel, which he says has a direct effect on meat quality by reducing the marbling, is kept to a minimum.
When I asked Jablonski if the animals ever stayed in a barn, he told me that they always remain outdoors on the land and seem to be quite happy for it. Unfazed by the winter cold, the animals are free to take shelter from the wind and the elements in surrounding woods. By not staying in a confined barn, they have a much greater tendency to avoid illness and remain healthy.
Mack Brook beef is not a supermarket product. To get this meat, one has to invest a little effort in addition to a little money. Mack Brook meat is not sold in supermarkets nor do they have a direct presence at Farmers markets. For the time being, they neither ship nor take credit cards. To get this beef, one must either go to the farm, buy it from select stores (Sheldon's Market, Salem Garden Works, Green Pea Local (in Greenwich), Four Seasons (Saratoga), Wild Thyme (Ballston Spa) and The Green Grocer (Clifton Park)) or get it through John Ubaldo's Mountain View Farm, (who brings it to Farmers Markets in Westchester), order it from a CSA through Leweis-Waite farm or get it in NYC through The Farm-to-Chef Express. One well-known NYC restaurant that has taken the trouble to use Mack Brook beef is Gramercy Tavern.
Growing slowly, Christensen and Jablonski are happy with the pace of their business. While there is room for further growth both in terms of what their land can sustain and what they can personally manage, they are afraid of expanding too rapidly. They would rather sacrifice some potential sales in the short term, to make sure that they are able to provide a quality sustainable product for the long term.