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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Here’s the Organic Beef

One year ago Karen and Mark Faille of Simply Grazin’

Organic Farm in Hopewell could boast of having 50 steady customers

for their grass-fed, organic beef, chicken, and eggs, the majority

being personal acquaintances and contacts Mark Faille had made through

what was then his main business, RAD Residential Air Design. They

would come to his Van Dyke Road farm to pick up their orders, eye

the animals, and chat with the Failles and their two young children.

Last week Faille could only estimate how many customers buy his meats,

which now include pork and which will soon include lamb. About 500

was his guess. Some buy Simply Grazin’ meat at Princeton’s Whole Earth

Center, which began stocking it six weeks ago. Some are on a regular

delivery route to Suffern, New York. Others are among the 100 or so

who call or E-mail the farm each day, and whose orders are shipped

UPS. Faille has turned the operation of his heating and air conditioning

business over to his employees.

What accounts for the popularity of his meats and the unprecedented

growth of his enterprise? Simply Grazin’ has tapped into several national

trends, including the growing market for organic and/or locally produced

foods from small-scale farms. (See "Eating Fresh" story on

page 45.) The USDA estimates that organic food sales will hit a record

$13 billion this year. Moreover, Faille entered the market just as

the shortcomings of the industrialized feedlot system that produces

95 percent of the meat in this country were coming to light. When

tainted ground beef started to be recalled by the millions of pounds,

some people began looking for alternatives to meat raised on huge

feedlots and processed at plants where the speed of the line compromises

safety and cleanliness.

The movement to opt out of the feedlot system was given a boost in

no small part in March of last year when the New York Times Sunday

magazine featured a cover story by science writer Michael Pollan that

delineated the inner workings of the system. That article and the

popularity of the best-seller "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side

of the All-American Meal," by Eric Schlosser, brought to light

the deplorable state of "agribusiness" meat. The result was

a demand for meat free from antibiotics and growth hormones, from

animals raised humanely, outdoors, on natural, preferably organic,

feed.

Beyond that, studies began to show that meat from cattle and other

ruminants raised on pasture had health benefits that grain-fed animals

lack, even those fed organic grain, benefits such as higher levels

of omega-3 fatty acid, as is found in fish. Those and more recent

findings are elucidated in a small book, "Why Grassfed is Best,"

by Jo Robinson (Vashon Island Press, 2000) and on her website, www.eatwild.com

Above health and safety, and even humane treatment of animals

issues, what customers say keeps them coming back is the superior

flavor of grass-fed meat. Although Simply Grazin’ costs several times

more than supermarket meat — $6 a pound for ground beef versus

$2 for supermarket; $3.75 a pound for chicken as compared to 69 cents

for Tyson — customers feel they get their money’s worth. In actuality,

Simply Grazin’s prices are in line with and often lower than those

of Niman Ranch, the California-based purveyor of natural meats (although

not necessarily grass-fed) and the first to achieve national distribution.

Niman ground beef is also $6 a pound, yet its T-bone steaks are $33

a pound, with Simply Grazin’s at only $10 at last check.

Area chefs have discovered Simply Grazin’, and at least

five restaurants are regular customers: Tre Piani, Mediterra, Brother’s

Moon, Rat’s Restaurant, and Nova Terra. Mediterra alone buys between

40 and 100 chickens a week, and owners Raoul and Carlo Momo, who own

several other area eateries through their business T2 Ventures, have

arranged for Faille to purchase and raise for them a small herd of

rare Piedmontese cattle, prized for their meat.

Mark Faille never intended to be a farmer. He and his wife, Karen,

both 39, were high school sweethearts who met at 16 and married at

20. After high school he went on to get vocational training in HVAC

and she took a few computer courses. They have two children, Dylan,

11, and Stacie, who just turned 5.

The Failles began down the path to farming about six years ago, after

the death of their second child at the age of two months. To help

them move on from this tragedy they decided to start from scratch.

They bought and restored a dilapidated 1884 farmhouse on Van Dyke

Road, Karen got pregnant and gave birth to Stacie, and Mark decided

to change his line of work. "When our daughter died of a rare

heart ailment," he says, "I asked myself, what is most important

in life. The answer was my family, to be around my kids. I want them

to see me more than I saw my father."

His father, now 82, worked as an auto mechanic, but Mark grew up around

his uncles’ farm in Windsor. "My uncles had chickens and pigs,"

he says. "I was right there in the middle of it and I loved it.

But my uncles are mainstream: they believe, and always will, in grain

feeding. Yet the more research I did, the more it didn’t make sense.

A hundred years ago cows weren’t eating corn, they were in the fields,

eating grass!" (Simply Grazin’ beef is 100 percent grass-fed.

During winter months, chickens and pigs receive supplemental certified

organic feed.) "In the beginning our lack of knowledge was our

best asset. I hadn’t developed any bad habits or preconceived notions.

After we bought this place I went to my county ag agent and asked,

what can I raise on 40 acres in Hopewell and make money. After he

stopped laughing, he advised us to first read all the books we could,

then pulled from the shelf one called something like, `How to Make

$100,000 on 25 Acres’."

The Failles read that book together, then embarked on voracious

research that included contacting local, state, and federal agencies.

Using their database of 2,000 customers from their air conditioning

business, they composed and sent out a survey. "We asked what they

would buy and would they be willing to pay more for it," recalls

Mark. "We listed several options, including things relating to

an agricultural recreation site, like having a public picnic area

on our farm or making the farm available for kids’ parties. We got

700 responses. Ninety percent said vegetables and meat." Through

further research the Failles ascertained that the market for organic

produce in this area was flooded. "So we said, let’s do one thing

better: a commodity that is value-added. We realized meat production

could be our niche."

Karen Faille recalls of the early days, "Mark got

beef cattle and I got the chickens. It just happened that way."

They named their enterprise Stonyfield Organic Farm but changed the

name this past January to Simply Grazin’ to avoid confusion with the

yogurt company. "In the summer of 2001," Karen recalls, "we

raised our first chicks in the basement, under lights, before moving

them into the barn." Proceeds from the sale of that first batch

went towards the purchase of $10,000 worth of processing equipment.

All processing is now done at Bringhurst Meats in Berlin, a federally

certified organic facility in southern New Jersey. "The trip is

only one hour," Mark Faille notes, "and the animals are held

in a comfortable, clean, stress-free environment for three days before

they are processed."

Faille’s voice and facial features soften when he talks about his

animals — except when discussing obstacles in his path, including

what he says is a prejudicial attitude on the part of USDA inspectors

against small-scale farms and processors. Then his eyes flash and

he speaks more forcefully but no less articulately. That is why area

organizations that support local and organic farming have tapped Faille

as a speaker, especially to bring the all-natural, organic, grass-fed

message to old-time conventional farmers. On April 5 he spoke at a

farmers’ forum in Montgomery, where lunch included Simply Grazin’

meat.

The hardest thing about pasture farming in New Jersey, Mark Faille

says, "is getting access to land. As soon as open land comes on

the market, a housing development sprouts up." Nevertheless he

has managed over the past year to go from 40 acres of pasture in Hopewell

to close to 500 spread out over several communities. Simply Grazin’

chickens now peck and forage at Coventry Farm in Princeton while,

on several sites in West Amwell, his ruminants graze on a rotational

basis on such things as clover, timothy, and native grasses. In addition,

Faille has farmers breeding animals on his behalf in Pennsylvania,

Vermont, and Virginia.

A year ago he had 22 head of cattle, Hereford and Angus. The

number has grown to between 40 and 50, and by spring, with calves

starting to be born every day, he expects to reach 100. Last year

he and Karen processed between 75 and 100 chickens a week; at the

time of this interview they had 2,000 chickens ready for processing.

Ciro LoPinto, a soil conservationist who until a few weeks ago

was program manager with the USDA’s National Resources Conservation

Center in Frenchtown, has worked with the Failles from the beginning,

and assisted them in obtaining a $38,000 grant. He developed a conservation

plan for Simply Grazin’ that manages herd size, turns manure into

compost, and supplies an alternate water system. "I think of Mark

as the model family farmer," LoPinto says. "He looks at every

aspect of the operation, involves his whole family, and produces a

good product."

The best part for Mark Faille, though, is his children, who help out

around the farm. "The Faille children understand about humane

treatment of animals, about the effects of chemicals and all that

goes with it," he says. "But that our kids are so tuned into

food is the biggest reward for us. Dylan chooses Daddy’s hamburgers

over McDonald’s, and our chicken strips over McNuggets."

— Pat Tanner

Simply Grazin’ Organic Farm, 182 Van Dyke Road,

Hopewell 08525. Mark and Karen Faille, 609-466-8504. Home page:

www.sforganic.com

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