Agrarian Trust

Cooperative Farms in Upstate New York

By Kathryn Shattuck from The New York Times

It was time for the running of the bulls.

As Ron Cieri watched from his ATV this summer, his farm manager, Jim Ingram, unleashed five hulking males into a verdant Catskills pasture, where 80 brood cows — a patchwork of red, black and white — grazed with their calves.

After a few minutes of sniffing around, one bull trailed his desired mate to the edge of the woods and, with a nuzzle as foreplay, mounted her as she nonchalantly munched on sweet grass.

“It’s like being let out at the Playboy mansion, right?” Mr. Cieri said to his visitors — Stefan Oellinger, the senior meat buyer for the online grocer FreshDirect, and Sarah Teale and Dan Stone of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative — as the bulls made their rounds.

“Look at that beautiful fertility,” said Mr. Oellinger, gazing admiringly at Mr. Cieri’s mix of Angus, Hereford, Simmental and White Park breeds. Four years ago, Mr. Cieri traded Wall Street talk of structured credit derivatives for this kind of cattle banter. He owns Stonewall Pastures outside East Meredith, N.Y., about three hours northwest of Manhattan, and is one of 36 members of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative.


Dan Stone, left, president of the co-op board, talks to Mr. Cieri. The cooperative has been able to strike a deal with FreshDirect, whose grass-fed beef market has increased 300 percent in the last two and a half years. The cooperative expects close to $1 million in sales this year. Credit Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

While New York has been a haven for dairy cooperatives, the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative is something much less common in the state — a co-op for grass-fed beef. Its members inhabit farms from the Adirondacks south to the Pennsylvania border and east into Vermont. In addition to helping farmers with tangibles like the marketing and sale of their beef, the cooperative is also providing something more elusive — call it hope — in a state where, according to the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a nonprofit land trust, one farm is lost to development every three and a half days.

Cooperatives have long allowed smaller farmers and ranchers around the country to pool their resources and expertise for financial gain without relinquishing control. And because cooperatives often impose production standards on their members, clients reap the benefit of quality products available on a consistent basis.

Ms. Teale, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, started to understand the need for a co-op in the summer of 2011, when she and her husband, the writer Gordon Chaplin, decided to raise grass-fed cattle on their Emsig Farm in North Hebron, southeast of Lake George.

But after running the numbers with Sandy Buxton of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the couple realized “that you couldn’t raise beef as one farm, even a big farm, and sell it on a regular, consistent basis to even one restaurant,” Ms. Teale said. “And if you were selling locally, you were losing money on every animal.”

“I’m like, ‘This is stupid. Why would anybody do this?’ ” she recalled. “And Sandy laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s just farming.’ ”

Which prompted Ms. Teale to wonder, “What if it weren’t?”

Plenty of others had wondered the same in a region where family farms teeter on the edge of extinction.

“It’s a pretty tough business, really,” said Al Fargnoli of A&J Enterprises, a cattle ranch in Apalachin, who has witnessed the farms on the same road as his, many of them dairy, dwindle from 30 to three. “You can drive anywhere in rural New York and you see the same thing: Barns sitting there, not doing anything.”

Much of the country’s beef comes from major producers like JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef as well as smaller regional packers, among them Greater Omaha and Creekstone Farms, that usually focus on higher-quality meat. Restaurants are often supplied through food-service distributors and meat purveyors like US Foods or Buckhead Beef, with specialty restaurants often sourcing from farms.

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