In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, Stanley Higgins bought a farm in Charleston, Maine for the sum of $1,500. Today, Maple Lane Farms is run by Higgin’s grandson, Barry, and Barry’s son and daughter. It is home to a 130-head dairy operation, a state-of-the-art slaughter and smoking facility, and Central Maine Team Penning.
Dairy has been at the heart of Maple Lane Farms since the 1940’s. Barry claims he’s the carrier of a third-generation dairy disease: “If I didn’t have this dairy disease, I’d sell the cows tomorrow and fill it with beef cattle.” In the current markets, the return on investment for milk pales in comparison to that for processed meat, so Maple Lane’s dairy herd doubles as a breeding ground for the beef business.
The dairy cows are live covered by a beef bull. The heifers are kept as dairy replacements. All the bull calves are steered. Both the cows and the steers will eventually end up in the slaughterhouse. Some beef producers have a strong affinity for a particular breed, but Barry does not. He observes: “It’s the quality of the meat, not the color of the hide.”
Selling and custom-cutting meat has been a part of Maple Lane’s business plan for 40 years. In addition to their own beef and pork, Barry began by custom-processing other domestic animals and game. In 2005, he constructed a slaughter/processing facility featuring a pre-cooling room, smokehouse, cutting room, and vacuum packing equipment. The facility is built in a circle so the meat moves systematically from the pre-cooling area to the sales room. Maple Lane is a state-inspected facility and has recently submitted a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to USDA for federal approval.
Keeping hot and cold meats separate is a priority, so Barry pre-cools all carcasses for 24 hours. Beef will then dry age for two weeks. Smoked products are injected with brine and run through a vacuum tumbler before going into the smokehouse. The tumbler tenderizes the meat, allows the brine to more evenly distribute through the meat, and significantly shortens the time required for the smoking process. The purchase of a $75,000 bacon slicer has also expanded the variety of products the facility can provide.
Last year Maple Lane processed 1,200 head of beef, 1,800 pigs and 1,000 miscellaneous animals including moose, bear, lambs and goats. Ninety percent of the beef Maple Lane processes is raised on the farm. The demand generated from on-farm sales and the three wholesalers they supply sometimes surpasses what they can produce themselves. When necessary, they supplement with box beef.
A slaughterhouse creates a significant amount of excess material, but at Maple Lane it cannot honestly be termed “waste.” The offal, meat scraps, and all other “discard” is mixed with stable manure and composted. After it is screened with a trommel, it makes an excellent growing media that he sells by the yard.
Maple Lane cattle are not just valued for their carcasses, however. A good portion of the animals are involved in “agri-athletics;” they serve as the targets for the Central Maine Team Penning (CMTP) participants.
In 2015, Maple Lane was expanding and decided that hosting the team penning would be a good fit. They turned a corn field into a penning area and built a stalling barn that can handle up to 75 horses on a weekend during the penning season. (It doubles as equipment storage in the winter.) Barry also constructed special panels to facilitate the weekly tagging process for the cattle. They have a contract with CMTP for 90 head of cattle each weekend that weigh between 350-800 pounds. Maple Lane tags 150 because they run better if they have more rest. They host seven on-site events a year and trailer to two off-site fairs. They have even sponsored a rodeo.
Some people may think running beef is detrimental to the animals’ welfare or the quality of the carcass at slaughter. Barry disagrees. Of their mental state he says they “cannot wait to get on the trailer after the first penning; they know they are going to play.” As for the carcass quality, he believes they muscle up more and are heavier than before.
To keep the animals in flesh, an abundance of quality feed is a necessity. Barry is creative in sourcing it. He feeds staples such as corn silage, haylage and snaplage. He also gets local bakery waste and distillers or soybean meal.
Then there is the hay. Barry makes 100,000 square bales and 2,000 round bales of hay on 700-800 acres each year. The only animals he pastures are 25 head of heifers, so the remaining animals rely heavily on hay year-round. In addition, he has developed a thriving base of hay customers.
The first 30-40,000 bales are sold from field to customer to minimize the need for manpower and storage. He also stores hay in a large barn and in decommissioned tractor trailer trucks. He markets his own hay until about November when he begins buying in hay to keep his customers supplied. His hauling fleet includes 12 box trailers, two tractors, and four flat trucks.
If there’s one word that epitomizes Maple Lane Farms, it is growth. The demand for compost, hay and beef keeps increasing, so the farm keeps growing. Growing too quickly can cause difficulties, however, as they learned last year. They brought in some finished animals only to experience mortalities from shipping fever. To counter that, construction is underway on a new barn. It will feature a receiving area for new cattle, two pens for 60-day quarantine, and a sick pen. It will be large enough to house 100 head of cattle.
Barry maintains that “diversity has been good for us.” It fosters multiple income streams, each tapping into a different consumer base. With that diversity comes a great need for labor. The farm hires between 30 and 35 people to handle barn cleaning, office work, milking, meat cutting, equipment maintenance and the like. For five employees, Maple Lane doesn’t just provide a job: it provides a second chance.
These five individuals are inmates at a nearby minimum security prison. Barry feels the program is beneficial for both employer and inmates. The inmates arrive at work each day ready and willing to work. (If they don’t, Barry sends them back and requests someone else). It is difficult to find dependable, quality farm laborers who also are willing to put in long hours. The inmates fit the bill.
For the inmates, they are building up both work experience and a savings account that can benefit them upon their release. Even the state of Maine profits: The inmates pay room and board out of their earnings, reducing the cost to taxpayers.
It is rare to find a business that successfully combines animal feed, compost, milk, meat, processing services, entertainment and community involvement into one successful business profile. Maple Lane Farms does just that. They are, in every sense of the term, a full-service enterprise.