The future of rare breed farms

CN-MR-3-RareBreedsby Sanne Kure-Jensen

In 1992, surrounded by English Cotswold sheep, a city girl found her calling. Dr. Robyn Metcalfe did not grow up on a farm, but found her passion was preserving heritage livestock. She shared the story of her family’s efforts at Kelmscott Rare Animal Farm as part of the ongoing lecture series at Swiss Village Foundation in Newport, RI.

A few hundred years ago, farms across England raised Cotswold sheep for wool, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs for meat and lard, Black Jersey Giant chickens for eggs and meat and Kerry cows for butter, cheese and milk. Before tractors, every farm had at least one English Shire horse for plowing, cultivation and transportation. These days, most farmers seek more efficient and cost-effective livestock, and many heritage breeds are nearing extinction.

Dr. Metcalfe understands the value of biodiversity. Heritage livestock are hardy, self-sufficient and good parents. Many can be pasture-raised without supplemental grain or expensive barns. Breeders seeking efficient livestock for mass production lost many of these breed characteristics while selecting for faster production, leaner meats as well as greater milk or egg production.

America now relies on a few breeds for most of our milk. Ninety five percent of American milk comes from Holstein cows, which can produce up to 24,000 pounds annually. In contrast, heritage Kerry cows produce just 8,000 pounds annually. Kerry cows’ milk tastes better, has a higher fat content and is perfect for making high quality cheeses and butter.

Just two or three breeds dominate American egg, poultry, beef and pork production. When a disease strikes and spreads, food supplies could quickly dwindle. Kelmscott Rare Breeds Foundation, the Swiss Village Foundation and other breeders have worked to preserve heritage livestock and protect livestock biodiversity.

In 1992, Dr. Metcalfe’s research found Cotswold sheep (used for wool and meat since Roman times) on the Livestock Conservancy’s list of critically endangered breeds. She started with a small “starter flock” of Cotswold sheep in Silicon Valley, CA. In 1994, Dr. Metcalfe launched the Kelmscott Rare Breeds Foundation as a nonprofit organization to help conserve rare breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and other livestock on a 150-acre farm in Lincolnville, ME. Her aim was to increase their genetic and geographic diversity. The farm raised 20 heritage breeds including Guinea hogs, Kerry cattle, Soay sheep, Jacob sheep and Narragansett turkeys.

For a decade, Kelmscott Farm offered school field trips, summer camp and educational programming for students and families, hosting up to 12,000 visitors annually.

In the early 2000s, before supporting local farmers became trendy, Dr. Metcalfe had to create a market for heritage meats by educating buyers and consumers. Dr. Metcalfe personally peddled heritage meats to chefs at premium restaurants across the Northeast. She went to 5-star restaurant back doors with a cooler of samples and said, “Have I got a surprise for you!”

After cooking her leg of lamb simply, chefs enjoyed its tenderness and flavor. Chefs noted a difference from mass-produced lamb which, required heavy sauces and herbs to add flavor.

Dr. Metcalfe trained chefs to market these heritage meats on restaurant menus as “pasture-raised, heritage breed, Kelmscott Farm lamb” and encouraged chefs to charge a premium to offset her own premium prices. As Dr. Metcalfe’s success grew, she sold heritage animals (in breeding groups) along with a buyers list to help farmers sell the meats.

“For the breed to survive, we must demonstrate economic viability. This means we have to eat them,” said Dr. Metcalfe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but this is the simple economic reality. Because heritage breed animals are smaller or take longer to reach market weight, farmers must process animals at smaller weights or wait longer to process animals at standard market weights. Either way, heritage breed farmers have to charge more per pound than mass-production farmers.

Dr. Metcalfe urged heritage and rare breed associations to work together and launch national marketing campaigns like that of Niman Ranch. Testimonials and endorsements by top chefs can inspire new chefs and customers to try heritage meats. Consistent, high-quality meats and products will keep customers coming back for more.

Kelmscott Farm worked to preserve a very rare line of Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs. In 1994, there were just four of these pigs in North America. Two died in a barn fire. Kelmscott Farm’s sow “Princess” was the last of her bloodline and had grown too old for breeding. In 2001, DNA was gathered from her ear and cloned by Infigen Inc., a biotechnology company based in Wisconsin. The following generation of piglets has grown and bred normally. By 2012, more than 350 Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs were registered in America.

The Swiss Village Foundation Lecture Series features topics pertaining to local farming systems, sustainable agriculture and conservation. For more information, call 401-848-7229 ext. 10.

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