by Enrico Villamaino
Some people are practically destined to be farmers. They come from a long line of growers and ranchers, growing up on a plot their family has worked for generations. They spend their childhoods as members of organizations like 4-H and the FFA. They go off to college and study agriculture, horticulture and animal sciences.
Dan Kaplan is not one of those people.
The owner and operator of Heartstone Farm, a beef cattle operation located in Charlston, Maine, Kaplan’s background is not what one might associate with the average farmer.
“I would call myself a media, publishing and technology entrepreneur,” said Kaplan. “I always had a love of farming, and hoped that I would one day get to try my hand at it, but I definitely took an unconventional route in getting here.”
After studying history and journalism at Antioch College, Kaplan had a string of successes with a variety of start-up companies. “I was very lucky and did well with the magazine, newspaper and internet ventures I founded and sold.” Kaplan decided to use the capital he had amassed during his earlier entrepreneurial endeavors to finally realize his dream of becoming “Farmer Dan.”
Heartstone Farm first opened in 2014 on a 500-acre piece of property; 110 acres are currently used for pasture land and grazing. Heartstone’s herd now stands at about 50 head of cattle, although Kaplan would like to see the herd grow to a more ideal size of 100.
About Heartstone and its goals, Kaplan stated he believes that “the food we eat has a direct relationship with our health. Eat better, live better. So we aim high with the beef we raise at Heartstone Farm. We want it to be healthy, natural and delicious. That may sound like a lofty goal in this day and age of GMOs and factory farms, but it’s actually quite simple. We raise beef the way nature intended. A cow’s digestive system is designed for one kind of food – grass. Not corn. Not grain. So, we feed our cattle grass … and when winter comes, they feed on the hay we harvested from our fields during the growing season.”
Having learned the value of media long ago in his past work, Kaplan connects with his customers online and features a “Farmer Dan’s Blog” on the Heartstone website. “I get to talk about all sorts of things, from all the time and steps it takes us to make a steak to sharing my mom’s South Sea Steak marinade recipe.”
While Heartstone does service customers with on-site sales, “we do have a small retail operation, mostly by appointment,” Kaplan said. The farm has had its greatest success selling its beef wholesale and through its online ordering and delivery program. In the past year, Heartstone’s online sales have increased fourfold. While most of its online sales are in the New England states, recent expansions now see Heartstone beef being sent to consumers nationwide. “I just put together orders for customers in Oklahoma, Florida and California,” explained Kaplan.
A paramount reason for the success and expansion of the online sales is Heartstone’s cow-share program, which began in 2014 and has recently seen a large increase in shareholders. Taking a cue from the ever-prevalent CSA programs featured at local farms nationwide, Kaplan offers his clientele an opportunity to buy memberships in a program that entitles them to a portion of a cow’s beef yield.
“One advantage of my coming to farming from the outside is that I’m not subject to the ‘That’s just the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. If there’s a better way to do it, let’s do it,” he said. Kaplan pointed out, “People had traditionally been offered the chance to buy ‘a side of beef,’ but it can get confusing when you have to take into account hanging weights and the like. People want to know ‘How much meat am I going to get?’” Heartstone’s cow-share program guarantees 85 pounds of meat. “It’s roughly a quarter of the cow. And everyone gets the same variety of cuts – ribeyes, ground beef, chuck roast, they get it all.” Customers can also purchase multiple or fractions of shares. Heartstone currently has about 80 members.
As far as his wholesale operation, Kaplan is happy to report that his beef is featured in some of the Pine State’s excellent eateries. “Our beef is now in The Last Kitchen, in Freedom and Blaze, in Bangor. They’re really great restaurants, and they get and give us really great feedback about our beef.”
Looking ahead to the future, Kaplan said in addition to growing the size of his herd, he’d like to transition from a more seasonal to a year-round operation. “Right now, we operate on a fall-based slaughter season. I’ve got one full-time and several part-time employees. With the cow-share program expanding, and with our restaurant customers wanting a steady supply of beef throughout the calendar year, there’s a lot of potential for Heartstone to grow and thrive.”
For more information, visit www.HeartstoneFarm.me.