"I've heard of a lot of farms failing, but I don't know anybody who's actually getting into farming," my friend Mark said as we stood overlooking a lush pasture. I'd gotten to know Mark during my long career as a climbing and backcountry ski guide in mountain ranges both local and far-flung. But on the day of his visit eight years ago, my partner Beth Whiting (also a wilderness guide) and I were on the cusp of taking a very different path in life—as grass farmers.
Long opposed to the feedlot meat industry, I had struggled for years to maintain my strength as a mountain guide while living on a vegetarian diet heavy with highly processed soy and dairy products. In 1999, Beth and I began resurrecting a Vermont hilltop called Maple Wind Farm. Located adjacent to the Camel's Hump State Forest, the farm welcomes hikers and skiers with two heated yurts and easy access to Vermont's Long Trail—the nations oldest hiking trail. It's an idyllic setting, and Maple Wind could have been just another vacation retreat, but the more we focused on growing healthy meat, the more we turned to grass farming.
Why farm grass? The fossil fuel-dependent, government-subsidized, corn-based food system pushes cheap, nutrient-poor calories on our country. Epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and a slew of health care issues are the final harvest. But instead of a diet of processed grain and antibiotics, our cows and sheep eat only grass, which is what their digestive systems evolved to do. Sheep and cattle are ruminants, meaning they have rumens—bacteria-filled stomachs that extract fats and proteins from otherwise indigestible plant cellulose. The result is meat high in essential Omega-3 fatty acids and healthy cholesterols that have been proven to assist in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Thanks to the health benefits of grass-fed meat, we started to see vegetarians enjoying our chops and steaks. Today, we joke that we specialize in "recovering vegetarians."
The environmental benefits of grass farming are just as dramatic. Industrial grain production erodes and sterilizes soil thanks to excess tilling and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Grass farming creates healthy soils. On Maple Wind Farm, we constantly move animals to new pastures and allow the previous pastures to fully recover before re-grazing. Animals—not machines—harvest the grass, and in the process, evenly distribute manure without the use of tractors. Because the soil is biologically active, the manure quickly decomposes, which further promotes growth. Vermont winters being what they are, we do put up hay to feed our animals during the winter, but we also plant hardy winter annuals into pastures so we can graze into early January, when deep snow buries our meadows.
Maple Wind Farm now produces 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, and pasture-raised pork, broiler chickens, eggs, and organic turkeys. And simply because they're outside and moving, our animals live a life in tune with the natural world. The same can be said of us—outside every day, carefully choreographing the movements of our animals, and working through the daily challenges of weather. As my climbing buddy Mark said eight years ago, "It's the perfect career for an aging mountaineer."
Please visit maplewindfarm.com for more information. From the Early Winter 2010 issue. Subscribe today, get the magazine at the iTunes store, or find Mountain at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, and other natural foods and outdoor stores.