Move over, dairy: Beef is on the rise; Charleston farmer on leading edge of shift

This story was published on April 10, 2006 on Page B1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

CHARLESTON – When Barry Higgins looks south from his kitchen window, he sees the past: a barn full of dairy cows. Four generations have farmed at Maple Lane Farms, high on a hill on the Charleston Road.

But when he looks north, Higgins sees the future: a brand new slaughter facility that he hopes will capture the growing market for local, natural beef and help propel Maine’s subtle shift toward becoming a beef state.

Diversity and transition are the words Maine’s dairy farmers need to live by, Higgins maintains, if they are to survive.

With less than 360 active dairy farms remaining in Maine, and milk prices headed downward again, Higgins said that the milk check just doesn’t pay the bills anymore.

Former Governor Angus King had the right idea, Higgins said, when he pushed to “have no fish leave Maine with its head on.”

“You can translate that all over agriculture,” Higgins said Saturday. From selling maple syrup bulk to shipping beef to Pennsylvania to be processed and then back to Maine to be sold, Maine needs to move forward to concentrate on building an infrastructure to support agriculture, he said.

“This is key,” Higgins said. “Maine has the land. Maine has the farmers. Maine has the knowledge. What we don’t have, is the infrastructure.”

David Gagnon, director of Quality Assurance at the Maine Department of Agriculture, agrees. He touted Maine’s Meat Inspection Act as a ground-breaking program that will allow the state’s $70 million beef industry to grow.

“This is really a success story,” Gagnon said Friday. “It fills a void. We have only five or six U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughter facilities left in the state of Maine. There have been many custom slaughter facilities that are upgrading and making major investments. Now we have six state-inspected facilities. This is so good, good for growers and good for the economy.”

Kenneth Andries, a livestock specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, says Maine’s beef industry is growing. The $10 million in annual sales at a Gloucester beef farm last year, operated by the Libra Foundation, recently propelled that company to make major investments in the Fort Fairfield area.

“There has been an increase in the demand for high quality beef raised to meet specific production and humane standards,” he noted. “The Maine beef industry has worked hard to produce animals that meet these consumer demands.”

Andries said that Maine beef producers face challenges unlike other parts of the country.

“The climate limits the grazing season and increases the cost of production,” he said. But there is easy access to large specialty markets for beef in the urban areas of Boston and New York City, he added, if Maine’s finishing and processing industry can be ramped up.

Thus Higgins’ move toward diversification. From just selling milk, he has grown to harvesting 900 acres of hay, selling 125,000 bales last year to become one of the largest hay dealers in the state.

And he is currently obtaining his state certification for Maple Lane Farms’ slaughterhouse, which he sees meeting a need for the ever-growing demand for locally grown, natural beef.

“Right now I am growing 150 head [of beef cattle] and I’ll go to 300 next year because of the demand,” Higgins said.

His $250,000 facility was built and stocked with money Higgins made running the state’s Mad Cow testing program.

“It took 15 months to construct and we did much of the work ourselves,” he said. “We cut the lumber right off this land.” The slaughterhouse has large killing, cutting and wrapping rooms, two coolers, a large walk-in freezer and offices and employees break rooms.

“We did it smart. We put in radiant heating and run the whole thing with a wood boiler,” he said.

All offal is composted on site, he said, a process that will yield yet another business in a few years – selling compost.

With milk prices already depressed and expected to plummet this summer, “There is no question dairy is going to have a hard time holding its numbers,” he said.

In 2001 and 2002, prices dropped to a 50-year low and Higgins called it a “blood bath.” Maine lost 20 percent of its dairy farms.

“I had a friend just tell me that he borrowed to get through that crisis and just finished paying it off. He said he won’t borrow again. If this keeps up, he’ll go out,” Higgins said.

“There is no reason Maine can’t be the best beef state in the Northeast,” he said.