|By Laura Johnson|
Don’t put Ben Tirrell or his family farm in a box.
“Everybody’s big on labeling things,” he said, seated at a shaded picnic table at his farm in Charlotte. He’s talking about food labels like “organic” and “grass fed.” “We’re just trying to sell who we are and make a name for ourselves. This is how we do things, and it’s not necessarily such and such certified. That all seems a little bit gimmicky to me.”
Tirrell is a seventh-generation farmer of Tirrell Centennial Farm, which produces varieties of meats and cheeses. Having done a little bit of everything over the years, he and his family now raise sheep and cattle, direct-marketing meat and cheese at Meridian Township Farmers Market and their on-farm shop.
Rather than a certified organic farmer, Tirrell is a realistic and fairly simple one, abiding by tradition, quality for his customers and respect for his land and animals. The key, he said, is transparency:
“There are some really big (livestock) farms that do some things that the public would find distasteful,” he said. “So we try to show people what we’re doing and be transparent. If somebody wants to come out and walk all the way down and see the cows, that’s fine. Let’s go.”
Animals at the farm are pasture-based, meaning they have a large, grassy area to roam and graze, rather than being confined in feedlots, as is the case for most industrially raised meat. The animals eat grass, their natural diet, instead of the grain that has been deemed economically efficient and elicits the use of antibiotics.
“We try and raise them in a natural way. It’s kind of old-fashioned stuff,” Tirrell said. “We take care of them and give them a good, natural life and plenty of space. … We raise something that people can enjoy and feel good about the life that animal had.”
Tirrell Centennial Farm is one of the local meat options increasingly available at Lansing-area farmers markets, as well as specialty shops and farm-totable restaurants.
“There’s a growing demand for locally produced meat and better meat because the system doesn’t facilitate getting good quality meat,” Tirrell said. “We’re trying to meet that demand.”
Most people are used to seeing produce and crafts at farmers markets, but not meat, said Christine Miller, market manager of Meridian Township Farmers Market. “Customers are almost kind of scared at it. They’re not used to being able to find that kind of product here,” she said.
At the Meridian market, though, meat vendors have been around for years. Customers “are very used to seeing that, and we’ve expanded,” Miller said. “We have fish, shrimp, beef, lamb, chicken, pork. I think the only thing we don’t have right now is goat.”
Miller is a meat vendor herself. Spartan Country Meats in Webberville sells chicken, turkey, rabbit and pork products at the Meridian market and the East Lansing Farmers Market. Like Tirrell, for Miller it’s about a quality product.
“It’s producing a product that is good for people to eat,” she said. “It doesn’t have all the other stuff in it that’s in what bigbox stores carry, so it gives us a niche and also an opportunity to share our product and to educate people about what kind of things we have and what we do, instead of having no clue how products are raised.”
Her family’s pigs are raised without hormones or antibiotics and are processed organically in Rosebush without any additional nitrates or MSG. Her animals all eat grass and non-GMO grain, and the chickens are free-range and processed right on the farm.
Miller’s customers most often comment on the taste, she said. “Their big thing is, you know, ‘It actually tastes like chicken!’ And the same thing with turkeys because we do fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving, and they’re like, ‘It actually tastes like turkey, oh my goodness!’” John McLaughlin of McLauglin Farm Ltd. in Jackson concurs, referring to his customers’ reactions to his naturally raised, grassfed and dry-aged beef. “It reminds people of beef from their parents or their grandparents,” he said at his booth at the Meridian market.
McLaughlin said he and his wife, Cathie, gain customers through referrals from friends as well as doctors: Many are seeking a healthier product. “We’re not certified organic, but we don’t feed hormones, we don’t use antibiotics or any of that stuff.”
One factor that dissuades carnivores from seeking more sustainable meat options is cost, and it’s true: Small-scale, humanely raised and processed meat is usually going to cost more.
“We’re not trying to sell the cheapest beef, we’re trying to sell sustainable beef,” McLaughlin said. He added that they use the whole animal — tongue, heart and all, which appeals to different nationalities with different culinary tastes.
“I have people comment about” the cost, Miller said. “But they also realize it’s gonna be a lot better for them in the long run.”
“It’s not for everybody,” Tirrell acknowledged. “There are some people you can’t convince, an egg’s an egg.”
Those who are curious, though, he invites to see his animals and operations for themselves.
“People can see what I’m doing,” he said.
“No secrets. We feel good about it.”
For more information, check out your local farmers market or vendors like Lansing City Market or Mert’s Specialty Meats, and ask about meat options.