Co-workers at Bretton Woods ski area looked forward to the days Kris von Dohrmann brought beef jerky to work. They said the beef jerky from her farm was the perfect fuel for their long days working in the snow. Kris and her husband, Bert von Dohrmann, had not intended for beef jerky to be a value-added product for their Otokahe Farm, but one day it became apparent, “Hey, this is a business!”
Although the start of Belted Beef Jerky Company was not planned, the subsequent steps were. Kris and Bert consulted with University of New Hampshire Extension agents. They worked through state and federal regulations again and again. They cashed in their retirement savings. They set about building their business and a commercial kitchen on their farm in beautiful but agriculturally challenging Jefferson, New Hampshire, a mere 60 miles from the Canadian border.
Beginning with Belties
Kris described her introduction to Belted Galloway as “love at first sight,” It was an old cow with the undistinguished name of #7 who allowed Kris to approach and touch her new baby. Kris, a farmer with 20 years’ experience with horses and Hereford cattle, immediately knew that Belties, as they are familiarly called, are something special. In 2003, she brought her first registered Belted Galloway home to Otokahe Farm.
Originating in Galloway on the west side of southern Scotland, Belted Galloways are smart, high-efficiency foragers who do well in rough terrain and require no grain. Protective of their babies, adult Belties form a circle to guard calves from harm, including coyotes. Bulls are mellow, so mellow that Kris finds them, as well as steers, easier to manage than cows and calves. Most Belted Galloways are raised for their fine beef, but they are sometimes milked or kept as pasture ornaments. All Belted Galloways are medium framed and naturally polled. Bulls weigh an average of 1,800 pounds, cows weigh an average of 1,250 pounds, and calves average 40 to 60 pounds.
Growing a farm
Otokahe Farm (the name means “new beginnings” in Lakota Sioux) began small. In land area it remains small, only 4.5 acres, but over the years the von Dohrmanns have bartered with neighbors for the use of additional land. Their 37 Belties now graze on 20 acres.
From 2003, when only one animal was slaughtered for freezer beef to pay property taxes, to 2014, when 18 were slaughtered, Otokahe Farm’s beef business has steadily increased. From selling only freezer beef, the von Dohrmanns branched out in 2009 to selling single freezer cuts from the farm. By 2012 they were selling freezer cuts and beef jerky at the farm and at area farmers markets. Jerky is also sold at four local outlets. “It’s a struggle to keep enough finished beef to make jerky,” Kris noted. Of the 18 animals slaughtered in 2014, eight were processed as jerky.
It takes a community to grow a farm
It was a group effort when it came to Otokahe Farm expansion. In 2010, the von Dohrmanns received a small amount of start-up funding from the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund. University of New Hampshire (UNH) Cooperative Extension staff provided help navigating on-farm issues. Steve Turaj, a UNH Extension agent in Lancaster, specified various heirloom and native grasses, turnips and beets to help improve soil conditions. He also worked with the von Dohrmanns to design paddocks and a rotational grazing system. Mike Harrington, district conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lancaster, New Hampshire, arranged for consultants and a cost-share program to help with the design and installation of walkways and water lines.
Sue Buteau, now retired from UNH Cooperative Extension, addressed the many issues involved in processing jerky, including food safety, sanitary inspection, production and licensing. Licensing, which began in 2009, involved multiple, and often conflicting, state and federal regulations and took two years to complete. Extension staff steered the couple through regulations involved with erecting a dedicated production building, commercial kitchen, storage freezer and dehydrator to bring beef to a precise water density. The first products of Belted Beef Jerky Company, LLC were sold in 2011.
What’s a growing farm business without the support of family, friends and neighbors? All stepped in to help after Kris’ 2005 disabling encounter with a hay bale. They all pitched in again when the Patriot’s Day storm of 2007 leveled the barn. And on Easter Sunday 2011, when no vet was available, local dairy farmer David Conway spent three hours saving a cow involved in a life-threatening calving.
Grass-fed beef to jerky
When Bert began experimenting with beef jerky, he tried meat from several different breeds. He quickly discovered that the leaner the beef, the better the jerky. He also experimented with different seasonings. Co-workers at the ski area, as well as Kris’ and Bert’s co-workers at the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, were willing taste testers, eating the jerky as fast as test batches were made. The top four flavors, which are now marketed by Belted Beef Jerky Company, are Original, Teriyaki, Cracked Pepper & Garlic, and Hot ‘n Spicy, all mixes made by NESCO American Harvest Spice.
Before the actual jerky making process begins, a butcher trims the Belted Galloway meat very lean, double grinds it, and freezes it in 10-pound portions. Double grinding distributes the fine bits of animal fat evenly throughout the meat, which makes the Belted Galloway beef jerky easy to chew. Carcass cuts, except tenderloin, are ground for jerky. Tenderloin is reserved for freezer meat sale.
In Otokahe Farm’s licensed commercial production facility, Bert marinates the meat with spices and cure salt for about an hour. Next he uses a jerky gun, an extrusion device akin to a cookie press, to lay measured strips of ground beef onto racks. The racks are placed in a large commercial dehydrator, where the meat is slowly heated at 208 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any microorganisms, such as E. coli or salmonella, that may be in the beef. “Heating the meat at a higher temperature would remove moisture too quickly and would allow the encapsulation and survival of unwanted microorganisms,” Kris explained.
After one and a half hours in the dehydrator, the trays are rotated and the temperature is reduced to about 165 degrees Fahrenheit for an additional four to four and a half hours. The finished jerky is then weighed and vacuum packed in 0.20-pound bags. Ten pounds of ground beef yields 4.7 pounds of jerky.
The jerky is periodically tested for safety and consistency by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Food Science Lab. The lab checks moisture content, acidity and salt content to ensure that Otokahe Farm’s product is sufficiently dry and within the established definition of beef jerky.
Jerky, freezer beef, marrowbones, hides, fresh vegetables and composted manure are sold on the farm. Jerky is also sold at four other North Country locations: Simon the Tanner in Lancaster; The Old Corner Store in Jefferson, Bretton Woods Ski Area, and North Country Marketplace in Colebrook. North Country Marketplace accounts for Otokahe Farm’s greatest off-farm income. “This arrangement is so much easier than my setting up and manning farmers market space,” Kris noted. “I just pay rent and supply product. Beverly White, the market’s co-owner, attends to sales.”
Beginning in 2015, Otokahe Farm products will also be in Lancaster, New Hampshire, at a new managed farmers market based on the North Country Marketplace model. Of all Otokahe Farm’s beef sales at all locations, the jerky, selling at $6.99 for a 0.2-pound bag, accounts for 40 percent of farm income from sales.