Providing beef to schools, hospitals and more

Local. That, in a word, is Carole Soule’s philosophy and goal. She wants to provide locally raised meat to local people, whether they’re at home, at school, in hospitals or in institutions. A 2012 grant from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program helps support marketing to hospitals. To date, marketing to schools has been a Miles Smith Farm initiative, but Soule has applied for a Farm to School grant to further that effort.

In 2002, Soule and her husband, Bruce Dawson, began raising beef cattle on the 36-acre Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, selling grass-fed beef at the farm and through local grocery stores and farmers markets. Since then, sales have expanded throughout the southern half of New Hampshire. The farm now has about 40 Highland, 20 Angus and other beef cattle crosses. Soule also markets grass-fed and grass-fed/grain-finished beef from other local farms whose operators prefer farming to marketing.

When Soule set out to raise livestock at the 150-year-old farm, Highland cattle were not the first choice. The rocky land is better suited to sheep. Unfortunately, coyotes became a problem. Soule set out to find large beasts that are relatively self-sufficient, very protective of their young, and not intimidated by coyotes. That’s when she discovered the Highland breed, which originated in the harsh, rugged Scottish Highlands. The Highland cattle set to work reviving Miles Smith Farm’s old pastures and forest, the land Soule and Dawson had started to clear using machines that frequently malfunctioned. The land-clearing efforts of the cattle were highly successful, but the acreage to sustain their grazing remained inadequate, as were the couple’s attempts to grow hay.

As a solution, the herd was put to work on leased land at other New Hampshire farms. Now the cattle prosper as they improve over 300 acres of leased pastures and orchards during their time away at “summer camp.” Most locations are no more than a half-hour from Miles Smith Farm, so Soule can monitor them every other day. For more distant placements, landowners are asked to help check on the cattle.

The market for locally raised beef

Miles Smith Farm grass-fed beef was first sold in 2005 at the Concord Food Co-op. Farmers markets, co-ops and grocery stores followed. Next came a small store attached to the farmhouse. Soon their grass-fed beef had become so popular there wasn’t enough to meet the demand. That situation led to Soule’s search for more cattle from other farms.

Soule purchases from other farms that, like her, raise their cattle humanely and free of antibiotics and hormones. Some of the cattle she purchases for market are entirely grass-fed, pastured in summer and fed hay and baleage in winter. Most, however, are grass-fed and grain-finished, a combination that produces more marbling, and hence more tender steak. Grass-fed beef commands a higher price, about $1 per pound more than grain-fed. Restaurants generally prefer grain-fed beef because it’s easier to cook due to the higher fat content, and because the taste is more familiar to customers. However, it appears that consumer tastes are changing. Miles Smith Farm’s sales of grass-fed beef will soon equal sales of grain-finished beef.

Selling to schools

A Highland calf greets Carole Soule at Miles Smith Farm on a hot summer day.

A Highland calf greets Carole Soule at Miles Smith Farm on a hot summer day.

In 2011, John Lash, who was food service director for the Gilford (New Hampshire) School District at the time, was looking for healthy, locally produced food to serve the students and staff. He contacted Miles Smith Farm and began picking up meat on his commute from home to school. When he became food service director for the Concord (New Hampshire) School District in 2013, he continued to purchase local food, including approximately 8,000 pounds of beef a year from Miles Smith Farm. School lunch sales increased.

Beef sales to other schools followed. The Oyster River Cooperative School District in Durham, New Hampshire, now purchases 2,300 pounds per year; Seabrook Elementary School in Seabrook, New Hampshire, purchases 700 pounds. Both attribute increases in school lunch sales to the addition of fresh, locally grown food to the menu.

“Schools really like to have a connection to a farm. They like to be able to tell students where their food comes from,” Soule said.

While it’s not feasible to transport an entire school to the farm to see the source of some of their food, it is possible to take a bit of the farm to school. Curious Bleu and Clementine, two exceptionally affable and well-mannered Highlands, are always ready to make school visits. On a trip to Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire, 2-year-old Curious Bleu, a steer made famous in a book written about his adventures as a day-old runaway calf, stood calmly while students in the agriculture program examined him, even taking his temperature. Bleu also visited Pittsfield Middle High School as part of the school’s wellness fair and spent the morning in the school’s foyer greeting students.

A hospital buys beef and replaces a hip

 After delivering Miles Smith Farm beef to the rear door at Lakes Region General Hospital, Carole Soule was "delivered" to the front door of the hospital for her hip replacement surgery.

After delivering Miles Smith Farm beef to the rear door at Lakes Region General Hospital, Carole Soule was “delivered” to the front door of the hospital for her hip replacement surgery.

Grass-fed and grass-fed/grain-finished cattle produce beef that’s considered healthier because it contains less saturated fat than cattle fed only grain. In a brochure prepared for potential institutional buyers of beef marketed by Miles Smith Farm, Soule sums it up: “Local beef = good food = good health.”

Believing strongly that healthy meat is part of a healthy diet, Soule decided to market to hospitals. She first approached the director of food services at Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 2010. Realizing that she would also have to get the entire hospital on board with any plans to change the beef source to Miles Smith Farm, she provided free sample burgers. She offered USDA-certified, locally produced meat for patients, employees, cafeteria customers and other patrons, along with a comprehensive program that includes in-service training and volume purchase discounts. LRGHealthcare, parent company of Lakes Region and Franklin (New Hampshire) General Hospital, began purchasing Miles Smith Farm grass-fed/grain-finished beef in 2013. Between June 2013 and June 2014, they purchased 9,500 pounds.

Soule maintains her relationship with LRGH during monthly lunches with staff, but she also has a more personal connection. On April 28, Dr. Jeremy Hogan utilized the hospital’s MAKOplasty robotic system to replace Soule’s hip. In her blog before the procedure, Soule wrote: “Bruce, my husband, will deliver me to Laconia Hospital, and I do mean deliver. The hospital placed an order for meat last week, so we decided to deliver the meat and me at the same time. Bruce will drive our newish delivery truck and drop the beef at the back of the hospital, then drive around front to drop me off. Hope we remember which delivery goes where!”

She sampled some Miles Smith Farm beef during her two-day stay in the hospital. In a Concord Monitor article one week after the surgery, Soule is pictured walking in a pasture next to one of her Highlands using only one crutch. By five weeks after the surgery, she was pain-free and walking unaided.

Where’s the beef?

This fuzzy 2-day-old Highland calf is "a keeper," according to Carole Soule.

This fuzzy 2-day-old Highland calf is “a keeper,” according to Carole Soule.

In order to keep two hospitals, four schools/school districts, and five commercial kitchen/food service facilities supplied with beef (most of it ground), Soule purchases cattle from 14 farms in New Hampshire, two in Vermont, and one in Massachusetts. Miles Smith Farm grass-fed beef is sold primarily through the farm’s solar-powered farm store and at 15 neighborhood grocers. Prime cuts are sold through grocery stores, but not generally to restaurants, because Miles Smith Farm and associated producers do not have enough volume to be able to provide consistent weight ensuring that a sirloin steak, for instance, would always be 6 ounces.

Soule purchases an average of two cows a week. They are processed at one of two USDA-certified slaughterhouses in New Hampshire. In general, Soule prefers that cows be trucked no more than a half-hour from the farm where they were raised.

Transactions with farmers are oral, except for the certificate owners provide stating that the animals were born and raised in the U.S. Packages of meat in 1, 5 and 10-pound increments are dated upon receipt from the processor. If it’s not immediately delivered to schools, hospitals, institutions or markets, the meat is kept at minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit in a walk-in freezer at the farm. Although beef can be kept safely for up to two years at that temperature, Soule generally sells it within two to three months.

Beef trimmings are driven to Noack’s Meat Products in Meriden, Connecticut, where they’re turned into nitrate and nitrite-free kielbasa, bologna and hot dogs. Three weeks later, Soule and Dawson make the return trip to pick up frozen Miles Smith Farm-brand sausages.

What’s ahead?

Soule is looking to expand the markets for local grass-fed and grass-fed/grain-finished beef and increase the number of farms from which she can buy cows to supply those markets. Events staged by others, as well as the annual Miles Smith Farm Day (2,000 attendees at the six-hour event in 2013), remain a priority, as do school visits. Recognized as one of 10 New Hampshire women game changers in the May 2014 issue of New Hampshire Magazine, Soule will continue to promote locally grown, healthy beef.