Harpswell farmer finds success against the grain

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HARPSWELL — Rancher Joe Grady used to be a vegetarian.

But when he learned about the healthy properties of sustainable grass-fed meat, he changed his diet.

“I was like, wow, guilt-free meat? And it’s fun to raise?” he recalled, standing inside his barn at Two Coves Farm, a 103-acre spread at 90 Neils Point Road.

Grady and his wife, Laura, are Harpswell’s only full-time farmers; they raise cows, sheep, chicken, turkeys, and pigs in a way that protects the environment and enhances the quality of the animals’ lives and flavor.

The key to pulling that off? By honoring what Grady calls the “the naturally inspiring connection” between the soil, plant, animal, and eventually, the plate.

Grady raises all of his animals on pasture land. Their diet represents a break from a more conventional model of ranching, where cows in confinement are fed corn- and soy-based diets.

But Grady’s approach isn’t just contrary to conventional farming. It also challenges conventional wisdom.

Picture a large field, Grady said, where animals are allowed to wander and graze freely. In most cases, animals will spread out and look for the tastiest plants and patches available. Over time, the field is eaten away unevenly, leaving disparate patches of grass that are chewed to the stubs.

Picture a plant. Grady said that the length of growth above ground is reflected proportionally below, as a complex root system. When parts of the above-ground plant are chomped away by an animal, a proportional amount of root system dies, too.

Grady explained that conventional farming wisdom is too focused on the plant – whether that plant is a meal for a person or animal. “But (that) happens at the expense of the soil,” he explained. “(I’m) trying to get the same results out of a plant, but by playing attention to your soil.”

When cows “eat grass to the nub,” they limit the regrowth of the plant. He said a good farmer will keep grass within that rapid growth period, where enough of the root system is still alive for the plant to regenerate itself.

Those dead roots then become a nutritious meal for creatures that live within the soil. A high level of biological activity is the best indicator for healthy soil, Grady explained, because plant roots rely on enzymes from bacteria to successfully break down nutrients in the dirt.

So there’s a sweet spot, in terms of how much grass an animal should eat to keep the soil healthy. That’s why Grady moves his animals every day, and never allows them to graze more than a small portion of pasture at once. By doing so, he creates artificial competition among the animals, which compete for the best grass and, as a function, graze homogeneously.

By the day’s end, the livestock have left something only a farmer would love: “A marvelous mat of manure, urine, and organic matter,” Grady said, which benefits the soil, and in turn benefits the grass, and so on.

And it isn’t that hard. “You don’t need a hammer or a nail to raise hundreds of animals,” Grady said with a smile.

He gestured to an unraveled spool of plastic and wire netting. Electrically charged metal filaments within the plastic allow him to set up electric fences around portions of his fields, and easily move animals around in a process that takes no more than a few minutes.

Moving animals daily may be the key to flavor and healthy soil, but, on the whole, Grady said raising animals on pasture land is always a healthier, environmentally friendlier option.

Putting animals out to pasture – especially cows, which Grady thinks get a bad rap – avoids the energy-inefficient process of growing corn and soy-based crops, which gets transported and fed to animals in confinement. Not to mention the energy needed to truck away the waste generated by those meals, which animals raised on pasture deposit as natural fertilizer.

“Cows on pasture don’t do any of that,” Grady said, and neither do they produce methane-fumed waste, a function of corn and soy-based diets. Some ranchers Grady knows go as far as calling themselves “carbon farmers,” because their farming practices intentionally try to keep carbon in the grass.

In addition to a farm stand on the their property, the Gradys supply meat to Brunswick’s Enoteca Athena and Harpswell’s School House Cafe.

But nearly 75 percent of their meat is delivered directly to customers.

“I think the only fail-safe way to have a relationship with where your food comes from is to have a relationship with who’s growing it,” Grady said.

This year, the farm sold out its supply of Thanksgiving turkeys early.

“We are constantly told that they are the best turkeys people have ever had,” Grady said. “I’m positive that that’s what makes a moist and flavorful bird – all that grass.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Farmer Joe Grady with two of his herding dogs after a morning of tending to sheep at Two Coves Farm in Harpswell.

Sheep occupy close quarters within a fence of electric netting at Two Coves Farm in Harpswell.

Electric netting allows Joe Grady of Two Coves Farm to easily herd cattle and other grass-fed animals to graze within small areas of his pasture.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.