Homestead 802: From Cow to Consumer

Branding Boyden Beef

homesteadFromCow

Photos by Carol Sullivan

The term branding has its origins in the cattle industry. Farmers would brand their livestock with a red-hot iron in order to keep track of them when fencing was not practical. The mark on its rump would settle any dispute over provenance should the cattle roam too far or suspiciously end up in someone’s feedlot several towns away.

The definition of branding evolved with modern business to differentiate one company’s chocolate bar or computer from another and, hopefully, to associate a particular brand with quality.

It has taken a while but branding, in this modern sense, has returned to the beef industry. One farmer in particular has been putting his name on his product, building a brand of beef in hopes it will be synonymous with quality and excellent flavor. It is a mark of his success that if you are a carnivore living in Vermont, you have likely heard of Boyden Beef.

Mark Boyden has been raising and selling his beef to high-end restaurants and stores since 2000. You can find his flavorful burgers and succulent steaks listed by name at such restaurants as Mary’s at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, Perfect Wife in Manchester, 51 Main in Middlebury, Blue Stone in Waterbury and Kismet Café in Montpelier, among others. All cuts of beef can also be found in the meat sections of City Market, Sweet Clover and many other gourmet groceries.

Mark went into the beef industry realizing that establishing a brand name was crucial to his business plan, especially since he had every intention of distinguishing his beef as high quality. Though brand recognition is an important part of most other businesses, it is new territory for direct sales of meat—somewhat ironic considering the origins of the term.

Boyden was born, raised and educated in Vermont. He lives with his wife, Lauri, and their three daughters on a farm in Cambridge that has been in his family since 1914. Mark’s grandfather bought the original 180 acres to run a dairy operation. Mark’s father, Fred Boyden, expanded over the years, buying neighboring property, and the farm now consists of 500 acres of cropland with an additional 200 acres rented.

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The Boydens represent the modern-day Vermont farm that has diversified to stay afloat. Mark’s brother, David, and his wife, Linda, started one of the first wineries in the state and make highly regarded wines with local grapes and other fruit. Mark and his wife restored the old dairy barn and improved the grounds to serve as a site for weddings and receptions.

Make no mistake, though: The farm is not a staged scenario for agritourism. Over 200 beef cows are on the farm at any given time and the fields are full of the crops to sustain them.

From the start, Mark knew he wanted to be a farmer but had always pictured himself a dairyman like his father and grandfather. After graduating high school, he enrolled in the University of Vermont as an agriculture major but admits his first few years he was as interested in the nightlife of Burlington as in his classes. As UVM began requiring more challenging courses from him, he decided to design his own major and called it “From Cow to Consumer.” Though he didn’t realize it at the time, his self-directed research would serve him well later in life.

In 1988, with degree in hand, he went back to the farm to run the family dairy but it was clear the milk business was in trouble. Dairy prices were falling and costs of production were swallowing profits. Boyden hired consultants to put some numbers to fixing a decrepit barn and the milk production that would be required to pay for it. They concluded that the barn needed an upgrade that would cost $1 million, which would require a minimum of 500 cows producing milk to generate enough income and even then it was going to be tough to break even.

The locavore movement was just taking off and Mark was aware there was a growing demand for locally raised meat. He decided to sell their dairy cows and started raising beef cows.

An intuitive businessman, Mark realized other farmers were also switching to beef and in order for him to stand out, Boyden Beef had to represent top quality and it had to be listed by name. He started by selling at high-end groceries such as Healthy Living and made it clear that it would be mutually beneficial for the stores to prominently display the Boyden name on the package. Demand for local meat was (and still is) high and consumers were looking for a name they knew was local.

He also did direct marketing to chefs. Rather than cold call, he packed the meat in coolers, cranked up the air conditioning in his jeep and toured around to restaurants in Stowe and Burlington so chefs could sample his steaks and ground meat in person.

The effort paid off and Boyden Beef is now listed by name on some of the best menus in the state. Restaurants represent about 60% of his sales with the rest sold wholesale to high-end supermarkets.

As he has been feeling his way through the marketing aspect, so too has he learned some lessons about managing cattle. Mark buys Hereford and Angus calves at roughly 900 pounds from all over the state and finishes them on his land until they are about 1200 pounds. At first, he tried 100% grass-fed beef because so much had been written about the health benefits that consumers were starting to ask for it. Many of those consumers, however, had only read about it and not yet tasted it. It is true that grass-fed is higher in omega-3s and is a leaner, beefier beef but truthfully, it can also have a texture that is chewier than the American consumer is accustomed to. In addition, restaurants didn’t generally want extra-lean beef but asked for nicely marbled steaks.

After a year of exclusively grass-feeding and the resulting feedback, Mark returned corn to their diet mixed in with his own hay. They also get a bit of sea salt for minerals and molasses to coax them into eating the hay down to the last bit of straw. The corn is non-GMO corn specially grown for him by Boucher Family Farm, and the field crops and hay he grows are all certified organic. The beef, however, is not certified because given that the calves are not born on the farm, the paper trail to certify every animal is too daunting.

Though Boyden Beef already has a reputation for high quality, Mark has plans to improve on his process through a new breeding program that would render the highly nutritious, lean meat that consumers have been asking for that would also be fork tender the way they really prefer. His plan involves the participation of many other farmers in the region and he envisions a collaborative that would result in a region-wide reputation for excellent meat. He has not put his plan into action yet and is not ready to share the details but someday the region’s name might evoke images of the highest-quality burger ever to cross a grill. Marketing and brand-recognition will be integral to making his vision a reality but in that department, clearly the right man is on the job.

A SUMMERTIME STEW

Last year I received a slow cooker for my birthday and immediately pictured hearty stews on cold winter nights. While I used it quite a bit that first winter, I found it was even more useful in the summer. There are many great recipes that you can prepare in the cool of the morning, then let the slow cooker do its thing while you are out frolicking and come home to a meal that is nearly done. Braised meats can be topped with crisp, cold salads, put on a bun and dinner is ready.

RECIPES

Sweet and Sour Braised Beef with Kohlrabi Slaw

Sirloin–Egplant–Onion Kabobs

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