Valley Bounty: Poplar Hill Farm raises beef from the ground up

  • A choice cut of beef from Poplar Hill Farm in Whately. FOR THE RECORDER/Poplar Hill Farm

  • Cows graze on a hillside at the farm in Whatley. Poplar Hill Farm

  • Harvesting feed corn for cattle at Poplar Hill Farm.

  • A cow’s paradise at Poplar Hill Farm in Whatley. Poplar Hill Farm

For the Recorder
Published: 12/10/2020 8:58:52 AM
Modified: 12/10/2020 8:58:42 AM

Mike Mahar of Poplar Hill Farm in Whately can tell you more about the burger his farm put on your plate than you want or need to know. But that’s a mark of a thoughtful farmer for whom transparency, sustainability and keeping things local are key.

In 2014, Mike and his brother took over what had been a dairy farm and started raising beef.

He manages the farm and works alongside his brother, Peter Mahar, and father, Thomas Mahar. Together, they care for a herd of around 150 cattle, 45 of which are slated for sale this year. What sets this farm apart is its commitment to keeping its footprint within the Pioneer Valley whenever possible.

As Mike Mahar shares, “Everything our cows eat for the entirety of their life is grown by us directly, except for a small amount of ground corn we buy from a farm in Hadley. All the rest of the feed we grow in house.”

All of their beef is sold within the Pioneer Valley as well.

Short supply chains mean you know where your meat comes from.

“We know the history of every animal that goes to slaughter. From the day it was born, we can tell you who its mother and father were, what it’s eaten the entirety of its life, and where that food came from,” Mike Mahar said.

The average consumer might not need that much information to choose a steak, but in a world where the quality and origin of most meat is a mystery, it’s reassuring to find something with an uncomplicated past. In the case of Poplar Hill Farm, the work and resources put toward raising that cow fed the local economy at every stage of its journey to your table.

Local supply chains are transparent supply chains, and when it comes to Poplar Hill beef, transparency tastes great.

There is one wrinkle. Because Poplar Hill is a larger operation that sells wholesale to butchers, grocers and restaurants, it’s these businesses that ultimately dictate how much customers know about where that meat comes from.

“Because we don’t interact with customers directly, it’s hard to get information out sometimes,” Mike Mahar said. Some businesses list product origins somewhere in the store, but if you don’t see a sign, just ask.

As demand for the farm’s beef has grown, Poplar Hill has been creative in raising as many animals as the land allows without compromising ethically or ecologically. For instance, the owners partner with other farms to raise some calves off-site.

“They use our bull for breeding and follow our breeding program,” Mike Mahar said. “Once the calves are old enough, we bring them here and they get finished on our program.”

This arrangement lets Poplar Hill expand its herd while partner farms, which might not be able to raise and market cattle on their own, can add another revenue stream by selling yearlings to a dependable buyer.

The Mahars farm 300 acres, of which 100 are at the main farm. To supply their own feed, the farmers grow a mix of corn and hay in addition to pasturing their cows on grass.

“If we were 100 percent grass-fed, we would need eight times the land for our herd size,” Mike Mahar said. “If we had 500 acres of pasture, maybe we could do that. But that’s not realistic in Western Massachusetts. By growing some corn, we’re able to feed way more animals per acre.”

Poplar Hill Farm tills its cornfields minimally to protect soil health. The farmers also compost an enormous amount of cow manure for use on the farm’s fields, closing the “nutrient loop” as the fields grow food for the cows to eat again.

Mike Mahar gives a lot of thought to the dance the farm does to meet its sustainability goals while still offering quality local meat to the masses at scale.

“It’s not easy, but … it’s the future,” he said. “Farms don’t last long if they’re not willing to change. We have to find a better way. My interest is (in) finding a better way on a bigger scale. Anyone can have chickens in their backyard or raise two grass-fed cows. But there are only so many farms left, so you have to do it on a bigger scale to feed people. How do you do that? That’s where my interest is.”

Find the best cuts of Poplar Hill Farm’s beef at Sutter Meats in Northampton and Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton. The Whately farm’s beef is also often on the menu at restaurants such as Homestead, Patria and The Dirty Truth Beer Hall in Northampton.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. Visit CISA’s searchable online food and farm guide to find local meat, produce and other farm goodies this holiday season: buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.


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