Raising meat with sustainability in mind
It’s exactly how you envision a family farm: a small house tucked off a rural road, trees surrounding tidy fields, healthy cows poking their heads through a fence to greet a visitor.
That’s because from the start, Janet Kassel-Blakeney has designed Amazing Grace Family F.A.R.M. (which stands for Fertility and Resource Management) as a place where she can put her principles—and philosophies—about sustainable, small-scale farming into practice. Since 1976 she and her family have grown vegetables without pesticides, insecticides or other chemicals and raised beef using no antibiotics, steroids or hormones.
The farm, located between Evansville and Janesville, has been in Kassel-Blakeney’s family since 1854, and she knew since she was a child that she wanted to live there someday. But first came a stint in Colorado in the 1960s, when she worked at a natural foods store, became a vegetarian and learned about health.
“A whole new world opened up to me,” she says.
She also saw horrific conditions at factory farms, so when she and husband Don Blakeney decided to move back to her family’s farm in the seventies, they knew they wanted to do things differently.
The couple consulted with farmers—older folks who worked before the world wars and the advent of chemicals—about how to farm without pesticides. They cut out chemicals cold turkey and the land rebelled for a bit, with weeds springing up and crops faltering. Eventually,
plantings began to thrive, and the new farmers worked out a system of rotating crops in the fields.
“The soil was relearning,” she says. “We were relearning.”
They tried out a host of animals, including hogs, chickens and goats, finally settling on raising beef sustainably and humanely. Manure fertilizes the fields and extra tomatoes, squash and other produce in turn help feed the cows.
“We say they’re grass-fed, but there are a few veggies on the side,” Kassel-Blakeney says with a smile. “This is sustainable. It’s a closed cycle. Nothing gets wasted.”
Amazing Grace keeps around sixty cows. Babies are born in the spring and stay with their mothers for a year, and adults rotate through different pastures.
“Confinement does not work for me,” she says. “They have to be out in the open.”
When the cows are thirty months old, they’re sent to nearby Sorg’s Meat Market to be butchered. They’re killed quickly and humanely, and first thing in the morning to ensure the meat isn’t contaminated by other products the company processes.
Kassel-Blakeney, who now eats the beef her family raises, says she appreciates being able to spend time with the sources of her food. She gives thanks for the cows and even prays when they’re taken away for slaughter.
“I get to know them and respect them,” she says. “When I eat them, I eat the gift they give to me.”
Amazing Grace sells its beef directly to customers who order a half- or quarter-side, and at the Basics Cooperative in Janesville. Son Chris Blakeney oversees CSA deliveries of vegetables, while Don keeps bees. Both veggies and honey can be purchased at a stand on the farm. The family sells its beef and produce at the Janesville Farmers’ Market and is on the waiting list to sell at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
Kassel-Blakeney hopes customers and fellow farmers alike learn from how they farm. She’d love to see them all grow, shop and eat with the attitude of honoring the land and animals.
“The more, the better,” she says. “I think it’s in our heart to do something good and wholesome. I want everyone to do it.”
RESOURCE: Check out the REAP Food Group’s Farm Fresh Atlas for a list of recommended farms raising meat and poultry.
Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.