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A natural choice Families say they can taste the difference in meat and poultry produced organically -- and locally.

Some of the people who sit down for dinner at Francine Brierley's house aren't quite the same afterward.

"People come and eat here and they say our food is delicious, they can't get that taste in their food anywhere else," said the Amherst mother of four.

If they ask, she explains her gourmet secret. It's not some oil from Tuscany or spice from Thailand. It's meat and eggs from farms right down the road.

The Brierleys have joined a sort of back-to-the land movement among local carnivores. Whether driven by health concerns, a desire to support local small businesses or simply taste, more families are choosing local beef, pork and poultry.

Families can buy a lot -- say, half a steer, picked up frozen from a local slaughterhouse that sliced the steaks and portioned the hamburger to the customers' specifications. Or they can buy a little -- say, a chicken and some pork chops from the Bidwell Farmer's Market or Lexington Food Co-op in Buffalo.

The most popular stuff is raised by local families, without the chemicals, hormones or industrial practices that are standard for supermarket meat. By law, it's all USDA-inspected for quality and safety.

Federal standards allow antibiotic use and hormones for livestock to keep the animals from getting sick and help the animals add weight faster. Federal regulators say those practices are safe. But the use of hormones was banned in Europe in 1988, since residues can persist, and some studies suggest a possible link to health problems.

For many people who choose natural beef, that's one more reason to buy local products. Locally raised meat can be slightly more expensive than supermarket prices, but the benefits are worth it, Brierley said.

"The quality is so superior, and you know your source," she said. "Whatever those animals are eating, we're basically eating as well. It's important to me, to know how they're being treated, and what they're being fed."

>Spreading the word

Two freezers in the Brierley garage are dedicated to holding a year's worth of chicken, turkey, beef and pork. Lots of people only have to taste the difference once to start the conversation about where dinner came from, Brierley said.

More than one tableside conversion has come after her husband's William's "special," a pasta dish that starts with a free-range local chicken sauteed with garlic and spinach then adorned with cheese.

"Definitely we've turned people on, because there are people buying now who weren't buying before, ordering through Freeman's, and Buffalo Organics and Thorpe's, learning about their food sources," she said, naming three of her suppliers. (Buffalo Organics is now called Native Offerings.) "I think we've done our share of educating."

Chicken is the meat with the biggest noticeable difference, Brierley said. The chickens she used to get from the store "come from someplace where it's been processed a long time ago, and it's been frozen and thawed -- it's old chicken by the time it gets to the shelf," she said. "My chicken comes to me and I freeze it. It's dynamite."

There's no wonder chickens raised by small local farms taste different, said Jo'El Drajem, who sells chicken, beef and pork from her Blossom Hill Farm in Dayton. They're walking around in the sun and scratching in the grass like chickens used to, before the industrialization of American meat.

Few, if any, local meat producers call their product "organic." The label once required years of labor and lots of paperwork -- and now the USDA has loosened the official definition. Instead, most use the term "natural," like Drajem, and welcome questions about what exactly that means.

For Drajem, that means no antibiotics or hormones fed to the animals, and medicine only if they are ill. "Last year our calves had pinkeye -- we gave them a dose of medicine and it cleared up," she said. "Otherwise we wouldn't have had any calves."

>Initial costs

Keith Freeman, of Freeman Homestead, said that demand for the meat and eggs raised at his family's farm was rising.

"People are looking for an alternative," he said. "People want something where the animals are treated well, something we're doing that's beneficial to the environment."

You can taste the difference in the food, he said -- and his family feels the difference, too. "It's good for us, where we can have our family involved, with no dangerous chemicals and so forth to watch out for," he said.

Going local definitely takes more planning, and investment, than simply stopping at the grocery store, said Ronni Fox of Buffalo. Especially if you're buying large amounts, as many people do to get the best deals, you need a stand-alone freezer, and chunks of money to buy the goods upfront.

If you're the nervous type, after October's storm, you'll probably want to know someone with a generator, too. If you've got hundreds of dollars invested in the freezer's contents, it's a smart idea.

The payoff is completely worth it, Fox said: better tasting, healthier food.

"Beef that's grass-fed is not as tender as cows that have been cooped up in a pen and fed God knows what, because they don't get any exercise," said Fox. "But it has a richer, meatier flavor. Once you've had it you'll never go back. The stuff in the supermarket just tastes pale."

She's been buying her meat locally for five years, and she likes the idea that besides the taste and health benefits, her money supports nearby farms. "I really believe in supporting local farmers and ranchers -- they are the bedrock of our country," she said. If you think about it, she said, "The only way the small farmer can compete is by making a healthier, better-tasting product."


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