Here’s the Beef

by Holly Hungerford

A small herd, a big barn, and a lot of heart

boyden_lead0052Mark and Lauri Boyden are making more than hay on their Cambridge farm. Their grass-fed Boyden Farm beef has become a symbol of the Vermont locavore movement, and their events facility, The Barn at Boyden Farm, is booked into next year.

Farming in the 21st century requires more than modern technology; it requires adaptation to changing times and vision for the future, something Mark and Lauri Boyden have in abundance. Boyden Farm, their wholesale beef business in Cambridge, is thriving, and Lauri’s 18-month-old events-hosting business, known as The Barn at Boyden Farm, is booked into next year.

The Boyden family began farming the 550-acre property on Vermont 104 in 1914. It began life as a dairy farm, but the herd was sold off in 2000, the year Mark and Lauri took over. “We were at a crossroads,” says Mark. “It was either time to build a new dairy facility — since the existing one was old and labor intensive — or get out of dairy altogether.”

Having made the decision to leave dairy farming and put their own stamp on the farm, the Boydens dabbled in raising heifers and growing horse hay for several years. In the end, they settled on beef cattle — Herefords and Angus — and organic crops such as corn and soy.

“We had always worked around cattle,” says Mark, “so it seemed like a natural fit.” In 2004, they began selling their beef to local restaurants and stores, almost all of whom are still customers. “We would take one or two cows a week down to the butcher shop in Rutland, which has burned since then, and have it all packaged up,” Mark recalls. “We’d have Black River Produce deliver to some of the long-distance customers, but if there were customers on the way back, I’d put the meat in the back of the truck and stop off in Bristol, Middlebury — wherever — on the drive home.”

Until last spring, the Boydens also had a retail store at the farm, but when, among other things, time to staff it became an issue and selling retail at wholesale prices did not seem cost-effective, they decided to close the store. Today, Black River Produce does all the Boyden beef sales and distribution, which includes restaurants and stores as far away as Boston.

While Mark was growing the beef business, Lauri, a UVM grad, was developing another idea: a way to better utilize their 1800s barn, which was then storing over 14,000 bales of hay. In the summer of 2007, she hired the Hyde Park architectural firm of Silver Ridge Design to create a renovation plan for turning the barn into an events space. The Barn at Boyden Farm officially opened on May 17, 2008, with a party for the community.

Lauri has one part-time employee, Kristy Wykoff, to help keep the business on track. The seasonal barn — it has no heat — has already hosted many weddings, family and class reunions, concerts, and fundraisers. From the warmly-stained wood floor — much of which is original to the barn — to the great roof beams, the space exudes Vermont charm. Word has reached to New York City and beyond, say the Boydens. Complete with a kitchen, restrooms, dressing rooms, a dance floor, and hardwood tables and chairs, the barn provides the space, and the clients provide everything else.

It took about six years for the Boydens to become focused on raising beef and offering the barn for events. For a while, says Lauri, in conjunction with the winery — Boyden Valley Winery, which is owned by Mark’s brother David and his wife, Linda — they went the tourism route, with a store, a small petting zoo, an ice cream shop, and a playground. “We did evening concerts, that kind of thing,” she says, “but we needed to minimize and focus on what was working.”

“The bigger things,” Mark adds.

Making the change from dairy farming to raising beef was not without its challenges. Although the work is less labor intensive, it includes added tasks such as marketing, billing, solving problems with clients, and talking to the butcher.

“When you’re a dairy farmer you have none of that,” Mark says. “You just produce, produce, produce; a truck comes every day to take it away, and twice a month they give you a check that doesn’t bounce.”

Although Mark has a degree in agriculture from the University of Vermont, the 1988 grad had to learn the business end of raising beef by the seat of his pants. “The thing about beef,” he says, “is you have to utilize all the pieces or you end up making ground beef out of the higher value cuts. You can’t afford to do that, so over the years I’ve gotten really, really good at finding a home for everything.”

He also wasn’t shy about going door-to-door in the beginning, visiting restaurants and chefs, and giving beef away to promote his business. “He really put a face to his product,” Lauri says. “People could say, ‘Hey, I met Mark Boyden and he raises beef and I want to try some.’”

Doug Mack, chef/owner of Mary’s at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, knows the Boydens well. “They were pioneers in offering local beef. I trust them, they stand behind their product and are extremely reliable,” he says. But, he adds, it goes beyond a supplier and customer relationship. Mack has built his restaurant around serving farm-fresh local food, and considers local farmers, including the Boydens, as partners in his work.

The Boydens entered the beef business at a perfect time. With the mad cow disease scare and beef recalls due to e. coli and salmonella, people began looking for local sources of meat, and the Boydens were able to provide it.

Even with the economic downturn, which Mark says they felt strongly in the fall of 2008, people still wanted local beef. Restaurants did make some changes to their menus, buying less costly cuts of meat to keep their per-plate prices down, but sales held steady.

In the spring of 2009, sales picked up, and have doubled since this time last year. “That’s one thing we’ve been good at,” says Mark. “We’ve been able to look long-term down the road and know when to get out of something and when to get in.”

The Boydens’ beef business is changing and evolving. In the last several years, the cattle have been pasture-fed and fed with hay and corn grown on the farm. This summer, Mark made the change to wholly grass-fed beef, in anticipation of growing demand for such beef. He also began feeding high-sugar/high-energy grasses he plants each spring. He grows corn, soybeans, and hay, which are in the process of being certified organic. The beef will not be organic, because Mark doesn’t buy the cattle until they are yearlings, but they will be finished on an organic diet.

The herd ranges from 220 to 260, and at 2 years of age, they are slaughtered. Mark handles all this work with the help of one full-time employee, Jeff Kuhns, and some crop and tractor help from his dad, Fred Boyden.

Mark’s parents live in the big farmhouse, Lauri says. “They’re very involved with whatever we have going on, whether it be with the kids, or with the lawns and gardens.” Along with the winery, the Boyden Farm is a family operation, but Lauri hastens to add that each person does his or her own thing.

Mark and Lauri also live on the farm with their three daughters, Emily, 13, Lucy, 9, and Rachel, 7, and their husky mix, Mr. Bubby. With a laugh, Lauri confesses that Mr. Bubby was a gift to Mark shortly after their second daughter was born. “We thought he might be a little lonely for a male companion,” she says.

In what free time is available, Lauri, who says she hates the winter, bikes and swims. Mark likes winter, because he’s a skier, but confesses he really enjoys duck hunting on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I need a few days a year when it’s just me and the guys — no women around, no estrogen — with plenty of gun powder. Just for a few days, I have to have that.” •