ROCHESTER, N.Y. – When Jill and Stephen Gould had a guest visit unexpectedly from out of town, the young couple scrambled to find something to offer him for dinner. They live in a rural part of New York, so a grocery store wasn’t right around the corner.
All they had to offer was some dairy cow steaks that came from Stephen’s family dairy farm, they told their visitor sheepishly.
Dairy farmers regularly eat the meat of their own cows, but the public doesn’t usually eat it, unless it’s mixed in with the meat from dozens of other cows in supermarket ground beef.
“Culturally growing up, people assumed it was bad beef,” said Jill Gould. “You were conditioned to be embarrassed because it wasn’t Angus.”
Much to their surprise, their friend was thrilled to try their beef. Yi Wah Roberts, who was visiting from Washington, D.C., had worked at some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants, including a high-end steakhouse and Citronelle, owned by the late French-born chef Michel Louis-Marie Richard.
Roberts took a thin slice of raw beef from the steak. “I remember the smell and the look and the way that the fat melted — as opposed to being a sticky fat, being a smooth, pleasant fat,” Roberts said. “I still smile when I think of it now.” He pronounced it “objectively good beef.”
The Goulds were surprised by his feedback.
While beef cows, such as the Angus breed, are often slaughtered young, dairy cows live to five or six years or longer. As a result, dairy meat has more flavor but a different texture than beef cattle. Detractors say it’s tough, while others say it has a “longer chew.”
That chance visit would be the spark the career opportunity Jill Gould had been looking for.
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Creating her own opportunity
Jill Marshall Gould grew up on a vegetable and dairy farm in Elba, Genesee County. While studying agricultural science at Cornell University, she focused on supply chains.
After graduating, she worked in food sourcing for Sam’s Club, followed by Walmart. She then joined the startup meal kit service Blue Apron, and was at the New York Stock Exchange on opening day when it went public.
All the while, she was in a long-distance relationship with Stephen Gould; they met as students at Cornell. He was the third generation to work full time at Har-Go Farms, his family’s dairy farm in Pavilion, not far from where Jill Gould grew up.
In 2017, Jill Gould decided to return to western New York. She could feel an “energy of opportunity back at home,” and had aspirations of owning her own food business.
“I really wanted to do something that was accelerating infrastructure and assets in the community,” she said. But it wasn’t until Roberts’ visit that she identified her niche.
Dairy meat with advantages
During Roberts’ visit, Stephen Gould gave him a tour of the family’s dairy operation.
The name Har-Go is a portmanteau of the names of Harold and Rose Gould, Steven’s grandparents and the founders of the farm. In 2006, John and Sue Gould — Stephen’s parents — transitioned the farm to organic production, mostly to mitigate the economic fluctuations that have upended the dairy industry.
With 200 cows, Har-Go is a small farm compared to others in the area. Genesee County, as well as Wyoming County to its south, are home to large dairy farms. The counties have more cows than people, the locals quip. (It’s true.)
Stephen showed Roberts the 200 acres of grasses and clovers where the cows graze from about 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily during the growing season. Stephen uses fencing to create paddocks of three to four acres to help manage the pasture and the cows’ nutrients.
When the feed crops are harvested in fall, a dairy nutritionist provides a recipe of what to add for optimal nutrition. The fermented grains are what the cows eat in the winter.
When the cows are ready to be milked, they make their way to the farm’s high-tech barn. It’s a free-stall style barn, which means the cows are not confined. It has large fans in its roof, and the moving air prevents disease and keeps cows and workers comfortable.
Four robots in the back of the barn milk the cows.
The new barn also includes automatic manure cleanup; the manure is sent to a 2 million-gallon storage tank and injected into the soil twice a year to nourish the crops.
Their milk from Har-Go Farms is combined with the milk of other organic farms in the Upstate Niagara Cooperative; the organic milk is private labeled and sold at area grocery stores.
When the cows stopped producing milk, the cows were sent to auction. Their meat was combined with the meat of other cattle to make ground beef and other products. The farm received commodity prices for their cows.
Dumbfounded, Roberts told Stephen Gould that high-end restaurants in Washington were promoting dishes using dairy beef. He thought there could be people interested in buying the meat of cows raised with such care.
“He opened our eyes to this thing that’s in our back yard that we’re not creating value for and have under valued for its entire existence,” Jill Gould said.
After Roberts’ visit, Jill Gould started researching the idea of selling the dairy meat from Har-Go Farms.
She found a small number of farms selling their own dairy beef, as well as a growing interest among chefs and foodies. Mindful Meats, launched in California in 2011, was a pioneer in the industry and sold to customers that ranged from school districts to high-end chefs such as José Andrés.
She earned her meat processing certificate at the State University Agricultural and Technical College at Cobleskill, where she learned how animals were slaughtered as well as butchery, safety, sanitation and more. She attended the Grrls Meat Camp, offered by the Good Meat Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to inspire a sisterhood of farmers, butchers, cooks and teachers in the mostly male world of animals and meat.
In February, she opened Butter Meat Co., a charming shop in Perry, N.Y.Wyoming County. It is housed a pre-Civil War building that had been vacant for 15 to 20 years. She was drawn to the town because its Main Street had experienced a recent resurgence; her block also is home to a wine bar, pizzeria and bakery. The Silver Lake Brewing Project is just off Main Street, and East Hill Creamery makes Alpine-style cheeses on the outskirts of town.
“I was hopping in a stream moving in a direction,” she said. “You can’t do it by yourself.”
She envisioned a place where she could interact with customers. Her plan was to grind beef in the shop and engage customers in conversations about meat from dairy cows.
As in a scene straight out of the TV show “Portlandia,” she could even tell them how the lot numbers corresponded to a particular cow, and how her mother-in-law could tell them the personality of that cow.
She planned to talk about the differences on the palate. “There’s a different flavor profile and a different texture,” she’d tell them. “We haven’t been exposed to it as a food culture.”
COVID changes plans
But just a few weeks after she opened, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She moved forward, but altered her plans.
She decided to have all of the meat processing handled at the slaughterhouse to minimize the number of hands coming into contact with the beef. She offered curbside service. She started carrying other products, such as dairy products, as a service to people avoiding grocery stores.
She launched online ordering and shipping in April, which was earlier than planned. A mention in a barbecue article in The Wall Street Journal gave her business a boost. Her burgeoning shipping business has been lucrative enough that she has expanded her space.
And gradually, people have started feeling comfortable visiting the store. “There are a lot of tourists to Letchworth (State Park),” she said. “I’m starting to see them now.”
Some customers have been excited to have the opportunity to eat local food, organic American beef in particular, because most of the organic beef sold in grocery stores is shipped from places such as Uraguay.
Others have experienced mature beef in places such as Spain and France, where mature beef is part of the food culture, and are excited to experience the flavor again.
“It’s exciting when the people come back,” she said. “Some say it’s the only beef they want to eat. It’s such a flavor difference.”
And the dinner guest who sparked the business has become one of her customers.
Yi Wah Roberts is co-owner of No 1 Sons, a pickle and fermented foods company in Washington, D.C… He purchased the meat of two cows with the idea of launching high-end hot dog carts using Butter Meat Co.’s meat. Adapting his original business for the COVID-19 pandemic has meant putting his plans on the back burner, but in the meantime he is enjoying his purchase.
He grinds his beef for burgers, which he says take equally well to thick, loose patties, as well as to super thin, smashed patties. He even saves the rendered fat and cooks vegetables in it. “The flavor is just absurd,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Butter Meat Co. sells local, organic meat from dairy cows