Breakfast service was a little delayed at Health Hero Farm in South Hero last Tuesday. It was about 10 a.m. on the cool, drizzly morning when Joan Falcao and Bob Fireovid switched off the electric fence and climbed into the pasture where their beef herd had been grazing overnight. The animals raised their heads with mild interest.
The couple, who are partners in farming and life, briefly debated how big a portion of fresh grass to serve up for the morning meal. Fireovid proposed moving the fence line to provide access to 100 new feet of ungrazed pasture. “I think we need to give them 150,” Falcao countered. “The grass is not as filled out or dense this early in the season. We have to cover more ground.”
Health Hero Farm’s herd of about 50 consists mostly of distinctive dark-eared, white-coated British Whites with some Angus and Devon crosses. The operation is certified 100 percent grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved; both programs are run by an Oregon-based nonprofit called A Greener World and require an annual audit by an independent third-party inspector.
The farm is one of eight Vermont livestock operations that recently received a small grant to spread the word about what those certifications mean and why they matter. They’ve created a site called Ethical Eater Vermont, which aims to provide clarity for consumers trying to sort through an ever-growing thicket of food-label claims.
The grant was underwritten by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and awarded through another nonprofit, Food Animal Concerns Trust, that works to promote safe and humane production of meat, milk and eggs. The aim is to help farmers achieve certifications that ensure better lives for animals and provide more transparent, humane options for consumers, said Kara Shannon, senior manager of the ASPCA’s Farm Animal Welfare Program, in a phone interview.
“The problem with the market today,” Shannon said, “is that there is an overload of claims, like ‘cage-free’ or ‘natural,’ that are basically unverified or meaningless.”
A 2016 study commissioned by the ASPCA revealed widespread misunderstanding of common labels. For example, 65 percent of consumers surveyed believed that “free-range” means animals spend most of their time on pasture. In fact, there is no legal definition of “free-range” for pork, beef or dairy livestock; poultry must have outdoor access, but no details are defined.
Shannon said 2018 research supported by the ASPCA showed that 86 percent of consumers supported objective third-party verification of farm animal welfare. She gave Vermont credit for leading the way during the current legislative session with the first statewide proposal for an independent animal welfare certification program.
- Daria Bishop
- Co-owners Joan Falcao (left) and her partner Bob Fireovid with the herd at Health Hero Farm
The ASPCA supports three specific animal welfare certifications that set and ensure implementation of “standards meaningfully better than the norm,” Shannon said, “the norm” meaning conventional industry standards. These programs also “have strong oversight in place with regular on-farm audits by independent inspectors,” she added.
One of those is the AWA certification, which Shannon described as the best fit for most smaller, grass-based farms such as Health Hero Farm. As for the farm’s second certification, for grass feeding, that’s foundational to humane standards for ruminant animals because it allows them to “exhibit natural behaviors” through grazing, Shannon said.
Fireovid headed to the far side of the field, and the cattle followed as if he were the Pied Piper. Stationed at opposite corners of the paddock’s west perimeter, each farmer picked up the movable fence line. With the aid of cartwheeling, star-like contraptions spaced out along that line, they moved it further west, giving the animals access to a pristine salad bar of lush green growth.
Mature cows, 2-year-olds, yearlings and calves took a few steps and lowered their heads to dig into their morning meal with the relish of teenagers attacking pizza. The sound of rhythmic chewing filled the air.
The whole herd had been out on pasture for just three days due to a slow start to the grazing season. They spend their winter in a large hoop barn, eating grass in the form of baleage — Health Hero Farm’s own hay sealed in plastic, where it ferments lightly. The bales are spread in paddocks beside the barn, prompting the animals to take regular outdoor excursions.
“We want them outside as much as we can, even in winter, because they’re healthier that way,” Falcao said.
“It’s their natural environment,” Fireovid added, noting that the outdoor forays help maintain air quality in the barn and minimize health issues. “The vet says fresh air and sunshine can help prevent and treat any number of things,” Falcao said.
The farmers joked that fresh air and outdoor activity are good for them, too.
The couple moved to Vermont in 2014 from the Washington, D.C., area after Fireovid, 68, retired from doing agricultural research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Falcao, 71, had retired a few years earlier from her job in scientific research at the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We were looking for a farming life,” Fireovid said.
Although they had no experience farming for a living, they were motivated by global warming and what Fireovid had learned through his USDA work. Research indicated that carbon deposits in the soil were the most important measure of its health, and that healthy soil can help mitigate the effects of climate change, he said: “It supports plant life, helps the soil hold water [and] filter water and sequesters carbon.”
The grass-based agriculture practiced at Health Hero Farm is all about building soil carbon using a closed loop, what the couple and others in the field call “regenerative” farming. It draws on rotational grazing practices first developed by French biochemist and farmer André Voisin in the 1950s. Pastured livestock operations can make productive use of large acreage and remediate the soil at the same time, said the couple. “The grass takes carbon out of the air. The cattle eat the grass. They poop, and that manure becomes part of the soil and helps grow more grass,” Fireovid detailed.
But not all grazing operations are equal. “Some farmers turn cattle out to a large area and leave them out there for weeks,” Falcao said. “We micromanage their grazing. We give them a fresh slice of grass at least once every day, and more often twice or even three times a day. In spring, it might even reach four times.”
When the herd is first put on the spring pasture, “they just go wild,” Fireovid said. “They just eat and eat. There must be something in that grass they’re really craving.” To maintain the health of the land and the animals, the farmers carefully monitor both. “We learned under Eric’s tutelage,” Falcao said, referring to the late Eric Noël, a leader in the Vermont grass-farming community and an original partner in Health Hero Farm.
This intensive rotational grazing both protects the pasture from overgrazing and provides the herd with more nutritious feed. Falcao and Fireovid believe it helps their cattle grow to processing weight more efficiently and yields beef with more of the “good fats,” such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, that research has shown to benefit humans.
Having a “100 percent” grass-fed certification matters, too. Most beef cattle spend the beginning of their lives on grass, Fireovid explained, “but the last few months, they are fed grain to fatten them up. We feel it changes their body chemistry in a way that is not healthy for them or us.”
Although Health Hero Farm’s 150 acres are certified organic, that’s one label the couple has not sought for their beef herd. When it comes to their animals, they prefer the flexibility of being able to use antibiotics and other nonorganic treatments.
The farmers recalled trying two different organic insect repellents for flies. “The cattle smelled great,” Falcao said. “But it didn’t work,” her partner added. The AWA team recommended a nonorganic option that was instantly effective.
In another case, a calf injured its foot, and in consultation with their vet, the farmers decided to use antibiotics. An organic approach would have required that they pull the youngster from the herd to treat it, which they worried would cause it stress.
Beyond the value of the AWA and grass-fed certifications, Falcao and Fireovid appreciate the technical expertise they have received from the program specifically on humane animal treatment. “We wanted to learn more ourselves about how to treat the animals better,” Fireovid said.
But they also have concerns about reconciling the requirements of certification with building a profitable business. “We would not be able to make it without off-farm income,” Falcao said. Both have retirement benefits, and they sold a house for start-up capital. “We don’t know how young farmers do it.”
They’d welcome younger colleagues of their own: “We would like to be at the point where we can attract partners,” Fireovid said.
Stepping back from the day-to-day operations and the charm of new calves, the farmers think they may need to rethink their labor- and time-intensive cow-calf operation, in which they breed and raise all their own animals from birth. To scale up and improve their margins, they would consider buying “feeder” cattle to grow to market weight over a single grazing season.
One stumbling block is that AWA standards require that they buy cattle only from other AWA-certified farms. Right now, the closest one that sells animals is about seven hours away, which could mean a long and stressful journey for the cattle. The couple has brought this concern to the AWA team.
Overall, the couple is happy to serve as public ambassadors for AWA certification. “We really enjoy producing healthy food for us and for our neighbors,” Fireovid said, “and giving these animals the best life we can when they’re here.” But they acknowledged that it’s no easy pathway for farmers hoping to live in clover. “How can you increase the number of certified farms in Vermont,” Fireovid asked, “if they are not profitable?”