ARGYLE, N.Y. — Kevin Jablonski started out with a few beef cows as a way to keep pastures down at his family’s former dairy in rural Washington County, N.Y.
Nine years later, he’s got 75 head of 100 percent free-range, grass-fed cattle.
Jablonski’s sustainable, environmentally friendly practices are earning the farm widespread recognition.
Farm Aid, which is holding its large annual concert in nearby Saratoga Springs on Sept. 21, has named Jablonski and Karen Christensen local “Farmer Heroes” for their work at Mack Brook Farm.
“We’re slowly transforming to a registered Wye Angus herd,” said Jablonski, whose grandparents purchased the land in 1928.
Raising grass-fed cattle takes considerable commitment because the return on investment isn’t nearly as quick compared with confined, grain-fed cattle that grow much faster and can be processed at an earlier age.
“There’s not as much turnover with grass-fed,” Jablonski said.
However, he and Christensen are convinced that slower is better, and they’ve developed a loyal following that seems to agree.
“People come out of their way to get here,” said Christensen, a certified public accountant who handles the business side of things.
Meat is processed at Locust Grove Smoke House in Argyle, an important element of a local farming infrastructure that supports Washington County’s strong agricultural industry.
Jablonski said he’s humbled by the “Farmer Hero” designation.
“Washington County being a very dairy county, there’s a lot of excellent farms,” he said.
However, few compare with regard to sustainable practices.
Mack Brook Farm belongs to the American Grass Fed Association, and all products have Animal Welfare Approved labeling, a program founded in 2006 for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.
The sold-out Sept. 21 concert will feature Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson along with Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp. In addition to entertainment, the event also seeks to raise awareness about various issues and challenges faced by farmers.
Water conservation is one of this year’s themes.
Jablonski has fenced off streams to keep cattle from contaminating the banks. In pastures where animals have to cross a stream, he’s built bridges that allow cattle to cross without eroding the banks or polluting the water.
Under the farm’s rotational grazing system, cows move from pasture to pasture on a daily basis, which keeps the ground naturally fertilized instead of having to use chemicals.
As Mack Brook rushes downhill through the property, its flow triggers a hydraulic pump that sends water back uphill, where gravity takes over and distributes it to different grazing areas.
This way, Jablonski doesn’t have to use an electric pump, unless there’s a dry season, which saves money and is more environmentally friendly.
Two years ago, the farm installed solar panels that provide electricity for the couple’s house and basement retail store.
Mack Brook’s hamburger meat is sold at area retail stores that specialize in health food and organically grown products.
Steaks, roasts and larger orders are sold right from the farm, which is located on rural McEachron Hill Road. Views to the west take in the broad expanse of the Adirondack Mountains, while Vermont is only a few minutes away to the east.
Mack Brook also sells meat to Farmhouse Restaurant at Top of the World Golf Resort, which overlooks Lake George. This eatery’s “nose-to-tail” chef uses all parts of the animal and has purchased whole sides of beef from the farm.
“For a small producer like us that’s a large order,” Christensen said.
The couple has spread the word about their products by staying active in local community groups and through ads in specialty publications such as Eco Local Living, a print and online magazine supporting locally made, locally grown products in New York’s Tech Valley region.
They’re also involved with Slow Food Saratoga Region, self-described as “foodies, gourmets and environmental advocates who are passionate about supporting our local food community.”
Jablonski, who was raised in the dairy business, said he’s gotten considerable help from other beef cattle farmers who have given him advice about how to get started and keep things running smoothly.
“We’ll do the same for anybody else, too,” he said.