Milking Devon arrived with Pilgrims, lovingly bred in Berkshires
It’s all connected … the landscape, the farms, the cows and the food. It’s all right here in the Berkshires, and the customer base is smart and eager to support what’s locally grown. They’re getting less timid about buying meat farmed in the Berkshires, as well as the traditional staples of vegetables and artisanal breads.
Jen and Phil Leahey raise heritage cows and pigs on their farm in Lee, and they attend the farmers’ market in Great Barrington each week, selling pasture-raised beef and pork, all hormone- and antibiotic- free. Jen and Phil manage the Leahey Farm full-time. The farm has been owned and operated by Phil’s family since 1889, and they’re committed to making it work for the long-term future.
The extended Leahey family has held onto the farm for generations, and even while many in the family work in small engine repair, carpentry, construction and excavation, they all live on the farm. Phil’s father, James, grew up on the farm and was actively involved in the dairy and the raising of work horses. He witnessed the decline of farming and became a veterinarian of “minor” (heritage) breeds. But the extensive acreage on Reservoir Road in Lee stayed in the Leahey family, and now Jen and Phil are dedicating themselves to making it a sustainable, working farm.
Jen and Phil met through the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy, working with breeding programs that encouraged the support of heritage lines such as the Milking Devon cow. Jen was coordinator of agriculture at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a living history museum, and her passion was educating the public about sustainable farming, while Phil was working at the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy. Jen then worked for the Conservancy and then they both went on to work at the Greenmarkets in New York City and then the farmers markets in the Berkshires. Phil also worked as a butcher in a local supermarket so he could learn all aspects of cutting and butchering meat, and then trained at Hilltown Pork, a USDA-certified slaughtering facility in Columbia County, New York. All of this experience gave the Leaheys a strong understanding of the entire process involved in managing their farm.
For the Leaheys, the challenge is in educating the community about the importance of buying meat locally, and since 2006 they’ve had a presence at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. “We’re our own face,” Jen says, and that helps build trust in the quality of their meat so people will keep coming back. In addition to the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, the Leaheys sell their meat through Jeremy Stanton’s Meat Market in Great Barrington and through Berkshire Organics, a shop in Dalton that features food from local farms in the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley. Berkshire Organics also delivers to a large customer base through a modified CSA that they created in their area, The Leaheys can also be found at Great Barrington’s Holiday Markets in November and December, where they tend to sell more roasts and fresh or cured hams.
The Leaheys raise the Milking Devon, a breed from England, popular for its highquality beef and rich milk, which became well-established in New England when it was brought in by the Pilgrims in the 1600s.
While the breed thrived in New England because of its hardiness, by the 1800s it was replaced by the Shorthorn and by 1900 the breed was rarely seen outside of New England. By the 1970s there were only 100 Milking Devons left, but New England dairy farmers protected the breed from extinction. The Leaheys have helped that effort.
“By raising a heritage breed we’re supporting biodiversity of livestock— to preserve those animals, they need to be raised,” says Phil. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, there are now over 400 Milking Devon cattle in New England and the population is increasing.
Jen says she finds that families are eating less meat but “they’re going out of their way to get better quality. The clientele at the market has changed over time—people are more aware now than ever before, and there’s been a shift in the demographic of our customer base.” While rib steaks, Porterhouse and T-bones are the most popular, the Leaheys encourage customers to expand their interest in affordable and delicious cuts that are often overlooked. Small, local farmers may process only 15 steers a year, producing a limited number of T-bones, while the whole animal needs to be butchered and sold. “People need to learn to use the whole animal,” Phil says, and become aware that local farmers need to sell a range of cuts.
Money spent here stays here in the Berkshires, so buying meat from local farmers helps drive the local economy. Phil says, “If more people decided to serve local meat at just one meal per week, the numbers would add up quickly.”At Leahey Farm,“the farm land is utilized in a productive manner, people actively farm here, it’s part of the lifestyle. It has economic value because farming sustainably doubles as wildlife habitat and helps to preserve open space. There are no factory farms here; it’s all small local farms in the Berkshires. The culture is in the landscape!”
Photos courtesy of Caroline Alexander