A growing number of health-conscious consumers are turning to beef, poultry, pork and other meats coming from pasture-raised livestock, and more Maryland farmers are striving to satisfy those appetites.
The demand for grass-fed beef, lamb and other products has risen about 10 percent the past two years, according to Theo Weening, national meat coordinator for Whole Foods Market, the Austin, Texas-based company that identifies itself as the world's leading retailer of natural and organic foods.
He said the popularity is driven primarily by news media reporting on the benefits of grass-fed livestock, as opposed to animals fattened in feedlots.
To link buyers and sellers, Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA) has published a directory of farms in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia offering grass-fed livestock products that sell directly to the public.
The Amazing Grazing directory, published by the nonprofit network of farmers, agricultural professionals, landowners and consumers in the Chesapeake region, lists 28 Maryland farms in 13 counties.
They offer a variety of products coming from pasture-fed animals.
Many of the farms say their animals are USDA inspected; free of antibiotics, hormones and vaccines; and certified organic.
One of those closest to Baltimore is Rumbleway Farm in Conowingo, on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River.
The 62-acre farm on McCauley Road is operated by Robin Way, who says the rising demand for meat from naturally fed animals conflicts with her desire to keep Rumbleway "a small family farm."
According to its listing in the directory, Rumbleway sells chicken, turkey, rabbit, beef, pork and goats. Beef and pork are available year-round in individual cuts and in bulk.
Chickens are processed fresh on the farm from April to October.
"Animals are vaccine-free and raised naturally on certified-organic pasture with no added hormones or synthetic vitamins," Way says in the directory.
Way said beef and chicken are the most popular items, and customers can buy a half-cow, a quarter of a cow or individual pieces.
"We sell hamburger, roasts, packaged pork chops, anything you can buy at the grocery store," she said.
About 70 percent of the meat is sold at the farm, and the rest goes to cooperative markets in Delaware, Way said.
A complete list of farms in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia offering products from grass-fed animals and selling directly to consumers can be obtained from the organization's Web site: www.futureharvestcasa.org.
The group's board of directors reads like a who's who in agriculture, with members including Ronald Korcak, associate director of the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agriculture Research Center; Michael Heller, manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's demonstration farm near Upper Marlboro; and Ginger Myers, a vice president and agriculture professional at the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Mark Davis, the executive director of Future Harvest-CASA, said the directory is the organization's second. The new directory lists 64 farms in the three-state region, compared with 42 farms in 2002.
Davis said pasture-fed livestock farms "are a win-win situation for both the consumer and the farmer. Consumers get a fresh product, and they know where their food is coming from. They also get the chance to support the local farm economy."
Farmers could boost their profits selling directly to the consumer, he said.
"When they are not selling wholesale, they get to keep more of the money," Davis said.
Prices could vary from farm to farm, but in general they are comparable to supermarket prices, he said.
Future Harvest-CASA promotes pasture-raised farm products as being healthier than meat coming from feedlot livestock.
It says that animals raised on the pasture, with no animal products in their diet, have no risk of carrying "mad cow" disease.
Other benefits are that the meats contain less fat, fewer calories and more omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to decreased risks of cancer and diabetes, Future Harvest-CASA said.
The organization says that small family-run farms are a cherished part of the landscape of the Chesapeake Bay region and that they are disappearing at an alarming rate. The best way to preserve these farms is for consumers to buy their products, the group says.