By Marada Cook
Jalko Farm slopes east and north along a windy rise in Madawaska, Maine. The dirt driveway and dark brown barns are home to Northern-Most Feeds, LLC, whose owners make organic chicken, pig, goat and cattle feed from Maine-grown oats and wheat midds (a byproduct of milling wheat for flour) and from New England-grown corn and soy.
The first week in April, Ben Albert is mixing layer mash. He shouts ‘Hey’ over the revved engine of a PrimeMover with removable forklift tines. A Killbros grain hopper, a Gehl 95 Mixer, custom bag filler, and white U-Sacks of organic grain crowd the Quonset-style barn. A PTO drives an auger full of grain and dust, and the conveyors of the grain mixer scrape metal on metal. Ben stops the production line switch by switch as he walks out to the gravel yard where Cat Albert maneuvers a stroller over frozen ruts.
It is Monday. Last night frosted hard and at 8 a.m. the temperature still isn’t above 30 degrees. “We’ll be making grain all this week,” Cat says. “That was the first hopper Ben just emptied.”
Luc Albert is five months old and well bundled. He sits quietly while his parents work and will push his mittens off as the sun comes over the edge of the barn. By Thursday the family will have mixed and bagged 22 tons, loaded it onto Northern-Most Feeds’ Freightliner, and started down U.S. Route 1 on Ben’s 30-stop delivery run.
Northern-Most Feeds sprang from an acre of organic oats Ben planted in 2000, his first year out of college. Cat and Ben went to the University of Maine at Orono together, are partners in the feed and the farm businesses and fans of country music. They both wear Carhartt jackets and blue jeans. Cat’s hat covers wispy blond hair and says “SEEDS: 2000.” Ben’s reads, “CAT.” She keeps the books. He knows the insides of a tractor engine as well as the lay of Jalko Farm. She has learned to read ration formulas like the paper. They know when to leave each other alone.
“He’ll cut hay and I’ll ted [turning and spreading new-mown hay for drying] and bale,” Cat says. “He plows and combines.” Cat’s degree is in wildlife ecology – she’s got the eye for animal health. “Even though Ben would feed the cattle well every day,” she says, “he might not know when to give them salts.” She takes a bucket from a covered shed and pours it into a trough. Seven cows and three heifers stick their necks through to lick powdered vitamins.
She waters the bull and her old horse. She works around the stroller, pushing Luc through an open door and then stepping around him to close it. He sits quietly in the noisy chicken shed. Cat stretches over him for a grain bucket. “I’ve been learning to farm one-handed,” she says.
The business plan for Northern-Most Feeds leaves room for complementary strengths, doing chores one-handed, keeping the couple as the sole employees, and working B-type soil slopes in Zone 3. “Ben’s father bought the land while he was still in high school,” Cat says. “Now the farm sells its grain to the feed business.” The land, equipment, and a network of established family assuage the transportation disadvantages of living 280 miles north of their southernmost market. They contract for wheat and oats with other organic farmers in the County and are committed to paying their farmers a fair price. They buy mixed truckloads of soy and corn from New York. They ship a truckload at a time filled with one-ton U-Sacks and pallets of 50-pound bags. “We make grain every six weeks in the winter,” Cat says, “and every four in the summer.” They are gearing up to do more.
New customers of Northern-Most Feeds are Bob and Kathy Perol of Diversity Farm in Troy. “We like to know our sources of grain,” Kathy says. In an effort to meet the Alberts, the Perol family has rented a Ford pickup truck and driven five and a half hours to Jalko Farm and Northern-Most Feeds. Twelve-year-old Heather kicks a sneaker at the dirt driveway. Bob explains to Cat how the Amish feed oats and milk to their pigs. “We thought we’d try it out,” he says, “Try to get around the cost creatively.” Seven-year-old Cody slides down snow banks in his blue jeans. Cat gives them a dollar a bag break for picking up their 33 bags on site. Bob asks Cat to email him a price list. Cody yells, “Mom, watch this,” and slips down the back of an 8-foot bank.
When asked about the price of their organic grain, Ben and Cat use the same lines vegetable farmers do. It costs more to build soil fertility. It costs more to stay small. It costs more to produce quality. “If you want something different,” Ben says, “You can’t expect it also to be cheap.” He’s standing beside a mixing and bagging line worth $24,000 that sits in a barn that he and his father built.
“Response to the price is about 50-50,” Cat says. “For those who know the quality of the feed, they are surprised it is relatively inexpensive.” Their grain costs about twice that of conventional suppliers. “I don’t think the market will take a higher price for organic meat than they are currently,” Kathy Perol adds. Diversity Farm buys poultry feed from Morrison Feed Mill in Vermont because it costs less.
Cat and Ben have taken the complaints to heart. “I keep looking at my prices, looking at my ingredients, and thinking, how can I make it less expensive? On the other hand,” Ben continues, “I’m not willing to lose money to do it.” They look for creative ways to get around startup costs. They completed Coastal Enterprise’s Farms for the Future Program and were awarded seed money for their production line. They received grant money from the Northern Maine Development Commission. Cat checks her formulas with free consultants at Fertrell and Cooperative Extension specialists around the country. She double-checks with the laying flock in her barn.
“Just because my computer program says a feed is balanced, doesn’t mean the feed is balanced, you know what I mean?” She grins. “I could feed you an organic granola bar that was completely nutritionally balanced, but would you thrive on it?”
The tradeoff for price comes in quality. Kathy Perol worries whether the cost of organic grain will drive organic meat prices further out of reach. Although a pound of Diversity Farm bacon costs $6.50, she cuts complainers no breaks. “They don’t whine about the cost of doctors – at least, not in the same way – and yet they eat cheap, poor quality food.” Cat feels the same way about her feed. “There are ways one can make it less expensive. I don’t want to give up on quality.”
Cat and Ben Albert talk with Kathy and Bob Perol for half an hour. In the same amount of time, Morrison Feed Mill in Vermont mixes, bags, pallets and loads 10 tons of feed onto a truck. It takes the Perols four months to run through 10 tons of pig feed. In Madawaska, the four adults load 30 bags of Northern-Most Feeds oats into the pickup truck. The production line is idle. Heather talks about hosting all her friends for the Common Ground Fair. Cody has plans to build a hotel on the farm. Cat and Ben would like to bring more acreage into organic production in the county. The Perols want to start a dairy herd for cheese making. Cat rocks the stroller back and forth in the muddy driveway, and Luc says nothing. He watches the farm from knee-level.
About the author: Marada Cook grew up on a farm in Maine and is now a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her Division III project is “Bringing it Home: Food, Farming, and Rural Revitalization in Aroostook County, Maine.”