SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Foraging for insects, tender roots and other delicacies in a 4-acre pasture, a passel of Berkshire and Tamworth hogs are happy — at least as happy as pigs in mud can be.
It’s a hot August afternoon, and the swine poke out from the shade when workers from Frith Farm arrive with fresh feed and water. In a few weeks these hogs will be harvested. And, by the time you read this, the auburn-colored chickens, clucking nearby in moveable shelters, will be processed and either sold at a farmers market or available in the farm’s barn-turned-store.
In the five years this Scarborough-based organic farm has been up and running, demand for local poultry and beef has soared.
“This food is community building,” Alex Ethier, Frith Farm’s livestock manager, said. “It’s food that’s right in your own backyard.”
From pastured chickens, pigs and turkeys to grass-feed beef and lamb, meat that is humanely raised on neighborhood farms is becoming more mainstream and less novelty. Spurred by an educated locavore public concerned with food scares and pink slime and hip to jarring documentaries such as “Food Inc.,” knowing where your beef comes from is on the rise across the U.S.
In Maine, more farmers are raising animals to offer consumers a full farm, not factory, diet. According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the number of certified livestock producers in the state increased by more than 20 percent in less than three years.
“Farms are diversifying, and this manages the money flow,” said Diane Schivera, organic livestock specialist at MOFGA, who said in 2012 there were 96 certified livestock producers in Maine. This year that number rose to 120.
Raising animals for food is a time-consuming endeavor. Infrastructures have to be in place, irrigation and feeding systems tight, and land plentiful.
Growing cattle for beef can take up to 3½ years. But an eager public awaits. According to Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry data, demand for local meat has grown steadily over the last few years.
In 2009, a total of 2,217 animals — from steer to goats to bison — were slaughtered at the state’s five plants. Four years later, that number jumped to 2,740. Because this meat has to be sold in the state, the uptick points to shifting local appetites.
“Pastureland is being utilized now more than it was in 2009,” Henrietta E. Beaufait, who handles meat and poultry inspection for the state. “We don’t have big commercial feedlots here, said. A lot of the steer and sheep and lambs and beef cows are given their feed off of pasture.”
That makes them all the more valuable.
Farms such as North Branch Farm in Monroe don’t have to advertise their grass-fed beef. It sells itself.
“We sold out quicker this year. Last year we had one or two (cows) not spoken for at this time. Partly it’s word of mouth,” said co-owner Elsie Gawler, whose herd includes American Milking Devons and Jersey hybrids sold by the quarter, half or whole.
This year the eight cows marked for slaughter were claimed in record time. The 50-cent-per-pound price increase was no deterrent.
Once people visit the source and try local steak, short ribs and ground beef, they are converts.
“When people come to the farm and meet the cows, they have much more of a connection to their food, and that’s becoming more important to people,” Gawler, who runs the 330-acre horse-powered farm with three partners, said. “It’s an attraction to know right where the food is coming from, see the place where it is raised and meet the people who raise it.”
Animals grown on small-scale farms by attentive farmers produce tastier results, many say.
“The reason I started doing what I do is I just couldn’t stand the way meat tasted in the grocery store,” Cheryl Denz, farmer at Terra Optima Farm in Appleton, said. She opened a market by the same name in Rockland a few years ago where she sells sausage — sweet Italian, kielbasa and maple — derived from her own pigs.
Terra Optima Farm Market exclusively sells local meat. Though prices are higher — up to 50 percent compared with commercial meat — sales are brisk.
“The demand is huge, actually,” Denz said. “When people come in from out of state they want to know, ‘Is the meat locally raised?’ And the answer is yes.”
Denz applauds the new awareness and wants to keep the pendulum from cheap food to humanely raised food swinging in the right direction.
“If families once a week break out to support local farmers, that’s a big deal that makes a big difference to someone like me,” Denz said. “It can start a movement and teaches children how to shop.”
To Denz, the proof is in the pork.
“I’ve learned how stress affects animals. I can taste stress. I can see it. It cooks differently,” she said. “If the animal wasn’t slaughtered humanely, it will happen. I give them the very best I possibly can. I want the end of their life to go quickly and humanely. No one wants to talk about the animals dying.”
But it’s a fact of life on the farm.
At Frith Farm, scores of chickens were harvested last week. And the pigs Ethier feeds, waters and frolics with daily will be processed off site this fall in three batches. Portland-based Rosemont Market and Bakery buys whole hogs from Frith and breaks the animal down themselves.
“It’s important to have that consistency,” said Ethier, adding that Frith Farm owner Daniel Mays has “fostered that relationship through success.”
It also helps to be near Portland, Maine’s foodiest city.
“The education and understanding of what we are doing is important,” Ethier said. “It’s important in processing the rationale of financial costs,” which the 25-year-old New York native admits can be “hard to stomach.”
Into his second season at Frith, Ethier gravitates toward livestock work and sees a future in the field.
“Maine is an incredible place to do it. The market is already established,” he said. “You don’t have to do too much convincing.”