Behind this wholesome agrarian drama with its “Old McDonald” echoes from long ago is a determined effort to crystallize the definition of grass-based livestock farming. A father of nine with a picaresque past and a famous brother in Hollywood, this 57-year-old McDonald allows his assortment of amiable animals to loiter outdoors all day over a dense mix of grasses untainted by chemical fertilizers.
While his pigs and poultry get needed supplements of organic grain, his Finn-Suffolk sheep, Belted Galloway bull, cross-bred Angus beef cattle and a Jersey milk cow named Rosie eat only grass.
Eating large quantities of forage year-round is what cud-chewing animals are built to do, providing them all the nourishment they need to thrive and reproduce, McDonald points out. It’s better for the animals, the humans who consume them, and the planet, he says.
“Feeding ruminant animals anything but grass is biologically, nutritionally wrong,” he says.
Mechanized farming methods that roared in after World War II steered many animals into crowded feedlots, shifting them to a diet of industrial corn to grow them more quickly and cheaply. McDonald’s gripe isn’t with conventional American agriculture, but with other small-scale farmers who fatten their herds on grain, then label their meat “grass-fed.”
“If you’re giving them grain, you should tell everybody you’re doing it,” he said.
“The term is being used to misguide folks into thinking that a cow is fed only grass,” he says, his pale blue eyes gleaming, “when in reality it’s also fed 14 pounds of corn a day.”
Standard organic farming allows four-stomach ruminants such as cows to be fed grain, while animals can be called “free-range” simply by having access to the outdoors. The government’s rules don’t always specify how big a space animals should have or whether it’s on pasture or concrete.
“Outdoors, on grass, in the sunshine — that’s what I consider ‘free-range,’” says McDonald, whose 220-acre farm nestles in a bucolic thumb of land framed by lakes in central New York’s Finger Lakes region.
“I’m not saying tighten the regulations. I’m saying, buy from us or someone else but know the questions to ask. Cut through the fancy words, food marketed as ‘free-range, natural, beyond organic.’ It’s a sad testimony to human nature, but there are those who would say they’re organic when they’ve not even achieved the threshold.”
Critics counter that McDonald’s back-to-basics model — heritage breeds on a niche farm determined to stay small — results in pricey food that’s out of reach of most Americans.
Andy Alexander, 58, who runs an 800-sheep farm and sold McDonald his first ewes in 1991, commends him for drawing customers who “evidently enjoy the warm and fuzzy part and are willing to pay a premium. But alternatively produced food is not going to replace conventional agriculture as far as feeding the masses.”
Susan Eckhardt, 42, who owns 450-acre Brykill Farm in the Hudson Valley, says her pasture-raised Charolais cattle get hand-blended organic grain rations as well as hay “when it starts to get cold out, when there’s no grass! “All of this nonsense about how this is bad for them or toxic, give me a break!” she said.
Wholesaler George Cubillas sympathizes with farmers who go to great lengths to raise animals exclusively on grass only to find they’re competing with rivals “using the grass-fed term loosely.” But he finds it’s hard to get restaurants to carry their products.
“I could be a purist all I want but I have to make a living, and the bottom line is my (patrons’) customers prefer high-quality, grain-fattened meat,” he says.
McDonald counters that his beef is leaner and more flavorful while acknowledging that the fattier, grain-fed version can be tenderer.
After buying a hobby farm on the cheap 20 years ago, McDonald quit his career as a video producer a decade later and, with escalating success, is doing his bit to propel “fresh, local and above all clean food” farming into a postindustrial boom age.
Nationwide, organic-food sales topped $26 billion in 2010, the Organic Trade Association says. Roughly 900 of New York’s 36,000 farms are certified organic and several hundred more like McDonald’s Farm match that description but dispense with certification.
McDonald was resolute from the start on animal welfare. No antibiotics, hormones, synthetic vitamins. No notching of ears. No rings in the pigs’ snouts. No unnecessary stress. Or, to borrow his savvy motto: They have a great life but one bad day.
It took much longer to make a living catering to “an even smaller group of consumers concerned not only with how an animal’s raised but what it eats,” he says.
After years of experimenting, McDonald dispensed with commercial accounts and took aim at a high-end formula that relies on a mere 50 regular customers and a few hundred drop-ins at the Ithaca Farmers Market. While invariably more expensive — chicken is $5 a pound, beef $18 — McDonald says his prices reflect the food’s unsubsidized true value and are cheaper than choice cuts in upscale stores.
Friends say his loquacious charm and eagerness to delve into detail are crucial in marketing his goods. “Not all farmers are anywhere as eloquent as he is in communicating why we want what he has,” says Laura Villanti, 46, a longtime customer.
Using selective breeding within the herds, McDonald manages 130 cattle, 40 sheep and 50 hogs. The pace will quicken in summer with the arrival of 5,000 broiler chicks and 350 young turkeys. All animals are rotated through 12 fields to break up the parasite cycle by natural means, but McDonald also leans heavily on modern tools, from plastic hoop houses to Internet tips.
“Great innovations benefit us, but we don’t have to do what the corporate farmer’s doing — growing animals as fast as possible on the least amount of feed,” he says. “My way is nature’s way. You can’t make the farm 10 times bigger and expect 10 times the success. When you try to do too much, you cut corners.”
His iridescent-feathered turkeys, a Narragansett-wild mix, are an uncommon sight liable to stop traffic as they throng at the farm’s rim alongside a two-lane blacktop.
“Turkeys really are very inquisitive, gregarious, social creatures, far more than chickens,” McDonald observed last November as the last of his 350 birds roamed a grassy paddock. “The first day, they run from you. The rest of their lives, they run toward you.”
Now, after a quiet winter cycle with only sheep, cattle, laying hens and rabbits to care for, his grass is springing up fast. There’s enough work for a young army, and McDonald sends his 11-year-old out early to check on a ewe pregnant with twins.
“She had had one, but one was still in there,” Matthew recounts as his three enthralled younger brothers gather at the kitchen table between morning chores and homeschooling. “I’m glad I brought an extra pair of gloves.”
As McDonald tucks into a homegrown lunch of hickory smoked bacon and brown bread with butter the color of marigolds, the conversation turns to his brother, Christopher, who sometimes rides upstate on his Harley. The children rattle off his movie roles, beginning with golf-pro buffoon Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore,” an Adam Sandler comedy. “I like ‘Flubber’ — that’s a good movie,” pipes in James, 7, to giggles.
“We had a pact early on about which one of us would be a high-paid actor, recognizable in every town in the world, or be an organic farmer. And I won,” McDonald says.
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