Marksbury Farm started in 2011 with an idea that local food is best when animals are raised in one place rather than shuffled off to feed lots, and on grassy pastures.
The operation began with a partnership that bet on consumers becoming more conscious of how their meat was grown, nurtured and slaughtered. The group figured that customers would pay more for beef that was grass-fed and for local consumption. Besides cattle, the farm raises lambs, hogs and chickens, which are allowed to forage freely and are given access to a free-choice non-GMO ration that is milled locally.
At first, Cliff Swaim, one of six partners, found himself cold-calling potential customers, knocking on doors and talking up the advantages of the Marksbury system.
Marksbury now supplies restaurants and stores in Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati and Nashville, about 100 restaurants in total.
Porter Road Butcher in Nashville wrote a blog post in 2014 based on a visit to Lancaster, extolling Marksbury as “what is likely the largest sustainable, humane and all-natural processing facility in our region.”
Often, the calves you see on farms are sent off to feed lots to fatten up before being slaughtered.
At Marksbury, they stay on the pasture. That’s why the company says its product is grass: It feeds a cow grass from birth to its humane slaughter before breaking down the meat into packageable parts and shipping it into the region.
Animals sent to feedlots live on a diet of corn and other grains, and often, they are fed antibiotics. Marksbury and its 40 employees and 1,200 acres of land march to a different drummer.
At Marksbury’s processing center just behind the company’s Pasture restaurant and country store near Lancaster, Marksbury uses the ideas of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin to build its holding pens, which uses curved chutes to make animals less nervous.
Once on the slaughter floor, animals are secured — but not too tight — and rendered unconscious. Once dead, they are quickly processed by butchers just a few steps away.
“We don’t want a single bird to have its throat cut while it’s conscious,” Swaim said.
From there, the finished product goes to local-food restaurants in Lexington or Louisville. In Lexington, Marksbury meat is served at a variety of places including County Club, Distilled at Gratz Park, Cole’s 735, and at the new Real Hamburger & Bar on Short Street. In the region, Beaumont Inn and the restaurant at Shaker Village serve Marksbury meat.
Some of the meat goes out front, to the cooler at Pasture, where it is sold to the public, or into the sandwiches served there, such as the spicy chorizo burger. Some goes to Whole Foods, which offers Marksbury Farm meat in 12 stores. (All of the lambs processed on a recent day were raised in Mercer County by Four Hills Farm. Marksbury processes meat for Four Hills Farm. Then, Four Hills Farm sells the meat to Whole Foods.)
The difference is quality, quality doesn’t come cheap. Swaim said barbecue producers often use beef brisket, for which they might pay about $1 a pound. At Marksbury, brisket meat would go for $5.66 a pound, and that’s a price break.
But customers, some of whom have been with Marksbury from the beginning, are pleased.
Dixon Dedman of Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg said Marksbury partner Preston Correll’s family had been longtime customers at Beaumont.
“Before they had even completed the venture, they came to us to get us on board,” Dedman wrote in an email. “I believe in what they are doing, and the quality of product they consistently provide. I believe in partnering with our friends and your neighbors, and sourcing as much product locally as we possibly can.”
Mike Southerland, owner of Brother’s BBQ in Danville, also knew Preston Correll before Marksbury opened. Southerland is now using pork shoulders from Marksbury.
“They’ve got great flavor; they’re a top-notch product,” Southerland said. “It’s been fed well, it’s been treated right. ... The last 48 hours of an animal’s life probably dictate how it’s going to turn out.”
Because Marksbury hates waste, part of Swaim’s job is figuring out where to push particular cuts of meat that aren’t in high demand. What Swaim calls “the process of turning animal into money” can vary by season or fashion: “We kill the whole beast; we want to sell the whole beast.”
Swaim sees his job as “conducting a choir of all these moving parts that come in different quantities.”
Chickens are in season from June through October, and Marksbury can process 2,000 a week. It can process 40 to 50 lambs and 60 80 beef cattle.
Swaim grew up raising lambs and rabbits with his parents in Jessamine County, but he envied his grandparents, who had a cattle farm.
He was brought into the Marksbury fold after meeting Correll.
Marksbury is about to open a second food store and a second Pasture restaurant in the food hall at The Summit at Fritz Farm in Lexington. Also at the food hall, due to open in September, will be Atomic Ramen from Chef Dan Wu, Crank & Boom Ice Cream and Athenian Grill.
Swaim believes in what he does and isn’t afraid to show it off. He said customers should be clear about the practices of those who produce their food.
“Ask hard questions from whomever you’re sourcing your food from,” he said. “If you’re not satisfied, keep going. ... Food is becoming a hobby for folks. If we can tell our story, and tell customers how best to use these things, we’re good.”