Starksboro farmer uses ‘retro’ practices
STARKSBORO — When thinking about the future of farming, Starksboro farmer Kerry Kurt believes the key to success lies in the past. She’s spent the past 13 years running a beef operation at Sentinel Farms that she believes returns to cleaner ways of farming and prioritizes the well-being of both the cattle and their eventual consumers.
Kurt calls her approach retro-regenerational farming — a blend of “retro” farming practices without the use of hormones or herbicides and with the use of “regenerative” practices that work with nature rather than adding to or damaging it.
“Just trying to stay with the natural web of life,” Kurt explained. “150 years ago, most all of our foods were raised in a humane way, which includes an enjoyment of life.”
Kurt offered an example of what this looks like on Sentinel Farms.
“Retro-regenerational farming does not need to seasonally till the land, which breaks up the living microbial communities within the soil and releases additional carbon into the atmosphere,” she said. “Instead, we use rotational grazing of our beautiful happy cows who eat up the “weeds” as a complimentary part of their fully grass and browse diets.”
Another element of this farming style means Kurt chooses not to use man-made fertilizers, herbicides or hormones. She also opts for on-farm slaughtering, a practice she said ensures the animal’s death is as free from fear as possible.
“I choose to be in control of how my animals live their lives from birth through harvest, and it’s really important to me that none of my animals experience fear or stress in their final moments,” she said. “Harvesting on farm ensures that.”
She said doing so can also have benefits for consumers. During a stressful event, corticosteroids are released into the animal’s bloodstream, which affects the meat quality.
“These animals don’t have a corticosteroid release, which would then be left for us to digest,” she said.
Kurt started her beef operation with seven purebred Hereford calves back in 2009. She bred them with Red Angus to create a breed of strong cows with a thick coat that serves multiple purposes.
“I am creating a specific Vermont specialty breed, bred for Vermont weather conditions so they stay warmer and burn less calories in the winter, and (their coat) also helps keep the bugs off of them,” she explained.
She now raises around 30 cows each year and sells the meat from each harvest to community members and groups that organize local Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) arrangements. She sells the beef by the quarter and half, at around $5.50 per pound for hanging weight.
Although Kurt’s been raising beef this way for over 13 years, for her crafting this approach began long before that. Her retro-regenerational farming style is a blend of her lifelong love for animals and a passion for science. It’s also informed by previous experiences in the meat industry.
After graduating from the University of Vermont with a nursing degree in 1983 and representing Chittenden County in the State House for three terms, Kurt moved to Colorado and began ranching in the Rockies. She said her time on the ranch taught her a lot about the practices she did not want to repeat in her own beef raising operation, such as the use of hormones to promote weight gain in cattle.
“I remember being there and thinking ‘we’re doing what?’” Kurt said of the practice. “But of course, I was the new one. I wasn’t going to change the culture, so what I did was I learned a different way to do it.”
As an animal lover, Kurt feels passionately about giving her cattle a good life. And as a meat eater, she recognizes the importance of having clean protein in your diet. She said her approach to beef raising satisfies both priorities, giving the cattle a good life and the consumer a nutritious protein option.
“I originally did it for my emotional heart, but then the science part of me and doing some research realized it’s actually good for my physical heart as well,” she said of her farming style.
Kurt’s beef operation is just one of the things she does at Sentinel Farms. Her farm at 4118 Route 116 is also the homebase for the nonprofit, Unbound Grace, she founded in 2007. Through Unbound Grace, she has fulfilled her lifelong dream of offering farm-based educational programming for youth.
She offers summer camps and horseback-riding lessons and is currently planning for a year-round welding and mechanics studio on the farm that will offer more youth programming.
Kurt sees all her work at Sentinel Farms as a means of achieving her overall goal of encouraging community health and wellness, specifically when it comes to what we eat.
“When we choose to support and consume love-centered foods, we simultaneously promote individual and global holistic health and well-being,” she said. “We have to feed people a diet that helps us maintain our greatest health and enjoy the work of serving our community.”
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