Growing a Career

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Marjorie Struckle New York Correspondent

At 22, Ag Entrepreneur Already an Old Hand at Business



Lilac Hedge Farm is a name known in Massachusetts for quality meat for some time, but what many don’t know is that the enterprising 22-year-old behind the business began his venture at the age of 14.

Today, using sustainable natural methods, Ryan MacKay of Berlin, Mass., raises beef, pork, lamb, chicken and other products for sale in farmers markets.

“It is not easy to start a farm if you don’t have one in production,” MacKay said. “I grew up active with ag in 4-H. I’m trying to get back into it, which skipped a generation.”

The staple of his businesses is his own small meat CSA (community supported agriculture), in which consumers pay in advance for a six- or 12-month plan and a guaranteed 10, 15 or 20 pounds of meat each month.

He credits his grandfather with beginning his farming career.

When MacKay was 14, they made an arrangement to cut and sell the Christmas trees on a neighbor’s property which had been sold for development.

He has a great working relationship with nearby Berlin Orchards, which had boiled his sap into maple syrup in the past. Today, he takes the Christmas trees he buys wholesale to the orchard to sell. He also brings his animals there to make a family destination, with horse-drawn hay rides and a barnyard complete with typical farm animals, along with llamas, alpacas and a camel.

“The Christmas trees is what provided the funding to get the meat off the ground,” MacKay said.

He has raised meat his entire life and has grown the business the past three years to participate in Boston farmers markets and a co-op. His goal is to have the business operational and full time when he completes his agricultural business degree from UMass-Amherst this year.

Currently, his operation is maxed out on 40 acres of leased land. Massachusetts land prices are high, and he said it’s difficult to finance both the livestock and the land. Yet he isn’t discouraged.

“People are supporting me by paying the asking prices,” he said. “They enjoy knowing where their food comes from.”

The animals are on pasture all year long, with the pigs in wooded areas and sheds containing supplemental feed. He needs to purchase all his feed. He credits rotational pasturing for the lack of a manure storage problem.

Recently, MacKay took on a college student, Tom Corbett, as a partner for the Christmas trees and meat business. Although Corbett doesn’t have an agricultural background, they work well together.

“Beef is the hardest to raise,” MacKay said. “I needed to buy calves and I feed out Angus.”

He raises meat birds in batches of 200 birds on rotating pasture for a quick turnover of broilers ready for sale in eight weeks. He also has six breeding sows, a flock of sheep with 30 ewes, and 16 cows. This year he will have 100 turkeys available for Thanksgiving.

The CSA is operated year round, while the farmers markets are May to November. He has been accepted into winter indoor farmer markets. He has 20 meat goats started for the winter market to meet the demand of ethnic groups.

MacKay spends much of his time driving from his central Massachusetts location. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he drives an hour and a half to the university; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he drives an hour to the Boston markets.

With only two slaughter facilities in Massachusetts, he prefers Adams Farm in Athol, Mass., for its state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected processing plant.

“Temple Grandin designed the facility and customers are reading books and appreciative of Temple Grandin designs,” MacKay said. “Educating the consumer on how animals are cared and handled from raising till slaughter is important.”

The slaughtered animals are taken to Connecticut to process for nitrate-free hot dogs and kielbasa. He also takes the birds to Connecticut, since there are no USDA-certified poultry slaughter houses in Massachusetts.

Another goal is to have employees to go to the markets, so MacKay can remain at home with the animals, which he prefers. But he realizes it is very important to have someone with knowledge selling the products.

“It’s getting harder to keep up with the farmers markets without pursing the restaurants. I do supply a couple upscale Boston restaurants and a couple local restaurants,” MacKay said.

“The market business has a very strong future in Massachusetts,” he said. “The number of farms has increased in the past years. They are mainly less than 50 acres with a smaller-scale and a niche market.”

MacKay is on the Massachusetts Farm Bureau county board and is active in Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers (YF&R) program. He is on a committee which is developing a livestock board on the state level.

“There is a problem in Massachusetts that the neighbors and towns aren’t familiar with ag practices. We need to educate them,” he said.

Massachusetts YF&R recently hosted a group of young farmers from Illinois who, MacKay said, were amazed to see small, profitable niche farming with income comparable to soybean and corn farms in Illinois.

MacKay is developing both his meat animals and marketing strategy to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplace.

To see more about Lilac Hedge Farm and where to purchase the meat, visit<\c> Photos courtesy of Ryan MacKay



Selling Christmas trees at nearby Berlin Orchards helps MacKay finance the rest of his operation.



When he’s not in school, MacKay spends two days a week selling his products at Boston markets.



Ryan MacKay raises all his animals on pasture at Lilac Hedge Farm.



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