In the Field: Doug Bunker of Lake Country Premium Meats
Doug Bunker of Hanova Hills Farm
Doug Bunker likes to talk about well-fed and happy cows. Tasty beef, too, and that’s no contradiction. Over the course of a thirty-year period, the Buffalo resident and retired professor has become a farm owner and beef producer. Bunker and his wife, Barbara, along with Dan and Susan Egan, own and run Lake Country Premium Natural Meats, working out of Hanova Hills Farm in Chautauqua.
The farm was originally purchased in 1977 as a Bunker family experiment. By 1989, they decided to go into the beef business on a small scale. Another milestone was reached around 1997, when they decided to push their business to a more serious level. “We built new barns and quadrupled our herd,” Bunker states. “We partnered with some folks up in Medina, who were working under the name ‘Lake Country Premium.’ We bought a packing plant in Batavia.”
Neither the packing plant nor the original Lake Country partnership worked; the Bunkers sold the plant and bought out the brand name. They realized that they wanted and needed to try raising good quality beef on their own. “Based on our own values, and some hope and guessing, we thought there was a market for natural beef,” Bunker states. “We thought we could do it as well as or better than anybody else, and we had the right livestock and situation.”
“We also have clientele in this area. They are largely well educated and upscale. This segment of the population is becoming more oriented to food safety, and also to the idea of wanting to know where their meat comes from. There is a wider interest in being able to have a connection with the producer, and not just buy through impersonal distribution systems,” says Bunker.
“Lake Country Premium now has a unique identity, and a higher-quality product. We never intended to depend on this for a living, but we do want the business to sustain itself. There is no quick or easy way to make money raising beef.”
In order to make the farm and the business viable, Bunker and his wife sought a partnership that would work. Dan and Sue Egan were a match, and they were brought on in 2000. “Dan is an experienced farm manager,” recalls Bunker. “We really wanted a long-term commitment. They are our partners now—we own the real estate (a couple of hundred acres), and they are in on the product stock, brand, and all the rest.”
Bunker notes that global disputes about antibiotics and steroids, plus beef recalls and the distasteful idea of huge processing plants, were all factors that helped set him on the course he and his farm have taken. “We are not on a huge campaign about ‘right and wrong,’” he says. “This is what we have; we think it’s a good thing and we are happy to be doing it this way.”
Bunker does point out the commonsense benefits of a relatively small herd of locally raised, naturally fed, processed, and aged beef, versus how it’s done on the industrial national scale. “We start with good genetics,” he says. “We buy excellent registered Angus bulls. Our stock is eighty-five percent Angus now, and we breed them with Herefords—one of the preferred crosses. English breeds, which we also cross with, like Red Devon, have excellent carcass quality.” That quality includes nice marbling and tender, flavorful meat.
Rather than leave it to chance, the Bunkers decided to bet on the side of food and health safety. “Our animals are never given antibiotics or artificial hormones. They spend most of their time on pasture,” Bunker says. “We raise 150–170 calves a year and when they are ready to stage (900–1,000 pounds), we feed them more intensively. During the finishing process (or being “readied for market”) they are in a barn, and fed hay and a little corn.”
The search for a processor and packer was not easy. Not only are there very few around, but Bunker’s standards are high. Eventually they found a federally inspected plant near Erie, Pennsylvania that would fit the bill.
“Because we are a small producer, and we want to avoid the risk of contamination from commodity beef, our product has to be segregated. They will [butcher] ours first and then they can do their commodity beef—it can’t be the other way around.”
At the plant, the cattle are slaughtered and the sides of beef are dry-aged for two weeks in a cooler. This amount of time has been determined by Lake Country as an adequate aging period for the flavor and freshness levels they are looking for. Each side is then cut to Bunker’s specifications. Finally, each cut is individually cryovaced and flash frozen.
“Because of its greater surface area, and mixing of meat from so many different animals—up to 5,000—ground beef is more vulnerable than any other cut for contamination,” Bunker says. “Our ground beef,” he stresses, “is made in small batches, from one or sometimes two animals, and it is immediately flash frozen. People often notice the difference.”
“Our packer told me we were wasting meat—most ground beef is actually made of the trim and other leftover bits—but we only take cuts out of the round, what would have been a roast, and use that as our ground beef,” says Bunker with a touch of pride. “We’ll also add some of the chuck; it’s very tasty. We call it hand-selected, and it’s unlike any you’ve ever eaten.”
Jana Eisenberg is Spree’s contributing editor for style.