First Time Farmers in Hopewell, NJ Embrace Unique Business Model, Hope to Grow Sustainable Farm Movement
February 25, 2013 | Missy Smith
Like many people jumping aboard the local food revolution, Robin and Jon McConaughy’s sustainable farming journey all started with an article that took a peek behind the conventional farming curtain. Ten years ago, as Robin McConaughy was flipping through the New York Times’ Sunday newspaper, she came across Michael Pollan’s article “Power Steer”, which chronicled the life of a conventionally raised cow from birth to dinner table.
“It disgusted me. It was such an eye opener,” reflects McConaughy, who says that neither she nor her husband have farming backgrounds. “I actually thought people farmed on green fields. I never [considered] what the meat from the supermarket actually was.” Already having a desire to own some land where their now 10- and 12-year-old boys could grow up forming a first-hand understanding of nature, McConaughy and her husband Jon found Pollan’s belly-turning piece to be the final push in a healthy, sustainable direction.
In 2003, the McConaughys purchased their 60-acre farm in Hopewell Township, N.J., and got to work raising some animals for their family’s consumption. Interested in what they were doing on their new farm, friends, family and neighbors soon began express interest in purchasing some of the farm’s meat. So, in 2004 the family hired its first farmer and started Double Brook Farm. Though not officially open for business, the farm started selling its meat products at its farm stand last year.
With a strong desire to make its mark within the local food movement, the family farm will sell produce, meat, charcuterie products, dairy products and prepared foods, and will offer any produce that can be grown in the state of New Jersey. The family is also trying its hand at some unique items like New Jersey’s indigenous paw-paw and hazelnuts impregnated with truffle spores. Double Brook Farm is also raising cattle, sheep, turkeys, chickens and pigs.
Farming creatively and sustainably
A major component of Double Brook Farm’s sustainable mission is caring for its soil. Inside of its run-in barn, wintering cattle deposit manure on the floor, where farm employees top it with hay and wood chips, repeating this process every day. Once the manure breaks down, they spread the biological material on their fields. Even on the rare occasion when an animal dies, they integrate its remains into the compost. “We are always trying to enrich the soil, so the grass is better and the health of the animals is better,” McConaughy explains.
While Double Brook Farm is currently not a certified organic operation, it does not use growth hormones or antibiotics on its animals, and McConaughy says the farm does everything it can to not use fertilizer.
For now, the family farm holds sales in its barn, offering the local community pork products, triple-strained yogurt, eggs and even whipped lardo. Early next year, Double Brook Farm will open a refined farm-to-table restaurant. “The business itself is set up like a partnership. We have a number of people with a share,” McConaughy explains. Double Brook Farm will also open a market in early March that will offer its farm products under one roof. Both the restaurant and market will provide food sourced within five square miles.
To get started with their sustainable farming endeavor, the couple researched local farming trends, discovering that many farmers struggle with marketing and distribution, and chefs, restaurants and retailers struggle with quality and consistency. In order to bridge this gap for its own operation, Double Brook Farm implemented a vertical business model, in which the farming, slaughter capabilities, retail market and restaurant are organized under the same entity: the farm.
“A vertical farm model lets us control the business from top to bottom,” explains McConaughy. “By direct communication between farmers and their customers, both sides can craft their business based on what’s available and what’s possible for the farm to deliver.”
Having previously worked in high-power corporate positions, Robin and Jon have applied some of their past professional experiences and successes to their farming endeavor. “Owning the pull-through (the market and the restaurant) allows us to control our inputs and outputs in a way that most farmers cannot,” says Robin McConaughy. “Our prior working experience increased our ability to look at farming as a business: one that needs equal attention paid to farming, marketing and delivery to create a successful model.”
Spreading the sustainable farming word
With a strong desire to improve their own lives as well as the lives of others, Double Brook Farm has big plans ahead with its market and restaurant. But, McConaughy says that the family does not foresee expanding their business in the future. Instead, they hope to inspire others to join the sustainable farming movement by encouraging them to start similar endeavors.
“We see this as a business that could be replicated. We hope to potentially help other people grow a similar type of business and have an outlet for excellent food,” she says, elaborating that down the road Double Brook Farm could play an advisory, consultant or educational role in helping others create similar business models. “We need more farmers. I say the more the merrier.”