Elizabeth “Betsy” Barr drives up the hill to the large farmhouse just off West Strasburg Road a few minutes after 5pm and parks her blue SUV under an ancient, spreading beech. She turns off the engine, but remains seated inside, door still closed, engrossed in a cell phone call. Her yellow cat, Dundee, paces outside. Inside the house, Doug Barr hobbles around his home office on crutches, recovering from a hip operation, while he closes down business for the day.
Both Barrs are bankers—she a regional real estate loan officer for TD Banknorth in West Chester and he an executive vice president for financial planning at Morgan Stanley, also in West Chester, just a five-block walk from his wife’s office.
They are also serious, hands-on farmers. Elizabeth raises horses, most recently brood mares for thoroughbred racing, and Doug cuts hay and harvests corn when he’s not playing Luther Burbank with his orchard of heirloom apples.
Betsy explains: “As we tell friends, I grow things that you have to feed. Doug grows things to feed them.”
The Barrs are not alone in this passion to have both serious day jobs and to moonlight as farmers, whether for fun or for profit. There are many of this new breed of gentleman farmer in a Chester County countryside that is increasingly becoming suburbanized with McMansion developments.
McMansions have footprints like those of elephants on doormat-sized lots. Suburban farmers like the Barrs—those who are executives, professionals, and business owners who are well off but who still want to live an agrarian life of crops and farm animals—are at the other end of the spectrum. They have large houses along with enough land to till or to graze and are hard-working farmers before daybreak, after business hours, and on weekends.
“Both Doug and I love horses, and we met riding,” Betsy says. They married in 1985 and decided in 1999 to buy their 50-acre farm—which had been in and out of Doug’s family since the 1700s—and move there from the Miner Park section of West Chester. It was about only about a 10-minute transfer west, but it was a huge jump in lifestyle.
“Some of our friends still can’t figure out how we do what we do,” Betsy laughs.
Their confusion is understandable—especially as the Barrs now have two young daughters, Elizabeth (almost 3) and Anne (less than a year), to raise in addition to holding down their day jobs.
Betsy’s herd of horses now stands at “about 18,” depending on the changing tally of livestock being born, bought, or sold.
It takes her about an hour and a half to feed the horses in the morning, but she does have help during the week. A nephew helps Doug raise the corn and hay on the rolling slopes behind the house. In addition, he prunes and grafts apple trees in the family orchard—now his horticultural workshop.
“Both our schedules are somewhat flexible,” Doug says, “and we both can do some work from home if necessary. Plus, with the proximity of West Chester, we can sometimes meet people out here without interrupting a work day.”
And the day jobs are still important; without them: “We wouldn’t have enough money,” says Betsy.
Anthony and Karen Mangus decided in 1999 to move from Pittsburgh to Chester County because their research told them it was a good place for vineyards.
“Karen and I are both first-generation farmers,” says Tony, who is a pilot with USAirways, “and this is our first attempt at it. But it’s already in our blood!”
As we talk one misty morning, Mangus, who isn’t flying today, tinkers with a new Antonio Carraro tractor, one made in Italy especially for vineyard work. It is a beautiful piece of machinery, but it’s also a reminder of the many expenses tied to part-time farming. The couple has to hire vineyard employees as well, even though they do a large portion of the labor themselves.
“I”ll be flying either three or four days a week,” Tony says, while Karen, a marketing executive with Invista in Delaware, works five. The rest of the time, the two are working on their Oxford property, which they first planted with two acres of vines in 2003.
“We opened ourselves to advice from people already in the field,” Tony says, “because farming has a steep learning curve. Mostly it was self-study, although we did take some extension courses.”
The first crop of grapes from their 10-acre Historic Hopewell Vineyard—they plant six varieties of classic vinifera—was sold in 2005, and they continue to supply a significant tonnage of grapes to three or four area wineries. Next, they plan to build and operate their own winery.
Tony looks up from his tractor and says, “One or both of us will continue to work full-time; we’re not going to jump into things too quickly. But a winery is the natural progression; it’s what we planned.”
It wasn’t exactly farming, but 16 years ago Jerry Pisano left his profitable career path as chief financial officer at area hospitals to work in the dirt. “I wanted to play with the big toys,” he laughs, so he switched from spreadsheets to terrain maps, starting his own excavating company. Meanwhile, his wife, Martha, has run her own commercial cleaning business for 24 years. She has 30 employees, primarily working maintenance contracts for office buildings.
The two entrepreneurs met and married 13 years ago and decided three years later to move to her parents” farm on Doe Run Station Road east of Coatesville.
“Then we read about this woman in Lancaster who was making her own sheep cheeses,” Jerry says. “We were both interested, so Martha went to her seminar and came back with a ram.” Literally.
Eight years later, the Pisanos are still at their day jobs—one digging dirt, the other cleaning up dirt—but they also are proud owners of 20 East Friesland variety ewes currently milking and another 10 yearlings. Their Highland Farm provides sheep cheeses and yogurt to area businesses and farmers” markets.
“This isn’t a career, it’s a hobby,” Jerry says, as he and Martha walk toward the milking barn one evening, “but it’s not a cheap hobby. We can only afford to do it because we’re self-employed.” Jerry is the quieter of the two, and Martha the more voluble. Jerry gently kids her about her perfectionist ways, especially when she remains critical of her cheeses—even though they’re so sought-after the Pisanos can’t keep up with demand.
Both can do all the farm and cheese-making jobs, but Jerry is currently in charge of the twice-a-day milking, two hours before work and two hours after, and Martha handles the cheese-making.
Inside the barn, the ewes are milked with a commercial machine, four at a time, all the while happily munching down on a “sweet feed” of grain, molasses, and minerals, so it is not a contentious undertaking. “I just call them, and they come,” Jerry says. On average, the ewes produce 10 to 11 gallons of milk daily, which translates into 10-15 pounds of cheese. The amount of milk varies from a high in the spring to a low in the fall, with four or five months of non-production in the winter.
Martha makes quite an array of cheeses: “pecorino, romano, manchego, Saint Pauline, gouda,” she counts as she shows off her cheese-making and cheese-aging quarters in a separate building. “Soft fresh cheese, a chevre-type sheep cheese, Camembert,” she continues, “and yogurt has recently taken off.” Jerry is experimenting with bleu cheeses.
The Pisanos also inherited producing fig trees on the farm—”There’s nothing like a meal of wine, cheese, and figs,” Jerry says—and they are raising free-range chickens for egg production. Although they have seven acres of pasture land, they say it isn’t enough for a full-time, profitable operation. It’s all about the lifestyle.
“We lived in Paoli for three years before we moved,” Martha says. “We gained a new group of friends here, and most understand our lifestyle. I love cooking and entertaining on the patio during the summer.”
The Pisanos, the Manguses, and the Barrs are not alone in their farming lifestyle. Over in Landenberg, Tom and Barbara Schaer, when they’re not working as veterinarians at New Bolton Center, produce honey, eggs, lamb meat, and wool. David Othmer, a media consultant and retired public television executive, and his wife, Maurren Barden, a former federal prosecutor currently a criminologist, live in Philadelphia but spend much of their time at their commercial vineyard in Kemblesville. There are many such small-scale farmers in the region, though not all are as ambitious as these couples.
“We’re beginning to master it,” Martha says of their sheep-to-cheese business.
“Martha’s never happy with it,” Jerry gibes.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” Martha says, ignoring him.