Dean Carlson insists that it’s the land that matters the most, but the equation that marries a farmer to his land is still based on yielding a return. For the traditional lifetime farmer, too often that ultimate payoff comes when that farmer sells his land to close a career—though another lost farm doesn’t always yield a positive outcome in a community.
At Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook, Chester County, Carlson is doing it backwards, buying into an experiment with an immense up-front capital investment as a young, new farmer. In the process, he’s trying to establish a modern-day model of small-scale sustainable farming for others to follow.
In an industrial-scale world, he knows the odds are stacked against him. But for Carlson, old farmhouses on farm acreage are proof that farmers once made a decent living, so he bought a nearly 360-acre expanse in 2009 and left behind a 15-year financial career. At Wyebrook, he and his wife, Emelie Ehn Carlson, are now well into their buy-fresh, buy-local beef, pork and chicken venture, an alternative to an industrial food supply.
They may never get their buy-in figure back, but they live in a separate secluded 1750s house on the property, so this is a lifestyle choice, too. Still, Dean insists there’s a benefit to stepping into agriculture as an outsider: no preconceived notions. “We can only just try,” he says.
They mostly sell raw meat from their on-site butcher shop and in their eatery in a restored barn—meat that’s prepared and served. They also have a butcher shop called La Divisa Meats in the Reading Terminal Market. There’s been some dabbling in wholesale distribution to restaurants and retailers, too, but 80 to 90 percent of sales are on the farm. “Not every farm would do it this way,” Dean admits.
That’s what makes Wyebrook different. Even the pre-Carlson farming history on this land has been conventional—dairy and row cropping, though on hilly, stony terrain that’s better suited for grazing. “The feedlot may be a solution for some, but not us,” he says.
Establishing pasture land required a massive one-time seeding. The Carlsons also limed and spread trace minerals.In drilling in grass seed, at first there were more weeds than grasses. Now, they spot seed with a mix of cool season grasses and clovers. “The grazing animals take just the tops off, fertilize as they move and pound in grass seed with their hooves,” says Dean, citing nature’s help.
With rotational grazing, the 200 head of Devon and Devon-cross cows move daily, on average, within temporary fencing. Devons are an old English breed with smaller frames more suitable for pastures, but there are also Angus and other assorted crosses with the focus on finishing. “We’re buying local calves from farms down in the Unionville area,” Dean says.
Wyebrook’s heritage pigs—Berkshires, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Tamworths and Red Wattles— are more stationary. The farm finishes 120 of them annually. The Carlsons have also had Ossabaws, which hail from an island in Georgia. In the 1500s Spaniards dropped them there, and they lived feral for 500 years. Adaption began in the 1980s. Small and thrifty, these pigs grow slowly, but they are great foragers. Their meat is rich, darker and more marbled. The fat is super-white.
The farm’s 500 laying hens follow the cows three days later, pecking at manure for larvae and what’s left of the grass. The broilers (meat chickens) have their own hoop houses that they pull forward into fresh pasture. “With a lifespan of nine weeks, they get from one end (of the pasture) to the other,” Dean says.
Eggs are sold and used for Sunday brunch. About 3,000 broilers—mostly Freedom Ranger, another slow grower famous for its flavor—head to market. The Carlsons have also begun experimenting with honeybees and growing vegetables. They’re also looking to tap their maple trees.
There are two full-time farm-side employees. Ryan Bostdorf arrived in 2012 from Penn State University after gaining experience with grass-based farming at the Haller Farm and the Penn State Swine Research Center. His expertise is in animal welfare and nutrition. Matt Brady moved in from the Gulf Coast in 2016 to learn more about sustainable farming.
Together they’re responsible for efficiently moving grazing animals. To help, the Carlsons put in a 9,000-gallon storage well at the top of one hill that flows by gravity to half the farm. Solar panels meet roughly half the farm’s energy needs.
With grass-fed beef, Carlson says it’s easy to explain sustainability: The inputs are natural, renewable resources. Even in a 35-acre wooded area for the pigs, he’s created a mix of grass and trees (natural and planted) that produce perennials—nuts, for one— to sustain foraging habits. “We’re still learning and adapting,” Dean says. “We’re getting closer to understanding how to make it profitable.”
Dean may have left Wall Street, but he retains his business acumen. He figures that as population and food prices increase, so will the value of farmland—especially near areas where people live. By 2009, the housing market had collapsed, and that stymied competition from developers. The dilapidated farm he found was in foreclosure, which left him negotiating with the bank, a familiar face from his previous life. The location (near the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Route 30 bypass) came with a surrounding population.
“There are typically two ways to buy an old farm—at auction or going to the family,” says Dean. “I could say to a bank, ‘I think it’s worth half of what you say.’ But that’s not a fun conversation to have with a family,”
Dean’s earliest years at the farm centered on restoration, while he commuted from the city. Ten miles of fencing created pastures and borders. Animals began arriving in 2010, and the Carlsons opened for retail sales in 2012.
Dean grew up in suburban Minnesota. Emelie came from Stockholm, Sweden to New York. Together, they immersed themselves in the practices of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. “The biggest question was whether we could get people to come here,” Dean says. “We’ve proven that it can be done.”
The first year, 70 percent of sales were in raw meat, and 30 percent cooked—numbers that have reversed. Most clients are from wealthy sections of Chester County, and there’s a devoted following in Philadelphia. “When anyone comes shopping, they stock their refrigerator,” Emelie says.
Dean admits that some come for the experience, a tour of the lush historic farm. The original manor house is used for events, and could become a B&B at some point. Initially, the couple used the restored setting as a drawing card—hosting a pig roast and a steer roast. “Out of nowhere, 500 or 600 people showed up,” Dean recalls. “It was cheaper than advertising. Now, the product sells itself.”
Time is on the side of these young farmers, though Dean admits he’s still learning.
“With what can easily be three crappy businesses—small-scale farming, a butcher shop and a restaurant—the odds are against us,” says Dean. “Years ago, this would have been impossible, but it’s not impossible now. Still, it’s pointless if we cannot make money, because then we’re not setting an example.” o
To learn more, visit www.wyebrookfarm.com.