Sustainable, organic farming grows out of niche market

HONEY BROOK — Since Wyebrook Farm’s owner Dean Carlson launched his version of sustainable farming a few years ago, he’s been busy raising heritage cattle, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep on the farm’s 355 acres here.

Renovations to the farm’s stone buildings, courtyard and bank barn have created space for an upscale on-farm meat market, dining areas and venues for farm-chef dinners, events and music.

Educational events, such as a USDA-sponsored pasture walk for about 40 local farmers and butchering workshops, are just part of its unique vision.

Carlson’s uncompromising focus is on some of the most visible trends in today’s food market.

Not too long ago, there was a tiny niche market composed of consumers who wanted their food to be organic, natural, non-GMO and locally grown.

It’s still a niche market, but getting more robust by the week.

Wyebrook Farm is operated as a sustainable, direct-to-consumer combination farm, restaurant and meat market.

All the meat sold in the market and served at the restaurant comes from pigs, cattle, chickens, goats and sheep raised on pasture on the farm.

If an item such as goat cheese is in the Wyebrook market case or on the restaurant menu, it either comes from Wyebrook or from another operation within 100 miles of Honey Brook, said Alexi Alejandro, the farm’s butcher.

Alejandro is a May 2012 graduate of the International Culinary Center, where one of his instructors was Janet Crandall.

When Crandall took a break from her teaching job to become the first chef at Wyebrook, she enticed Alejandro to join her. When she returned to ICC, Alejandro remained in Honey Brook.

But not as the chef.

“I fell in love with butchering,” he said. “And for now, I don’t want to cook. I want to cut meat.”

Alejandro takes a quartered beef or a side of pork and fashions it into steaks, chops, ribs, roasts and anything else that a Wyebrook customer could want.

On an average week, they’ll go through two beeves and four hogs, Alejandro said, plus chickens and whatever goats and lambs the market calls for.

Eric Yost, Wyebrook Farm’s chef, came to the farm in December of last year, and echoed Alejandro’s main reason for joining the business.

“I’m here because I believe in Dean’s vision,” he said. “A lot of people have said it can’t work. But I believe it can.”

There are signs.

There is family-style seating in the meat market for 50 people. About once a month, Wyebrook hosts special event dinners with chefs who are well-known locally and even nationally.

Guests pay $100 a head to sit on a bench at a farm table for these events and they are always sold out.

In the first year of business, except for special events, only lunch was served on a regular basis, and only on Saturdays and Sundays.

Yost encouraged Carlson to open up for dinner and Fridays were added to the market-restaurant days of operation.

Just recently, the business was opened to Thursday customers.

And the place gets full. Despite its rural location, it is located not far from more dense populations.

The most expensive item on Wyebrook’s menu as of this writing was a gastronomical adventure featuring the farm’s grassfed sirloin steak, with wild ramp gnocchi, sauteed stinging nettles, bacon and a cabernet reduction.

That dish was listed at $25, and a side of bacon mac and cheese with a Parmesan bread crumb topping would add $7.

The restaurant business is a tough, tough business, but Yost said they are attracting more customers every week. And there is a solid and growing demand for grassfed meat, he said.

Owner Carlson is a 42-year-old native Midwesterner who left his job as a Wall Street bond and derivatives trader with the goal of becoming a farmer.

He did so in a big way, paying $4.5 million for the 355-acre Wyebrook Farm property, which was in foreclosure at the time.

Then he spent more of his Wall Street bankroll on renovations and getting the restaurant and market up and running.

The land, renovations and staff are expenses. On the other hand, compared to conventional hog, beef and poultry operations, he has no housing to build, maintain, heat and cool with his grassfed, pastured operation.

He has no manure handling or hauling expense. He pays no commissions to middleman marketers. He doesn’t need diesel fuel. He buys minimal feed, and no herbicides, insecticides, hormones or drugs.

Time will tell if his economic model is more efficient than the traditional approach to farming.