Many of us are aware of the issues surrounding where our food comes from — how safe and wholesome it is, the devastating effects the industrialized food system has on the environment, the brutal treatment of livestock, and the demise of family farming.
But few among us who have read “Fast Food Nation” or “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or viewed the movie “Food Inc.” have so completely altered the direction of our lives as Robin and Jon McConaughy of Hopewell. The McConaughys have shaken off their high-powered, high-income careers to launch a pioneering 10-year project, now in its eighth year, to bring the movement to eat local, natural, sustainable, farm-to-table, and humanely-grown food to a new level.
They have already established Double Brook Farm, producing meat, poultry, and eggs in an environmentally conscious way. But they are also well on their way to opening a retail market in Hopewell Borough and a 125-seat restaurant at their farm. Both will feature the farm’s output, including meat, vegetables, cheese, and bread. The mission, the Double Brook website explains, is “to get the best-tasting local food to the community at prices that make sense, while fulfilling our goal of humane animal treatment.”
As if the farm, restaurant, and market weren’t enough, the McConaughys are putting the finishing touches on what they call the Traveling Butcher — the state’s first mobile slaughterhouse, which will process their own animals and those from farms within a 50-mile radius. This vision developed over time, as has their substantial investment. The cost for the mobile slaughterhouse alone is estimated to run about $1 million.
The couple started in 2003 by purchasing a 60-acre parcel on Long Way in Hopewell Township. “There was nothing on the land then,” says Jon, who recently gave up his career in finance to turn his attention full-time to the project. He had been the managing director and head of exchange traded funds for Credit Suisse, where he worked for 10 years. “At the time the thought was just to start a farm,” he says. “There was no definite idea beyond producing meat animals for ourselves.”
He and Robin have two sons, ages 8 and 11. Robin adds, “We were reading horror stories about meat and knew we wanted to be back on the land, to be in a rural setting.” She mentions Michael Pollan’s influential story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2002, in which he chronicled the life of an industrially raised and processed steer, from its earliest days until he cooked and consumed its meat.
“That set us down the road,” Jon says. “We began reading other books. We came to the conclusion that we’ve gotten into a bad place when it comes to animals and fossil fuels and the environment.”
During this period the McConaughys were building their home on the farm, and Jon became involved with the construction. His brother, Drew, acted as general contractor and building manager for the house, which was designed by Glen Fries Associates of Princeton. “I wanted to be involved hands-on,” says Jon. “We built a barn, wood shop, and kiln. We used local trees for things like the floors and cabinet doors, and reclaimed beams from old barns.” The fieldstone on the facade of the grand structure, completed in 2007, comes from just across the Delaware River.
“Between building the house and the reading we were doing, sustainability became our focus,” Jon says. On their website, the McConaughys write, “At every turn, through conversations with friends, stories in the media — the demand for local, all-natural, pasture-raised products has defined the direction of our farm.” The end goal is a completely vertical model, with nearly everything produced on the farm.
“Closed loop farming is how we describe what we do,” Jon says. “You’re getting everything you need from inside the farm itself. Our definition of sustainability is zero outside input.” That includes making compost and getting off the energy grid. McConaughy installed energy-neutral solar panels on two barns, and the farm machinery runs on biodiesel from used cooking oil they retrieve from the Tiger’s Tale restaurant in Montgomery.
Jon grew up in Ringoes, while Robin grew up in Kingston. They became acquainted during their high school years at Princeton Day School, but didn’t date. Jon, now 45, went on to earn a degree in finance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He worked for Susquehanna Investment Group, then moved on to Credit Suisse, from which he retired on March 31. He says that although he enjoyed his time in finance he misses nothing about the job. “Certainly not the commute to New York,” he says, laughing. “But this project is not that different, except that in the financial world I made no product other than money. Now, it’s very satisfying to me to see a plant grow, or the miracle of birth.”
Robin, 42, headed from PDS to Hartford, CT, for a bachelor’s in English and Italian literature and language at Trinity College, hoping to become a writer. It was only after college, when they both wound up living and working in Philadelphia, that the two reconnected. They married in 1998.
Robin has been fulltime at the farm since last May, after first working as a head hunter for eight years and then running her own sports media business for five. She is responsible for hiring, administration, safety, and overall development of the retail store, restaurant, and slaughterhouse.
Robin’s father and two brothers are bankers; her mother a homemaker. Her grandfather, Peter Cook, was an accomplished painter, best known for his portraiture, including that of Hobey Baker, the legendary Princeton hockey player.
Jon grew up in the Ringoes house that is now Peacock’s Country Store. His father is an artist who for decades, with Jon’s mother, owned a watercolor business in which they would, he says, “go all around the country painting local scenes.” As the business expanded and added artists, it became known as Gray’s Watercolors, and its prints of bucolic towns, college campuses (including Princeton and Rutgers), and historic events are still in demand.
Asked if he can he name a model for what he is doing, Jon says, “For vegetables, yes. It is feasible for one farm to provide to one restaurant. But animals take more resources.”
He has done his homework. He cites the groundbreaking effort at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. “That restaurant gets some of its meat and poultry from its own animals, and some of its produce from their farm,” he says. “But there is no community involvement, and the food is very expensive. It’s out of reach for most of the locals.”
Ditto for Ninety Acres, the restaurant that’s part of Sir Richard Branson’s developing resort at Natirar, the former estate of the king of Morocco in Peapack-Gladstone. The McConaughys have even visited the famed River Cottage Farm outside of London. “The animals there are for show,” he says. “But [owner/chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall] does sincerely talk about the loss of appreciation for aging meats, traditional butchering, and that sort of thing. They have a windmill that supplies only five percent of their energy, and little of what they serve comes off the farm.”
Those who have inspired the McConaughys include Bill and Nicholette Niman, whose Niman Ranch in California pioneered the grassfed and pasture-raised meat movement, and whom the couple recently visited.
The problem with any local enterprise, he says, “is that a fair amount of capital is needed. And with a vertically integrated operation like ours, even more so.”
McConaughy is funding the entire project himself. “If you go looking for capital, well, farmers are not good bets for investors — and especially a 10-year project like this. If five to six years from now we can show a profit, we’ll get investors.”
Although he has no financial partners, he intends to set up LLCs for the different businesses. “The restaurant manager, the market manager, the animal farmer, poultry farmer, and vegetable farmer all will be partners,” he says. In fact, he has already established Hopewell Garage LLC, named after the site of the old Malek Chevrolet dealership in the borough, which is the site of the forthcoming market store. “Each major player will be an owner, sharing in the net profits and having a say in how things are run.”
Each piece of the multi-million dollar puzzle came together organically, Jon says. “First we became enamored with farm-to-table. When we already had the farm, it was natural that, as contiguous parcels came up for sale, we would grow.” The farm now consists of the original 60 acres, plus another 40 on the other side of nearby railroad tracks, and 165 acres three miles away.
In addition, Double Brook Farm leases 200 acres, some from the contiguous St. Michael’s Preserve of the D&R Greenway Land Trust. When the Hopewell Garage property became available, the McConaughys snatched it up, realizing its location on Broad Street would be an ideal locale for the market. “Then our neighbors, the Lemmerlings, became ready to sell their 1810 farmhouse, so we bought it, not knowing that it would become our restaurant,” he says.
Eventually, 20 acres of the farm will be devoted to vegetables, with five of those acres in production each year. About 220 acres of the 360-acre St. Michael’s Preserve is pastureland. The regulations surrounding farmland preservation stipulate that the land must be farmed. “This hasn’t always happened,” Jon McConaughy says, “We paid with an upfront donation, and our arrangement is like a lease: 90 acres are leased long-term; 30 middle-term.”
Robin says that Double Brook Farm is not certified organic. “We keep to organic practices, but if an animal becomes sick, we’ll treat it with antibiotics. We may choose to sell it to another farmer, but in any case we won’t let an animal suffer.”
For the McConaughys, a continuous discussion centers on conscious choices about what is best. “Does local trump organic? What about being in season?” Robin asks. As an example, they mention the merits of a pear from Terhune Orchards versus an organic pear from Chile. “The Terhune pear is not organic, but it’s from right down the road and just picked, versus, say, a pear that happens to be organic but has come all the way from Chile.”
Sixteen full-time employees — six farmers among them — and three interns currently work the farm, tending 225 Devon cattle, about the same number of Katahdin sheep, 50 pigs of different breeds, 200 chickens, and five breeds of heritage turkeys. When not on pasture, the animals are housed in attractive wooden structures, some with cupolas and weathervanes in addition to solar structures.
Among the farm buildings are a chicken brooding (egg incubation) barn, wood shop, solar storage barn, and sheep barn. This last structure produces about half the solar energy captured on the farm: 40 kilowatts. Another 50 kilowatts are produced via evacuated tube technology, enough to heat the barn and even heat water for the house.
Down the road is the farm’s largest outbuilding, the open-sided cow wintering barn. Here, hay for the cows during the cold weather is kept, and the floor consists of a deep layer of wood chips that will eventually become the farm’s compost, with manure from the pigs and the cows. “It mimics the model of how we pasture: cows first, then sheep, then chickens come on the pasture a couple of days later to eat out the bugs while spreading and aerating the manure,” Jon says. The waste from the mobile slaughterhouse will become part of the farm’s compost, too.
Double Brook Farm is adjacent to a typical suburban housing development, so relations with close neighbors could have been a problem. Yet, Jon says, “Everyone has been very supportive. Even when the weather doesn’t cooperate and I have to, say, keep the cows in the paddocks longer than the cows like and start to complain.”
Open communication is key, says Robin. “They want to be part of the farm. They’ll ask, ‘when are you going to move the cows?’ because they want to watch. Or they’ll call to say, “I think one of your cows has just gone into labor.’ That’s helpful.”
The McConaughys want the community to see the benefits of having a farm nearby and actively encourage people to visit. To that end, they have made a point of including broad walkways open to the public in and around each of the farm’s holdings, including the path between the farm and restaurant. This sort of inclusion has also helped to ease their journey through a maze of regulatory bodies. In addition to the township planning and zoning boards, the McConaughys have had to navigate the historical commission, the Mercer County agricultural development board, the New Jersey DEP, and the EPA.
Jon admits he doesn’t know where his nostalgia for traditional methods of butchering and charcuterie comes from, but it is part of the impetus for the farm’s retail market. “An old-time, cut-to-order butcher shop, employing methods like cutting along the muscle lines as opposed to cross-cutting” is what he has in mind, as well as cheese-making and bread-baking. In fact, he wants to eventually grow his own grains for the bread.
These and more will be available at the old Hopewell Garage site on Broad Street (keeping the name and preserving its unique 1950s facade). If, as expected, the site plan is approved within the next 45 days, the store will open two to three months later. The store’s manager is none other than the McConaughys former neighbor, Deann Lemmerling, who with her husband, Luc, a prominent Princeton physician, owned Brick House Farm, the restaurant-to-be.
Lemmerling is no stranger to the specialty food shop scene. For many years she managed Bon Appetit Fine Foods in the Princeton Shopping Center, which until 2008 was owned by her brother-in-law, Michel. (He still mans the cheese counter there.) Because she has a degree in nursing, she returned to that part-time. “When this project with Jon and Robin took form, and they made me this offer, I was honored. They really have it all right in my opinion — the way they treat the land, the animals, the community. It’s an exciting proposal.”
The Lemmerlings currently live a mile-and-a-half away, still in Hopewell.
The 4,000-square-foot space will have an open kitchen, with a view into the prepared foods section. The farm’s cheeses will be on display in a glassed-in, temperature-controlled area, as will the aging meat. The main floor space will be given over to general retail — mostly products from Double Brook Farm, including produce. For things that can’t be produced locally, like coffee, for example, the McConaughys will try to bring in as local a tie as possible, Robin says.
The property is an 1810 brick-and-stucco farmhouse that was restored by Jean and Kenneth Chorley in the 1950s. He was instrumental in the Colonial Williamsburg restoration project, serving for 23 years as its president. The Chorleys famously entertained royalty and foreign dignitaries at the farm, and the Hopewell Township Historical Preservation Commission is in the process of designating Brick House Farm a landmark.
As with the rest of the vision, sustainability and readaptability are the underpinnings of the restaurant. “We’ll keep the farmhouse as original as possible, only the configuration of the old kitchen will change,” Jon says. “We’ll turn the gardens over to fruits and berries. The dog kennel will become the outdoor bar, and the dog run will be transformed into a bocce court. The garage will become a cheese shop, and behind that, the butcher and baker. All with walking paths full of fruits and berries between the farm and restaurant.
The restaurant has been approved for 125 seats and will have a staff of 25. The McConaughys are hoping to purchase a liquor license. Says Robin, “We also want to provide that kind of experience – giving wine recommendations, holding wine pairing dinners.”
“We want the restaurant to incorporate all the aspects of our mission: biodiesel, solar electric, etc.,” Jon says. “Yet we know you can’t sacrifice quality in order to eat green. It has to have great food and great wine at a reasonable price.” The couple hopes to hire a top-notch chef without importing one from, say, New York, because of the carbon footprint commuting would cause.
Double Brook Farm is only one of several animal farms in the area that go to great lengths and expense to raise livestock in an ethical, humane way. “We and these farmers will raise an animal humanely its whole life,” Robin says, “so it’s heartbreaking to see it stressed unnecessarily at the end.”
The idea behind the mobile slaughterhouse is that the animals never have to experience the anxiety of traveling for hours and being kept in an alien holding pen. Robin adds that research has shown that chemicals released from the stress of traveling to the slaughterhouse can affect the quality of the meat.
Plus, she says, slaughterhouses can be a nightmare for the farmers, too. “Farmers have been known to get back more organs than animals they send; they have no control,” she says. Jon adds, “and if you miss your appointed time or get bumped, it can be the difference between profit and loss. The amount of time it takes to get to a slaughterhouse doubles or triples the cost, even for a farmer selling meat directly to the public.”
In 2009 the McConaughys hired another Hopewell livestock farmer, Lucia Huebner of Beech Tree Farm, to bring the Traveling Butcher to fruition. The process includes custom designing the trailer (actually, several trailers) and getting it through the rigorous approval process of several regulatory agencies, including the USDA, which will have an inspector onsite whenever and wherever the slaughterhouse is in operation.
“We’re getting very close,” Huebner says. “We’re in the process of refining the details of the trailers.” The Traveling Butcher will comprise several units.
Huebner has visited Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute for recommendations on how to handle the waste from processing large animals. (About 200 pounds of a 1,000-pound steer are unusable after butchering, including bones and some organs). She has been working with the state DEP and Department of Agriculture and the National Resource Conservation Service — even, at one point, getting them all together for a telephone conference.
“The hurdles we thought we’d face have not materialized,” she says. “Everyone is cooperative and interested in innovative practices. They’re being careful, which is good. None of us want waste leeching into the groundwater, for example.”
The DEP decided that composting on the farm where the animal is processed — a new consideration — will be an acceptable practice, if it is added in a very specific way into a compost pile. “If a farm doesn’t have this capability, then a rendering firm is called in to haul the waste away,” Huebner says. She found out that the state of Washington has a similar operation. “There the slaughter waste composts down in a matter of weeks. It is a renewable, nutrient-rich resource for the farm,” she says.
With all necessary approvals in hand, the Traveling Butcher still won’t be operational until late this year or early next. The design of the unit is still being tweaked. It consists of separate trailers for processing red meat and poultry, a water trailer that pumps liquid waste directly into each farm’s wastewater tank, and a refrigerated trailer for hanging the carcasses. The design includes some proprietary innovations, so it is not far-fetched to think that it could eventually provide another revenue stream.
Meantime, though, Jon McConaughy is planning on having the trailer at his farm one day each week and at other farms the rest of the time. “If we can have it here once a week, we’ll be able to keep the meat on the hoof until we need it at the restaurant,” he says. “Our plan is to serve meat that has never been frozen.”
Jon McConaughy recognizes the scope and ambition of his 10-year plan and all its moving parts. “Timing has been good to us, and partly we’ve had a lot of luck,” he says. “Certainly, others have accomplished individual aspects of what we’re trying to do. But we’re trying to develop a model that really changes the local picture.”
If successful, the McConaughys hope to recreate the model elsewhere, or provide the knowledge to others so they can recreate it elsewhere. “Our aim is not to make this bigger here,” Jon says. “The point is, it’s community based.”
#b#Double Brook Farm LLC#/b#, Box 96, Hopewell 08525; 609-466-3594; fax, 609-466-1531. Jon and Robin McConaughy, managing partners. www.doublebrookfarm.com