Taking Stock: An ex-investor makes the financial case for sustainable agriculture

story by Shaun Brady | photo by Neil SantosAfter 15 years working as a bond trader for Susquehanna International Group, Dean Carlson quit the financial world to become a farmer. Now, instead of derivatives, he deals in cattle, poultry and heritage pigs on a 355-acre farm in Chester County.

While the sudden shift in lifestyle may seem like a Green Acres-style flight of fancy, Carlson came to the decision through some careful calculations.

“The world’s population keeps increasing and the amount of arable farmland in the world is decreasing,” says Carlson. “We’ve run out of virgin territory to exploit, so food prices are going to go up—it’s really the only thing that can happen. But when I looked at conventional agriculture it just seemed wrong to me. It’s premised on this idea of cheap oil, that we have infinite amounts of resources, which just doesn’t fit reality.”

Like so many people, Carlson discovered the concept of sustainable agriculture by reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Unlike the majority of his fellow readers, however, Carlson’s lucrative job meant he had the capital to put the book’s message into a large-scale practice.

Carlson is the first to admit there has been a learning curve. “It would be stupid to say it was anything other than steep. There’s a lot to know and there’s a lot I still don’t know.” Each book he read on the subject led to others, and through the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, he met neighboring farmers who shared his commitment to a less resource-intensive approach to farming. Still, he insists there are benefits to stepping into agriculture as an outsider.

“I hadn’t been told all along by extension agents and agricultural schools that this is how you do things,” he says. “I also didn’t have a lot of money invested in infrastructure associated with conventional agriculture. Part of the problem is that farmers are locked into the system because they’ve borrowed money to build these buildings and feel like they have to use them. It’s really hard to make that switch.”

Heritage Breed Ossabow piglets roaming at Wyebrook FarmCreating a new “farm fresh”
Wyebrook’s 300-strong, grass-fed herd largely consists of Devon cows and crosses between Devon and other breeds. These breeds marble best when able to graze on grass pastures. “Ultimately, if grass-fed beef isn’t as good or better than the grain-fed product people are used to, then it’s not going to ever become an acceptable product to a large enough audience,” explains Carlson. “There will always be people who buy it because it’s better for them and for the environment, but to reach a larger audience I think it needs to be a better product. And it can be.”

The farm’s 100 pigs are a variety of heritage breeds, including Ossabaw—a breed known for its adaptation to heat and humidity, and ability to survive seasonal scarcity of food—which are raised in woodlots to allow for exercise and foraging. The roughly 500 broiler chickens are mostly Freedom Rangers, a breed that grows slowly but is famous for its flavor.

After taking over the 200-year-old farm, Carlson spent two years renovating the salvageable buildings and taking down others. He erected more than 10 miles of fencing, and added solar panels that now meet roughly half of the farm’s energy needs. Overgrown pastures were restored to grass, while a variety of water sources, including springs and a gravity-feed holding tank, were installed to replenish the pastures without using electricity. 

The central hub of Wyebrook Farm is the renovated barn that houses a market, butcher shop, outdoor cafe, and restaurant.Carlson also renovated one of the stone barns on the property, opening a market, butcher shop and café to sell their meat. He now has five full-time and seven part-time employees. Before coming to Wyebrook, chef and butcher Janet Crandall was a butcher for Pat LaFrieda, host of Food Network’s Meat Men, and an instructor at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. She met Carlson at a class on the Mangalitsa pig, a Hungarian woolly variety, and began doing occasional events at Wyebrook before she was persuaded to join full time.

“It’s challenging,” Crandall says. “I’m butchering whole animals now as opposed to cleaning or cutting meat that wasn’t as large. I also had to come up with a menu that would work utilizing our meats. We only have so many animals and we have a time frame to sell them because we don’t want to freeze anything; we want everything fresh. I like challenges like that.”

Crandall’s signature dish is the Wyebrook Farm Burger, topped with a roasted corn dressing, cherry tomato pickled with ginger and jalapeño peppers, shallot onion rings, and sweet and dill pickles fried in tempura batter. She also serves pulled pork, hot dogs, cheesesteaks and other fare fresh from the pasture, including chicken nuggets fried in the fat she rendered from the farm’s animals. Local produce and cheeses are available, while a small produce garden supplies the café with additional ingredients.

“In a perfect world I would sell everything we raise from our store here on the farm,” Carlson says. “That way 100 cents of the food dollar stays on the farm.” Until he reaches that goal, he will continue to sell some of his meat to restaurants in Philadelphia and Downingtown, and is starting a weekly drop-off at COOK in Center City for online orders.

Visitors stand at the edge of the picnic area, overlooking the 355-acre property.Inspiring a future of farmers
Attracting consumers to his farm rather than distributing food is key to Carlson’s philosophy.

“I think it’s important for people to have a connection with where their food comes from,” he says. “When you go to the grocery store, you’re relying on that label ‘organic.’ That means something, but it may not mean what people think and it may not mean the same thing tomorrow. Farmers markets and Whole Foods are great, but you can take it even further when you see with your own eyes where your food comes from.”

In addition, he hopes the visibility inspires others to follow his lead. “The thing about sustainable [agriculture] is it’s not really scalable, but it is replicable. If we want to raise more food like this, there’s going to have to be more farmers. And that’s a good thing—there are a lot of people unhappy in their jobs who would really enjoy this way of life. So, if I can do something to show that this is a model that works and is economically viable, that’s one of my goals.”

Wyebrook Farm is located at 150 Wyebrook Rd., Honey Brook, Pa. Learn more at wyebrookfarm.com