One typical Sunday afternoon in 2002, Robin McConaughy read a New York Times Magazine article that would alter the course of her life. “Power Steer” by Michael Pollan, best-selling author of the The Omnivore’s Dilemma, detailed the life of a cow in the commercial beef industry. The story left Robin and her husband, Jon, feeling disgusted and disconnected from their food’s origins.
The couple, parents of two boys, responded by taking the farm-to-table movement to the next level. In 2003, they bought a 60-acre piece of land in Hopewell, N.J. with the goal of feeding their family by raising chickens, sheep, and a cow for dairy or meat. That vision has expanded today to include Double Brook Farm, which has more than 800 acres in the Hopewell Valley with 37 acres under cultivation for vegetables plus 400 sheep, 400 pigs, 1,000 broiler chickens, 800 laying birds, 900 turkeys, and a couple of steers. Add to that the Brick Farm Market and the soon-to-open Brick Farm Tavern, both of which utilize output from their farm and other area resources.
So how did the couple’s dream of sustaining its family expand to sustaining a community? When they started their project, Robin, now 43, was running a sports and entertainment company with a friend, and Jon had a successful career in the financial industry in New York. Neither had a background in farming, so they read books, watched videos, talked to local farmers, and brought in experienced hands to help with the operation. “We wound up slaughtering an animal, and a lot of our family and friends wanted the meat,” she remembers. “I feel like there has been a tipping point. People are really interested in finding out where their meat comes from.”
Wanting to meet the requests of family and friends, the McConaughys bought more animals, which led to more land, which led to more animals. They realized they needed an outfit where they could sell their products, so when an old Chevy dealership in Hopewell went on the market, they bought the land and opened the rustic-chic Brick Farm Market in 2013. The market includes a cheese section, butcher, bakery, juice and coffee bars, and a seasonal prepared foods section. “We’re trying to do the vetting for people coming into the market who don’t want to think about every single ingredient or item they are buying,” Robin says. “Hopefully we take that guesswork out of it.”
The restaurant, which will open in early 2015, will operate with a similar philosophy as the market, utilizing the produce, eggs, dairy, and meat from the farm to create seasonable fare. However, unlike the market, the restaurant will be operated by a third party.
Everything the McConaughys do is done with a focus on sustainability. Currently, the farm is undergoing the 3-year process to get organic certification for its vegetables. They are incorporating more farm equipment that is electric. And there is geothermal heating in the market.
Robin, who works on the marketing and advertising side of the business, says the experience has been educational. “Very few people know the real cost of food,” she says. “The most eye-opening thing to me is the way that government subsidies have really dulled our knowledge of what food costs. There is a reason why locally grown food from small farms is better for you, but it’s going to cost you. Small farms don’t get government subsidies. They don’t get buy-back programs or relief on grain prices. It’s up to the local community to support them.” This understanding has led her to change the way she eats—especially when it comes to meat. “I eat so much less meat because I know people shouldn’t be able to afford meat every night,” she says. “I also eat cuts that people don’t want—I get beef stew and ground beef and oxtail. I use those cuts because I know the whole animal needs to be accountable.”
People interested in making the switch to eat more local, sustainable foods should get to know their area farmers, she says. “The more you support your local farmers, the more options will be available to you,” Robin says. “Whether you go to the Brick Farm Market or Z Farm or Blue Moon Acres, get to the local farms and farmers market. You’ll find the best stuff there. You can talk to the farmers, who ultimately have the responsibility of providing good food to you.”