Meet Your Farmers: Jennifer Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farms in Vermont
"I quit my job and we moved to a battered, neglected farm in Vermont to start from the ground up."
Name: Jennifer Megyesi (pronounced Ma-jess-sea)
Farm: Fat Rooster Farm, named after a pet rooster that was intended as a meatbird, but I didn't have the heart to do him in.
How many acres? We (my husband Kyle and I) own 20 acres and use another 165 for haying and pasturing sheep and cows.
Your crew: We are the full-time farmers, though we each have part-time jobs off the farm. During the growing season (March through November) we have two or sometimes up to four apprentices who, for the most part, come to us without farming experience. They receive a small stipend, room and board, and lots of hands-on farming experience. We also have a nine year-old son.
The crew works from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays, 6 am to 2 pm. Sunday is our day off. During haying, all set hours are off—we work until the hay's in the barn. For me and Kyle, there's really no official day off.
What you grow: About 200 varieties of vegetables and beef, pork, lamb, turkey, chicken, sometimes duck and guinea hen. We specialize in heirloom varieties of tomatoes and heritage breeds of chickens.
We sell to local friends and the community, the Vermont Law School, Norwich Farmers' Market, Randolph Farmstand, Woodstock Farmers' Market (the latter two are actually storefronts), and sometimes to general stores and local restaurants.
We also donate hundreds of pounds of produce annually to Willing Hands (an organization that distributes food to food shelves, pantries, shelters, and senior centers), as well as to the Vermont Food Bank. We have a small CSA program where people contact us in the beginning of the season, pay a certain amount, then choose produce, meats, and dairy products all year.
How you got into farming: Both my husband and I have a masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. I was a seabird biologist for about 12 years. On Cape Cod, I was the lead biologist for a highly controversial habitat restoration program where we removed (aka killed) gulls that had forced out all of the other nesting seabirds native to the island.
We started receiving death threats—probably from the same people actually contributing to the explosion in the gull population. It got to the point where we had to be followed by pistol-packing federal agents who protected us from snipers. I realized I was starting too far down the chain of events to affect change on the planet. I quit my job and we moved to a battered, neglected farm in Vermont to start from the ground up.
Where did you learn to farm? On the farm mostly. Kyle farmed with his family as a child in Ohio but wanted nothing to do with it when I met him. My grandmama put the fire of self-sustenance in me when I was about 8 years old. (She could propagate African violets from a leaf and rose plants from flowers that people sent her in bouquets.)
My friends Brad and Donna Kausen taught me how to skin a deer, cure a pig, harvest garlic, and save tomato seeds to plant during the next spring. My friend Karen taught me how to milk a cow. Books taught me how to pull lambs from ewes when they're having trouble giving birth, and just lots of mistakes have helped me learn.
Your farming goals:
- To raise and market grass-fed animals profitably using our own forages as the sole food source as much as possible.
- To emphasize organic and sustainable agricultural methods.
- To grow and produce meat, vegetables, fruits, honey, syrup, wine, beer, firewood, lumber, and eggs for our immediate family's and neighbors' consumption, and to barter with other local producers for products we can't grow ourselves. This allows us to live without supporting large-scale agriculture and corporate food enterprises.
- To grow and market forages (the plants for livestock), vegetables, fruits, flowers, wood products and furniture from Vermont forests on a subscription basis, at farmers' markets and at wholesale outlets.
- To raise our son so he's self-reliant for food, has a strong work ethic, understands how important land conservation is, and respects his community and the natural world.
Why do you farm? I love food. I want to be intimately involved with food's production and processing and have my son be raised in this type of environment.
The best thing about farming?Full freezers, stocked pantries, and happy animals. Being able to grab a food magazine and make 80% of a recipe from what's produced right on the farm—now that's pretty great.
The worst thing?The fact that food is often treated with little value. We are more willing to shell out $10 for an iTunes download than $4 on a carton of eggs collected fresh from chickens treated humanely without medicated feeds. In the end, the health-related costs associated with cheap food far outweigh the expense of supporting local agriculture.
Most important lesson you've ever learned? How to punt. I can have a perfectly planned lists of daily chores that goes out the window in the blink of an eye. The forty minutes I had allocated to harvest cukes for the farmers' market can vanish in an instant when the cow gets out and tries to help herself to the sweet corn.
What's the most important piece of advice you'd bestow on a young would-be farmer? Ask lots of questions, apprentice on an established farm so you can make mistakes there, read books, get to know your neighbors, and take time to play.
The future for good food? It will always be a battle against corporate agriculture's greed for profit over quality and sustainability, but I believe we're winning the argument and we're supported by people concerned with staying healthy and farming sustainably.