Here at the Brattleboro Food Co-op autumn brings reflection. Reflection on how fortunate we are to work at a responsible and community-owned business. To provide deep gratitude to our earth for the bounty of food that we receive and sell each and every day. These times of gratitude are ever-present when we take trips across New England to visit our local farmers, producers, and purveyors. This time around it took Jon in Marketing and Phil in Meat/Seafood to Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven, VT. The fall colors were beginning to boom as they drove highway and back roads to the farm. Every turn greeted them with a new field, farm, barn, or gorgeous pasture with animals and crops. It is a delightful ride that reminds you of how abundant agriculture is in Vermont. Upon arrival Rob Litch of Misty Knoll Farms was the tour guide to share about the history, practices, and philosophy that he and his partner John Palmer take in humanely raising turkeys and chickens.
During the 1980’s John Palmer (Rob’s uncle) assisted his daughter in raising turkeys for a 4H project. He raised a total of 20 or so turkeys in his basement and yard. At the end of the project he gave away the ready-to-cook turkeys to friends and family, generating amazing responses. Due to the success of the 4H project he started a small-scale turkey farm to see if it was something he felt could drive the next phase of his career. To his delight the work of farming was quite appealing to him and in 1986 he purchased a 17-acre property and farmhouse (a property that dates back to the 1700’s). They now own over 400 acres across the whole Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven, VT. To this day John still lives in the farmhouse on the property and mere feet from their processing and storage facility. As turkey farming became more of passion and seemed viable as a career path, John left his job as an Electrical Engineer at IBM. At first John had a lot of help from friends and family to get the farm up and running. One of the first people on staff was his nephew, Rob, who was shoveling turkey manure to help pay for his degree at UVM. In 1992 Rob graduated from UVM and launched the Misty Knoll Farms concession stand which marketed the farm through the delicious food he served. The concession stand was not a profitable operation, but did allow Rob to introduce the farm to Vermonters without a marketing budget. He met hundreds of Vermonters at agricultural events statewide; it was a fantastic long-term investment in the public’s awareness of the farm. On Rob’s off days from the concession stand he visited independent natural food stores and restaurants across Vermont to find customers for their high quality, locally raised and locally processed turkeys. Rob jokes that he made so much money selling food from the concession stand that he retired from that part of the business. In actuality he had to focus his attention on assisting John in all things related to running a turkey farm.
Misty Knoll Farms is a unique poultry farm for many reasons. While one of the largest producers in Vermont, they are tiny in comparison to large conventional poultry farms. In fact, they process the same amount of poultry in a year that a conventional processing plant does in a day. As a responsible small-scale poultry farm they choose exactly the right food for their turkeys and chickens and always purchase the same mixture of vegetarian feed no matter the varying price. Their turkeys’ and chickens’ food have been largely dictated by feedback from their customers such as chefs and independent stores who helped them settle on a flavor they enjoy. Furthermore, they raise the flock humanely by allowing the birds to grow naturally which makes them robust and meatier. They focus on a stress-free and humane life with emphasis on a clean, spacious environment with plenty of fresh air. These areas support a delectable, happy and flavorful bird. To this day John still walks the turkey and chicken barns every day as it is his ultimate responsibility to raise their flock. Rob could not underscore how important the cleanliness of the barns is to the health and flavor of the turkeys and chickens. Explaining that the Avian Flu is a true risk to their business, the health of their entire flock, their staff, and customers, he said they chose to keep their barns closed to protect the flock from this illness. Even so, their flocks of birds have a spacious and clean place to live with an abundance of fresh air.
Another unique aspect of their farm is that they process all of their poultry in their own facility which is inspected by the USDA. Rob was very clear that when processing and storing poultry they must be precise with the temperatures in their facility and freezers. They focus their attention to temperature control throughout the entire process. They have a tenacity and passion for detail and during our tour all areas were immaculate. Because of their control across all portions of the farming process they charge what they believe is a fair price and distribute only to co-ops, independent restaurants and natural food stores. Rob is heavily involved in processing, delivery routes, storage, and all things related to facilities and equipment. This entire process is a sharp contrast to large conventional poultry farms that often have large corporations who own their flock and dictate what they are fed and how long they are raised. Farms invest lots of money in infrastructure and labor to raise a flock of birds that they do not own. The flocks are even shipped hours away to a slaughtering facility to be processed. The entire conventional poultry industry is much more stressful and less humane. Misty Knoll Farms takes a responsible and local approach to ensure quality throughout the entire process.
Just a few years ago, Rob and John were processing most of the poultry by themselves and nearly all of the work from raising the flock to delivery. However, over the years, slow and organic growth has allowed them to expand their staff. Thus, they take a deep pride in supporting their workers not only with living wages but clean working conditions. For those staff who move here to work for them they even provide excellent housing. They employ approximately 20 full and part time staff. They have a desire to create value for their employees so that they take pride in their work. Their staff are a reflection of Rob and John and this happy team ensures the high quality that they seek to offer their customers at Misty Knoll Farms. Sales growth has also allowed them to expand their processing facility. With the expansion they also invested in state-of-the-art chilling equipment, vacuum sealers, extra freezers, storage facilities and office space. They also recently acquired a new delivery truck. Steady growth has been enjoyed by Misty Knoll Farms due to expansions at co-ops such as City Market, Hunger Mountain and your Brattleboro Food Co-op. They are very pleased to be focusing their attention on local, community-owned businesses.
What does the future hold for Misty Knoll Farms? A continued commitment to and focus on their customers by delivering fresh, quality delicious and humanely raised chickens, and turkeys. They would like to focus more squarely on raising chickens but with the Thanksgiving season being so integral to their business they will always raise plenty of turkeys. However, they will not seek growth beyond their current customers as they enjoy their volume and organic growth. Their approach has allowed them to continue their business in a responsible manner. They are also investing in renewable energy. For instance, they have a large solar array on their property, and they hope to continue to expand that as it allows them to create their own power and positively invest in local businesses. Rob and John are excited about their continued work as turkey and chicken farmers and their commitment to local agriculture in Vermont.
Join us on Wednesday, November 13th from 11:30am–1:30pm at the Demo Counter to taste a roasted Misty Knoll Farms chicken!
By Jon Megas-Russell