Raven & Boar Farmers: In Search Of A More Sustainable Life
Photo by Ashley Sears
By Jamie Larson
Ruby and Sather Duke started Raven & Boar in East Chatham, New York, eight years ago with no farming experience, three little pigs, and hopes of feeding their young family and supplementing their income. But word traveled fast about the quality of their heritage breeds and the farm’s sustainable ethos, and now they supply some of the nation’s top restaurants along with some of our favorite markets and events like Basilica’s Farm + Flea.
Despite their deserved success and growing business (including an on-site processing facility currently under construction), farming is still farming and that means hard, seemingly endless work with razor-thin profit margins. The Dukes aren’t ones to complain, but having come to the profession with an outsider’s perspective means they don’t take the inherent hardships of the farm economy for granted. At first blush it might be surprising to hear a farmer say things like “there are too many farmers markets” or “people need to eat less meat,” but that’s what Ruby Duke is saying and she makes some persuasive points about how to make the life of farmers, not just their products, more sustainable.
Ruby Duke with daughter Freia on her back. Photo by Ruthie Brownfield.
“When we started all this we had no intention of being farmers,” said Duke as she waited at the auto body shop for her delivery van to be repaired — valuable time away from the farm. “We were living in Brooklyn in 2007, I was pregnant and we found this house near my mom’s.”
“In 2008 my dad passed away and two weeks later my daughter was born. Six months later Sather was hospitalized. It was a shocking year for us, physically and emotionally. As he recovered, we reflected on what we wanted our lives to be.”
The couple closed their Brooklyn furniture studio and moved it, and their lives, upstate. Though the circumstances were far from ideal, Duke says it was her husband’s secret plan all along.
Inspired by the farm and people they soon came to know at Hancock Shaker Village and a growing affinity for the animals, in 2009, the Dukes raised three pigs acquired from the Village. The plan was to keep one for themselves and sell the others to restaurant connections they had in NYC. It worked as planned and Sather loved getting his strength back. The next year they pre-sold 25 pigs.
A fully broken-down pig and little Kestrel Duke. Photo by Ashley Sears.
From the beginning, the Dukes did all they could to provide feed and conditions that would result in the finest quality cuts and charcuterie. They did a lot of research to provide the ideal diet and living conditions to raise healthy, happy hogs. One of their best tricks is feeding the animals leftover whey from cheese and yogurt produced at Maple Farm in Ghent and the Old Chatham Sheep Herding Company. This traditional practice from Italy results in a totally unique flavor, texture and the meat is naturally more marbled. These are all qualities ideal for charcuterie and sought after by the big name restaurants that immediately came to love Raven and Boar’s products, including Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill, which Eater named the best restaurant in America last year.
“We delivered our first order to Blue Hill in the fall of that second year,” Duke recalled. “They called the next day, which is usually never good, but they said it was so perfect they wanted two pigs a week.”
Needless to say, they had to up production. But they took their time — two years — to rev up to full speed while maintaining their standards. With the pig business as their base, they soon diversified, adding a full vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits and more to their offerings, becoming in no uncertain terms a full-blown farm in just a few years. They even came out with a handsome cookbook, Hudson Valley Charcuterie.
Sather Duke farming in winter. Photo by Danny Christensen.
But as hard as they worked and as successful as Raven and Boar looked, the Dukes were often just getting by. Still relatively new to farming, they began to ask themselves why.
“We were doing everything and then at a certain point we were like, ‘what’s our focus?’” Duke said. “The margins are so tight and the labor energy is so high. And we don’t pay ourselves a salary.”
And when your standards for product quality and sustainability are as high as Raven and Boar’s, every new upgrade to the business seems to add nearly as much expense as it does revenue.
A beautiful cut of pork saddle. Photo by Ashley Sears.
A few years back they realized that to get the most out of what they make they should be processing their meat on site. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, they raised money for their nearly completed farm kitchen. Of course, there were all manner of hiccups along the way but, when completed, the 2,000-square-foot facility will be a major development for the family and their community of excited customers.
“It’s extremely personally rewarding,” Duke says, “and it’s a growing creative process for all of us. But we are both in our 40s, working 18 hours a day. We’re not as young as we used to be. You start to think ‘what’s the end result?’ Is it for us or for our kids? A huge part of it is that we have to sustain our family. We have really high costs and sometimes that’s really hard.”
Raven and Boar’s limited edition cookbook “Hudson Valley Charcuterie.” Photo by Ashley Sears.
Duke says it’s imperative that people who want to have a farm-to-table lifestyle have a relationship with their farmers. While she’s pleased so many in this area do, she feels the dependence of the modern agricultural economy on farmers markets is becoming problematic. The main issue, she says, is that there are just too many farmers markets in areas that are too thinly populated. There’s just not enough foot traffic. She says in Columbia County, for example, you really only need three or four markets distributed in the more high traffic centers (Hudson, Kinderhook, Chatham and Philmont, let’s say.) People would have to drive farther but the consolidated markets would insure better sales.
“That would be way better business for the farmer,” Duke says. “Now, at farmers markets you’re not making any money, you’re just promoting your brand. Who’s guaranteed to make money at a farmers market when there’s low traffic? The market is. The organizers are for-profit enterprises in some situations,” she says, pausing the interview for a moment to take a call from her vet about the status of a weak baby goat. “When you do the math, you think, ‘how am I going to do this?’”
“People need to educate themselves to make a difference in the food system. They need to know their food, their farmer, their chef,” she continued, adding, in what might seem shocking coming from a pig farmer, “and people need to eat less meat… Less meat but better meat, meat that’s better for the environment and better for the sustainable farm system.”
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