Shortly before noon, the pilgrimage begins. Having spent the morning idly grazing in a nearby pasture, a herd of 16 Jersey cows lumbers up a well-worn path into the Doe Run Dairy. At the rear of the line, shepherding “the girls” with a walking stick, is the man in charge, Kristian Holbrook.
“Twice a day, the cows are milked; they’re rotated to a different pasture so they get fresh grass,” says Holbrook, who oversees the dairy herds and spearheads the farm’s artisanal cheese making. “The milk has to be harvested, just like a crop. Unlike regular crops, cows eat every day and produce milk every day.”
A working farm, Doe Run is, in part, the story of a cheese maker practicing a 5,000-year-old craft, carefully transforming a small vat of farm-fresh milk into a cheese that’s at once food and a work of art. Holbrook launched his farmstead cheeses last summer. They’re made from the milk of the Jerseys. But as the operation matures, the cheese line will include tangy wedges produced from the milk of East Friesian sheep and Nubian goats. The animals roam the hills alongside an Akbash canine, a formidable sentry that safeguards the flock from potential predators.
Dating back to the 1920s, the Doe Run dairy barn has been rebuilt into a spacious, polished, welcoming space with cypress exterior planks and solid brass fittings, lofty metal rafters and tall, expansive windows that offer long views of the countryside. It anchors the historic Doe Run Farm, which encompasses three parcels of land totaling roughly 700 acres purchased by Urban Outfitters founder and president Richard Hayne in 2008.
The 200-acre Doe Run estate, once a slice of the fabled King Ranch, was the former home of the late Sir John Rupert Hunt Thouron, a world-class horticulturalist and philanthropist. Divided by Thouron Road, that property adjoins the Tony Young tract of land that Hayne bought in January 2010. The 57-acre West Marlborough Township estate and sprawling faux-Tudor mansion belonged to Young, the infamous Ponzi scheme operator who plead guilty to bilking a group of local investors—many from the local horse community—out of a reported $23 million.
“Dick always wanted to farm most of his life, and finally he had an opportunity to slow down a little,” says Holbrook. “This is a special property—then Tony’s came up for sale, so it was fortuitous. He gardens at his other home, but I think he was primarily interested in the cows. Then we brought the sheep and goats into it.”
Set in a bucolic valley off Route 841, adjacent to The Whip Tavern, venerable stone farmhouses dot the property, where trails and paths twist throughout the lush pastures and thick woodlands. There are rolling fields of malting barley and a sprawling garden medley that includes everything from luminous, silken onions and dusky cabbages to green and yellow zephyr squash and plump, old-fashioned field pumpkins.
Glowing carpets of sunflowers, orchards, handcrafted cheeses, free grazing cows, sheep and goats—it’s all a living lab for small-scale, 21st-century farming. Mini operations like Doe Run have been sprouting up all over America as the farm-to-table movement evolves, enabling people to feel more connected to their food.
“Rye is our base grass, along with some clover and fescues that can handle the intensive grazing,” says Holbrook. “That field over there we planted in barley that initially we’ll sell to local brewers. Down the road, perhaps we’ll brew some beer. The orchards will be little plots all over the place—apples, peaches, pears, also elderberries and blackberries.”
A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Holbrook is a former distinguished chef at Green Seasons outside Pittsburgh. For the past decade, he’s been making artisanal cheeses, producing small batches very much like a boutique winemaker would. Wheels of the cave-aged cheese are distinctive, the flavor sweet, rich and earthy.
His wife, Haesel Charlesworth, deals with the humbling hard work and unpredictable weather that goes into the “seasonal magic” of vegetables and fruits. Beyond tending the garden and orchard, she also manages food preservation and fermentation practices.
“It will take quite awhile to get this all going,” says Holbrook. “We want to build a history based on the philosophies of sustainable agriculture and basic food preservation practices borrowed from the success of our ancestors.”
It’s a multiyear program,” Holbrook adds. “We hope to be selling to restaurant chefs and farmers’ markets by the end of this summer.”
Richard Hayne grew up in the small town of Ingomar, north of Pittsburgh. A 1969 graduate of Lehigh University with a degree in anthropology, Hayne launched his career with a catchall shop near the University of Pennsylvania that catered to the cash-poor hippies of the era.
Today, Urban Outfitters is a $2 billion retail empire with roughly 100 namesake stores, mainly in North America but also in Europe. It sells trendy clothing and shoes, along with other select merchandise. The parent company’s retail lineup now includes Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People stores, plus Terrain at Styer’s, a high-end gardening lifestyle center in Glen Mills.
A sense of history and an intriguing potential—not necessarily profit—drew Hayne to the livestock, soil and edible landscape of Doe Run Farm. Sir John Rupert Hunt Thouron purchased the Glencoe Farms (established in 1937) and later renamed it Doe Run. A passionate horticulturist, Thouron was celebrated internationally for his dazzling gardens, which attracted thousands of visitors each year.
Born in the village of Cookham in Berkshire, England, in 1907, Thouron’s father descended from the Huguenots, while his mother’s family had ties to the chairman of Lloyd’s of London. Marrying for a second time, Thouron wed Esther Driver du Pont in 1953 and purchased the Doe Run property.
Doe Run offers spectacular views of Chester County’s rolling hills. It boasts two ponds, several streams and gardens of international renown. Thouron developed what were originally open fields, creating alpine, cottage and water gardens, along with various formal gardens and extensive herbaceous borders. Lady Thouron died in 1984 at age 76. Her husband passed away in 2007 at age 99.
Hayne also shares a keen interest in horticulture and gardening. He’s restoring much of the grounds and, last summer, purchased three massive greenhouses from the University of Maryland. Initially, they’ll house ornamental plants, utilizing cisterns to catch rainwater.
The rebirth of Doe Run hasn’t pleased everyone. A number of those who live nearby question the scope of the venture. Gus Brown says that Hayne’s project manager, Dave Zeil, moved forward without the proper permits and he hasn’t communicated well with the neighbors.
“I have zero problem doing what the law allows, but you need to go through the correct steps,” says Brown, a Chester County realtor and rider in regional steeplechase races. “It’s a different zoning ordinance if you’re processing and wholesaling goods for commercial use versus personal use. I want to be clear that Mr. Hayne is not fully to blame. This is really on the township commissioners and the zoning officer. They’ve dropped the ball repeatedly and haven’t kept tabs on what Hayne is doing.”
Hayne is now renovating the former Thouron residence and plans to move in this summer. “Dick is not interested in it being a ‘farming destination’ open to the public,” Holbrook says. “It’s more his personal fulfillment, rather than making money from the piece of land. Still, people don’t want change, agricultural or otherwise. The neighbors want things to happen responsibly and with their input. I get that. But at the same time, they don’t talk to us; they go to the township and make suppositions of what’s really going on. I don’t know what the long-range plans are. So how could they?”
Whip Tavern owner K.C. Kulp has fought his own local battles, and he says it’s all part of life in a small community. “For someone to come here and utilize the property for agricultural use and open space, how can people not see the benefit?” Kulp poses. “I think it’s been apparent from the get-go that Dick was always going to support folks like us. As a restaurateur, what more could we ask for? Produce is growing 100 yards from our front door.”
Hayne and his Doe Run Farm project manager and spokesman, Zeil, didn’t respond to several phone and e-mail requests for interviews. Last year, Hayne released a statement detailing the start-up of the farm: “First and foremost, I purchased the property as a home. But I also see a ‘culinary arboretum,’ defining arboretum expansively. We’re still exploring possibilities, but I don’t expect us to be on the shelves of Whole Foods.”
It was an ad in an agriculture publication that sparked Kristian Holbrook and Haesel Charlesworth’s curiosity in Dick Hayne’s Chester County venture. The couple previously managed Blackberry Farm, a tony recreational spa and culinary destination in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. Hayne flew the pair to Urban Outfitters headquarters at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. They liked what they saw and heard.
“There’s a really nice vibe—the whole [Urban Outfitters] staff seems happy to be there,” Holbrook says. “Two restaurants, you get to bring your dog to work, bikes to ride around the campus—it was a real eye-opener.”
“Dick wanted to make cheese [and grow] vegetables and ornamental plants,” adds Holbrook. “He’s given us a lot of leeway. We’re building the budget as we go, but we do it one step at a time.”
The crown jewel of the farm’s multifaceted culinary initiative is the creamery, built on the barn’s original foundation. It was completed during two months, while Holbrook was securing the necessary licenses and putting the cheese-making equipment from the Netherlands in place.
Sporting a patchy winter beard and a blue Stoltzfus ball cap, Holbrook greets a pair of visitors on a cold, clear morning. Inside a pen at the barn, a mamma sheep eyes the newcomers warily as her three-day-old, snow-white lambs bleat noisily, awaiting feeding bottles.
A tall, reserved native of western Pennsylvania, Holbrook grew up in Sarasota, Fla. With no practical experience in cooking or farming after high school, he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute. After graduating, he worked first as a chef for five years. Then, after the birth of the couple’s daughter, Violet, he transitioned into handcrafting aged hard cheeses.
Jerseys are Holbrook’s favorite dairy cows. Native to Jersey, a small British island in the English Channel, they’re one of the oldest dairy breeds. Jerseys have been purebred for nearly six centuries and were brought to the United States in the 1850s. With an average weight of 900 to 1,200 pounds, they produce more pounds of milk per pound of body weight than any other breed.
Holbrook leads a string of Jerseys into the milking parlor, where he jumps from one pristine steel vat to the next, drawing milk and explaining the maze of pipes and nozzles. The cows’ milk flows directly from the milking-parlor barn, via tubing, to the pasteurization vat in an adjacent cheese-making room. Down a flight of stairs are refrigerated aging caves (rooms) that store the round wheels of hard cheese for six months. The wheel is turned or shifted at various stages during the curing process, encouraging bacteria to grow, which imparts a tangy flavor. The softer cheese, stored in a series of small, plastic blocks, is pasteurized and boasts a six-month shelf life.
Doe Run’s cheeses are known for their full, complex flavors. Initially, Holbrook is making “Seven Sisters,” from the Jerseys’ milk, and “Hummingbird,” a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk. Thirty gallons of milk goes into one wheel of cheese. He produced 15,000 pounds last year, and has the equipment and capacity for 30,000 pounds in 2011. This summer, Doe Run will also make vanilla and maple yogurt for retail sale.
“The biggest key to success and acceptance is the farmstead freshness of the milk,” says Holbrook. “A cheese maker needs to be part chemist, understanding how bacteria interact. It’s a time- and labor-intensive process.”
Holbrook envisions a herd of 20-40 dairy cows—plus 50 sheep and 50 goats—that he breeds, cares for, and milks. As the dairy manager, he controls the manufacture of his product—the entire ecosystem—from the blades of grass, to the ripening of high-quality artisanal cheese, to the final hand-off to his customer. It all culminates in a successful dairy program.
Soon the sheep’s and goat’s milk will be transformed into delicious aged cheeses, which change with the season. Doe Run’s East Friesian dairy sheep hail from northern Germany and Holland. The breed is highly communicative—stomping, nodding, glaring, and using their ears and different tones in their baaing to convey messages Holbrook says he understands. The sheep also provide lamb meat and wool.
“They don’t give as much milk as cows, but the yield on cheese is doubled because of the increase in protein, minerals and calcium,” he says. “A wedge of farmstead cheese makes the connection from farm to table traceable and meaningful. It also enables local farms to remain viable, as well as providing stunning vistas and open space in communities.”
Last autumn, Charlesworth returned to Doe Run from a 10-day trip to Austria and Hungary with John Coykendall, master gardener at Blackberry Farm. They brought with them a few dozen prized heirloom seeds in tiny vials, including a “milder spiral” varietal of Hungarian pepper. It grows in a 6-inch twist spiral as big around as your thumb, delivering fantastic flavor with just a touch of heat.
The distinctive seeds have produced small parcels of crops for generations in Europe. A plant grows, its seeds are collected and sown, and another plant grows—ad infinitum. Commercial seeds that most Americans buy from catalogs bear little resemblance to the originals.
Doe Run’s late-summer vegetable gardens are on the northwest portion of the farm, once the driving range and polo field of former owner Tony Young. As such, golf and polo balls turn up regularly. In the early spring, a mountain of mushroom compost is spread to start the garden.
Beyond a bevy of heirloom tomatoes and potatoes last summer, Doe Run gardens were swimming in okra, eggplants, Italian mustard greens, collards, radishes, broccoli and spinach. This, along with a parade of beets, red onions, leeks, kohlrabi, whippoorwill peas, field peas, arugula, endive, winter lettuce and cucumbers. Blueberry bushes and raspberry and blackberry brambles thrived.
A nibble on one of their “crazy” carrots —snowy white, red, purple and striped—reveals potent, even complicated flavors. Some are sweet; others taste more like parsnip. “It’s the best crop I’ve ever grown,” insists Charlesworth. “The soil in the valley is clay that’s rich in minerals. There’s a limestone bed beneath the grasslands that delivers calcium, translating into strong bones in the top-level horses bred here. It also makes for great vegetables.”
Garlic, onions and pumpkins are harvested and hung in an aging barn alongside sun-dried tomatoes and blue, pink and calico corn. Tomatoes are canned in small Ball jars. Near the rebuilt greenhouses is the preserve kitchen where jams, jellies and pickles are produced.
The planted orchards require a number of years to mature. They’re trees will yield plums, peaches, pears and Grimes Golden apples. On this day, butterflies flutter among tall, swaying sunflowers in a cutting garden, while a nearby meadow provides an array of flowers and foliage for decorative arrangements.
Much of 2010’s eatable bounty turned up in a greenhouse setting at Styer’s Garden Café at Terrain in Glen Mills. Customers also delighted in Doe Run’s artisanal cheeses, and the farm’s vegetables and fruits are also crafted into menu selections.
Styer’s Garden Café executive chef Keith Rudolf auditioned for his job when he cooked a private dinner for Hayne at Urban Outfitters. He gets a call from the farm advising what’s available, and all the fresh products are there the next day. “Knowing that those guys put their heart and soul into the farm, it inspires me to do my best here,” says Rudolf. “Whenever you get mass-produced produce, the quality goes down. We were getting beets from who-knows-where, and they were too soft.”
Doe Run’s beets are hard and crisp, says Rudolf. “It puts the flavors over the top,” he gushes. “It’s food that hasn’t been overly transported and processed. It’s an old world we’re just rediscovering.”
Now, if Dick Hayne could just make peace with his real-world neighbors.