PhillyDeals: Ex-trader sees sustainable farming as good investment

Dean Carlson, former head of convertible securities at Susquehanna International Group, with one of his Amish-built, sled-mounted chicken-houses for the Freedom Ranger chickens he’s raising at his 355-acrew Wyebrook Farm in West Nantmeal.
Dean Carlson, former head of convertible securities at Susquehanna International Group, with one of his Amish-built, sled-mounted chicken-houses for the Freedom Ranger chickens he’s raising at his 355-acrew Wyebrook Farm in West Nantmeal.
Posted: April 22, 2012

In his muddy boots and pig-farmer hat, Dean Carlson looks like he’s been raising animals a long time. But this is a new career for the owner of 355-acre Wyebrook Farm, which he rebuilt to raise “sustainable” cattle, pigs and chickens on Wyebrook Road in West Nantmeal Township, Chester County, and sell the meat in his new market, which he plans to open on weekends starting Saturday.

Carlson, 40, spent 15 years as a securities trader in Chicago and Dublin, and as head of the convertibles desk at Bala Cynwyd-based Susquehanna International Group, which hires brainy math types and calculating gamblers and helps them get rich. When the markets froze in 2008-09 — “nothing to trade, nothing to leverage” — Carlson left the trading floor and started researching farmland. As an investment, at first.

It was a good moment to buy local. As banks stopped lending and builders like Toll Bros. abandoned the far suburbs, prices tumbled. Carlson bought the hilly, oak-studded pastures and meadows, with a 1785 bank barn, silos, sheds and houses, from Lancaster County-based Susquehanna Bank, which had reposessed it from an owner who had hoped to build houses.

Carlson paid $12,000 an acre, half, he says, what locals were asking during the real estate bubble, though still about five times the U.S. average for more rural farmland. “I didn’t realize at first, but this is a perfect place to have a farm,” close to Philadelphia’s rich suburbs but also to Lancaster County, with its rich family-farm services and technology base.

Struck by oil prices that drove farm costs higher even as the economy slowed, Carlson researched “sustainable agriculture” trends. He talked to veterinarians at Penn’s New Bolton Center, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, his farm neighbors, nearby Amish.

The result: “We grow grass-fed beef,” 250 Devons and Red Angus (some still fattening on winter pastures down South), and 100 Tamworth, Ossabaw, Old Spot and Berkshire pigs, including five mother sows, fed grain but also foraging oak acorns as Carlson thins grazing woods to adds hickory, walnut, persimmons and berries for future porkers. Plus chickens — Cornish Cross butterballs that fatten for table in just seven weeks, and Freedom Rangers that take up to 12 weeks: “slower growing, and tasty,” Carlson says.

The chickens roost in fabric-walled huts on Amish-built sleds, guarded by electric strands to discourage foxes, raccoons, hawks and other competing killers. Carlson slides the huts across the pasture so his birds “eat a little bit of everything,” spreading manure to boost the rich but stone-laced soil.

It’s more than marketing, he says: “I come at this from an economic perspective; I think it’s an economic model that works. And the food is better to eat, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better for animal welfare. Plus the money is staying in the local community,” as Chester County builder Jack Conti and other specialists set stone, drainage, fence and wire.

Below the retail showroom in the converted barn is a shining tiled kitchen, working home of Carlson’s chef, Janet Crandall, who “left Manhattan to move to Honey Brook,” she says. Carving one of Carlson’s pigs, she praised the firm red flesh robed in ivory fat — much better, she said, than the lean but pudding-flabby pork I buy my kids at ShopRite.

Carlson doesn’t slaughter on site — he ships animals to USDA-inspected Springfield Meat Co. in Richlandtown or Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, then trims at Wyebrook.

He’s supplied a few restrauants: Josh and Colleen Lawler’s Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia, PapillonBrasserie in Reading, the Station Taproom in Downingtown. But as he wants his animals to feed themselves, he wants customers to come to him. The market will offer local produce and cheeses too.

Susquehanna International founder Jeff Yass and his partners. “think I’m crazy,” Carlson says, smiling. “But I look at sustainable agriculture as a call option on oil prices.” On an operating basis, “I can sell for what Whole Foods sells for today. If I can be profitable now, when oil goes up, I’ll be the low-cost producer.”

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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