How does a thirty five year old Jersey Girl with a degree in biology become a sustainable farmer? Jessica Isbrecht, a self proclaimed anomaly, is raising heritage pigs, chickens, goats, and a handful of turkeys, rabbits and geese on 30 acres of the 2,740 acre tract of land left to the state of New Jersey by heiress, socialite, and philanthropist, Doris Duke.
A mid-July visit to Isbrecht’s Green Duchess Farm led us through the suburban town of Hillsborough, New Jersey. We pass by the gravel entrance once, twice, three times. The approach is remarkably quiet and austere; a rabbit sprints across the road and we spy a large sow behind the trees.
Greeting us first are two Tom turkeys; vibrantly showing off their crayon-box plumage, and two tawny hens. A sweet tribe of the friendliest bleating goats arrive next, alerting every other being within earshot that visitors have arrived at this quintessential farm. Isbrecht rounds the corner of a vintage whitewashed farmhouse, that we later learn is the oldest in Somerset county. Sarge, a somewhat ferocious watch-goose waddles in — a little late to the party — a little less friendly than the other farm inhabitants he’s intimidatingly good at his job.
Growing up in Long Valley, New Jersey on a Christmas tree farm where her parents also raised and bred race horses, Isbrecht says “I had lots of pets and was comfortable with animals, but my parents emphasized education. I went to the University of Delaware and got a degree in biology. I had a fixation on whales and wanted to scuba dive and be a marine biologist.”
“I got a job with an environmental consulting firm that took me to office buildings and involved a lot of travel,” Isbrecht adds, “I worked in environmental testing in commercial real estate. But then my Mom got sick.” Within six weeks of taking her to the hospital, her mother passed away. A downward spiral of grief and depression ensued. “I felt really lost,” she said.
“I came upon the idea of working part time. My partner Byron Igoe, a computer programmer who I’ve been with for 5 years, encouraged me to do this. Seeking out farms to volunteer on brought me comfort. One area where I volunteered was the “incubator” at Duke Farms. I took every class, went to every workshop, while still working part time in the city.”
“I leased land in Franklin Township — 8 acres — and started raising chickens, ducks, and turkeys.” She started selling her organic products at farmer’s markets. Pasture-raised chickens and turkeys that she began taking orders for, months before the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Going from 8 acres to 30 acres was a little overwhelming. This year I’ve scaled back my diversification of species to primarily pork,” she said, adding, “There are very few female pig farmers. I’d like the farm to be 100% pigs.”
The pastures are segregated. Chickens roam a field in one area of the farm under the watchful eyes of the guard-geese. It’s not unusual to lose an animal or two to a hawk or lurking fox. Isbrecht thinks the geese do a better job than the Alpacas in guarding chickens in the pasture.
How does she go about raising her Red Wattle, Duroc, Gloucestershire Old Spot, and Berkshires in a humane, sustainable environment?
The pasture is separated into quadrants planted with organic grains such as alfalfa, rye and barley. “I intensively manage their foraging in the allotted acreage, moving them regularly. I do my best to make sure that the natural behaviors they express such as rooting are benefiting the landscape not destroying it. Sometimes mud is unavoidable like after a heavy rain storm but I actively mitigate the creation of muddy, smelly, pig-sty conditions. That quintessential image of a pig farm is not healthy for the animals, not beneficial to the environment and not pleasant for the humans.”
“I raise animals in a pasture and even if they’re going to be a meal for us, they get to have a good and natural life. 99% of pork in the U.S. is commodity. They’re bred white pigs with no protection from the sun. From stressed out pigs you get gray unflavorful meat.”
The pig’s name is Spot, and she’s a Gloucestershire Old Spot and Red Wattle heritage mix breed. Sitting atop her rear end, Isbrecht is checking to see if Spot is in estrous. If her hind quarters lock up, she’s ready to be bred, and her hind legs did indeed lock tight.
When the pigs are ready for slaughter, they’re sent to a USDA slaughterhouse about 20 minutes away. The meat is then tagged and sent to a small family owned and operated facility in Nazareth Pennsylvania.
Who’s buying heritage pork? “It’s a 50/50 split. Restaurants buy whole and half pigs. We sell the rest at farmer’s markets and the store on the property here,” she said. Bacon, sausages, pork belly, and chops can be found at a booth she shares with Meg Pasca — a flower farmer, who also has a farm in Hillsborough — at the Sea Bright farmer’s market.
A little more than two years ago at the then newly established farmer’s market located in the municipal parking lot in Sea Bright I first met Isbrecht. At the time, her focus was more poultry and less pork.
I met Isbrecht a second time at a chef’s table dinner in Little Silver, NJ. She supplied the entree, a piglet named Clyde. Owner and executive chef Laercio Chamon Jr hosted the meal at his acclaimed restaurant, Graze. It was my literal introduction to farm-to-table dining. You can read more about that dinner here. Chamon, also teaches butchering classes half a dozen times a year in his restaurant and is planning to teach a class on butchering a steer next.
Isbrecht gives us a lot of food-for-thought. Is it worth the additional cost to know where and how your meat is raised? Is the meat better? Is sustainable farming an issue that concerns you? How about humanely raising livestock?
The quality of the pasture raised pork tastes different than most options you’ll find in a supermarket. It is fattier, moister, and a little sweeter. Knowledge of how the animals we eat are raised has become an important issue to us at Flavor Chronicles.
An update on Spot, the afore mentioned pig, “Is currently dating my young boar and will hopefully get pregnant,” Isbrecht said. In the mean time one of the pregnant sows on the farm recently gave birth to 15 piglets.
In an effort to modernize record keeping, Isbrecht and Igoe came up with an organic record keeping App, “so you can enter your data for certification and record keeping,” called Veggie Tables.
Green Duchess Farm: 397 New Center Road, Hillsborough, NJ