By Stacey Dresner
SOUTH DEERFIELD — When Robert Friedman and Shemariah Baum-Evitts moved to their farm in South Deerfield in 2009, the couple had been vegetarian for several years.
“When we bought our place in 2009 and were wanting to settle down and have a family, we were inclined to eat meat but we were very food conscious,” Friedman said. “We really had two choices of meat. You would have to pick between a product that was kosher but not local or sustainably- raised — probably, or a product that was local and sustainably-raised but not kosher.”
Graduates of the Adamah Jewish Farming Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, the couple had both learned about farming in a Jewish context.
“For us, even though we hadn’t been eating meat, we still considered ourselves kosher and in wanting to eat meat, we wanted to keep kosher,” he said. “So given our farming background, we decided to raise some of our own chickens.”
With interest from a few other families in the area for sustainably-raised kosher chickens, the couple raised about 200 chickens the first year. That has doubled over the last five years.
Now this venture, Robariah Farms (a combination of both of their first names) has turned into a full-fledged poultry farm, specializing in “pasture-raised” kosher chickens.
They also raise enough kosher turkeys for a couple dozen local Thanksgiving tables each year, and have produced duck eggs on a seasonal basis.
Customers purchase poultry from Robariah much like a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – where they pay upfront for “shares.” In the case of Robariah, one can buy shares in fives – five chickens, ten, 15 or 20.
The meat is sold by the pound. At approximately $7.95 a pound, a four pound chicken goes for about $30.
Why so expensive?
“We are very used to cheap meat and not understanding why meat is so cheap,” he explained. “It is because of the conditions in which they are raised…just being fed grain, using a chicken that is made to grow very quickly and because grain itself is subsidized on a federal level that means that everything can be very cheap, essentially. So to raise animals sustainably and then have them processed kosher, those costs add up.“
But he says it is worth it.
Robariah chicken is “just so much more flavorful. If you think about the chicken you regularly eat, it is tofu-like, kind of bland. You don’t have to season [Robariah chicken] or do anything to it. You just have to cook it and it will just taste delicious. It is savory, has a richer kind of deeper flavor.”
Friedman, a native of Dallas, Texas, went to Boston University where he was an English major. Shemariah (or “Shema” to her friends) grew up in northern Maine and attended Brandeis where she was a theater management major and helped develop a campus-wide recycling program. Both grew up going to Reform synagogues.
The two met after college when in 2004 they both participated in the Adamah Jewish Farming Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. Adamah“ integrates organic agriculture, farm-to-table living, Jewish learning, community building, and spiritual practice.”
“It is hands-on agriculture but with a Jewish context and Jewish community,” Friedman said. “So it was kind of the best of both worlds for me in that regard of having those two layers come together. What made it so impactful is that my Jewish identity took on a new level and a new sense of meaning in part because I had a real world application for it.”
After finishing Adamah, the couple went to Georgia to work on a farm for another year. They later spent time in Israel farming on a kibbutz, and later lived in Texas.
In 2006 they got married and in 2007 moved to the Pioneer Valley in part because Shema was going back to school to get her masters in regional planning as UMass Amherst.
“Since doing the Adamah program, we both had an affinity for New England,” Friedman said.
By 2012, they had founded Robariah Farms.
“We didn’t go into it deliberately saying we wanted to launch this business. It was a bit self-serving. Over the last five years, as it has grown, we have started to make more business-conscious decisions in order to actually grow it as a business and not as just something for personal or communal use.”
Robariah has 50 share families now, most in the local area and a few in Boston.
They sell some chickens to some local stores: River Valley Market in Northampton, Greenfield Market in Greenfield, Atlas Farms store, McCuster’s Market in Shelburn Falls, and in Boston at Anna’s Kitchen. They also do a drop off to a few CSA customers in Boston as well.
Robariah gets its chickens as day-old chicks from a hatchery in Pennsylvania.
He said they are particular about the kind of chickens they raise.
“Most of the meat in the industry is centered around a single type of chicken called the Cornish Crop, which is bred to grow very quickly and have large breasts, and essentially made to be raised in confinement,” he said. “This can create health problems for the chickens…We are focusing on other kinds of chickens — slower growing, healthier, more vibrant chickens.”
The “Freedom Rangers” they raise are a “beautiful, multi-colored chicken that also has more flavor than your usual Cornish Crop.”
Robariah’s chickens are organically-fed and “pasture-raised.”
“Pasture-raised really means that the chickens are on fresh pasture every single day,” he said.
They use a rotational pasture management system using mobile pens.
“We move them once or twice a day so they are constantly being brought onto new fresh grass and pasture. That is really how they will get the benefit of all of the vitamins and minerals and protein that are in the grasses.”
While the “Cornish Crop” chickens take only six weeks to reach their market weight, Robariah’s chickens are slower growing – they take about 12 weeks.
Robariah has used a number of different smaller processing facilities for their poultry.
But last year Robariah got a grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education allowing Robariah to pilot kosher poultry processing using a couple of local state-certified facilities.
Robariah hired Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz of New Haven, Conn. as their shochet, one certified to kill the chickens as prescribed by Jewish law. Their moshgiach, who supervised the kashrut of the processing, was Rabbi Yosef Gottlieb from UMass Chabad.
“It was great because finally we were able to do the whole production — the raising of the animal, then processing of the animals totally locally and we were able to foster relationships with a local independent kosher agency,” Friedman said. “This year we’ll probably be doing 1,000 total and for us it’s a transitional year because we are starting to put together a business plan and engage investors in order to scale up the business and really focus on its growth in the long term.”