Former Bond Trader Brings Business Acumen To Sustainable Farming
Jeff Gangemi Feb 20, 2012 Farmer Beat 3 comments
Like many bright young college graduates, Dean Carlson gravitated toward a career in finance. He spent 15 years as a successful bond trader for Philadelphia-based Susquehanna International Group but eventually decided to pursue an interest in farming.
And so, in 2009, Carlson left his firm and the comfort of the familiar. “I was just going to take some time off,” he says. “I had no real exposure to agriculture, but I’d been thinking of buying a farm for an investment.”
Carlson traveled to Iowa, where he anticipated growing corn and soybeans. But in the process of conducting research on the agricultural system, the Pennsylvania native began reading up on sustainable farming. Eventually, he says he became convinced that, as energy prices continue to rise, the current model of industrial agriculture “is not going to be a viable long-term business.”
And so he pivoted and eventually purchased 355-acre Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, where he has repurposed the barn into a farm store and café. Last year, the farm raised 220 cattle, 50 pigs and about 800 meat chickens, with plans to increase production in 2012.
Carlson sees his new career as a meaningful experiment in community and economic development. “I love the idea of making small agriculture viable again, and it will strengthen local communities if that’s the case,” says Carlson.
But just because Carlson intends to make a positive impact on society, that doesn’t mean he plans to run Wyebrook like a non-profit. Vertical integration is fundamental to Carlson’s business plan. Selling meat and produce through an on-site farm store and restaurant cuts out the middle-man and ensures the ability to charge full retail price. “I took a huge pay cut to do this, but I still think it should be economically viable,” he says.
That means bucking the entrenched model of large-scale agriculture. “The industrial food supply is very efficient at getting fresh food from the farm and to people. This kind of [small-scale] agriculture, because we don’t go through the same system, we have to find a way to get it to people,” says Carlson. “Personally, I want people to come to my farm to buy the food and see with their own eyes how it’s made.”
So far, Carlson has been selling meat via an email list, but his farm store is scheduled to open April 28. The store will sell meat from Wyebrook Farm, as well as produce from other nearby farms.
The farm’s location is also a key to its eventual profitability, says Carlson. Proximity to large population centers is key to getting better food to more people, he says. “We’re within one day’s drive from half the people in the U.S. The land is going to become very valuable for farmland,” he adds.
Carlson has brought that kind of shrewd decision-making to all of the choices he’s made in his new career – a skill he says he learned in his previous life as a trader. “I was trained to think a certain way and make rational decisions. Hopefully that will mean that the farm is successful,” Carlson says.
Of course, as a novice farmer, he has still had to rely on the help of those with more experience. Here are a few of the folks that Carlson says he has to thank for getting his operation up and running:
Bill Elkins • Buck Run Farm
Henry Rosenberger • Tussock Sedge Farm
John Hopkins • Forks Farm
Al Granger • Glasbern Inn
Marilyn Anthony • Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)
Carlson says not coming from a background in conventional agriculture has actually helped him to integrate progressive practices he’s learned from pioneers in the space. “I didn’t have preconceptions about how to do things. I felt like I could come at it from a completely open standpoint,” he says.
Jeff Gangemi is FarmPlate's Director of Partnerships and Communications. A lover of both local and far-flung foods like soup dumplings and carnitas tacos, Jeff believes in the power of food, writing and entrepreneurship to effect social change.