Ruby Duke: Raven and Boar Farm

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...


Editor’s Note: The Raven and Boar Farm is located near East Chatham, New York. A couple of years ago while filming some farm sequences in the Hudson Valley, we met Ruby and Sather Duke (and at the time, their first daughter–now they’re parents of two!).

Trained as artists, these two farmers use their problem solving skills daily to make Raven and Boar run efficiently and sustainably. Between shoveling early spring snow, readying their large garden space and, as always, caring for their animals, Ruby somehow found time to answer our questions.

Well, first off, I have to ask–what’s the story behind the name of your farm?

Raven&Boar: After naming our first business together hivemindesign, we knew we had to come up with something easier to say and to remember. It’s hard to keep this story short, but I will try!

There is a great PBS documentary on ravens and we discussed part of the documentary with our good friend Emily Miranda who was making our wedding cake. In the video, there is a scene where ravens come to steal food from domesticated free ranging wild boars (in the Black Forest, I believe). At first the ravens jump on the boars’ back to chase them away to get at their feed. Shortly after and once they are full, the ravens choose to jump on the boars’ back just to ride it through the field.

Somehow at the time, we thought this was a good analogy for Sather’s and my own relationship, in that we do so much focus on the goal (usually work), but occasionally just peck at each other to get a good laugh. On our wedding day, Emily appeared with a beautiful wedding cake for us, and on the top was a raven and a boar sculpted in sugar.

We still do not know for sure whom she imagined was the raven or the boar on that day, but we still have the lovely sugar sculpture she made.

When we were deciding on a name for our farm, we thought this original story was a good one, and took the name Raven & Boar.

The farm requires us to problem solve almost constantly, which is a very important part of our design process as well.

It’s been said you started your farm to find a better way to feed your own family. Can you talk about what went into that decision?

R&B: When we bought our house we did not originally plan to live up here full time. When we did finally move from Brooklyn, Kes was about a year old, and we started a 20’ x 30’ garden close to the house, where we grew as many vegetables as we could.

We also got two pigs which were going to be for our own family, and for Sather’s parents. We pretty quickly decided that it made more sense to have four pigs and to sell two, so that our costs would be covered for our own raising and processing of the animals. We did eat well that first summer living here full time. It was Sather who first realized that following winter, how much he had enjoyed having the animals on the land, the daily problem solving and physicality it takes to raise animals.

After quite a bit of research, it was not until the next spring that we decided to raise more animals and really start our farm business. Being on a farm has completely changed the way we eat and the way we (and our kids) perceive food. We eat seasonally, which means we only have tomatoes for about three months out of the year. We consume a ton of vegetables in the summer months and mostly grains, storage vegetables and meat in the winter.

Describe what you are doing at Raven & Boar. What animals are you raising? What kinds of produce are you growing?

R&B: We raise heritage pigs which live primarily in the woods on our land. They eat local grain, forage crops we grow for them using silvopasture techniques as well as whey. We also raise a couple of hundred chickens annually for meat, and about 100 laying hens, as well as some sheep and rabbits. We also have 1.5 acres of organic herbs and vegetables which is our own food, and also send as weekly pairings to our chefs with their pigs.

You (and your husband, Sather Duke) were designers in Brooklyn and now you’re farmers in upstate New York. Tell us that story.

R&B: We have not given up on the design part of ourselves, in fact, the past two years have been some of the most productive for hivemindesign. I studied industrial design at RISD and and Sather studied sculpture at the New York Studio School and worked for the Brooklyn sculptor Ursula Von Rydingsvard.

We met in 1999 walking our dogs in McKerrin Park in Williamsburg, and started our design business in 2000. In 2012, Sather designed and built the custom millwork for Chef Peter Hoffman’s Savoy Restaurant when it became Back Forty West after his chef de cuisine Ryan Tate had purchased pigs from us.

More recently we designed and built over 150 chairs for the Delta Terminal C Keith McNally restaurant, Empire Tavern. It may seem like a leap from design and millwork to pig farming, but it feels in many ways to have many similarities to us. Similar to our furniture design, we always try to source the best quality materials, make something that is truly unique and capture our audience so that they come back for more. We try to do the same thing on the farm.

The farm requires us to problem solve almost constantly, which is a very important part of our design process as well. Every day the two merge closer and closer!

Talk about some of the help you’ve received in getting Raven & Boar up and running. Who gave you advice, steered your efforts and (maybe, more importantly) started buying your products? What was the best piece of advice you received?

R&B: Getting started as a farmer is as hard as any other startup. You have to have a real understanding of your own product and ideally who will want to buy it.

Our land was a farm 100 years ago, but the land had gone fallow–mostly sold off in parcels–and all of the outbuildings had collapsed or burned. Since we originally had no intention of becoming farmers, we started out really small, and still consider ourselves a very small farm.

Most of what we learned about animal husbandry the first years was from books (the Mid-Hudson Library is a great resource) and a few farmer mentors who we latched ourselves onto whether they wanted us or not. There is a great wealth of information stored up in the family farmers of our region, and most really enjoy talking about animal husbandry, soil maintenance, composting etc. when given the chance.

Another wonderful resource is the Cornell Cooperative extension. We also started out small since we didn’t have any capital to start a new business. Every step of our growth was from small investment over the past five years, which means we put everything back into the farm.

Finding your customer is a whole other ball game. Sather’s role on the farm has been to take care of the animals and to troubleshoot all of the daily issues that come up on the farm–in addition to building all of the furniture for hivemindesign. I manage the office, customers, farmers’ markets, sales and the garden. Oh, and let’s not forget we have two kids! The most important thing is finding your customer and making them happy.

We were fortunate to meet a few chefs early in the growth of our farm that took a chance on us and believed in our same goals: raising healthy and happy animals, conscientious slaughter and nose to tail ethics.

Our farm could not exist without these strong relationships with chefs and restaurants we consider to be part of our family: Chef Ryan Tate/Le restaurant, Chefs Dan Barber & Trevor Kunk at Blue Hill Manhattan, Chefs Michael Anthony & Paul Wetzel at Gramercy Tavern, Chef Olivier Quignon at Bar Boulud are all amazing Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan.

You can also find our pork on local menus in the Hudson Valley and The Berkshires, at The Red Lion Inn in West Stockbridge, Allium and Prairie Whale in Great Barrington, Another Fork in the Road in Rhinebeck as well as Mario’s Restaurant just a few miles away in our own town of New Lebanon. When you eat at these restaurants, you know you are supporting a small Hudson Valley farm.

Best advice is a little harder to give. My dad always told me that in order to be noticed, you have to put yourself out there, be irreverent and follow your heart. The only problem is there are risks in following your heart, but you can’t get very far unless you take some.

Let’s talk pigs. Tell us about your operation. What breeds are you producing?

R&B: We raise all heritage breed pigs which we get as feeder pigs from a local breeder. All of the animals always have a dry shelter to sleep in as well as access to outdoors at all times.

We have 15 acres which is essentially all on a rotational grazing plan for the pigs, and most of it is woods. For the past two years we have been progressively managing our forest by practicing silvopasture techniques by planting forage in the woods for the animals to graze on. We have some pure heritage breeds and some mixed breeds. When you look at our herd you can find primarily Tamworths, Old Spots, Large Blacks, Mule Foot, Hereford, Berkshires & Red Wattles.

Talk about the ‘whey-fed pigs’ story. It’s such a study in sustainability. Why whey? Why is it a good thing?

R&B: We originally found whey as a food supplement to help lower our feed costs. The protein from whey is great for the pigs and they also just love it. Happy pigs are always better tasting pigs. For the cheese makers we work with, whey is a by-product of their production which can often be hard to manage. We have a great relationship with Pampered Cow in Ghent, New York and we are able to get enough whey from them annually for our animals. There is a very long tradition of whey feeding pigs in Europe, and if you have eaten Prosciutto di Parma, you have eaten a pig fed the whey of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Recently you raised some capital to start a new business. Tell us about your charcuterie business.

R&B: Last fall we launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital for a new business model for our farm called Hudson Valley Charcuterie. Our goal is to raise, butcher and produce our own private label cured meat right here on the farm. There are many small pig farms in our area and just a few USDA processors, so it is very hard to differentiate one product from another. For about two years we tried to find a local producer to work with that could take meat and make a value-added product like salami or saucisson.

We could not find anyone in our region who could guarantee that the meat we sent would be the product we received back, and most would or could not even make a commitment to do such a small production.

This lead to us deciding to once again, do it ourselves. We are currently in the process of building our new kitchen!

What do you think are the benefits for your two young daughters living on the farm? Could you see them becoming farm folks?

R&B: I think our girls have a very interesting life, and a very interesting perspective on food. I do often struggle with some of the other opportunities that they do not have since we live in a rural area.

My childhood and aesthetic was shaped by the city that I grew up in. At 6 years old I knew all of the rooms of the Museum of Natural History and the Met by heart since that is where we could escape to on rainy days.

We have no idea what these little people will grow up to be, but we do hope that growing up on a working farm is something that they can appreciate in their life. So much of the food out there that kids eat is such shit, and I know we have given them an opportunity which many don’t have, by being able to eat organic vegetables out of a field, pick eggs from a nest for breakfast or know the animal that they are eating.

This brings me to an idea which I think is important to mention, which is that many people often ask me ‘How can you eat animals that you know”? Our answer is always simple: we prefer to eat animals we know instead of animals we don’t know. The way most meat is raised in this country is despicable, and we hope to be able to provide a small source of well-raised meat to our family and our community.

Tell us how taking your products to local farmers’ markets have helped Raven & Boar.

R&B: The farmers’ market is a really great social phenomenon. When we first moved here from Brooklyn, I thought I would never be able to find a social community that I could connect with in the same way.

Most of my best friends I have met since moving here are connections from the farmers’ market. Being at the market is a great way to serve our community, and supporting farmers market’s is a great way to support small regional business. It’s also where we get as much of our own food as we can (that we don’t grow or raise ourselves).

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a change and become involved in agriculture?

R&B: Start small. This is seriously hard work. There are crazy long hours, there are no days off, and you don’t get paid much, so you better love what you are doing. Contact your local zoning administrator to see if you can farm on your land or the land you are considering buying or leasing (preferably in an agricultural district ). If you are planning starting a farm in any state, read your state and county’s Right To Farm Lawsand find out what your local administration thinks of it. Unfortunately not every town, developer or neighbor likes farms, so be aware of your regional economic developments perspective and your neighbors.

Any last words? What have I not been clever enough to ask you?

R&B: If you are thinking about raising animals for meat spend some time researching where you plan on getting those animals processed. We are extremely fortunate to be 15 minutes from a USDA facility, and our business would not be able to function without it.

Thank you, Ruby, for taking the time to talk with us today. We look forward to our next visit to Raven & Boar.

R&B: Well, thank you, Craig and Staci! Looking forward to seeing you at the farmers’ market and having you both back to the farm.

Are you a farmer? Do Ruby’s answers sound familiar? Do you want to be a farmer? Did Ruby inspire you?

Photo credit: Ashley Sears