From Academia to Farmer

People come to farming from all walks of life, whether they’re born into a farming family or decide to pursue agriculture as an adult. For Robert Russell, starting French Broad Creamery meant leaving a career in academia.

For decades, he taught architectural and urban design at colleges and universities, and ran historic preservation programs in Charleston and Rhode Island. Then he bought an 50-acre farm in Leicester, North Carolina and started the monumental task of removing four tons of old farm equipment and scrap metal, and restoring a barn that was about to fall down.

“I’m a practicing preservationist now because I didn’t just tear the buildings down,” he says. “There is satisfaction in taking something that’s about to go under and restoring it and bringing it to a point where it can be used by somebody for the next hundred years.”

The property was once a cattle farm, and Russell says restoring the land was their biggest challenge. “Fencing was the main thing I thought we’d have to do,” he says. “Well, it turns out there were a lot of other things. The cleaning up was not something that I was expecting, and just getting used to the place. So we started doing things that we knew we had to do, like fixing up buildings that were falling down and putting roofs on buildings where the roofs were blown off.”

Now that the barns have been restored, he has a small herd of milking goats and is teaching himself how to make cheese. As he gets ready to sell his products, he’s learning how to navigate the state’s dairy regulations.

He decided to focus on cheese because it’s a food he loves to eat, and one that supports a philosophy of sustainability both for the environment and the business side of farming. “A few years ago, I came across Joel Salatin’s books and they were a kind of revelation,” Russell says. “Being a farmer these days, if you’re going to be successful, it means you have to be a businessman and you have to do things that maybe you’re not particularly good at.”

He enlisted the help of his son, who also had an academic background. Together, they taught themselves many of the skills they needed to start the farm. “I could not have done it without my son who wanted to work for me after college. He graduated with a degree in French and double minors in political science and religious and theological studies. But he didn’t know how to do a lot of things, so he’s learned. He’s become a pretty good diesel mechanic and he knows how to use an acetylene torch,” Russell says. “These are the sorts of things you don’t learn in college.”

But what do Russell’s former colleagues think of this twist in his career?

“Well they’re envious that I’ve left academia, but maybe not envious that I’m working 13 hours a day fixing barns and cutting down metal silos and doing all the other stuff that has to be done,” he says. “There are wonderful things to say about a city, but I do like waking up in the morning and hearing roosters crow instead of the dull roar of traffic.”

He is starting the cheese side of his business by making fresh chevre from goat’s milk. He’ll focus on bloomy rind cheeses after he builds an aging cave, and his offerings will fluctuate with the seasons once he gets approval to start selling cheese.

“Ideally, five years in the future I would be milking 50 goats and making cheese from 50 goats and selling it locally as much as possible.”

“This is a great place for local food,” he adds. It’s also a competitive market for cheesemakers. Over the past ten years, there’s been a jump in the number of cheesemakers in Western North Carolina, and more chefs and home cooks are seeking out local cheese. Russell says he’s looking forward to contributing to the local cheese community as his business grows.

“Without stepping on the toes of of the older cheesemakers in the area, I will be trying to introduce French Broad Creamery cheese into into the Asheville area and other parts of Western North Carolina,” he says. “It’s nice to come to a place where the trail has been blazed by other people.”

Learn about more creameries and other new farming businesses in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide:

Aired: April 9, 2018

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