The old ways are the best ways at Rumbleway Farm
Nov 04, 2015 01:30PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
By John Chambless, Staff Writer
On a gleaming autumn morning at Rumbleway Farm, russet-colored chickens pecked for insects, turkeys strutted and gawked at visitors, barn cats darted in and out of the shadows, and a warm breeze gently stirred the grass. Things haven't changed all that much at this 62-acre farm since it began in the 1700s, and current owner Robin Way wouldn't have it any other way.
The new way of farming – organically, without pesticides and growth hormones – is pretty much the old way of farming. Robin, who runs the farm with her husband, Mark, and a small group of helpers, said, "I want people to come here and see where their food is raised. This isn't a petting zoo – it's a working farm – but we don't have anything to hide. I want to show people that you can raise really good, healthy food."
During a tour of the farm, Way explained how she came to preside over beef cows, pigs, rabbits, chickens and turkeys from sun-up to sundown.
"My husband grew up two houses down, he went to Salisbury University and has a degree biology," she said. "He always wanted a farm. He started working on a neighbor's farm across the street when he was 12 or 13.
"I grew up in Philadelphia suburbs, went to Texas A&M and have a degree in marine biology. Never thought I'd farm. We met when we both worked for DuPont, doing pharmaceutical research. We moved here right after we got married.
"On my third date with my future husband, he said, 'We're going to my mom's house. They're killing chickens this weekend,'" Way said, laughing. "His mom and dad had chickens in the back yard, and his dad would take an ax and cut their heads off, and they'd be running around in the yard until they stopped. That was my introduction to chickens. City girl meet chicken, you know?"
The farm property can be traced through at least three families, beginning with the Nesbit family in the 1600s and 1700s. "I have a barn board that's dated 1847 that says John Nesbit on it, which is really cool," Way said. "The barn is dated 1802, and the house was built in the early 1800s too.
"The Gibsons farmed here from the early 1900s. They were the last dairy farmers. The Rumbles bought the farm in the mid-1960s. The Rumbles loved this place," Way said. "He was a stone mason. This was their vacation home. On the day of his retirement, he got killed in a car accident and never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor. His wife lived here and remarried. She never had children and passed away. All she wanted was for this to stay a farm. It kind of touched my heart. That man put so much into this farm. The Rumbleway name just sounds perfect – it's them and us. " Way said.
Mark's income from a lab tech job with the Department of the Army pays the bills while the farm hopefully breaks even, Way said. "Unless you've got 1,000 acres, farmers break even. They live a great lifestyle, but they're never going to be rich. Most farm families have at least one person who works off the farm. Mark brings in an income, he pays for our insurance. His job supports our family, and the farm supports itself." Vacations are not really a consideration. "For him and I to get away, it's three days at an agricultural conference. That's our vacation," Way said. "We can't just leave everything. We've got animals to feed."
The Ways have three children, ages 14 to 20. "I'm the full-time farm manager," Robin said. "And chief cook and bottle washer."
When the Ways purchased the property in 1992, it was rundown and in need of help. "When we first came here, we drove down the lane, and my husband kept talking about a house. But it was so overgrown around here that I kept saying, 'What house are you talking about?' I couldn't even see the house. It was a big fixer-upper."
The home has been lovingly restored with a metal roof that the Ways put in by themselves. It's that kind of determination that has allowed them to expand the offerings at Rumbleway, beginning with custom meat from beef cows and pigs. In 1996, they heard about a new way of raising chickens that involved moving them in mobile coops around a property, so they had room to roam. Turkeys and rabbits were added shortly thereafter. In 1998, they added a processing area that was expanded in 2000. In 2002, they added a commercial kitchen. "My husband was very forward thinking," Way said. "I don't think I would have thought of a kitchen, but he said, 'If we're going to do this, let's put out the money, build the building and put in what we want.'"
Along those lines, the farm added cooking classes with guest chefs that they run in the winter, the farm's slow season. "It's a lot of fun," Way said. "You don't just stand there and watch the cooking – everybody participates." Visitors can book farm dinners as well, where everyone enjoys a meal served family-style that's both hearty and healthy.
The farm has been certified organic by the USDA since 2000. "Organics was a weird phase when we started," Way said. "Everybody was saying, 'Oh, that's for the hippies.' Now it's like, 'Organic? Of course!' But back then it was weird."
Way said she and her husband are firmly against genetically modified foods and the use of pesticides, and they keep all their animals free of added hormones and vaccines.
"We are big time against pesticides, and big time against GMOs," she said. "I'm an advocate of cooking food yourself. It takes five more minutes to make something than to throw something in your microwave. I would say 98 percent of the time, I am cooking food from scratch."
The farm's animal feed is a custom blend that's prepared for Rumbleway without hormones, herbicides or animal byproducts. Farm waste is composted and reused. For the farm's animals, the freedom to move about in the sunshine makes for healthier and happier lives. For customers, the purity of the farm's products – chicken, eggs, turkey, pork, rabbit and lamb – makes a trip to Rumbleway a part of the family routine. Way said they have customers who have been visiting for decades.
There's a small shop on the farm where visitors can buy meats, as well as some of the farm's homemade jellies, applesauce, pickled beets and other small-batch products, and sauerkraut that is handmade and aged in the 1800s icehouse. "Whether it's 105 degrees out here, or whether it's two degrees out here, it's a constant 40 degrees down there," Way said, opening the door to the 14-foot-deep stone room. "When we first came here, there was a ladder down there for people to go up and down. What they would do in the winter was take ice from the pond, drag it to the icehouse and lower it in, packing it with sawdust to keep it cold. Then they'd store their stuff down there."
Near the icehouse is a huge pile of cut wood that's used for heating in the winter. There are two wells on the site – one for the house and one for the animals. There aren't a lot of frills at Rumbleway.
There are adjoining farm properties, although the large property to the rear of Rumbleway was sold for housing years ago. It's still possible to stand in the Rumbleway parking lot and see nothing but agricultural buildings and animals.
Up a small hill from the stone farmhouse is a field where turkeys darted in and around the feed being poured out for them. "Turkeys are fun. They are very interested in everybody else," Way said. "Turkeys like to be under something, but not in something," Way said, pointing to the open-sided shelters in the field. "They get in there at night, but otherwise they'll run around all day, picking at bugs. If they get outside the fence, they spend the whole time trying to get back in. They're so worried about where everybody else is. People think turkeys are dumb, but if there's a hawk, they're all immediately underneath the roof. They self-feed and will eat as much as they need. They won't overeat."
When it's time to prepare the turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Way hires about 20 helpers and family members – and everyone gets a free turkey, she said.
The long days and the hard work are shared with an intern and other help as needed. In October, it was Matt who was feeding the turkeys and chickens. "I put my back out, and I have to be really careful about how many five-gallon buckets of feed I'm carrying," Way said. "It's not that I can't do it, but I shouldn't."
Strolling over to where about 60 hens were pecking at the long grass and hopping in and out of the mobile hen house, Way kept an eye on a rooster outside the fence who regarded intruders with a wary gaze. "He's come at me before," Way said, holding a branch to be used if necessary. "He's a jerk. But he's going to be a jerk in the freezer next week."
While Way takes a pragmatic approach to raising animals to be processed as meat, she nevertheless cares about their welfare. Spotting a hen that's sitting by itself in a corner of the yard, she tenderly picked it up, examining its eyes. "You OK, sweetheart?" she whispered to the bird as she cradled it and carried it to a watering station nearby.
From a monetary standpoint, taking care of each animal is critical. Pointing to the turkeys, Way said, "There's potentially $30,000 looking at you in that field. We've had years when a dog got in there and killed 50 turkeys. That's an enormous amount of money. That's the stuff that makes you want to cry. We had a very wet summer. In June or July, we lost 80 chickens in one night during a storm. We're at the mercy of the weather, we're at the mercy of predators. We try to do the best we can."
Since the neighbors know about Rumbleway, they often ask to drop off chickens or other animals to join the crowd. "Everybody thinks you want roosters, everybody thinks you want cats," Way said. "Somebody just brought me some weird hens. And we have like five roosters right now." The newcomer chickens usually fare well in the ideal surroundings, and are accepted by the current flock.
Keeping the farm as local as possible, Way said, "I'd rather keep the source local, rather than bring wheat and corn in from Kansas. I'd rather have corn from down the street. Why do we need to ship milk to Virginia and then bring milk back here from Virginia? It makes no sense to do some of the things that they do."
The farm has competition from other area organic farms, Way said, "But I still think there's enough customers for everybody. It's like sharing a recipe. Nobody's ever going to make it like you do. Our chicken is not going to taste like some other chicken down the road. Our feed, the grass from here – it's all going to have its own flavor.
"This has been an evolution," Way said of the farm. "I don't know that I would have said to you 20 years ago that this is where I'd be. But I love it."
For more information, visit www.rumblewayfarm.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.