The chickens and the eggs
A former sales engineer finds his true calling in farming
The soft purr of peeping baby chicks is disrupted as the farmer lifts the roof of the brooder. A panicked mass of downy fluff runs for the far corner.
One chick doesn’t move. Suddenly it can enjoy space under the heat lamp. But the mass panic is brief. Another chick breaks ranks, and the faint-yellow crowd follows. After all, a chick has to eat and stay warm. Roof openings have become ordinary. What isn’t ordinary is the farmer.
Kevin Smith—a sales engineer with a degree in biology from Cornell—traded job security as an account manager at Rochester’s Teknic Inc. to raise chickens. Who does that?
Confronted with the question, if Smith has any trace of apprehension for leaving his corporate roots, he doesn’t show it. He worked and completed his engineering internship at Teknic during college. Upon graduation, he joined the company full time and stayed for more than eight years. He gave away his first eggs there and gained his work ethic from the guy who hired him.
“He definitely taught me the value of hard work. He’s always working later than everybody else,” Smith says of Teknic vice president Warren God. “He holds honesty to the highest degree, to the highest moral standard. When I first got hired, he said, ‘Don’t ever do anything in your business dealings that you wouldn’t want your family to read about in the newspaper.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Smith cuts his own path and hasn’t stopped with a career shift. He’s not out to debunk unfair stereotyping of his much-maligned millennial generation, but he does. Smith plans. He works hard. He’s married. He and wife, Kate, bought a house and started a farm in Walworth: the Pasture Stand.
So much for lazy, coddled, self-absorbed, never-grow-up millennial stereotypes.
“My wife doesn’t even like eggs,” Smith laughs. “It probably started with me putting a book down and saying, ‘I want to start a farm.’ There were a lot of conversations. I probably said that fifty to 100 more times before she was like, ‘Okay, start a farm.’”
Amid hopes and dreams, their farm conversations included calculations, strategy, planning, and risk assessment.
Smith’s appetite for books on farming was fed by belief in himself and revitalizing the environment. It didn’t hurt he had experience in supply chain management, product reliability and testing, research and development, and data analysis.
The Smiths believe in investing, living conservatively, and saving. They even buck economics that trend against their generation. It took three years to financially position themselves to jump into farming fulltime. It helps that Kate is also a teacher.
“We had to work together to define what kind of farm it was going to be and what kind of life we were going to have,” Smith says. “Can we maintain the life we were building while having the farm and how? Where does this stop if this doesn’t work? Once we worked all those things out, our fears went away.”
Smith knows something about fear and uncertainty. He recalls college frustration. “I hated my biology degree. I was really lost for a couple years. I really felt a lot of stress about not knowing what I wanted to do. Being at Cornell? You’re surrounded by people who seem to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I had no clue.”
Turns out, Cornell, the premiere agricultural school, had little to do with Smith becoming a farmer. Nor did two years as an ornithology research assistant push him to raise birds.
Time at Teknic clued him in. While in his engineering internship, Smith helped the company attract fresh talent. “They asked if I would help them craft the hiring process for sales. So I read a bunch of sales books I really liked and did mock sales calls. I found sales and I really liked it.”
He loved working at Teknic, but something was missing.
“Even when I was a little kid, I loved nature and the environment,” he says. “I always loved the idea of preserving whatever nature we had but also kind of regenerating what we had lost. Even when I was a little kid it occurred to me that people had the capacity to destroy the environment for their own gain. I always was enamored with the idea of sort of reversing some of that, or regenerating it, because I think nature is beautiful.”
Both his grandfathers maintained huge gardens, and as a child he convinced his parents to do the same at their Fairport home. He and his brother hunted, fished, and camped with their father. He says his love of cooking comes from his mother as does his pursuit of the best tasting, healthiest ingredients. Looking back, Smith realizes that even in his youth, he imagined ways to make businesses out of his hobbies.
“I’ve always just been kind of passionate about that sort of thing, so when I found regenerative farming, which is all about healing the land, creating delicious food, and proper animal husbandry—that just really appealed to me—that side of me that I’ve always had, even when I was little.” Familial influences made the toughest part of the Smiths’ plan presenting it to Smith’s paternal grandmother and his parents, Craig and Mary Jo Smith of Fairport.
They were convinced. A farm was born.
The Pasture Stand’s origins began in May 2018 when Smith bought fifteen egg-laying hens for personal use. Extra eggs went to colleagues at Teknic. “We were swimming in eggs, but when I didn’t bring them in, or when I ran out, people would actually get mad,” he recalls. Pasture feeding results in high-quality, larger eggs that yield higher levels of proteins and nutrients with almost orange yolks and better taste. People noticed, and the demand prompted Smith to contemplate farming.
He found the missing piece. It wasn’t proverbial happiness but something more substantial.
“I didn’t have any purpose in my last job. Man, it’s such a ‘Millennial’ thing to say,” he admits, “but it’s a question I get, especially from my old coworkers: ‘Are you really happy now?’ Maybe. I find a lot of purpose in what I’m doing. If I am happier, it’s because I find my work purposeful.
“This type of farming helps heal the land. It gives animals a really good life. It’s the most delicious, healthy food I could possibly give to my community, my family. This is what I want to eat. And I love to eat. I love cooking. I don’t want to eat anything else. I feel useful, and I like that. That’s what I wanted.”
Visitors to the Pasture Stand won’t find any hipster vibe. Smith is more pragmatic businessman and conservationist than activist but has similar altruistic intents. And it’s more than a farm. Each living thing contributes. Where animals are concerned, Smith truly cares about each relatively short life. From the moment his charges arrive in a box from the supplier to when they’re harvested, he believes providing them the healthiest life translates onto the plate in taste and nutrition. He sees his caring as an integral ingredient of the healthy cycle between creature, pasture, and environment.
At the foundation of pasture-raised, regenerative farming is a rejection of pesticides, fertilizers, and hormone-enhanced feeds. Almost maverick reliance on the land and hard work avoids the shortcuts that bring mass-marketed poultry and other products to stores. Smith even rejects government “organic” certification as contrived. He suggests it works against truly “beyond organic” poultry and produce. The Smiths refuse to apply for government grants that otherwise might help grow their enterprise.
In little more than a year, the Pasture Stand has grown to offer pasture-raised broiler chickens, holiday turkeys, pastured eggs, and raw unfiltered honey. Gourmet mushrooms and pastured pig are on tap. Through e-commerce the farm even schedules deliveries of its products.
Science, sensibility, and sustainability. Passion and purpose. Learning and perfecting a process means success and satisfaction. As far as Smith is concerned, farming isn’t just about profit, though he’s confident that will come because he and Kate have a plan that includes room for bumps.
If there’s a drawback for Smith, it’s the discovery that farming is a solitary venture. Save for his dog, Roy, and a brace of Cayuga ducks he’s raised to promote the breed, he’s not unlike the solitary chick under the heat lamp. But he misses interaction with people.
“The hardest thing about the farm is that I’m never around people,” he said. “I don’t like not being around people. It’s constant solitude. My goal if this is successful is to hire people. To be around more people. You have to work together to accomplish some greater goal. I love that.”
To that end, the Smiths already solved the solitude problem. They’re expecting.
Hank Kula is a freelance writer, photographer, and instructor based in Rochester. He can be found on LinkedIn, Instagram and at KulaImagery.com.