Julie Whitcomb and Matt Gelbwaks, Julie's Happy Hens
“In 1981 we made a decision that if we could ever make enough money to survive comfortably, we’d get back into farming”
In 1980, Julie and Matt met as students at SUNY Potsdam. For one of their first dates, they rode horses at Matt’s family farm just 20 miles down the road. After graduating, they left the North Country and Matt took jobs around the world. They traveled extensively across Europe, South America, Australia. They lived in a beachfront estate in Florida, found their way to Massachusetts, and eventually landed in New Hampshire where Julie began a career as a high school health teacher and pillar of the local rotary club. When a lot came up for sale in Mont Vernon, they bought it to move their kids into the neighboring school district.
Fast forward to today, Julie and Matt have returned to farming with force. When most people would have considered retiring, they looked out at the field in front of their house (made up of three other house lots that never sold after the 2008 financial crisis) and decided to put up a hoop house. When the retired Trow Farm came on the market just steps down the road, they put in an offer to stave off eager developers and to their surprise, it was accepted. For her birthday, Matt brought Julie to pick out Highland cows to bring the 90 acre farm back to life.
From there, two empty nesters started a new flock. First with 6 chickens, then 40, 80, and 3,000. As Julie puts it, “I couldn’t keep up with demand… people always wanted more eggs!” As their accountant put it, “it was too lucrative and they had to formalize things.”
Even after its swift growth, the farm is still run entirely by Julie, Matt, and a rotating cast of local high school students who wash eggs in the afternoons. After a career in new ventures and technology, Matt has embedded that ethos into the operations of the farm while preserving their pasture-based mission. Each morning, the chickens stream out of a barn with automated feed and water lines, egg collection, and a scraper to collect their compostable manure. As Matt puts it, “apparently no one ever made an automated barn for only 3,000 birds.” They sit at the inflection point between being a production farm and having local roots–selling to local neighbors, general stores, delivery brands, and co-ops, but also being the first to use a Clearspan fabric hoop house as a commercial layer operation (which put them on the cover of the catalog for an entire year).
Yet despite their success they often had difficulty getting financing. In banking, that inflection point of local and production can seem hard to define–both too small or alternative for conventional agriculture relationships, and too reliant on nature to look like a normal commercial loan. After many years of friendly agreements that let them build Julie’s Happy Hens on a neighbor’s lots, Julie and Matt have worked with us to purchase their land. They are bringing the whole farm under one umbrella while capitalizing on a reasonable interest rate and aligning the farm’s financing with its values. They also will be playing an important role in our governance structure as Matt has joined us as a corporator to steward Walden Mutual for the long run.
From one flock to another
The growth of the egg farm has allowed Julie and Matt to quietly start their newest venture: Black-eyed Susan Sheep Dairy. As with the chickens, this is a team effort–Julie as the cheesemaker and lamb midwife, Matt as the planner and froyo experimenter. This spring, as they wade through upwards of 70 births, Julie can be seen helping new lambs get their first drink of their mother’s colostrum. After years of crouching in the lower level of the barn to milk their sheep, Matt led the retrofit of the farmhouse’s garage and created New Hampshire’s first Grade A sheep dairy (and New Hampshire’s first vanilla cranberry sheep froyo).
Running this all as a team of two can be tough. Especially when there is no exit plan in sight. Matt jokes that he never leaves the farm (though it might not be a joke). Yet even when the waterers freeze and the poop scraper comes off of its pulley Julie and Matt still make a point of celebrating their anniversary like it’s a national holiday.
Photography: Arthur Rounds