Leap of Faith: An Interview with Jane Levan of Dewberry Hills Farm

Jane Levan has a wicked sense of humor. It doesn't take long to realize, though, that irreverence and sharp wit are her own special way of expressing a deep commitment to the environment and to her fellow humans. Like many small farmers, she and her husband Terry are world-weary idealists, committed to building a stronger food system and fixing everything that entails along with it, against often staggering odds, and a strong sense of humor helps. Their farming journey began after Jane read an article by Joel Salatin in Smithsonian Magazine--inspired by Salatin's model of rotational grazing, the couple took a leap of faith and committed to producing good food for our community full time. Jane and Terry know that factory farms and the often inhumane treatment of animals and people in our food system is no laughing matter, and they work tirelessly to offer an alternative--their birds feed on pasture in addition to grain, foraging for bugs and grass under open skies; Jane and Terry process everything on the farm themselves rather than haul birds miles away to a processing facility; their business model is built upon supporting other local businesses and people in the food chain; and their relationships with customers are built on mutual trust, respect, and really great chicken. The best part? No extra charge for the social commentary. As Jane says, "I don't look at the people I sell to as consumers. I look at them asfriends."

Read on for our interview with Jane & click here for one of our favorite recipes: Chicken Under a Brick!

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to where you are now—raising pastured chickens at Dewberry Hills Farm?

We began raised pastured broilers for personal use in 2003 after reading 'Pastured Poultry for Profits' by Joel Salatin. We gave a few away each time and were encouraged by the extremely positive reactions we received. With only 20 acres of sandy soil, it seemed like the most efficient method of using our land to create food. In 2008, we took a huge leap of faith and decided to earn our living by selling these birds at the farmers market. We've never looked back, although we do drink more heavily now. ;)

Why raise food?

Food is the one constant that people need. You can live without a new car or the latest phone but you can't live without food. We were disgusted by the proliferation of confinement animal feeding operations and terrified by the fact that most of the commercial meat we eat in America is pumped full of antibiotics. And we wanted to earn a living without exploiting either the land or people.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepared you to raise food for a living?

Terry grew up on a farm and raised first poultry and then cattle for 4H. I was a city girl but had always wanted to work on the land.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

It means working with the land and the seasons to create healthy food within the boundaries of the climate and the soil. It means that we recycle, redo, or reuse just about everything on the farm. It means sourcing our grain locally and paying a living wage to the people who work here.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Dewberry Hills Farm?

It varies, although the fact that all the birds have to be fed, moved, and watered daily, and the brooders have to be cleaned is a constant. We process on-site and sell fresh birds only, so four days a week are spent in the processing building. We have a commercial delivery day midweek and sell at the market on Saturdays.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

That Terry and I do all the processing ourselves.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

The relationships we've developed through our sales at the farmer's market. We're feeding six year olds that were just a gleam in their parent's eye when we began selling at Sunset Valley.

What do you find most challenging?

The changing climate and continuing drought.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

Americans are used to eating cheap, bad food and conditioned to the convenience of being able to shop whenever they feel like it, so they don't understand the importance of supporting local farmers. Young farmers are faced with rising land prices and the reluctance of the financial industry to loan money to small alternate farms. And the climate is changing.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

The small local farmer is the cornerstone of his/her community.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

1) it provides an alternative to industrial farming practices that are destroying the environment; 2) it ensures that the food you buy is local and fresh; 3) it allows you to develop real relationships with the folks that feed you; 4) it's much more fun than going to the supermarket.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

That more and more people are concerned about how livestock is raised and processed.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

How industrial food is grown. Once people become educated about CAFO's, they stop buying commercial meats.

What inspires you?

The support we receive from the Austin community at market.

What is one thing everyone can do to create a better, stronger food system?

1) Support local farmers by learning where and how their food is raised; 2) eat as locally and seasonably as possible; 3) spend more, eat less.

What are you cooking this week?

Chicken! Roast chicken for dinner tonight. Chicken pasta salad for lunch tomorrow. Chicken fajitas. Tortilla soup with homemade chicken stock. Sauteed chicken breasts with salsa and Monterrey Jack cheese.

What’s your favorite chicken recipe or dish?

You can't beat a roast chicken, especially in the fall and winter.

Quick Culinary Picks from Farmer Jane:

Favorite breakfast: Pancakes and smoothies.

Favorite comfort food: Chocolate.

Favorite book about food: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Favorite cookbook: Terry.

Favorite fall fruit/veggie: Apples.

Favorite food indulgence: Pate.

What goes best with chicken: What doesn't? Roast potatoes, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash-it all goes with chicken.