Like a lot of young, idealistic men, Austin Carrier had no problem giving his opinions on the issues of the day. His usually centered on the local, sustainable food movement.
“I was talking the talk like no one’s business. I was preaching to everyone,” Carrier, 23, recalls. “And then I stopped.”
The change of heart came when he realized he was just repeating what he had gleaned in school and picked up in organic food markets. Carrier had never gotten his hands dirtied in a garden, pecked by a surly chicken or bloodied by a slaughtered animal.
So shortly after he moved to Olympia in 2011 to attend The Evergreen State College, he and childhood friend Ross Finn, 23, rented a small patch of land and began to raise chickens.
“I always say it started then – when we sold eggs,” Carrier says of their Soul Brothers Farm that has now grown to 3 acres, 10 hogs, 11 sheep, two goats, 15 rabbits, 12 turkeys and 60 chickens. Those numbers go up and down as animals are acquired, raised and sent to market.
The farm specializes in raising pasteured animals supplemented with an organic, soy-free and GMO-free diet. They sell their meat and eggs at several farmers markets and at their farm stand in Olympia. And it’s at those markets where Carrier, Finn and third “soul brother” Alex Mutter-Rottmayer, 22, interact with their customers. It’s the most enjoyable part of the operation, they say.
“We love the connection with the people. We love seeing someone’s face light up over the food they’ve eaten,” Carrier says. “You feel like you’ve done something for the community.”
Carrier and his partners say they particularly like it when older customers take note of what they are doing. It’s a role reversal, they say.
“A lot of people think farmers are older people with lots of experience,” Carrier says. “They think we work for the farm, not own it. We don’t look like typical farmers.”
What they look like are college kids: Bleached hair, plaid shorts, sandals.
The three have disparate backgrounds: Carrier studied architecture, Finn studied evolutionary biology and Mutter-Rottmayer is studying chemistry at Evergreen. All of those disciplines play into the operation of the farm, Carrier says.
Carrier’s background gives him expertise in land management and buildings. Finn understands animals (behavior and biology) and Mutter-Rottmayer detects and improves soil problems. “They all play out in an interesting way,” Carrier says of their educations. None of the young men had any farming experience though Finn’s mother and Mutter-Rottmayer’s father grew up on farms. Finn and Carrier have been friends since the fifth grade in Memphis, Tenn. The “soul” in the farm’s name is a reference to their Tennessee upbringing.
“The farm manifested itself accidentally,” Finn says. “We had more eggs than we could use,” Carrier adds. They soon added rabbits and it grew quickly from there. After years of investing their own money, the trio turned their first profit this year. Every year sees tremendous growth, and it’s been hard to keep up, they say.
“We had a lot of demand and not enough supply,” Carrier says. In 2012, they raised two hogs. This year they raised 16, and next year they plan on raising 30 to 40.
At first, chores and duties were done as needed, but now, with three partners and a larger farm, the men have assigned roles and duties.
Though they sell their pork, goat and lamb by cuts, as fall approaches they will offer quarter, half or whole animals. Thanksgiving turkeys are raised by special order.
For all their animals, the farmers use a rotational paddock system. While the hogs graze and root in their current pasture, their next one waits, filled with maturing cover crops. Hogs can be tough on soil (wild-hog damage to crops and land is a major problem for commercial farmers) so the Soul Brothers do not raise them during the winter.
“We let our fields go fallow in the winter so they can rejuvenate and be strong in the spring,” Carrier says.
The men butcher their own rabbits, chickens and turkeys. The larger animals are taken to a mobile slaughter unit that parks itself in McKenna on Thursdays. The mobile facility is run by the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative and certified by the USDA.
The affection the trio has for its animals is obvious. On a recent August afternoon Finn and Mutter-Rottmayer enter the hog pen and the pigs quickly trot over, wiping muddy noses on the men’s shorts.
“I love belly rubs and so do they,” Finn says giving his favorite hog a deep knead. Mutter-Rottmayer does the same to another hog. Both pigs stand still, smiles spreading across their faces. Their customers, the men say, are very concerned with the way animals are raised. But, as affectionate as they are with their animals, the farmers are unsentimental when it comes time for butchering.
“Every time you see those pigs walking, you see two big hams,” Carrier says.
The trio learned how to butcher animals from YouTube videos. “The first animal you kill is definitely an experience,” Finn recalls.
After the visit in the hog pen, the men walk over to the rabbit run. The rabbits will not be as lucky as the hogs.
One by one the men gently collect a rabbit from the pen and place it in a small wire enclosure along with an apple slice.
“When they seem relaxed, that’s when we do it,” Finn says while eyeing the rabbit. Soon the rabbit begins to nibble on the apple, and Finn raises the barrel of a pellet gun to the back of the rabbit’s head.
A single shot brings the rabbit down.
After Finn skins the rabbit, he hands the pelt to Carrier, who lays it on a board and covers it with salt. In about 12 hours the salt will draw the moisture out of the skin. Then the pelt will dry in the sun for about a week. They still haven’t decided what to do with the pelts, but they sell the butchered rabbits to eager customers.
Manure from animals is used to grow a large vegetable garden with tomatoes, squash, corn, eggplants and cucumbers — the latter they preserve. One of their gardens is growing on the site of their former barn. It burned to the ground earlier in the year when goats nibbled through electrical wiring. The goats did not survive.
The Soul Brothers acknowledge they don’t lead the lives of most people their age. Instead of sleeping in on Saturday mornings after a late night out, they are up early tending to their animals.
“They’re mad at you if you’re late,” Mutter-Rottmayer says.
So why do they do it?
“It feels like you have something in your life, rather than a 9-to-5 job and partying. I want to make a difference. It’s hard work, but we find so much joy in it,” Carrier says.
It turns out he still is that idealistic young man. He’s just getting his hands dirty now.
“Really dirty,” Carrier says.
IF YOU GO
Soul Brothers Farm
Where: 3520 26th Ave. NE, Olympia
Sells: West Olympia Farmers Market, 4-7 p.m. Tuesdays through October
Seabrook Saturday Market, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays
Soul Brothers Farm stand, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sundays through November
More info: 360-515-5112, email@example.com, Facebook.com/soulbrothersfarm
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541