Think Local

Griggstown Quail Farms

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Aug. 13, 2008

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Pie in the sky: Chef Matthew Sytsema upcycles organic farm products into ready-made dinners and desserts for the no-sweat set. (photo by griggstown quail farm)

Small farms operate on the same economic logic as any other businesses: Adverse conditions force a choice between innovation and failure. Lucky for local gourmands, unanticipated challenges have pushed Griggstown Quail Farm, located on 70 acres outside of Princeton, N.J., to diversify their product mix and expand availability.

The farm and associated market, which sells items such as quail eggs, chicken sausages and turkey potpies, started out with just 12 quail on two acres of land in 1973. George Rude, the farm's current owner, was acquainted with gastronomic icon James Beard, who complained that it was impossible to find fresh game in New York City. In response, Rude, who grew up near Princeton, began raising quail to sell to New York restaurants.

As the farm expanded, Rude added free-range chickens, ducks, pheasants and turkeys to the mix, and continued reserving the bulk of sales for restaurants and wholesalers. After Sept. 11, though, as New York struggled with the psychological and economic aftereffects of the attacks, demand for Griggstown's products sank.

So the farm opened a market on the grounds and began retailing to the general public to thrive. To draw consumers to the bucolic but slightly inconvenient site roughly halfway between Philadelphia and New York, it wasn't enough just to sell game birds, turkey and chicken. Rude hired a chef to turn the farm's products into prepared goods that home cooks can easily turn into a meal.

Matthew Sytsema, chef at the farm store for the last five years, says the gig is "a chef's dream." Sytsema grew up on a nearby dairy farm before heading to the Culinary Institute of America to train. After a few restaurant stints, Sytsema found his way back to the farm.

"It's pretty unique as a chef to ask the farm to produce whatever I want," he says.

Certainly, chefs in top restaurant kitchens have access to higher-quality ingredients than the general public, but few of them have Sytsema's proximity to fresh ingredients. A short walk from the kitchen leads to the incubator, in which 800 to 1,000 quail eggs hatch a week. Farther down the road, free-range pheasants strut beneath a canopy of lambs' quarters--roughly 2- to 3-foot-high plants that keep the birds out of the sun.

A trip across the grounds will likely result in an encounter with George Rude and his brother Peter, who work the farm seven days a week--year-'round. Raising free-range birds without antibiotics and hormones in the feed produces better-tasting birds, but adds challenges for the farmer. Standing just a few feet away from me outside an outdoor pen home of white turkeys, George Rude points out, "These birds exercise ... other birds don't walk from me to you."

The ability to wander outside the enclosed shed makes the birds susceptible to local predators.

"The 'coons got 25 bourbons two weeks ago," Rude says. This was a substantial hit to the farm's pricey red heritage turkeys--the turkey equivalent of an heirloom tomato. Red-tail hawks and owls are also consistent threats.

Challenges to the farm's bottom line come from other unexpected areas. Rising food prices have carried over to the price of grain, and the downturn in the housing market has led to an increase in the cost of the wood shavings that line the floor of the chicken shed.

To deal with spiraling costs, the farm has become more reliant on farmers market sales to provide consistent cash flow through the summer. Griggstown Farm offerings are found at 10 farmers' markets in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Headhouse Square on Saturdays.

Summers yield grill-friendly items like chicken sausage with white wine, lemon, parsley and garlic, made with the farm's chicken by nearby Martin's Specialty Sausages, and butterflied pousson (a young chicken) with soy-ginger marinade. Both the sausages and the bird are substantially moister than factory farm chicken and mass-produced sausages. The juicy pousson even forgave the char that accompanied a slight overcooking.

For novelty's sake, who can resist a package of fresh quail eggs, diminutive ovals that are ideal poached and served on brioche with a little truffle butter? The minds behind Griggstown Farm may not have planned it this way, but such delicacies aren't just for New York restaurant patrons anymore.

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COMMENTS

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1. Katy said... on Aug 13, 2008 at 12:51PM

“Hey, thanks for the story! They actually attend the Headhouse Sunday market 10am-2pm. Cheers, Katy”

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2. Jony said... on Nov 17, 2008 at 09:40AM

“good day sir, to start quail farm business including all equipments, how much it will cost. thanks.”

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3. age of conan gold said... on Nov 17, 2008 at 09:54AM

“My advice is to find a local carpenter in your area. You can use materials available in hardware shops. Chicken wire 1/2 inch for the flooring and 1 inch for the wall. The wood for the frame structure can be 1x2x8 for a start. You can make 5-6 levels and put ply wood for the dung. Make the flooring a little bit slant or elevate one side about 2-3 inches for egg to roll on the tip most of the floor for easy collection. I have pictures of the cages you can show it to your carpenter as guide.”

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4. disha said... on Nov 22, 2008 at 10:52PM

“thanks for sharing your idea with us. you have done a great job to build such a great firm.”

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5. arif said... on Dec 24, 2008 at 03:27AM

“What can I say. My mom was a great cook but when it came to piping hot chicken pot pies for the family”

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