Former Marine starts sustainable agriculture business on old family farm

sgilman@newsobserver.comNovember 27, 2013 

It’s too late now to get a Thanksgiving turkey from him, but if you make a reservation, former Marine Robert Elliott will meet you at his farm in Louisburg and show you where he raises and sells ducks, chickens, pigs, turkeys and vegetables.

While you’re there, say hello to one of the four dogs on the property. Pet Pete, the docile turkey that has become the farm’s mascot. See where the chickens peck and where the pigs roam.

“They don’t have any kind of hormones, antibiotics, steroids, vaccinations or chemicals,” Elliott said. “They live outside in the sunshine.”

This summer has been a trial run for an idea Elliott said came to him in a “light bulb moment.” He had finished reading Joel Salatin’s book, “Pastured Poultry Profit$” when he turned to his fiance, Michelle Martin, and suggested they follow Salatins’ prescription for sustainable chicken production.

Elliott said her reaction was, “Okay, let’s do it. The worst that can happen is we don’t sell any, and at least we’ll have something to eat.”

He needed something to do after 2011 budget cuts got him laid off from his Department of Defense contracting job in Havelock, where he worked for a decade on engines for the EA-6B Prowler.

It was the same type of work he did during his five years in the Marine Corps, where he built C-130 engines. He joined at age 18 after leaving his aunt and uncle’s 850-acre farm where he grew up.

“I didn’t like farming,” he said. “I thought the Marine Corps was going to be less work. In a way it was, and in a way it wasn’t. I loved my time in.”

He served in Miramar, California and Okinawa, Japan. During a run, his left knee blew out. The surgery to reattach his ligament failed, and the service would not allow him to reenlist. He left with an honorable discharge.

After getting laid off from his contracting job, he moved back to the old, white farmhouse with his fiance. He got his associates degree at Nash Community College and started working on his mechanical aeronautical engineering degree at N. C. State University, but quickly scrapped that path.

“It finally dawned on me that if I did finish this degree, that just meant a life sentence in a cubicle. I’m not that kind of person. I have to be outside,” he said.

Light bulb moment

Then came the light bulb moment — when Elliott read the book about chicken pasturing.

“I started researching. I looked up exactly what it is I was eating on a daily basis from fast food to conventional chicken or beef from the grocery store. I wanted to know what each label meant.”

He knew he wanted to start his own operation, and he knew he needed help.

Last winter, he went to see an old friend, Martha Mobley, whom he knew from participating in 4-H when he was a kid. Mobley is an agent for the Cooperative Extension, the agriculture outreach program of N. C. State University.

“One day he came back and was sitting in my office. I couldn’t believe it,” Mobley said. “He was all grown up and Marine looking — with a beard.”

Mobley sprang to action by sending Elliott to conferences, training seminars, and helping him network with successful local farmers.

For the initial funds, Elliott sold an old motorcycle for $2,000 to a web designer who used $500 of the sale to design the web site for the farm, now named Cypress Hall Farms. He went to the training seminars. He got certified by the state to sell his home-grown products.

‘They grew fast’

The first batch of Cornish cross chickens pecked around with the cattle and grew enormous. Elliott thought the 6.5-pound birds would never sell, and he started giving them away.

“They were eating some high quality stuff,” he said. “They grew fast.”

The first batch of turkeys didn’t hatch, except for a lonely survivor that Elliot named Pete:

“He would sit in his little turkey brooder box and just cry, and cry and cry.”

Elliot brought him inside and laid him on a towel. The two of them nuzzled up and watched television.

Contrary to his apprehensions, the birds were wildly popular. This summer, Elliot packaged and sold over 500 chickens, 20 turkeys, and three pigs. The popularity of the turkeys prompted him to plan for 100-150 next year.

His nine remaining turkeys are not for the taking: four are reserved for customers’ Christmas dinners, and five will stay on the farm for breeding. All that is, except Pete, whom Elliot said would “never be Thanksgiving for anybody.”

Mobley purchased one of Elliott’s chickens, and testifies to its good taste:

“They are just so tender and moist, just the best poultry I’ve ever tasted. He does a wonderful job, does a wonderful, safe product.”

Elliott does all the processing himself, and avoids freezing so the product is as fresh as possible. After he slaughters a bird, it gets doused in scalding water, plucked, and shrink-wrapped in a bag with a label - just like in a grocery store.

‘Better food’

The difference, he said, is in the quality:

“When you pull one of my birds out of the bag, you don’t see feathers, you don’t see broken wings. You’re getting the best bird you’re hoping to get.”

He also tries to keep the price reasonable, and sells his meat for $3.75 per pound.

“I didn’t get into this business to get rich,” he said. “I want people to be able to afford better food.”

Elliott has a passion for quality, and for him, that means natural.

“With the term organic, you can use pesticides and herbicides; it just depends on which one. We don’t even use those, so you can’t even call my stuff organic. My stuff’s better than organic.”

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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