Blackberry Meadows Farm Overcomes Challenges to Serve the Community

They say there’s no rest for the weary but even Greg Boulos and Jen Montgomery—the couple behind Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights–could generally count on winter for an annual respite from the grueling demands of the farm. But in an era of increasingly warmer winters and early springs owing to climate change–and this year further exacerbated by El Niño–those breather days are fewer and further between.

“Having a little bit of cold weather justifies not going outside, not working in the freezing cold, not that I need excuses to stay in the house with the family around a nice little wood fire,” Greg laughed, noting that the winter downtime is a necessary to gird for the wet spring and hot summer ahead. “That wintertime, it’s really good for mental health. Usually, we can kind of recuperate. That hasn’t happened. But we’re plowing forward,” he said, pun very much intended.

The owners of Blackberry Meadows Farm stand behind a counter while a woman in blue with a hat on stands in front of the counter.

 

Greg Boulos, center, stands with his wife, Jennifer Montgomery, right, and his mother-in-law, Kathy Montgomery, at their farmstand at Blackberry Meadows Farm.

Building a Farm From the Ground Up

This is the 18th season that the couple has run the farm, after taking it over in 2007 from previous owners and stewards the Duff family, who whipped the 85-acre spread back into shape in 1988. Prior to that it had been mostly unkempt land for horses and hay, despite a long ago history as a dairy farm.

For Ms. Montgomery, who grew up in Harpers Ferry, WV, working in agriculture was always her path. She began organic farming in 1996, years before it was a mainstream concept. She’s worked on farms across the planet from Scotland to New Zealand. She came to Western Pennsylvania to pursue a master’s program in sustainable systems at Slippery Rock. That’s where she met Mr. Boulos, a West View native and son of Pittsburgh Public School teachers who, after studying and working in architecture and construction, had begun work with a Pittsburgh biofuels startup.

Two chickens are framed up close.

 

Chickens at Blackberry Meadows Farm.

A New Start for Blackberry Meadows Farm

They graduated from The Rock in 2004 and in 2007 began apprenticing under the Duffs before taking over Blackberry Meadows Farm after 18 months. The Duffs had already created an organic environment and started a CSA program, so that gave the young couple a sturdy foundation from which to thrive.

Ms. Montgomery now runs the business, keeps the books, manages the CSA program (with well over 100 full and partial subscribers), and oversees that farm’s fruit and vegetable operations. This year she’s been busy prepping and restoring soil in 21 different 1500-square foot plots for members to come and grow their own food, akin to a community garden, but on much larger plots, and on a certified-organic farm with high-quality soil and professional guidance.

“People really do want to learn how to grow food and they’re willing to commit to making it happen, but they don’t have space,” she said. “Here you can grow your potatoes, you grow your tomatoes for salsa and all your tomato sauce. You can grow onions. It’s not just like a show garden; these are for calories over the wintertime. It’s production agriculture, but on a personal scale.”

A group of pigs walk across mud.

Pigs at Blackberry Meadows Farm.

Love and Care in All Aspects

Mr. Boulos is in charge of farm maintenance and oversees the animals including 80 pigs that recently farrowed 17 piglets. Their livestock, which also includes 100 egg-laying chicken and 350 broilers, are the centerpiece of the farm and the backbone of their financial viability. As such, animal welfare and ethical treatment is at the forefront of his mind and the Blackberry Meadows ethos. He cited a 2019 book by Alice Percy, an organic hog producer in Maine, called Happy Pigs Taste Better as influential to his work approach.

“Basically, you just want to give those animals the absolute best life before they’re consumed,” he said. “Understanding that the more love I put into them, the more scratches I give them, the more I’m friends with them, the more they’re gentle to me and everybody around, the better they’re going to taste later,” he explained.

A woman shops at the Blackberry Meadows Farm stand, grabbing a bundle of greens to add to her bag.

A local shopper looks amongst the produce at the farmstand at Blackberry Meadows Farm.

Bringing the Best Quality to the Community

“That’s really kind of my motivation is to have the best quality foods for the people who are buying the food from us. If there’s going to be a local food movement and we’re going to be a part of it, I want it to be a very high quality movement. We should be getting, ideally, a comparable product price-wise, similar to what you’re seeing on the industrial scale, but the quality is just out the roof. I want not only bacon, but the best bacon. The most flavorful shoulder steaks.”

Ms. Montgomery added, “I think when it comes to butcher day, knowing that they’ve had a really good life … it’s a little bit easier to handle knowing that we did the best we could for them.” Mr. Boulos conceded that the first time he took pigs to the butcher, he stopped off on the way home for a stiff drink, feeling the emotion of the experience.

The pork harvested is featured in their CSA and drive their sales at local farmers’ markets, both via frozen and cured products for people to take home, as well as their mobile Farmer’s Grill prepared food stand where they sell burgers and kielbasa made from their meats.

For Mr. Boulos, the the rewards often far outweigh the backbreaking challenge of the farm. “The reward is the community,” he said. “Being able to raise my kids out here and have a family on the land too, is also a giant bonus. If I have a purpose in life, I’m doing it. I’m helping move the needle in the right direction. And that’s very satisfying.”

Story by Dan Gigler  / Photography by Justin Merriman

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