The Butchers, the Bakers, the Legacy MakersJun 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By David O'Reilly
It’s a five-and-a-half-mile drive from Hillstone Farms to Hillstone Farms. But ask Todd and Jessica Webster how long it took to get from the first one—their family’s beef farm on the outskirts of Wellsboro—to opening their Hillstone Farms store six months ago on Main Street, and they’ll look at each other.
Three years? Ten? Since before they got married? Longer, even. It depends on where you start counting.
Start when Todd’s dad, Tim, sold his dairy herd out on Dutch Hill Road and took up raising beef, and it’s thirty-five years. Reach back two more generations, to when Todd’s great-grandfather began assembling the farm’s six hundred acres, and you’re talking nearer to a century.
In short, it took generations to fully realize this pasture-to-butcher shop, kitchen-to-bake shop dream called Hillstone Farms. And it takes a whole family to keep it going.
At about 850 square feet, the storefront is just one thirty-thousandth the size of the farm. But it is to here, 76 Main Street, that their black Angus heifers and steers reappear (after a brief detour) as choice rib eyes, sirloins, briskets, hamburger—along with cuts you might never have heard of. Whole chickens, hams, pork chops, and sausages are also in the freezer case. Beside it, a cooler holds local milk and cheese—both pasteurized and raw—as well as butter and whatever pies need refrigeration.
Here, too, are the family’s chocolate chip cookies, sourdough loaves, blueberry muffins, maple syrup, sour cream cakes, jams, and canned goods—many from secret recipes that start life every week in Jessica’s self-described “liiiiitle” home oven.
“The idea of opening a store was always there,” says Jessica, thirty-eight. She manages the store with her mom, Danna Darrow, who’s also her cookie baker. “But we’d say no, we’re not ready, and push it aside.” Not only are she and Todd raising children ages eleven, eight, and six; she’s also the full-time biology teacher at Wellsboro High School. “Some nights I’m up to one in the morning, waiting for the sourdough to rise,” she says. “Then I wake up at four or five to shape loaves and get everybody up for school.”
Throw in the music lessons, soccer games, tummy aches, tooth fairy duties, homework, baseball practice, church, trips to the dentist...and “it’s controlled chaos,” she says.
“The children are feral,” says Todd, forty-three. Yes, he’s a wise guy.
In truth, it’s a family held together, well, by family. On a visit to the farm you find Todd’s mom, Karen, lugging recycling into her car before heading off to fetch grandkids from school.
Another afternoon, Todd passes his sister Lauren as she’s walking her three young children down Dutch Hill Road from her house, once great-grandfather Jesse Webster’s, who started the farm, to her parents’ to play with cousins. All four of Tim and Karen’s children, and all of their eight grandchildren, live on the farm. Asked how they managed to keep all their kids so close, Karen—for thirty-six years the health and physical education teacher at Wellsboro High School—fills with emotion, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. “I don’t know,” she says, then laughs. “I hope it’s more than just the free babysitting.” It was her idea to build the giant, sunny rec room above the garage/workshop, with its tables, tumbling mats, coloring books, and space to do homework. It’s the scene, too, of birthday parties and multifamily dinners on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving.
Then you visit the store on a weekday afternoon and find Danna—she’s spent the last two days baking cookies—wrapping her arms around eight-year-old Lily, tearful from a sibling’s teasing, or taking all three kids and a cousin to the nearby playground. “They need to blow off some steam,” she confides, “and Jessica needs a break.” The Websters have been raising beef since 1988, the year Tim and Karen sold off their struggling dairy herd to the federal government. A nationwide overabundance of milk had so suppressed prices that dairying was unsustainable for most farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture intervened to radically reduce the number of farms.
But it was never Tim’s dream to be a dairy or beef farmer. He was studying forestry, with plans for a career out West, when his father, Jerome, developed a brain tumor. With his mother, Mary, facing widowhood, and three younger sisters still at home, he returned to Hillstone at age nineteen, took over after his father died, and never left. “You do what you have to do,” he says. Still, milking twice every day and struggling to pay bills was a “tough way to raise a family.”
They got a good price from the USDA for their herd, and, with barns, silos, pastures, and feed already in place, the transition to beef looked easy. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Tim says. “I bought a couple of herds that were disasters, [with cows that] ended up calving in the middle of snow storms,” or delivering oversized calves that did not always survive birthing.
He can laugh now, gray-bearded and seventy-one. Beef husbandry has become far more predictable, he says, thanks in part to Penn State University’s breeding programs and carefully screened auctions. Here a farmer can see the metrics for each bull on the block, from his scrotal circumference to his offsprings’ average birth weight, pelvic circumference at birth, and average daily weight gain.
Tim points out a window to five big bulls lounging in the bullpen. He bought three of them at auction in late March, and opens the catalogue to show the listing for one. Costing three thousand dollars, JAR Emerald 4920 is described as a “calving ease bull,” meaning the “dams” bred to him should deliver well-proportioned calves without much difficulty. JAR Emerald and his buddies will start mating in late summer so that calving begins next May, when the weather is warming.
While Tim remains active—he was fixing a tractor on a recent visit—much of the hard physical labor falls to Todd and his twenty-eight year-old brother, Garrett.
“I do this side of the farm and Todd does that,” says Garrett, who points to a broad pasture where half the herd is grazing. “But if one of us mows hay, the other will rake,” if one shovels up the manure with a front-loader the other spreads it, and if one is away the other will move his cows across a pasture to taller grass and reset the electric fences. The two rarely disagree, they say, on what needs to be done.
Don’t Name the Cows...
It’s a sunlit afternoon late in April, and Todd hops into a small flatbed called a side-by-side to inspect the first calf of the season. Turning off Dutch Hill Road, he’s soon bouncing up a steep path to the pasture they call “the orchard” for the gnarly old apple trees nearby. “There it is,” he says, and points to a black, spindly-legged male nursing happily. Mama is protective, however, and turns repeatedly to keep herself between Todd and the calf.
The calf is nursing properly, so Todd glances around to see how the fifty other cows are doing. “Whoa. She’s ready to pop,” he says, pointing to the swollen belly and udder on one. But they all look okay, and so he heads home, chased and raced by his gleeful Australian shepherd, Tucker.
The Websters used to give names to their dairy cows, but the lives of beef cows are so short and purposeful that even the children learn early not to form sentimental attachments. “It makes it easier to let go,” Todd explains. And he tells the story of a visiting cousin who once grew fond of an affectionate heifer and announced he’d named her “Doris.”
“I said, ‘No, no: don’t do that!’ but it was too late.” With a name, Doris had attained bovine personhood—and was spared the fateful “one-way trip.” For fifteen years she loped around the fields, nosing everyone for pats and ear-scratches. “Yeah, she was sweet,” Todd recalls. Nowadays their beef cows are identified by four-digit numbers: a green tag in the left ear for females, blue in the right for males.
Their cows are mostly black Angus, with a few red Angus and Herefords. They’ll spend fourteen to twenty months grazing in pastures and chomping down on the dried alfalfa the Websters grow on the farm, fertilized only with manure. Then, in their final weeks, with steers approaching 1,400 pounds and heifers 1,200, most get a mixture of alfalfa, corn silage, and a small amount of grain. The finishing diet helps to produce the marbled fat that turns beef more tender and flavorful, earning it a USDA grade of “choice” or “prime.” (Both are measures of fat content, with prime the priciest.) The Websters aim for “choice,” which, they say, can be as tender and flavorful as prime. About twenty percent of the herd feeds entirely on grass.
While their beef, by choice, is not organic, which allows them, for example, to use pressure-treated fence posts and to spray their crop fields, the Websters use no antibiotics, animal-based feed, or added hormones. They send about 130 cows a year to slaughter, with seventy percent going to Meyers Local Harvest. It’s a Colorado-based beef marketer that requires suppliers to raise healthy animals humanely, and Meyers oversees their slaughter at the Cargill processing plant in Wyalusing.
For the beef they sell to area restaurants, such as The Roost and Beck’s Bistro (formerly The Red Skillet, which also served Hillstone beef) both in Wellsboro, and out of their store, the Websters use Bryan’s, a family-operated meat processor in Milan, Bradford County.
Their new store is not Jessica’s and Todd’s first foray into retailing their own meats. Soon after their marriage in 2011 (they met snowboarding), they set up tents and tables at the weekly farmer’s markets in Mansfield and Wellsboro. Alas, “just the threat of rain would scare customers away,” recalls Todd, and leave them with coolers full of unsold product. Or they’d sell out of sirloins and blueberry muffins one week, bring lots more the next, only to discover everybody today wanted rib-eyes and oatmeal cookies. He “always wanted a brick and mortar” storefront, but it took the covid pandemic to “resurrect the idea.”
Early in 2020, friends and neighbors nervous about entering supermarkets began descending on the farm looking to buy meats from the family’s modest on-site freezer case. “We understood,” says Todd. “But it got to be too much. My phone would ring, and I’d have to come in off my tractor to sell someone three bags of hot dogs.”
And so, last summer, they started searching for a shop in Wellsboro’s business district. Problem was, “you couldn’t rent anything for less than $2,000 a month.” Then a friend urged them to “just buy a building; it’ll cost you the same.” When the former BonHoffie Skin Culture storefront became available in September, they took out a mortgage, and the building was theirs.
Through the fall they spent afternoons and weekends knocking down walls with help from Jessica’s brother, Trent. They exposed the brick, sanded the floors, wrestled an impossibly huge freezer through their impossibly narrow door, built shelving, and set up the front counter. Things were still a bit rough in early December, but they opened their doors in time for the annual Dickens of a Christmas.
...But Do Name the Sourdough
Six months later it’s still a work in progress. There’s nothing high-concept about the décor. They’ve exposed an interior brick wall and some wooden beams to give it a rustic, country feel, but the back of the store is cluttered, and the glass-front freezer humming opposite the checkout counter is strictly functional. They have plans to bring in a refrigerated case for fresh meats and deli, but for now all the meats are sold frozen. Todd talks about getting a meat dehydrator to make jerky, they have a line on a lamb producer, the three-bay sink is working, and they just got the gas line hooked up to their giant ten-burner, twin-oven commercial stove so Jessica and Danna may bake and can during store hours.
Until that’s functional, however, the solitary electric oven in Jessica’s home kitchen—state certified for commercial use—serves as their workhorse. It’s here that Danna, who lives with her husband Eric out by Hills Creek, labors Mondays and Tuesdays, often starting at 3 a.m. A late Tuesday morning finds her already hours into the work, pulling sheet pans of plump cookies out of the oven every twelve minutes and sliding in the next. These she shapes while the previous batch is baking, plucking and weighing each until it’s precisely two ounces.
She makes nearly all the cookie doughs—oatmeal raisin, gingersnaps, lemon crinkles, to name a few—on Monday afternoons, then refrigerates them overnight. The exceptions are the chocolate chips, made with imported butter, sourdough, and dark and milk chocolate. Jessica makes those, and all their breads, from a blob of sourdough starter she calls “Harriet.”
Baking, running a store, and raising kids “isn’t something you could do alone,” says Danna, sixty. “You have to have family.” She opens a large, black book—“our bible”—to a hand-lettered recipe for snickerdoodles, then flips the pages. They’re filled with generations of both family’s baking recipes. “Here’s my Aunt Jean’s sugar drop cookies,” she says. On another page is the recipe for Eric’s grandmother’s oatmeal raisin cookies, and here are Grandma Anne’s snowballs. “Cream butter and sugar well until light and fluffy,” it begins. “Add vanilla...”
So, how many cakes and cookies does Danna bake each week? “You know,” she marvels, “I’ve never even thought of it.”
Making Friends, Making Progress
By mid-spring the shop the shop is doing even better than expected. “People have been very welcoming,” says Jessica. On a recent Saturday the store is enjoying a steady stream of customers.
Tim Mosher, thirty-six, says he used to go to the farm to buy meats. He’s a registered nurse at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital, and notes that “this is so much closer to where I work.” As Jessica rings up his purchases—he’s buying steaks, sausages, pork chops, maple syrup, and three dozen eggs today—he adds, “and it’s all local.”
Four young people enter. “We’re from Vineland, New Jersey,” says Bethany. They so enjoyed their grass-fed Hillstone burgers at The Roost, she explains, that when they learned Hillstone had a store a block away, “we decided to check it out.” They study the cinnamon buns, the apple cinnamon tarts, the iced carrot cake, and oatmeal raisin cookies before settling on lemon crinkles and sugar cookies.
A middle-aged couple stops in after visiting Highland Chocolates a few doors down. “We didn’t know you were here,” says the woman, Barbara. They inspect the baked goods and freezer contents, visibly pleased. They don’t buy, but “now I know where to get ground beef and hot dogs,” says Jeff.
“Do you bake your own?” asks another walk-in.
“From sunup to sundown,” jokes Danna.
“Do you have any salami?” one man asks.
“Not yet,” Jessica says, noting that a deli counter is “one of our long-range plans.” He nods, and heads out.
But Ivan Smucker, twenty-three, of Lancaster, leaves as a happy customer. He and a friend are “staying in a cabin” outside town, he explains, and came into Wellsboro looking for steaks. On Main Street they asked a passerby where to buy some, “and she pointed right across the road.” He leaves bearing two New York strips.
But the happiest customer of the day may be Robert LaPann, thirty-six. A barber, he moved his family from Boston to Wellsboro two years ago. “I researched it,” he explains, “and this area had the lowest crime, low taxes, good schools. We love it here.” And he’s already a regular at Hillstone because of his chronic eczema.
He sets three gallon containers of raw milk (from Milky Way Farms in Troy) on the counter alongside two Delmonico steaks and two pounds of frozen beef liver. A diet of healthy meat, raw honey, raw liver, and unpasteurized milk has relieved his autoimmune disorders, he says, adding “all my ailments seem to have disappeared.”
Todd and Jessica’s experiment appears to be paying off, although Tim admits he and Karen never dreamed of opening a store like it. Obliged to take over the farm when his dad became ill, “I didn’t have that flexibility,” he says. “But Todd is at a different state. We’re here, and Garrett’s here, and Danna. It’s a bigger family affair.”
Yes indeed, says Jessica. Yet, big as the farm may be, it can’t expand enough to provide employment for all those grandchildren leaping and laughing today atop its hay bales. So, the Wellsboro store “opens a niche for the next generation,” she says, whether it’s their own kids or their nieces and nephews.
“It’s a family farm,” she says. “You have to be creative to keep things going,”